The Island Where Art Conspires With Nature: Naoshima
by Robert Rosenkranz
Small and tranquil, the remote island of Naoshima has been dubbed the “Art Island” of the world, and with good reason: it’s seamless synthesis of nature with contemporary art and architecture is magnificent. Belonging to the Kagawa Prefecture, Naoshima Island is ensconced within the archipelago of the Setouichi Islands, off the south-west coast of Japan.
An ambitious project initiated by Japanese business leader Soichiro Fukatake to create an utopia on Earth, Naoshima and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea underwent a transformation that remains humble yet extraordinary. Instilling new life into the island communities, which the Japan Times has described as “at risk of abandonment,” the Benesse enterprise has proven that an artistic project can both drive the economy and rescue populations otherwise destined to vanish in Japan’s process of aging and population decline.
Offered as a Japanese prototype for global consideration, Fukutaki has indeed created an earthly paradise on Naoshima in which art, architecture, nature and local residents thrive together in an environment that boasts profound spiritual and creative values. This series of images documents the stunning beauty of Naoshima’s natural landscapes, architecture, and art experiences.
Benesse House / Oval
While small inns have been cropping up on the island, a stay at the hotel Benesse House remains the best way to get the full Naoshima experience. Comprised of four different lodgings (Museum, Oval, Park, Beach), the hotel’s rooms all provide incredible views of the Seto Inland Sea and have beautiful art of their own. I found it akin to staying in a modern art gallery. Sunken in a hill and accessible by monorail from the museum, the lodging space has just six guestrooms, featuring a fusion of Setouchi’s natural beauty enlaced with Ando’s structures designed to effortlessly weave in and out of the earth. Vast floor-to-ceiling windows in the guestroom offer a sweeping view of the Inland Sea, and the walls of the guestrooms are decorated with drawings created by Richard Long, the Turner Prize winning British artist.
Benesse House Museum
Benesse House Museum opened in 1992 as a facility integrating a museum with a hotel, based on the concept of “coexistence of nature, art and architecture.” Designed by Tadao Ando, the facility is built on high ground overlooking the Seto Inland Sea and features large apertures that serve to open up the interior to the splendid natural surroundings. In addition to exhibiting the paintings, sculptures, photography, and installations in its collection, the Museum also contains permanent site-specific installations that artists have created especially for the building, selecting locations on their own and designing the works for those spaces.
The Museum’s artworks are found not just within its galleries, but in all parts of the building, as well as in scattered locations along the seashore that borders the complex and in the nearby forest. Benesse House Museum is truly a rare site where nature, art, and architecture is both amalgamated and defined, in an environment containing numerous site-specific works created in response to the natural landscape of Naoshima and the architectural spaces they inhabit.
Chichu Art Museum
The illustrious Chichu Art Museum was constructed in 2004 as a site rethinking the relationship between nature and humanity. The museum is sunken into the landscape and relies solely on natural light. Works by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria are on permanent display in this building, beautifully designed by Tadao Ando. Surrounding a dramatic sunken courtyard, the museum absorbs and displays an abundance of natural light that changes the appearance of the artworks and the ambience of the space itself with the passage of time, throughout the day and the four seasons of the year. Taking form as the artists and architect collaborated on the space, the museum in its entirety can be seen as a monumental site-specific artwork.
Lee Ufan Museum
This museum is the result of a brilliant collaboration between internationally acclaimed artist Lee Ufan and architect Tadao Ando. The Ando-designed semi-subterranean structure houses paintings and sculptures by Ufan spanning a period from the 1970s to the present day. Ufan’s works resonate with Ando’s architecture, giving visitors an impression of both stillness and dynamism. Located in a peaceful valley surrounded by hills and the ocean, the museum offers a tranquil space where nature, architecture and art at once resonate with one another, inviting thought-provoking contemplation throughout the experience.
Teshima Art Museum
Uniting the creative visions of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, Teshima Art Museum stands on a hill on the island of Teshima overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. The museum, which resembles a water droplet at the moment of landing, is located in the corner of a rice terrace that was restored in collaboration with local residents.
Carving out a cavernous space 40 by 60 meters wide and at its tallest height of 4.5 meters, the mystical concrete shell, entirely devoid of supporting pillars, has two oval openings inviting the wind, sounds, and light of the world outside into this hallowed space.
In the interior, water continuously springs from the ground in small droplets that coalesce into little streams and puddles. A few slender silk threads, barely noticeable, hang from the ceiling and are moved about by passing breezes. These are about the most minimal gestures one can imagine. But in this set in which the fabricated and natural, intentional and unwitting elements all come together with such limitless harmony, the artist conjures an infinite array of impressions with the passage of seasons and the flow of time.
Inujima Seirensho Art Museum
Inujima (犬島, literally: “dog island”) is a small island off Okayama in the Seto Inland Sea that is named after a large rock resembling a sitting dog. Breathing new life into the ruins of a former copper refinery on the island, the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum was built around the concept: using what exists to create what is to be. Abandoned for more than a century, the copper refinery was rescued from decay and transformed by the brilliant architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, honoring the remnants of history.
Exhibited at Inujima are six works by Yukinori Yanagi who used as a motif, the writer, Yukio Mishima, a vocal critique of Japan’s modernization. The exhibition, collectively called ‘Hero Dry Cell’, was intended specifically for the museum and is fully integrated with the design. The building is both a container for and an integral part of the exhibition.
Yukinori Yanagi, Hero Dry Cell, 2008 (phrases from Mishima’s work) In collaboration with architect Hiroshi Sambuichi
An immersive, experiential installation, Icarus Cell is a labyrinth through which visitors walk toward an opening reflected in mirrors, simultaneously followed by a projection of the sun. Senses become heightened, yet disoriented; the sun pushes viewers toward the opening, yet can distract them along the way. Icarus, as we know, dared to fly too close to the sun with delicate wings of feathers and wax. Yanagi’s message is clear: seek the light and escape the labyrinth of empty, modern promises.
Inujima Art House Project
Also on the small island of Inujima is the Art House Project, a spectacular series of installations built into an existing neighborhood. Fully experiential, the Inujima Art House Project infuses art spaces into daily life, contrasting contemporary Japanese architecture with traditional residential structures with profound effect that references the past, the present, and the future. Intended as “a message to Japan,” the Inujima Art House Project is composed of six large-scale artworks integrated within architectural galleries. Nawa’s Biota, a breathtaking explosion frozen in time and space on a massive scale, is pictured within one of the structures.
— Robert Rosenkranz