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BENESEE ART SITE NAOSHIMA
Japan's Secret Art Destination

JULY 2012

· JAMES TURELL,CHIHARU SHIROTA,CAI GUO-QIANG,PIPOLOTTI RIST

BENESEE ART SITE NAOSHIMA
Japan's Secret Art Destination

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BENESEE ART SITE, NAOSHIMA, JAPAN
Japan's Secret Art Destination

Located on a small cluster of islands, in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, is billionaire businessman Soichiro Fukutake’s sprawling art mecca, an inspired and visionary culmination of art, architecture and nature, tucked away in the most unlikely of all places, a few tiny fishing villages situated between Shikoku and Honshu in Kagawa prefecture. To get there, one must take a three and half hour bullet train from Tokyo to Okayama, a local train to Uno Port and a ferry, but once you have arrived at this serene seaside retreat you will be delighted and amazed at what you will find. In addition to the exceptional architecture, there are site-specific works from the likes of James Turrell, Walter de Maria, Chiharu Shirota, Piilotti Rist and Janet Cardiff, to name only a few. Depending upon which route you take, you will also come across Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Cultural Melting Bath” at the pristine Benesee Museum Hotel site; a traditional Japanese wooden house, re-purposed as a Tobias Rehberger designed café; "Les Archives du Cœur" French artist, Christian Boltanski’s, “listening archive,” comprised of heartbeats from around the world; or Japanese artist Markio Mori’s awe-inspiring, glowing orb, hovering in pond, surrounded by a bamboo forest. There is also an entire museum in Naoshima dedicated to celebrated Korean artist Lee Ufan. When you are tired and need to rest your feet, you can literally dip into the art itself, in Shinro Ohtake’s delightfully kitschy “I Luv Yu” public bathhouse, which is decorated with a life-sized elephant taken from a Hokkaido sex museum and collages made up of erotic Edo Period shunga prints. There is literally something for everyone here, not to mention the idyllic natural surroundings.

The project, developed over the last 20 years, includes site-specific artists projects, public sculpture, re-purposed buildings and several museums dotted across Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima islands. The focal point of the art site is the Benesse House Museum, which was opened in 1992 by the Fukutake Art Museum Foundation. Located in Naoshima, the largest of the three islands, the Tadao Ando–designed hotel and museum complex features artworks ranging from Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Sam Francis, and Robert Rauschenberg to Jannis Kounellis, Alberto Giacometti, Richard Long and Nam June Paik. Perhaps one of the most memorable pieces is Bruce Nauman’s neon wall entitled “100 Live and Die,” but also impressive, were the monumental Richard Long floor sculptures made up of driftwood and stones. The museum also houses a wonderful collection of photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff.

Based on the concept of the "coexistence of nature, art and architecture," the facility consists of four buildings, all designed by Ando: the Museum, Oval (opened in 1995), Park and Beach (both opened in 2006). Situated on a hill and connected to the Museum by a private monorail, the distinctive Oval features six large rooms that offer views of the Inland Seto Sea from their floor to ceiling windows. The Park is literally part of the museum and as a guest here you can enjoy the privilege of perusing the collection after hours, all on your own if you so wish, a feature which makes the ¥40,000 room rate almost worth it, or you can opt to stay right on the beach in the larger family rooms. While the hotel is not a place where one would likely plan a weekend away with the kids, there are more child-friendly sites such as the public sculptures scattered across the island, the most famous of which, is Yayoi Kusama’s large red and yellow polka-dotted pumpkins, which I took great delight in watching my son frolic about in by the shore. Equally amusing was witnessing a bus load of Japanese schoolgirls squeal with delight when they came across the colorful Karel Appel and Nikki de Saint Phalle animal sculptures.

In addition to the Benesee House there is the Chichu Museum, which is an amazing architectural site and artwork in and of itself. Built directly into the side of the hill, this “bunker” of a museum is located, for the most part, underground. Constructed in 2004 as a site that “rethinks the relationship between nature and people” the structure took form as the artists and architect bounced ideas off each other. The building, also designed by Tadao Ando, is only lit with natural light, brilliantly changing the appearance of the artworks and the ambience depending upon the seasons. The small collection features just three artists’ works, Claude Monet’s famed “Water Lilies,” James Turrell’s site-specific light installations and a monumental Walter De Maria installation. Once inside, the museum is a truly engaging space, but one would never suspect this upon arriving at the stark, minimal and barely noticeable façade. After being dropped off by the private Benesee bus at the top of the hill, you must make your way down a path where you pass through a vivid recreation of Monet’s own garden in Giverny. Walking past the delicate willow trees, irises and water lilies, you continue up a path where you finally reach the museum, which looks like nothing but a concrete wall with an empty doorframe in the side of the hill. Once passing through a long subterranean tunnel you enter an outdoor space that is pure geometry mixed with open sky, earth and natural light. The concrete ramp up to the exhibition rooms features a perfectly cut rectangular aperture, which filters more natural light into to cavernous space. Looking up from the outside you see a concrete triangle juxtaposed against the blue sky. Turrell and DeMaria’s influences are very much alive here, and while Ando’s structure is reduced to the very limit, with the incorporation of earth, sky and natural light, the concrete building eschews the usual coldness of minimal architecture and feels entirely harmonious and at one with nature.

