The art islands of Japan – Sharne Wolff

Gotanzi Beach, Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Gotanzi Beach, Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Our visit to Naoshima was only intended as a side trip. Part of a ten day journey centred around hiking Japan’s World Heritage listed Kumano Kodo trail, several friends and I headed first to Naoshima, one of the so-called ‘art islands’ of the Seto Inland Sea. Leaving Osaka early one morning, we didn’t anticipate the adventurous day ahead. After JR (Japan Rail), Shinkansen (bullet train) and two local train trips, we somehow missed a platform-change. A few frantic hand gestures and many laughs later we’d added two taxis into the mix and raced to jump on the ferry before it left from Uno Port.

Finally, after many hours of travelling, we straggled off the boat at Naoshima’s main port of Miyanoura. With no time to do any research before we left Australia, we collectively had few expectations of what we might find on arrival. The sight of the large spotted Red Pumpkin – unmistakably the work of Japan’s Yayoi Kusama – was a clue that this small island was going to be something special. A crowded public bus to the Island’s southern side dropped us at our seemingly modest lodging for the evening. As we soon discovered however, our tiny and otherwise unremarkable cabin came complete with soft tatami mats, futons and freshly-folded kimono, while its Japanese screens slid back to reveal a fabulous view of the sea.

View of Seto Inland Sea from Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

View of Seto Inland Sea from Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

While many islands of the Setouchi group were once home to heavy industry or dumping grounds, recent investments in art and culture have led a massive transformation and resulted in the first Setouchi Triennale in 2010. Much of the art has remained on view year-round. An evening walk on the beach leads us past a group of yurts to another of Kusama’s pumpkins. The yellow Pumpkin (1994) sits at the end of a long jetty that stretches toward the sea. Nearby, a park full of colourful animal sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle nestles amongst pink azalea-covered hills. On a nearby headland, George Rickey’s Three Squares Vertical Diagonal (1972-82) catches the evening light. Defying both their composition and size, the three giant silver squares move gently in the breeze while dozens of ships – large and small – sail quietly past. But, as it turned out, we hadn’t seen anything yet.

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin, Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow Pumpkin (1994), Naoshima. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

The dream of Japanese investor Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the privately owned Benesse Corporation has been largely responsible for this local art revolution. Of four hotels on Naoshima we’d booked the Benesse House Museum – and an in-house evening art tour – for our stay the following night. With much more of the island yet to see, we set off on foot that morning for the Chichu Art Museum. Waylaid for a time by Cai Guo Qiang’s Cultural Melting Bath: Project for Naoshima (1998), we literally stumbled on the Lee Ufan Museum – such is the modesty of this building. Emerging organically from its seafront position, like all the Benesse Museums on Naoshima it was designed by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect who applies the tenets of geometry, simplicity and experience like nothing I’ve ever known. In several separately titled rooms – including Void, Silence, Shadow, Meditation and Encounter – the Museum surveys the Korean artist Ufan’s painting and installation work from the mid-1970s onwards. Given their devotion to Zen Buddhism and its underpinning principles of simplicity and minimalism, it’s not surprising the Japanese are fond of Ufan’s humble gestures and understated aesthetic.

Lee Ufan Museum. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Lee Ufan Museum. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Up a gentle hill, a suggestive spring garden of tulips and colourful perennials around a water lilied pond led us to another of Ando’s creations, and Naoshima’s monumental pièce de résistance, the Chichu Art Museum. Carved from the top of a hill in a range of geometric shapes visible from the air, this extraordinary building is home to the work of just three artists – Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria. An artwork on its own, the museum is designed so each artist’s work can be viewed separately, in natural light, at different times of the day. Enhanced by the unique Japanese understanding of architecture and space, the art is displayed as part of an immersive experience that is all the more incredible if you don’t know what you’re in for. Despite our initial Western resistance to obey the rules – remove your shoes, be quiet, walk this way, absolutely no photos – the unexpected joy of viewing art in this way heightened our senses and made for a lasting impression. Adding to the wow factor, we spent time with Monet’s five large water lily paintings and De Maria’s all-enveloping cathedral-like Time/Timeless/No Time (2004) without anyone else around.

After visiting Naoshima’s locally significant Art House Project in the historical centre of Honmura, we put up our hands for a Japanese onsen at the slightly crazy Naoshima Bath House before settling in for our tour at Bennesse House Museum. Later, as guests, we were also free to wander around the art. After a seven course dinner we wandered undisturbed through work by artists like Cy Twombly, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Alberto Giacometti and Gerhard Richter, but a real favourite was Yoshihiro Suda’s comparatively modest Weeds 2002. Who else thought to place these tiny green facsimile plants into the cracks of Ando’s soaring concrete walls?

Teshima Art Museum. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Teshima Art Museum. Photograph by Sharne Wolff

Although we’d only intended to visit Naoshima overnight, after being urged by several people our island hopping continued into the next day. Wending its way through the mist past a dozen or more small islands, the ferry soon reached the island of Teshima, home to the Ryue Nishizawa-designed Teshima Art Museum. Materialising like a UFO amidst fields of reinvented rice paddies, the Museum is actually the shape of giant concrete teardrop. Sunk into the ground, this fantastic building is open to nature and the sky through two large oval apertures. Despite its size, the Museum contains only one ever-so-minimal artwork by Japanese artist, Rei Naito. Comprised of groundwater, concrete, stone, ribbon, string and beads, Matrix (2010) is a product of both human and natural input. A calm and meditative work that brings together the elements of architecture, space and nature, Matrix rewards those who take time to appreciate its slow feed of understanding.

Unfortunately our visit didn’t allow time for all of Teshima’s treasures, nor for a visit to the third main art island of Inujima. After all, this was only meant to be a side trip. I hope to return, and as it happens, the 2016 Setouchi Triennale is just around the corner…

Art House Project

Art Setouchi

Benesse Art Site

Chichu Art Museum

Kumano Kodo

Lee Ufan Museum

Teshima Art Museum