Pilgrimage: Naoshima, Japan’s art island

“Naoshima is a small, beautiful, somehow sad little island. A tiny town in squares and patches. On one side, beginning several feet back from the sea, a ruined shrine, a general store, a shaved-ice shop. The sadness comes perhaps from the loneliness – in the early afternoons, there never seems to be anyone on these islands.”

Donald Richie, The Inland Sea

When Donald Richie visited the small island of Naoshima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea in 1971, he found a lonely place, where he only spoke to a fisherman and a small group of schoolchildren. A decade later, this sense of isolation would be used to the island’s advantage, when Benesse, a large Japanese publishing corporation, began developing it as a cultural destination – a place to be immersed in the quiet appreciation of art and nature.

The Seto Inland Sea, Japan © Sarah Simpkin

The scale and ambition of Benesse Art Site Naoshima, relative to the island’s tiny landmass, is like a Guggenheim on the Isle of Wight. The art on show at the three main sites includes works by Andy Warhol, Alberto Giacometti, Richard Long, Jackson Pollock and Walter de Maria; there are five Monets in a Bond-villain-worthy underground room lit entirely by natural light, and the architecture comprises not one but a series of commissions by Tadao Ando, Japan’s most influential living architect – all this, several kilometres out to sea, away from the Honshu mainland.

Visiting the island, the logical starting point is Ando’s Benesse House, an exhibition space and art hotel that opened in 1992. There is a work of art from the collection in every room and an exclusive complex of suites at the very top, served by its own monorail.

The gallery at Benesse House was one of the more conventional buildings I found on my trip with my partner, not least because it’s above ground. It is like the pyramid of a wealthy curator. Every important movement in the last fifty years is represented and sealed in for posterity. There are paintings by Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock, David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. One hundred flashing neon orders from Bruce Nauman, check, something in Yves Klein blue, check, a driftwood circle by Richard Long, check.

As impressive as this collection is, the real spectacle is the outdoor programme. Site-specific pieces include Yayoi Kusama’s famous black and yellow Pumpkin, an oversized vegetable on a pier a short way into the sea – a signal to any who dare to approach of the island’s Alice in Wonderland quality. Other works respond more directly to the landscape. In the Cultural Melting Bath by Cai Guo-Quiang, visitors can bathe together and admire views of the Inland Sea and mountains of Kyonoyama. Walter de Maria’s two giant granite balls, Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown peer out from a stone cavern in the hillside.

Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, 1994, image © Sarah Simpkin

Instead of staying in the Benesse House hotel, we rented a Mongolian yurt on the beach below, a remnant of the 1989 Naoshima International Camp – one of the catalysts for the cultural development of the island. The yurts used to be owned by Benesse House, but were sold and moved further down the beach to make space for new accommodation for the gallery. Our canvas home was enormous, with four beds, tables, chairs, drawers and a heater, access to a bath house and the option to order a huge plate of raw food to make your own barbeque by the beach.

Yurts near Gotanji Bathing Beach © Sarah Simpkin
Kadoya, a 200-year old house containing an installation by Tatsuo Miyajima in Honmura. © Sarah Simpkin

Beyond the grounds of the gallery is the Honmura district, a maze of narrow streets and traditional houses, which feel cloistered after the open glass museum spaces. There are familiar points of reference to remind you this is a real place: cafes, shops, other people and an enormous chemical factory. This is also where you’ll find the Benesse Art House Project, a number of traditional homes and a temple that have been restored to house individual projects by Japanese and invited overseas artists. These include Kadoya, which contains Sea of Time ‘98 by Tatsuo Miyajima. The artist worked with local people to create the installation, which features hundreds of LED counters floating across the floor. The houses provide darker, more intimate spaces that embody the ethos of the Benesse experience; to create conditions where artwork could be viewed empirically, with minimal distraction. To a foreigner in Japan, this sense of separation was even more acute.

The lure of Benesse has attracted a younger generation of artists and designers, bringing with them smaller galleries, typically stylish Japanese cafes and specialist bookshops. Passing these, walking through the town to Minamidera, we reach a one-storey wooden building. This was designed by Tadao Ando to house Backside of the Moon, 1999, an installation by James Turrell. Inside, you are led by hand to a bench in a pitch-dark room. Once your eyes have adjusted, you walk forward to touch the wall, only to be thrown off by a trick of the light and lose your arm inside it. The site of this work once held a spiritual significance for the island’s inhabitants.  Further down the coast, Turrell’s Open Sky piece feels even more otherworldly. As do the other couple of light pieces owned by the galleries – you can take your pick. The island also features a sculptural work by architect, Hiroshi Sugimoto. The Go’o Shrine unites subterranean and above-ground worlds with a flight of glass stairs connected to a narrow underground chamber.

The Minamidera Art House Project. Photograph © Sarah Simpkin

The second of the major galleries on the island, the Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004. Its concrete form is only visible from the sky and offshore, as the remaining three layers are hidden underground. Above ground, the small outlying building houses just the ticket office, cloakroom and a holding room, where you take a seat for a briefing on how to visit. At the genuine entrance lies the surreal Chichu Garden.

The garden epitomises a Japanese tendency to seek out the best of everything from around the world, be it clothing, food or artefacts, and then reflect on these treasures in isolation. A boutique selling nothing but the finest Victorian handkerchiefs, for instance, or a magazine aimed solely at collectors of antique telephones. Here, in the small courtyard, grew around 150 different types of plants and flowers and forty different types of tree, each painstakingly recreated from the artworks and archives of Monet and his garden at Giverny. The garden was so far removed from the Normandy countryside that it seemed misinterpreted, but it worked. The Monet paintings inside the gallery were in a space so disarmingly modern they seemed to have been freed from the tea-towels and fridge magnets and given a new lease of life.

Inside the Chichu Gallery, Ando makes concrete float in thin air – the space was built for the work, the space is the work – it’s all so seamlessly perfect that even the gravel on the restaurant terrace is glued in place. There’s an army of gallery attendants in lab coats, entirely disproportionate to the handful of visitors, and you change shoes to stand in the Claude Monet Room. However much the experience might make you feel like a blemish on the gallery’s perfection, Ando’s building, as the final point on the tour of the island, is deeply satisfying. This was an idea of Japan I had come thousands of miles hoping to see – flawless, surreal and futuristic.

On the island, the relationship between art, architecture and nature is uncompromising. It isn’t about the visitors – the art is the reason and whether or not it is seen by the rest of Japan, let alone the world doesn’t seem to matter. It is an exercise in perfection and a concentration of energies; James Turrell and Walter de Maria working with Tadao Ando to create a total experience, in harmony with the rhythm and light of the Inland Sea. It is also the ultimate show-off collection, a little of the best of everything, preserved in perfect isolation for the intrepid art tourist. The sense of pilgrimage and discovery makes the experience all the more rewarding.

Back on Honshu, in a Kyoto bookstore, I flicked through one of the hundreds of Japanese style magazines and spotted the familiar curve of concrete against a blue sky, the view down to the beach, the hard lines of the museum – all on paper as the backdrop to a fashion shoot. This glamour is part of Naoshima’s appeal – it is a publisher’s dream.

Naoshima. Photograph © Sarah Simpkin

Since this piece was written, a major new museum has been built on the island, along with further Art House projects and accommodation. To find out more, visit: Benesse Art Site Naoshima (benesse-artsite.jp)

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