Saturday, 3 December 2011

Naoshima Art Island

If you’re looking for some of the most cutting edge contemporary artwork you don’t necessarily need to go to Paris, New York or London, you can see it on a small island off the coast of Japan, called Naoshima.

As an art teacher, this was a location that was often mentioned to me as a place that I must make the effort to see, as it was only a couple of hours from Osaka. Taking the short ferry crossing from Uno, Jules and I arrived on a brisk, but sunny autumn morning to walk between the major hotspots that continue to add to Naoshima’s growing reputation in the art world. Our first stop was at what is referred to as the ‘Art House Project’, where abandoned houses have been turned over to artists to develop into works of art. Following our walking trail map, we moved to each of the seven houses to find them to be creatively very different from each other. Our two favorites were ‘Haisha’ by Shinro Ohtake with its eclectic scrapbook of sculptural materials and ‘Minamidera’ by James Turrell, which encouraged us to pause in complete darkness to eventually discover its slowly emerging illuminations. For us, part of the appeal of the project was its setting amongst the simple homes of the local people who had clearly embraced this artistic concept by welcoming visitors enthusiastically to view these thought provoking environments.

Heading toward the coast, we set our sights on Bennesse House, designed by renowned post-modernist architect Tadao Ando. His futuristic design is set into the hills overlooking the picturesque bay and integrates both an art museum and hotel within its walls. The interior of the building looks as if it could be a set from a James Bond movie and not surprisingly is actually included in Robert Benson’s 007 novel, ‘The Man With The Red Tattoo’. However, what particularly attracts visitors is its site-specific collection of installation art by many of the worlds leading artists. Sculptural artworks of varying scale can also be found scattered throughout the extensive grounds, with possibly the most popular being the bright yellow dotted ‘Pumpkin’ of Yayoi Kasama that sits boldly at the end of a short, stone pier. As we walked around the coast, other works would unexpectedly appear, sometimes subtle and at other times strangely out of context.

We moved on to the much-anticipated ChiChu Art Museum, another striking piece of minimalist Ando architecture, which is set almost entirely underground. We had heard that the museum housed a small collection of priceless Monet paintings as well as more recent works by a number of leading contemporary artists. Indeed, in a large white room lit only by natural light, five works from the famed ‘Waterlillies’ series were boldly displayed. In hushed silence we viewed the works while wearing white slippers that had been given to us in order to protect the millions of tiny squares of white stone that lay under foot. We both agreed that this was probably taking artistic reverence a bit too far. To our disappointment only a few other works could be seen (only four others in total); the most striking being a room installation by Walter de Maria that contained a 2.2 metre diameter sphere sitting precariously on a steep flight of stairs. In the end we were both reconciled to the opinion that it was definitely the building itself that was the most significant piece of art on show. Its brutalist use of raw cement formed an abstract, uniformed space that continued to draw our eyes upward toward the sky via its numerous skylights and voids, making it a totally unique environment for displaying art.

As we made our way back toward the ferry late in the day, we reflected on what we had seen and how bold the notion had been to create a centre for contemporary art in such a remote and unlikely location. Clearly this was a case study that reaffirmed the old adage of… ‘if you build it, they will come’.

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