Distance: 6,240 miles
Area: 3.14 sq miles
THE PILGRIM’S JOURNEY
For us the journey to Naoshima, the art island of Japan in the Seto Inland Sea, will necessarily be long. You’ll have taken a plane or two or three, a Shinkansen, a train, a bus, a ferry, a shuttle. You’ll have overcome the inevitable travel dramas of buying the right tickets, finding the right platforms, and navigating the confusing bus systems, all while jet-lagged. Your twenty-first century pilgrim’s journey is fully mechanized and much more comfortable than many other pilgrimages you could have taken. However, it will cost you: time, money, emotional energy. The art pilgrim’s journey isn’t supposed to be fun or easy.
When you arrive you may feel, as many places in Japan made me feel, out of step with your ordinary sense of time, belonging, and expectation. What’s left is ideally radical openness, observed by many a world traveler but few tourists. The process draws out some essential part of yourself, and that essential part rises to the occasion. With equal and opposite energy, the occasion rises to meet you.
At the art institutions that dot the island of Naoshima, photography of any kind is frequently prohibited, leading to the crisis of my millennial brain: How do I document this, for my memory? For my Instagram feed? For my desire to affirm my experience of the world by sharing it? It’s a challenging exercise, one that I’ve not altogether completed. The experience is provisional, which ends up being both its strength and limitation.
The Benesse Art Site Naoshima (which also includes sites on nearby islands, Teshima and Inujima, accessible by ferry if you have several days) finds its corollaries worlds apart in Marfa, Texas, and to a lesser degree at Dia:Beacon in New York. Its location is remote, and unlike much of the art that can be found in traditional museum galleries, the art that resides there is intended to—and often does—blend seamlessly into its architectural and environmental settings. One of the foundational aspirations for the complex in Naoshima was to create an architectural environment in resonance with the natural landscape of the island.
The architecture, landscape, and artworks create a set of conditions for viewing art that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. Not only is a sense of intimacy with the natural island environment preserved but two other significant art viewing experiences are created: the more monumental installations are set apart from the rest of the world into highly intentional, sacred settings. On the other end of the spectrum, the more modest Art House Project offers intimate viewing experiences embedded into the domestic spaces of the villages themselves.
Much of the architecture of the monumental sites is the work of prolific Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando, whose work appears all over the world, including closer to home (it makes up select facilities of Tom Ford’s Cerro Pelon Ranch in the Galisteo Basin—private property—and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas). Ando oversaw the development of the site early on, when a campsite for children was built in 1989, and has been involved in the development of the Benesse sites ever since (a full timeline of the islands’ development is available on the Benesse Art Site website). As such, his signature minimalist style and use of concrete’s simplicity (haiku meets brutalism) weigh heavy in the mindscape when reflecting on the Benesse experience.
CHICHU ART MUSEUM
Certainly, the most monumental structure on the island in the Chichu (literally, underground) Art Museum, which was designed specifically to house work by a monumental trifecta of Western artists: Walter De Maria, Claude Monet, and James Turrell. Designed by Tadao Ando, the Chichu, in my mind, represents one of the loftiest, most ideal settings for viewing art. Approaching the museum, you walk through a flowering garden with ponds, a recreation of Monet’s garden at Giverny—each water lily species was specifically selected to best represent the same flowers the artist likely painted. When you finally approach the museum itself, there is no visible structure at all except for a single wall and door jutting out of a lush green hillside. Upon entering, the viewers pass through a series of long corridors, narrow passages, and open courtyards, markedly liminal spaces that pull the viewers into bodily consciousness—and out of the ordinary.
The interiors of most of the Ando buildings on the island, including this one, are lit entirely by natural light that is allowed to seep through openings in the massive concrete walls. The effect creates expanses of darkness marked by bright interjections of light, like illuminated curtains.
The remarkable triangular courtyard is a deep, triangular well with twelve-meter-high walls (forty feet) and its floor is covered with limestone, Ando’s version of a Japanese rock garden. One of the three walls is inclined at six degrees, and a long walkway winding around the courtyard is opened by a single slanted aperture wrapping around the walls. It looks fearsome and delicate at the same time, all the more so upon learning that each concrete block comprising the walls is a different size and shape in order to fit the space.
Before entering the Claude Monet Space, visitors must remove their shoes (as is true for many art spaces, temples, and homes in Japan) and slip on a pair of slippers. There is then an antechamber, empty and dark but for a bench and an exquisite marble floor (the floor in this space is made of seven hundred thousand pieces of two-centimeter cubes of Bianco Carrara marble from a quarry that also supplied Michelangelo with his marble). The floor sounds like a superfluous detail, but, looking back, it was incredibly memorable: luscious in its depth and texture, it felt even then, before I knew of its source, hallowed. In the main gallery smooth, white plastered walls and white marble frames are illuminated by natural light from above, making the whole space glow serenely. The walls are curved and cornerless, an endless expanse of white inspired by the artist’s own fondness for white backgrounds before the White Cube became universal. Of Monet’s five paintings at Chichu, Water-Lily Pond (ca. 1915-26), holds the space with all the gravitas of the purple sunset it depicts reflected in the depths of the lily pond.
