Friday, December 10, 2010

Naoshima Art Island Part 1 - Benesse Art Museum

One of two giant pumpkins by Kusama Yayoi on Naoshima, this one by the ferry port

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

Naoshima Art Island Part 2: Chichu Art Museum

Walter De Maria's spheres on display outside Benesse Art Museum

By Paul Cochrane in Naoshima for Aishti Magazine

A remote island in Japan's Inland Sea is not where you would expect to find a gallery devoted to Claude Monet's “Water Lily” series. Nor to be the location of what can only be described as a sublime museum experience.

Located five hours by train from Tokyo, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima has been delivering the unexpected to visitors since it was established in the early 1990s, with a modern art museum featuring works by the likes of Jasper Johns and David Hockney, outdoor art and art house installations (see part one).

To make the journey that more enticing, Benesse Corporation, the brains behind the “art island” concept, embarked on a second project in 2004, the Chichu Art Museum.

Created to “consider the relationship between nature and human beings,” Chichu holds the work of the Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) and American artists Walter De Maria (born 1935) and James Turrell (b. 1943).

In displaying just three artists, Benesse found the right balance that evades so many museums: not enough to experience or too much art to process – often a problem at those large metropolitan museums.

Making this experience possible was architect Tado Ando's stubborn refusal to have an exterior design rising out of the ground like some kind of monument. Instead the architecture is limited to an underground structure of concrete, steel, glass and wood that uses natural light to light up passageways and galleries.

Ando's minimalist style lets the viewer interact with the sky as the light changes and the clouds move, a theme running throughout the galleries. In the Monet gallery, the overhead natural light illuminates the five paintings of water lilies and is accentuated by the room being entirely white, as if to push the lilies off the canvas into 3D life.

Turrell's work fuses with Ando's design. “Open Sky” uses LED and Xenon lamps to steer the gaze skywards to consider light as art itself, while “Open Field” takes the eyeballs to the limits of light and spatial awareness.

Using fluorescent and neon tube lighting, Turrell lit up a room that is accessed by several broad marble steps within an underground gallery. After visitors have been advised by an attendant to walk slowly forward once inside the low-ceilinged room, the shoe-less visitor inches along in a white light that makes the mind lose the sensory perception of where the room's walls begin and end. It is an unforgettable example of interactive installation art.

In the spaces between galleries, the subterranean setting makes light increase and decrease in proximity to windows, slits and doorways. Time and the cycle of the day are apparent.

De Maria's “Time/Timeless/No Time” is a space defined by specific measurements so that an oblong-shaped window in the ceiling makes the work constantly change from sunrise to sunset. Dominated by a 2.2 meter diameter sphere and 27 wooden sculptures applied with gold leaf, the sky is reflected on the dark sphere and moves as the viewer walks around the cavernous room.

Outside the museum, as the visitor enters and leaves, a garden planted with flowers, plants and trees cherished by Monet at his garden in Giverny sets the impression for a museum that is at one with its natural surroundings.

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Architects, product designers, students, art lovers and a Gaijin journalist at the Kowloon hostel in Naoshima - courtesy of Yosuke Shimano

Photographs by Paul Cochrane

“The East Moves West”

Asia’s ascendancy shifts economic clout in the region

Book review - Executive magazine

Labeling this region as the “Middle East” or the lesser used “Near East,” is standard practice in the West, but the region can equally be called “West Asia,” the opposite end of a vast landmass that spreads from Vladivostok and Shanghai all the way to the Bosporus and the Suez Canal. This designation makes sense given the area’s historic ties and the ancient Silk Road trading routes.

Today there is a new Silk Road, with flourishing two-way traffic between the rest of Asia and the continent’s eastern end, particularly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iran. In Geoffrey Kemp’s book “The East Moves West,” he sets out the case for this burgeoning relationship and where it is likely to go. Kemp, an American foreign-affairs think-tank director, adeptly steers the reader through the ties that bind Asia together, from the geo-strategic importance of Central Asia to the big players: China, India, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea, covering economics, energy, politics, military ties and infrastructure projects.

It is a relationship that is clearly centered on energy supplies, with some 40 percent of China’s oil coming from the GCC, India receiving 45 percent of its oil from the Middle East, and Japan reliant on the region for 90 percent of its oil. Such reliance on the region’s resources has resulted in mutual dependence.

With Eastern economies in ascendancy while the West hobbles along, this relationship is set to flourish, with significant economic and political ramifications. Energy dependence on Iran, for instance, has been crucial in allowing Tehran to survive the economic sanctions imposed by America and Europe to curb its nuclear program.

