Waterlilies and concrete | Naoshima Island

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Naoshima Island in Japan might be difficult to get to, but thanks to its Tadao Ando-designed galleries and hotels, it has become one of the hottest art and design destinations in the world. Civilian’s arts editor Neil Stewart boards the ferry and explores

Naoshima Island

Tadao Ando’s Benesse House Oval, by Tomio Ohashi

The house is in darkness. There’s no way of knowing how big it is, or if there are any obstacles in your path. Your hands reach out to a wall to your left, you make your way by touch alone to a bench some way in and sit, a little daunted, for what’s about to happen. The darkness is absolute – or is it? Is that the barest curve of a crescent moon, blood-dark, in one part of the room? Or starlight falling, impossibly, through a windowless ceiling in the middle of the day? Then, in one optic leap, a screen appears at the far end of the room, though whether that’s near or far is still impossible to tell. After a few minutes, as your eyes continue to adjust (that moon was just the light leaking from the edge of a very dim lamp), an attendant encourages you to walk forward and touch the “screen”, where you discover it’s actually a rectangular open space. What seemed solid is insubstantial. You move your hand about, as if it’s entered into the screened zone, some elsewhere.

This is the “light artist” James Turrell’s wince-inducingly titled Backside of the Moon, staged in the interior of a house on Naoshima Island, the art and architecture island on the Seto Inland Sea in southern Japan. Now, I have a theory about Turrell’s works. It takes the eye some time to adjust to apparent blackout gloom and start to distinguish these initially confusing shapes; it’s the same length of time it takes your brain both to figure out the simple optical trick the work relies on – whether persistence of vision, acclimatisation to light levels, or the favouring of certain colour-detecting cones in the eye to make successive phases of colours more striking – and to reach the conclusion that this isn’t really art. In fact, though they’re always aesthetically attractive, more than anything, the experience of viewing a Turrell piece is a slightly amped-up version of going to the optician to have your eyes tested.

His concrete structures are slotted into the shell of a traditional house; from the outside, you’d never know what the interior holds

There are a dozen or so art projects under the umbrella of Benesse Art Site Naoshima, administered by Benesse Holdings, Inc and Fukutake Foundation. (They have also created projects on two nearby islands, Teshima and Inujima.) The Art House project, which includes Turrell’s piece, involves converting unused or dilapidated houses in the island’s town into spaces that are part-gallery, part-installation. There are seven houses, six available to “walk in” (the seventh, Kinza, requires an appointment), and all in easy walking distance in a town which, aside from these curated artworks, has some of the most beautifully manicured front gardens – full of immaculate giant bonsai and yuko trees, green fruit going lantern-yellow as late as November – to goggle at as you stroll. The publicity material having rather given the impression of a town on its last legs, full of run-down buildings abandoned by a shrinking population, this is pleasing to see – but since it transpires that Naoshima Island was once that rarest thing, a Japanese gold-mining town, this isn’t all that surprising.

Naoshima Island

Art House Project: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o Shrine –
Appropriate Proportion, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Among the other Art House Project sites are Ishibashi, where Hiroshi Senju has made use of the fabric of the building for his delicate wall screens, which plays on traditional Japanese decorative art; Shinro Ohtake’s hallucinatory children’s-illustration-come-to-life at Haisha; and one which isn’t a house at all, but a shrine, where Hiroshi Sugimoto has created a sculpture that moves between interior and exterior, the surface and the subterranean.

Also in town is a museum dedicated to the architect Tadao Ando, responsible for several important structures on the island. His buildings are constructed from polished slabs of cast concrete, each with regular indentations like the dots on dominoes, but crucially, he eschews right angles (which might make the buildings bunker-like) in favour of sharp corners, angled doorways, vast cylindrical chambers. The resultant buildings have an oddly philosophical side to them: at the first Ando building I visited – the 21_21 Design Sight gallery, in Tokyo – the visitor is led, after passing through the main exhibition hall, along a longish, plain corridor that runs at an oblique angle to the main space, this to allow contemplation of the show before the visitor returns to the real world. Similar considerations inform his various works on Naoshima Island, including this museum, in which his concrete structures are slotted into the shell of a traditional house; from the outside, you’d never know what the interior holds.


To the south of the island are three more Ando-designed must-sees. For hotel guests, a shuttle bus tootles between the various outposts, but you can walk from town to the Benesse House in around 40 minutes, as I did, stopping en route at Regalo, where unspeakable things are done in the name of Italian cuisine. This has the air of a refectory run by students for students, and the food is exactly of the standard you’d expect from that description. A sausage pasta, for instance, appeared to have had frankfurter sliced into it. I rather regretted I hadn’t gone instead into one of the several rather nice looking cafés in town.

Naoshima Island

Lee Ufan’s Relatum-Shadow of Stone (2010), by Tadasu Yamamoto

My first stop was a museum, opened in 2010, devoted to the artist Lee Ufan – a name new to me. It proved to be the white elephant here. The art is not especially distinguished – how many rocks rolled into unexpected places can one see post-Richard Long or Gabriel Orozco? And how many sheets of industrial steel laid flat with one corner coquettishly upturned, as though giant fingers have tried to peel it up like the lid on a vast container? – and although some pretty brushstroke paintings are more interesting, the star of the museum is again the architecture, cleverly mixing indoor and outdoor spaces on a verdant hillside.

