Dec 10, 2016

An Art Experience Like No Other. Inside Japan’s Art Islands

We take a look at Japan’s idyllic islands dedicated to art and architecture: Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima
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As you arrive at Naoshima Island by ferry you would be forgiven for thinking it’s no different to any other island. The port is modest. The buildings are simple and unmemorable. Yet Naoshima is no ordinary island. It’s a place where art, architecture and island look to seamlessly integrate, compliment and enhance each other to provide visitors with full immersion within an artistic experience.

What makes Naoshima even more special is that it is in fact just one of three islands that share this dedication. Three islands based in the Kagawa Prefecture of Japan, in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea. Three islands that contrast almost completely in their history and landscape, but sharing one thing in common – art.

It’s like a Jurassic Park for art lovers. Of course instead of T. Rex and Velociraptors there are Yayoi Kasuma and Lee Ufan sculptures, but as you wander around taking in large installations, art projects and outdoor sculptures, whilst savouring the tranquil calm and inspirational views, you can’t help but wonder how such a place is possible.

The islands themselves have transformed from toxic, industrial waste symbols of Japan’s post war economic boom thanks largely to Soichiro Fukutake, the former president and CEO of Benesse Holdings. Fukutake continued the work of his father to revitalise the islands and had the foresight to do so by turning them into contemporary art spaces.
Works by Monet, Yayoi Kusama and Basquiat are the reason you look forward to arriving, but it is the other works, from the amusing, to the thoughtful, to the downright grandiose, whose impact will linger in your memory long after the aforementioned marquee brands of the art world you’ll see here have disappeared.

Our itinerary, consisting of arriving early in Naoshima, staying the night in the Benesse hotel and then spending half a day in each Inujima and Teshima, seemed adequate. In truth, we were unable to take in a number of the works on Teshima, which probably deserved more time.

The majority of the facilities on Naoshima are designed by Tadao Ando and somehow combine an almost brutalist concrete rich approach to architecture with a subtlety that allows the building to merge effortlessly and in many cases invisibly into the natural surroundings. Rooms in the main have been built in conjunction with the artists chosen to display on the island, allowing for total harmony between architectural structure and artistic intent.
The Benesse hotel provides the most luxurious way to stay on the island and is just a short walk away from the islands best-known inhabitant – Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin’. A 20-minute walk along a trail takes you passed outside sculptures including Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Time Exposed Mirtoan Sea’ and George Rickey’s ‘Three Squares Vertical Diagonal’ before you arrive at the Benesse art museum, home to works by Basquiat, Jasper Johns and Giacometti amongst others. Yet it is “100 Live and Die” (1984) by Bruce Nauman and “Time Exposed” (1980-97) by Hiroshi Sugimoto that are truly captivating.

“100 Live and Die,” granted center stage within a huge open multi-story space, is by all accounts the most memorable piece in the museum. A large neon light installation that flashes terms like ‘live and eat’ or ‘die and hate’ randomly, and in doing so, forces viewers to contemplate their own lives and deaths. Its simple yet effective message stands out amongst prestigious company.
5 minutes further on a conveniently run bus that constantly tours around the island lies Chichu Art Museum. Built entirely underground so as not to impact the surrounding nature, it is home to four Monet paintings. Most striking however are the installations. The first by Walter De Maria consists of a central, polished granite sphere, combined with 27 gilded geometric sculptures strategically positioned around the room. The second, ‘Open Field’ by James Turrell presents the viewer with a room that, through clever use of light and perspective, appears as a solid canvas.

But perhaps the real treasure on Naoshima is hidden within the traditional local houses on the south side of the island in the form of the Art House Projects. Set in traditional residential homes are thought-provoking exhibitions like Miyajima’s ‘Sea of Time,’ a collection of LED lights in a water pool inside a 200-year-old house.
Only an hour away by boat lies the strikingly different island of Inujima. With its industrial roots, the museum itself now occupies an abandoned copper smeltery, built in 1909 and closed after only 10 years following the plummet in the price of copper. Staying true to these industrial routes, Seirensho Art Museum integrates Yaukinori Yanagi’s artwork with Yukio Mushima’s architecture. Through a large six-piece installation called ‘Hero Dry Cell,’ Yanagi uses materials from the smeltery and those commonly found in the smelting process to aptly look at the dangers of modernisation and the impact on contemporary society.

Yet on Inujima it’s the art house projects that really capture the imagination. Three art houses, effortlessly integrated into the village’s existing architecture graciously lead you towards the brutal industrial structure of the former copper smeltory, maintaining the contrast between the relatively serene village life and the harsh industrial centrepiece that briefly dominated their lives and the local economy.
‘Ether’ by Chinatsu Shimodaira and ‘Biota’ by Kohei Nawa provide the highlights but in truth it’s hard to pick a stand out piece amongst this mesmerising company.

The true gem of all three islands is the combined work of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa on Teshima Island. Sharing the island with a prosperous fishing industry, expansive rice terraces and around 1,000 residents, Teshima art museum is essentially a single work of art, a huge installation called ‘Matrix’ (2010), in the form of a large concrete shell structure that looks out towards the fantastic panoramic sea view.
Two openings in the ceiling ensure that the sounds, air and natural light from the island pours into the structure as you sit amongst the small, tranquil crowd and enjoy the way that sound and light resonates within the domed concrete formation. But it is the water droplets, some small, some large, emerging slowly from the springs in the ground and sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly dancing their way down the slightly inverted concrete floor to join each other in a large pool of gathered water, that provide the peaceful contemplation of a masterful installation.

Based three hours travel from Kyoto on the east coast of Japan, the Naoshima islands may not be feasible for everyone, but those that can make it should. As a concept, it’s mind-blowingly ambitious. As an experience with art it is unlike any I have encountered.