The big question, as Kemp sees it, is whether Eastern Asia’s role in the region will grow beyond the traditional buyer-seller relationship. Economically, it has started to change over the past five years, with Asian countries inking contracts worth $500 billion for infrastructure projects in the Middle East, while the GCC has invested more than $250 billion in East and South East Asia. Both East and West Asia want more.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted a “look east” approach for market growth, while New Delhi considers the GCC, to quote India’s former commerce minister, “as part and parcel of India’s economic neighborhood.” The statistics only reinforce this. For India, the economic relationship with the GCC is more important than with the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States, totaling $86.9 billion (excluding oil) in 2008-2009.

The UAE is India’s jewel in the GCC crown, the country’s second biggest export destination and the Emirates’ largest importer, accounting for a third of its trade in the Middle East. With Indians making up 33 percent of the UAE’s population and 50 percent of its workforce (of which 25 percent are unskilled workers, 50 percent semi-skilled and 25 percent professionals), it’s no wonder the UAE labor minister said in 2007: “God forbid something happens between us and India and they say, ‘Please, we want all our Indians to go home’... our airports would shut down, our streets, construction…”

With the US flailing in Iraq and Afghanistan and its credibility shot in much of Asia, East Asia seems set to be the new player at the table. But so far the Asian nations have largely refrained from the political arena of the region’s western extremity.

As Kemp notes: “How long they can sustain their hands-off approach is questionable if…they get drawn into the messiness of Middle East politics at a time when the US becomes disillusioned by the burdens of hegemony.”

There are a lot of “ifs” in the book, but given all the certainties proclaimed by Washington of late in its future prognosis for the region, Kemp refreshingly gives plenty of room for thought about the potentials of the new Silk Road.

Middle East Confectionery Manufacturers – Expect Local Expansion

Confectionery Production magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Beirut and Damascus

The Middle East's confectionery market (the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Israel) was valued at USD$113 billion in 2009, while annual chocolate sales exceeded USD$4.2 billion, according to USA-based TNS Media Intelligence. While multinationals such as Cadbury, Masterfoods and Kraft are dominating, local manufacturers are expanding to retain and aiming for increased market share. These low to mid-priced confectioners have a strong national and regional market presence but there is less potential for expansion into the highly competitive and more mature European markets. There is, however, potential for expansion in the super premium chocolate category, which has grown over the past decade, particularly in the affluent Gulf economies.

Lebanon's Patchi produces a variety of high-end and decorated chocolates that are primarily sold in the Middle East through Patchi's deluxe boutiques, followed by the Far East, Azerbaijan and Europe. This year the company opened branches in South Africa, Moscow and two new branches in London in addition to a branch within Harrods. Producing some 4,000 tonnes of chocolate every year distributed through its 140 global outlets, Patchi plans to expand into the European market through franchises, says Nizar Choucair, Patchi’s founder and chairman. This is likely to lead to a further diversification of its offerings due to regional differences in chocolate demand. “Most of the Arab countries prefer milk chocolate while in Lebanon and Europe, it is mostly dark chocolates,” notes Choucair. The company has a very modern production process that includes Swiss technology and it uses no eggs, gelatin, preservatives or artificial ingredients are used, while Patchi has 30 fillings, including almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts to fruit dragees.

Re-attaining global status

Regional competitor Ghraoui, based in Damascus, Syria, has been in the confectionery business since 1931, producing over 120 types of confectionery, including a wide range of chocolates, fawakeh mujaffafa (Arabic for dried fruits), Turkish delights, nougats and marzipan.

Every year we try to introduce a few new products, and keep the product line young and fresh,” says Mohamed Midani, Vice President of Ghraoui.

Ghraoui won gold medals for its products in 1937 in Paris and in 1939 in New York, but its international presence waned until 1996 when a new, state of the art factory was established. Over the past decade Ghraoui has worked to reposition itself in the Middle East and abroad, winning the prestigious Paris 2005 Salon du Chocolat's “Prix d’Honneur”.

Currently, Ghraoui has 18 stores in Syria and the region, including Jordan, Kuwait and Dubai. “We are in discussions with franchises in the region and looking to Europe, North America and the Far East. We are trying to reattain the global status of the company,” explains Midani. Sales are evenly split between domestic consumption and export, but Ghraoui aims to have exports account for 80 to 90 percent of all business.

With higher purchasing power in the Gulf and Europe, these will be focus markets. “We are exporting to France and Europe, and the European Union partnership agreement will help that as we are paying a high amount of tax,” said Midani. Boxes of chocolates retail for Euro 70-80 per kilogram in France, he adds.

To bolster export competitiveness, Ghraoui is applying for ISO and HACCP accreditation over the next year. “We try to do as much as possible of the A to B supply chain, we make our own chocolate mass as we buy our cocoa from west Africa origin, while other ingredients such as fruits and nuts are bought fresh directly from the farmers and processed in house to prepare the fillings used in our products,” says Midani. “High quality luxury products from Syria is not what people have in mind, so it draws a bit of attention,” he adds.