There are three works by Turrell on view, representing different series. They include, in order of viewing and year, Afrum, Pale Blue (1968); Open Field (2000); and Open Sky (2004). Afrum, Pale Blue represents one of Turrell’s early projection pieces, creating an object of light with a simple projection into a corner. It feels all the more electric in a building that, until this point, has only been illuminated with sunlight. In Open Field, which evolved out of his Aperture series, a select number of viewers (again, in slippers) step through a dimly lit rectangle, as though through a painting and window simultaneously, to arrive in a light-filled room of indeterminate size. Open Sky is a part of the artist’s well-known Sky Space series and can be reserved for nighttime viewing on Friday and Saturday evenings when the museum closes and the LEDs are activated.Walter De Maria
Having descended into the dim bowels of Ando’s immense concrete structure, viewers are suddenly bathed in glorious, spacious light upon entering the interior of Walter De Maria’s temple-like installation, Time/Timeless/No Time (2004). The vast space, designed by De Maria, includes two sets of stairs, between which is set a 2.2 meter (7.22 feet) polished granite sphere (it has a margin of error of less than one millimeter). The massive sphere is surrounded on all sides by clusters of three geometric wooden posts in shapes: triangles, pentagons, and squares, each covered in gold leaf. The structured space forms a dialogue with Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown (2000), a configuration of two identical granite spheres in a three-sided room set into a mound of earth below the Benesse House Museum, a space that is light-filled and then darkened like a cave as the sun passes overhead. With De Maria’s mysterious pieces, it seems the distinction between art and architecture is not relevant, and perhaps that realization bleeds out to the rest of the island’s art sites.
ART HOUSE PROJECT, HONMURA
Initiated in 1998, the Art House Project spaces occupy similar but entirely distinct concerns in viewing and accessing artworks and the spaces that house them—literally house them, in some cases. Embedded across the residential areas of the island village of Honmura, seven intimate spaces—including homes, a dentist’s office, and a Shinto shrine—that had fallen out of use have been converted into small-scale site-specific installations. Visitors purchase a pass book and map at the Honmura Lounge & Archive, a kind of visitor center and bookstore, and then proceed to meander throughout the village, locating the often-nondescript houses with maps in hand. The experience is in total opposition to the vast monumentality of the Chichu Art Museum; however, the blending of art and architecture and the refined attention to space continue to define and epitomize the art experience on this journey.
Ishibashi is an approximately 150-year-old home that housed the Ishibashi family, prosperous salt merchants, until 2001. Carefully restored, the beautiful wooden-construction home is a work of art in its own right but also contains painted Fusuma wall panels by contemporary artist Hiroshi Senju, and entire room featuring his signature waterfall series. Gokaisho was built in a former gathering place for go players (a strategy game similar to chess). Contemporary sculptor Yoshihiro Suda designed two spaces: one filled with his naturalist sculptures of camellia blossoms, the other to present an empty space or Kekkai (an object to define a boundary). Haisha, formerly a dentist’s home and office, has been converted into a more explosive sculptural and graphic work by Shinro Ohtake, which feels like a dreamscape on the interior of a ship’s hull (there is also a two-story Statue of Liberty within). Minamidera, named for the temple that once stood in its place, is a new construction by Ando and contains James Turrell’s Backside of the Moon from his Aperture series. With limited timed entry, a guide brings you into total darkness while you feel the walls for the benches. After what feels like an eternity, a rectangle of light slowly appears. In reality it was always there, but your eyes have finally adjusted enough to perceive it: a give and take of perception that rewards patience.
BENESSE HOUSE ACCOMMODATIONS
True to form, lodging is fully integrated into the Benesse art experience. The Benesse House is, I feel, fundamental to the entire journey. It is both hotel and museum, where art is incorporated into guest rooms and guests are allowed to wander museum halls late into the evening. Four hotel buildings, a restaurant, spa, and the museum are spread across the grounds, each impeccably designed. While the museum collection is somewhat limited, there are a few major highlights.
I personally enjoyed walking through the cavernous, circular room dedicated to a single flashing neon work, Bruce Nauman’s 100 Live and Die (1984), on the way to my room. Also, an installation by Jennifer Bartlett, Yellow and Black Boats (1985), includes sculptures of black and yellow rowboats placed in front of a painting of the same boats on a sandy beach. Later, looking out at the actual beach, you will see far away a yellow and black boat on a beach similar to the one depicted: a déjà vu loop of materiality, representation, and physical occupation of space.
Another major highlight is the outdoor installation of modestly sized photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Time Exposed (1980-97). Sugimoto’s black-and-white visions of seascapes line the concrete walls of a terrace. Through an opening in the walls, viewers can look out at the actual seascape and see another Sugimoto print affixed to the cliffs on the beach, a jolting misplacement that disrupts everything you know about the conservation of photography. Other artists in the collection include Yoshihiro Suda, Sam Francis, Cy Twombly, Tom Wesselman, David Hockney, Richard Long, and Kan Yasuda.
As for the lodgings themselves, they are certainly luxurious, with incredible attention to every detail. The dining (in February, one of very few places to eat on the island), offers high cuisine: Japanese in one restaurant, French in the other. And I highly recommend the expensive brunch to fuel up for the day: a high-end buffet of Japanese, European, and American breakfast foods, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the beach and Yayoi Kusama’s iconic oceanside Pumpkin (1994) gleaming in the distance. While staying at Benesse House is not cheap, and there are a few local inns and Airbnbs available, I felt it was truly worth every penny (plus, the free hotel shuttle was indispensable).
If you eat at a local cafe and find something that looks like a lizard foot floating in your miso, don’t panic. It’s a goose barnacle (kamenote), harvested from the nearby rocky shore. (You can eat it, but don’t ask me how.)
The staff at the hotel and restaurants, the museum attendants, and basically everyone you meet on the island, will be the most courteous, helpful, welcoming, and attentive people you’ve ever been lucky enough to meet.
There are many more art sites on Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima islands not mentioned in this article. See a comprehensive overview at bit.ly/benessesite.