Before entering any of the exhibition rooms you must remove your shoes and no photographs are permitted. Slippers are provided and the number of visitors is limited to avoid crowds. James Turrell presents light itself as his art and the artist is perfectly suited for this space. The museum selected three works from the beginning of his career to the present, enabling visitors to experience the changes in his work throughout the years. “Open Sky,” similar to his work at MoMA’s PS1, which was commissioned by Alanna Heiss in 1986, is an installation composed of a small room with a square opening cut directly into the ceiling. Carefully calculated artificial lights produce a different colored glow on the white walls of the room, and as the sky changes color, so to, does the light in the room. Turrel’s P.S.1 piece is a must see for anyone in New York, but the work at Naoshima is all the more engaging with the Chichu’s unbeatable, unique setting and the coastal light. “Open Sky” may be viewed after hours with an advanced reservation in order to experience the work during sunset, which I would highly recommend.

Further a field the art pilgrimage continues. Hopping back on the Benesee bus you can also opt to stop off and visit the Lee Ufan museum, yet another collaboration between Ando and renowned Korean artist Lee Ufan, who represented Korea with his critically acclaimed solo exhibition at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. The Ando-designed, semi-underground structure houses paintings and sculptures by Ufan spanning a period from the 1970s to the present day. Located in isolation in a valley surrounded by mountains and sea, Ufan’s work explores the “art of emptiness” and his paintings and sculptures are thought provoking, yet beautiful in their simplicity. The “art of emptiness” and the conflux of nature, art and architecture reign supreme in Soichiro Fukutake’s utopian art mecca, but the most exemplary manifestation of this vision may be found on the smaller island of Teshima at the Teshima Art Museum, which we visited on our second day. Another tiny fishing community, with no more than a thousand inhabitants, Teshima is an inconspicuous island where rice fields cover the steppes cultivated into its hilly terrain. Teshima must also be reached by ferry, and after arriving at Ieura port, the museum may only be accessed by taking a local bus or renting a motorized bicycle. Situated atop a hill, over looking the Seto Inland Sea, this stunning architectural achievement, which is collaboration between artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, does not look like any building, but rather, like a bulbous drop of water, about to spill over the hillside. The globular concrete shell undulates with the landscape and stretches over 60 meters long, revealing two ocular apertures, through which you see blue sky and the gently swaying branches of neighboring trees, green with foliage.

A bucolic walk down a mysterious winding path through the forest, overlooking the sea, brings you to a small tunnel; the enigmatic entrance to this “museum,” a void, which in fact, houses nothing. The “artwork” here, is an installation by artist Rei Naito entitled “Matrix” and it is meant to be a "vessel to appreciate nature.” The work consists of nothing more than water, concrete, and the Architectural Design of Ryue Nishizawa. The smooth undulating surface of the concrete floor captures small pools of water that bubble up from underground in tiny holes distributed unevenly throughout the structure. This constant flow of water is propelled by the wind that enters through the apertures in the ceiling. The water gathers and dissipates in small rivulets and miniscule streams that converge and diverge just as quickly. The experience requires total communion with nature and the space itself, and most visitors, with shoes removed, choose to enjoy the site, lying down in silence on the floor. The engineers were able to fine-tune the unusual and non-orthogonal profile by using a large number of iterations to accurately and cheaply set out 3,500 points that optimally approximated the curve, and what Nishizawa and Naito ultimately achieved is a 250mm thick slab of white cement that arcs 4.5m high, perfectly combining art and architecture with earth, water, and air in a novel and sublime way. This is truly “the art of escape” and for all its “emptiness” Naoshima and Teshima are chock full of engaging experiences that leave the viewer completely fulfilled after a weekend of awe inspiring natural splendor and exquisite art and architecture.

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