Wandering Naoshima, Japan's Art Island

Art Destinations in Focus

September 29, 2019

In the Seto Inland Sea, commonly described as the Japanese Mediterranean, lies an art haven - three islands full of museums, galleries, and outdoor sculptures/interventions - Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima. The common denominator for all islands is Benesse Art Site Naoshima, a grand project initiated by Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake.

Namely, after inheriting the company from his father in 1986, Fukutake changed the name of the business to Benesse (Latin for "well-being") Holdings, Inc. At one point, the wealthy businessman started exploring the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and came up with the idea to transform the three islands into art resorts and change their industrial landscape (refineries on Naoshima and Inujima, and illegal landfill on Teshima). To house the art, Fukutake persuaded the famous architect Tadao Ando to construct the museum on Naoshima; he practically envisioned an art utopia, a specific space for a quieter, contemplative way of living in a landscape saturated with rich cultural and historical context.

Throughout the years, Fukutake commissioned numerous site-specific installations by some of the world’s leading artists such as Lee Ufan, James Turrell and Walter de Maria, and so the visits to the Naoshima island became a sort of an art pilgrimage which attracts international visitors. Although the islands are considered remote, they can be easily reached via aircraft from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka to the cities of Okayama and Takamatsu, from which several ships take visitors to the islands.

Tadao Ando House at Naoshima Island, Japan
Tadao Ando - Part of the Benesse House art project in Naoshima. Image via Flickr

The History of the Naoshima Art Island in Japan

The island of Naoshima belongs to the Kagawa District in Japan and it includes the main island and a few others. It is characterized by an irregularly shaped coastline, granite soil, hilly terrain, white sands, and green pine. According to the local history, the island was named after Ex-emperor Sutoku who was fascinated by the islanders' naivety while making a brief visit on the way of being exiled to Sanuki after his loss at the Hogen Rebellion in the 12th century. Naoshima became the territory of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century, and it became a prosperous port of the inland sea for maritime transportation.

Since the 1910s, the northern part of the island Mitsubishi Materials Corporation has been producing copper and has therefore been an industrial area. The central part is the school district of the island, while on the southern part the Seto Inland Sea National Park is located.

Yayoi Kusama - Pumpkin at Naoshima Island, Japan
Yayoi Kusama - Yellow Pumpkin, 1994, at Naoshima island. Image creative commons

The Naoshima Island's Art Venues

The first building erected on Naoshima was the Benesse House opened in 1992. This facility, functioning as a museum and a hotel, is based on the concept of the symbiosis of nature, architecture, and art. The museum building was designed by Tadao Ando and is located on a plateau on the south side of the island. The exhibited works are made specifically for the site and are corresponding to the natural surroundings and Ando’s architecture, and they spread across the exhibition space all over the coastline and the forest surrounding the museum. The visitors can experience incredible artworks and projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Sam Francis, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Long, Yves Klein, Jannis Kounellis, Nicky de Saint Phalle and others.

The Art House Project was launched in 1998 as an ongoing art project based on the reconstruction and recontextualization of the Japanese tradition and aesthetics. By bringing back the old glory to traditional architecture and by inserting video projections and installations, these houses became specific contemporary site specifics, artworks for themselves. Seven revitalized objects hold the works made by Tatsuo Miyajima, James Turrel, Rei Naito, and a few others.

The Chichu Art Museum is perhaps the largest exhibition space and was established in 2004. The building was also designed by Tadao Ando as an underground unity full of natural light aimed to change the appearance of the works throughout the day. The works of the celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet and two established contemporary artists, James Turrell and Walter de Maria are on permanent display. While Monet’s iconic Waterlilies are soaked in natural light in a room specially fitted for the paintings, De Maria’s twenty seven wooden sculptures with gold leaf, part of the installation Time / Timeless /No Time, Time / Timeless /No Time, take the the entrance hall, while Turrell’s three light installations are located in spaces specially adapted for them.

There are also two other museums on the island, one dedicated to Lee Ufan, the acclaimed Korean artist who was the leading figure of 1970s conceptual and minimal art, as well as the Ando Museum erected in 2013, devoted to the practices of this figure, whose architectural style influenced both the Japanese and the global architectural currents.

Walter De Maria - Time Timeless No Time at Naoshima Island, Japan
Walter De Maria - Time/Timeless/No Time, 2004 at Naoshima island. Image via Flickr

The Other Islands and The Setouchi Triennale

Alongside Naoshima, other islands also have quite an art offer. On Teshima, the visitors can visit the Teshima Art Museum, created by architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito on a hilltop; Christian Boltanski’s site-specific work based on the collection of heartbeats called Les Archives du Coeur; the Teshima Yokoo House, a revitalization project conducted by artist Tadanorii Yokoo and architect YukoNagayama. Finally, on the third island of Injuima, there is the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum.

The Setouchi Triennale is conceived by Kagawa Prefecture’s Setouchi Triennale Executive Committee, while the Benesse Art Site is one of its founding organizations and with a concise agenda rooted in the history and character of the region. As an art festival, it is happening on all three islands, as well as other islands in the Setouchi region. The first edition took place in 2010, and in 2019 it will feature around two hundred artworks in total presented across twelve islands.

Featured image: Lee Ufan Museum at Naoshima island; The Benesse House Museum on Naoshima island, by Jmhullot; Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima; Ando Museum on Naoshima, images via http://benesse-artsite.jp.

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