Art in Naoshima

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I had spent a few days on Naoshima Island in the Inland Sea a number of years ago and was so impressed by the art and architecture that I wanted to share it with others, especially Bill whom I knew would appreciate the museum buildings by Tadao Ando.  But getting there, especially with our luggage, was not simple.   A taxi to Kyoto Station, bullet train to Okayama, local trains with one change to Uno on the coast.  Then a ferry to the port of Miyanoura on Naoshima Island, a drop off of our luggage at a nearby bicycle store, a quick lunch, and then a local bus to get to our confirmed time slot at the Chichu Museum.   We did ii, thanks to the on-time departure of every mode of transportation in Japan.

A word of explanation.  The Benesse Foundation, who made its money through educational materials and owned Berlitz language schools,  purchased a large piece of sleepy rural Naoshima Island sometime toward the end of the 20th century and collaborated with Japanese Architect Tadao Ando to create a number of art installations on their holdings.   This now includes 5 museums and a number of “art houses” which are traditional Japanese homes in the village of Honmura which were given to artists to turn into works of art.  The Benesse Museum includes a variety of modern art, the Chichu Museum includes the work of only 3 artists displayed in a concrete labyrinth of a Tadao Ando building displaying only a few works of Claude Monet, James Terrell’ and Walter de Maria.  All of them are artists whose art is immersed with light as their primary focus.  The Lee Ufam Museum has work only by that artist, and the new Valley Gallery has work by Yahoo Kusuma and another artist.  The Ando Museum focuses on the work of architect Tadao Ando.

Benesse Museum. Photo by Geri

I had made reservations many months ago for special entrance at the Chichu Art Museum to James Terrell’s Open Sky piece which is given a private showing only twice per week for 20 people each time at 6:30 pm.  However we didn’t know that the buses stopped running by the time we would get out of this event which would require a long walk back on ill lit roads while we were severely tired.  So the kind ticket desk called a taxi for Paula to return to the hotel at the end of Museum hours at 6 pm (there are only a few taxis existing on the island and we were told we could not arrange a taxi after the Open Sky showing) so Marilyn went with her to our hotel.  The rest of us decided to stay and walk back if necessary but fortunately when Paula’s taxi arrived, we spoke to the driver who agreed to come back later to pick us up.  

On grounds of Benesse House

Our experience at Open Sky will remain indelible to me   I had not gone into the room where the installation was created before our evening time slot whereas Rich and Geri had and saw a square room with concrete ledge seats around the perimeter and a square opening in the ceiling of the room bringing in light and air.  When we went at night, we were led into the same room and told to sit and look up for 45 minutes.  What then appeared was a world of luminescent contrasting colors; one color in the middle and a very different one on the outside which slowly shifted hues at irregular intervals from blue to pink to green to yellow to red to white and eventually at the end to a black square surrounded by white.  I couldn’t help thinking that this was related to the work on color of Josef Albers from the first half of the 20th century brought to its ultimate form.  I could see 3 squares of color, the middle, the remainder of the ceiling, and the angled walls becoming the third visually registered color.  Geri and I came out as if we had been given some kind of mind-altering drug – and both of us believing that the center color was projected somehow onto the square space in the middle.  But Bill told us, to our great disbelief, that we were looking at an “Open Sky” all along and that it was the brain creating a complementary color when LED lights were used on the ceiling.  Bill told us later that the building was designed so that the edge around the open square tapered to zero thickness.   I still can’t believe we were looking at the sky the whole time and plan to research more to understand this other worldly experience. 

This was just the first day — and we happily found ourselves at night at the Wright-Style Hotel, designed in some very small part on a Frank Lloyd Wright building concept, clean and well-located in a small hamlet between the Benesse Art Museums and the town of Honmura.  Bill was not impressed with the design or construction techniques although their heart was in the right place.

Wright Style Hotel. Photo by Bill.

On our second day we visited all the Art House installations in Honmura as well as traveled back to the Benesse area to a special exhibit by Hiroshi Sugimoto of extraordinary photographs in a gallery he helped design.  Waiting for the bus in Honmura, I begin talking to a Japanese woman who appeared to be also waiting with us.   She is open and friendly and she asked why we came to Naoshima.  She is from Okayama and she said her family frequently comes to enjoy this island.   Then her husband pulls up in a brand new Tesla Model X (top end) and I ask him about it and he shows us that he has left hand drive, like us, although Japanese cars have right hand drive and says it did take some getting used to.  They are also few charging stations in the area. 

In one of the Art Houses: Time with flashing numbers at different speeds

He asks about where we are going and offers to drive the five of us to the exhibit at Benesse House (Paula had stayed at the hotel and was going to walk there to meet us).   Which he kindly did — and it was strange driving on the “wrong” side of the twisty road.  And then he drives off and I discover I left my sunhat in his car!   He had given me his card and I texted him to see if I could meet him somewhere but it turned out he was bringing his whole family nearby where they were staying and while we were having afternoon tea, he arrived with his children, brother-in-law and his kids as well.   His father, founder of a major computer accessory company, went to Stanford for a summer course for business entrepreneurs and made a large donation so that he has a granite plaque with his name somewhere on the Stanford campus (I was shown a photo of it), he himself also went later for a one-week course, and he is hoping his oldest child, a 12 year old girl, will go as well and toward that end she is going to an English-language school.  Her chance of being admitted is probably fairly high given the history of a large donation!   And I got my hat back.

All the museums and gallery were very interesting experiences, as much for the building designs as the art itself, as was just walking around the beautiful island and finding imaginative outdoor sculptures by major artists in unexpected places.  Bill described these as “environmental art” and extended our concept of where art begins and ends.

We had lunch at a vegan restaurant with brown rice (!!) which was wonderful and dinner near our hotel at a small family run place serving okonoyaki pancakes and vegetables which were excellent, which we enjoyed both watching the chef at work and eating and where we ate a second night as well.

Our Vegan Lunch
Our Chef making Okonomiyaki Pancakes