Benesse Art site Naoshima is composed of two tiny islands in Japan’s Seto Inland sea – Naoshima and its smaller counterpart Teshima. Since the development of the project in 1992, the islands have been transformed into one of the country’s most significant sites combining both contemporary art and architecture.
Wandering between each stop on the art trail, the daily activities of the local fishing community intertwine with installations and cutting edge museums, resulting in a curious mix unlike anywhere else in the world.
Approaching the island aboard a passenger ferry from Uno Port, affords the first glimpse of Yayoi Kusama’s bright red pumpkin, appearing like a shiny bright beacon on the landscape, as Naoshima comes into view.
The first stop on the art trail is Benesse House Museum, positioned on one of Naoshima’s numerous hills, the complex boasts incredible views over the neighbouring sea. Designed by Tadao Ando, the museum was completed in 1994, with a concept comprising “a co-existence of nature, architecture and art”. Site-specific artworks in the permanent collection were curated and produced in response to the surrounding natural landscape.
A series of black and white photographs by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto are exhibited outside against the backdrop of Tadao Ando’s signature concrete walls. Depicting hazy seascapes from various locations around the world, the series relates directly to the adjacent panorama of the Seto Inland Sea.
In the second terrace Yan Kusada’s irresistibly tactile and perfectly smooth, giant marble pebble, invites the viewer to sit and appreciate the space above the work. The blue sky overhead, surrounding concrete walls and the artwork itself coexist together in one composition.
Outside in the grounds of Benesse House complex, various artworks are strategically placed across the lawn towards the coast. Immediately recognisable, Yayoi Kusama’s yellow and black “Pumpkin” (1994), is now considered an emblem of Naoshima, as the vibrant yellow fibreglass pierces the archipelago’s blue seascape.
Having planned to visit The Chichu Art Museum in the afternoon, we headed back towards the North of the Island. Also designed by Tadao Ando, Chichu literally means “in the ground” and true to its name the building blends in seamlessly, not leaving a mark on the surrounding landscape.
(photo from Benesse Art Site)
The museum, unlike any other, manages to combine the artworks and their surrounding architecture with a sensitivity that results in an unforgettable experience. The subterranean architecture of the gallery plays with the viewer’s perception of space. Whilst the majority of the building’s interior is illuminated purely by natural light, resulting in an ethereal mood.
Narrow passageways and long approaches, unique to Andao’s architectural vocabulary, link the individual gallery spaces. Taking a moment to contemplate each of these in-between spaces before viewing the next exhibit allows for a heightened observation of the artworks.
In one of these spaces, housing Claude Monet’s seminal works – Water Lilies, cornerless walls in pure white create an uninterrupted line of vision. Upon entering, the viewer must remove their shoes to step on to a floor made up of 700,000 tiny cubes of Bianco Carrera marble. The result is a feeling of walking among the clouds.
Naoshima also boasts a series of Art House Project’s, in which traditional wooden houses from local residents have been converted into gallery spaces, housing installations by Japanese and international artists.
“Naoshima Bath”, sees the typical Japanese bathouse reimagined through the eyes of artist Shinro Ohtake, where local residents and visitors alike can indulge in a hot soak.
Getting around: Electric bikes are the perfect way to tackle the island’s many hills. They can be hired from rental shops near the port.
Where to eat: Stop for lunch at “Maimai” near the village, for a locally caught yellowtail fish burger and a cold beer before getting back on the art trail.