Better by far is the Chichu Art Museum, devoted to three artists. A series of oddly-shaped chambers, open to the sky, look from above like monumental children’s blocks scattered over the hillside: two squares, two rectangles, one triangle; inside, it’s perhaps Ando’s most striking work on the island. The triangle, a sunken chamber with a garden of broken rocks at its foot, has one long unglassed “window” cut into its inner surface, through which you look as you descend the staircase that wraps around its outer perimeter. It’s incredibly beautiful. Here, too, the art is a match for the design: Chichu houses work by Monet, Walter De Maria and, again, James Turrell.

Naoshima Island

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Concept of Moss, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Monets – five waterlilies – are intriguing most for the way they’re displayed, in a round-cornered blank white room lit, though underground, entirely by daylight – a sci-fi setting which reinvigorates the paintings, transporting them away from the rather austere gallery settings where you’d normally find them. For some reason, the room is kept at hothouse temperatures, as if these lilies might get frostbite otherwise, though you don’t feel the belting heat can be doing the paintings much good. In De Maria’s Time / Timeless / No Time, trios of gold-painted pillars are set at regular intervals on the white walls of a vast stepped room, like tiny balconies, angled such that individual pillars catch the daylight at different times of day. Halfway up the staircase is a polished granite sphere some ten feet across, so vast that you feel the room must have been constructed around it; the sphere, at once beautiful and foreboding (is it going to start rolling?), seems like it might have fallen to Earth from outer space, and the chamber around it has the air of the church of the worshipping cult that has developed around it. (The church-like atmosphere does not communicate itself to all visitors, and I was delighted to see a gallery assistant swoop down on a visitor clattering down the steps with unseemly noise; the attendant, all in white, seemed part of the installation too, a guard for the sphere.

In the case of the bar, a 1950s James Bond sort of arrangement, this is rather part of the charm

At the Benesse House Park, a permanent exhibition houses photographs and sculpture by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Antony Gormley. In the grounds, which lead down to a beach, are sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and a series of colourful, strikingly horrible ceramic creatures by the late Niki de Saint Phalle. Benesse House comprises four buildings – Museum, Park, Oval and Beach – and the complex houses a restaurant, hotels (the Park is a recent addition, built entirely from wood, while there’s accommodation, too, in the Museum itself), and a bar high up in the Oval, only for hotel guests, and accessed, rather marvellously, via a monorail so basic in its design that even as you watch it arrive through thick green foliage you feel you’re watching a Thunderbirds miniature. None of these public spaces feels much like they’re administered by people who have ever run a hotel, restaurant or bar before; in the case of the bar, a 1950s James Bond sort of arrangement, this is rather part of the charm, even if its opening hours (9–11pm, Fridays and Saturdays only) are eccentric. In addition, my advice is to stick to the straightforward drinks and not risk a cocktail: I’m not sure what went into the “Kitty” I ordered, but it was the drinks equivalent of the gammy-legged, stump-tailed puss that sits outside the gift shop yowling rustily at passersby.

The Terrace restaurant has all the glamour and gleam of a gallery canteen of the 1980s – it’s a surprise to be served dinner, rather than queue up at a counter and ladle food into plates yourself. The food is fine, if unadventurous – I had a perfectly decent stewed steak with polenta – though it, and you, are done no favours by harsh overhead lighting which also exposes the fact that someone really needs to go through this Terrace with a feather duster to take down the cobwebs that festoon the rafters. The accommodation in both the Park and the Museum is fairly basic, though quite nicely so: you feel that if Muji made student accommodation it would resemble this, with its deft use of limited space. (Though Muji would probably make pillows that are less like sandbags.)

The Museum’s collection is an odd, slightly scrappy assembly. There are some striking Richard Long pieces, and Yukinori Yanagi’s self-explanatory The World Flag Ant Farm is fun. You turn the corner and gasp to see Gerhard Richter’s Betty, but of course it’s not the original; nor are many of the pieces, and I remain unconvinced of the logic of devoting so much of this extensive and exciting space to editions and prints – rather than, say, using it to boost the careers of less well-known younger artists. No-one’s going to make the rather complex and time-consuming journey to the island specifically to see the print of a well-known Richter. Likewise, to place just one Bruce Nauman neon piece in a three-storey cylinder seems slightly like the mark of a curatorship that doesn’t quite know what to do with a space.

My favourite artwork doesn’t look like an artwork at all, and you might well miss it. Where one curved concrete slab meets another beneath the House Museum, little threads of green poke out, as if nature is already finding a way to compromise and destabilise the building. This is Weeds by sculptor Yoshihiro Suda, and, more than any of the other artworks on the island, responds to this unique environment in a way that’s playful, thought-provoking and understated. C

Neil Stewart travelled to Naoshima Island as a guest of Air France, JNTO and ViaJapan

For details on flights to Tokyo via Paris, visit airfrance.com

Visit the Japan National Tourism Organization at jnto.go.jp

Naoshima Island

Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, by Shigeo Anzai

Explore the major cultural areas of Japan and admire masterpieces of architectural, artistic and historical significance with ViaJapan Holidays’ Art & Architecture Highlights Tour 10 Days from £1873 per person. This self-guided tour includes international flights, nine nights accommodation in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Naoshima (hotels and a traditional Japanese inn with hot springs), breakfast daily, dinner in Hakone, Airport Limousine Bus transfer, 7 Days Japan Rail Pass, Hakone Free Pass and all airport taxes and charges. To book contact ViaJapan Holidays (020-7484 3328; [email protected]) or visit viajapan.co.uk. ViaJapan Holidays specializes in tailor made itineraries so as with all their packages they can add, subtract or modify this tour to suit your individual needs and create your perfect holiday. ViaJapan Holidays can book stays at Benesse House too: please inquire with them for pricing and availability.