Part One of a two part series on Naoshima “art island” in Japan's Inland Sea, around one hour from Okayama by train and ferry.
By Paul Cochrane in Naoshima for Aishti magazine
Viewing art is more often than not an urban activity. Galleries and museums don't tend to be tucked away in forests or on small islands only accessible by ferry. But a remote location showcasing artistic masterpieces has the air of a pilgrimage about it as well as providing a more relaxed setting to ponder and appreciate the art you have traveled so far to see.
There was certainly a feeling of anticipation in the air as visitors boarded the ferry for the 15 minute ride from the mainland, around five hours by train from Tokyo, to the island of Naoshima in Japan's Inland Sea.
This is not a place that is on most visitors' to-do list when visiting Japan, like including an afternoon to tour the Louvre when in Paris. Naoshima attracts the artistically inclined, whether architecture students staying at youth hostels near the port or well-heeled art aficionados checked in at one of the four hotels run by the Benesse Corporation.
Naoshima is an island that had a dwindling population as the youth left for the high-tech cities before new life was breathed into it 20 years ago by Benesse, which had a growing collection of modern art in need of show casing.
Established in the early 1990s, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima has evolved from one art museum, the Benesse House Museum, to house a second museum, Chichu (see part two), and the Art House Project, where artists transform spaces into artworks while restoring old buildings.
In fitting with its “art island” moniker, works of outdoor art are dotted around the coast, including the giant pumpkin sculptures by Kusama Yayoi that have become symbols of Naoshima. Yayoi's bright red pumpkin at the fishing port signals the island's artistic bent, while the yellow pumpkin near the Benesse museum stands in colorful contrast to the rugged coastline and maritime backdrop.
Even the island's sento – public bath – is a fully functional, if somewhat surreal, art installation designed by Shinro Ohtake called "I ♥ Yu" – a word play on you and yu, which means hot water in Japanese. On top of the wall separating the men and women's bathing sections is a stuffed Indian elephant.
The Benesse House Museum designed by award-winning architect Ando Tadao merges two different functions – museum and hotel – in one building, with the art collection open to the public during the day and accessible at any time to hotel guests.
As much a piece of art as the works on display, the museum is set over three floors that utilizes natural lighting, minimalism and curves to highlight 38 paintings and art works. Set into the side of a hill with a panoramic view of the sea, art work is visible from inside and outside the museum while Tadao's design fuses nature and architecture to encourage what it means to benesse, Latin for 'live well'.
Displaying some of Japan's best contemporary art, the museums also houses work by Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Yukinori Yanagi.
In an almost cavalier attitude for a museum, the painting on the wall of its restaurant is by Jean Michel Basquiat. Yet when on an art island, if you can visit a museum in the middle of the night and bathe among art, why not eat among art?
Photographs by Paul Cochrane