Money is certainly to be made by quality confectioners in the Gulf. In the United Arab Emirates, the chocolate market was valued at USD$148.7 million in 2008 by AC Nielsen, with strong growth in the premium range to cater to wealthy citizens and expatriate demand. In addition to the multinationals, some 20 confectionery companies are based in the emirates.

The UAE-based La Ronda, owned by Notions Trading, has a production capacity of some 3,000 metric tonnes and has a 5-15 percent market share in its chocolate categories in the Gulf and Levant.

Our most popular item is Chocodate, a product discovered through trial and error many years ago and that is a combination of almonds, dates and chocolate,” says Razan Al Masri, Marketing and Communications manager at Notions. “Since production started 15 years ago, the owner insisted on not widening the range, so it's like Ferrero Roche in that we have one major product, although we offer collections of that product,” she adds.

Each chocodate weighs 10 grams, coming in 500 gram boxes, a three piece box of 33 grams, 90 grams, 180 grams and 800 grams, which sells for USD$13.60 (50 AED). Chocodates are exported to Europe, the United States, South America and Africa, while their main regional competitor is Masterfoods' Galaxy Jewels Assorted Chocolates box.

With plans to moves to the Dubai Investment Park to establish a new headquarters and purpose built factory by year end, La Ronda is to aggressively expand over the next five years.

Our plans right now, after the summer, is to have a more constant exporting schedule to Europe, particularly to Britain and Germany,” says Al Masri.

EU offers access

Confectionery manufacturers in the Middle East are not only ideally placed geographically to sell their products to the rich European Union (EU) market, they are assisted by a series of free trade agreements either in place, or in the works.

Turkish confectioners can take advantage of a customs union with the EU which covers processed foods (although some restrictions and tariffs apply for unprocessed ingredients).

An association agreement with Jordan will establish a free trade area between it and the EU by 2014. Under an EU-Lebanon association agreement, many Lebanese confectionery products already enter the EU duty free. The European Commission has proposed the negotiation of trade.

The European Commission has proposed the negotiation of a trade and cooperation agreement with Iraq. There is currently no EU trade deal in place with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, ratifications await new free trade deals between the EU and Egypt, Syria and Israel – all of which would liberalise the trade in confectionery products between the EU and these countries.

Photographs courtesy of Ghraoui

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Gold’s glorious 2010

Commentary - Executive magazine

It's been a glittering year for gold globally, with a Troy ounce (31.1 grams) rising $300 to a record $1,424.60 in November, before backing down slightly into the high $1,300s as Executive went to print. And it’s been just as bright a year for the precious metal in the Middle East. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) re-checked its accounts to find it had 180 tons more than it originally thought, Lebanon's central bank reserves appreciated by more than $2 billion to close on $13 billion, and gold bugs in the United Arab Emirates were given the novel option to buy 24 karat bars from vending machines.

For individuals and governments alike, gold has been the go-to “alternative monetary asset,” as World Bank President Robert Zoellick put it in November.

Bullion took on a new allure as the United States dollar and the euro continued to weaken amid ongoing concerns about the financial markets, and central banks sought to hedge against inflationary pressure. Driving demand even higher was the inability of institutions and currency hawks to buy Chinese renminbi, as its exchange is restricted, leaving few options to hedge against further drops in the world's two leading currencies. Gold's surge has raised debate about whether the precious metal should have a monetary role four decades after the US ended the gold standard. A return to the gold standard is not likely, or indeed necessarily wanted, but any country that sold off a good chunk of its gold, like Britain did a decade ago, is today regretting not having hard assets tucked away in the vaults.

For dollar-pegged currencies, which includes Lebanon and most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, holding sizeable gold reserves has been a real boon. Five Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states are in the top 30 countries in the World Gold Council's (WGC) World Official Gold Holdings rankings. But it is not the usual suspects of the oil-rich Gulf states taking the titles: Lebanon ranked 18th globally — just behind Britain and ahead of Spain — with 286.8 tons, equivalent to 25.2 percent of the central bank’s total reserves. Algeria, ranked 23rd, has 173.6 tons, Libya is right behind with 143.8 tons, and Turkey is in 29th place with 116.1 tons,

Out of the GCC nations, only Saudi Arabia makes it into the top ranking, leaping from 24th to 16th place in March when SAMA announced that, incredibly, due to “a difference in accounting” rather than new gold purchases, the kingdom had 322.9 tons instead of the earlier announced 143 tons. One can only wonder how much unaccounted-for gold there may be still hidden under the tiled floors of the Saudi central bank when such a staggering discrepancy is revealed. Furthermore, such holdings are only the reserves of SAMA, not the private stash of the estimated 7,000 members of the Saudi royal family, nor of Saudi citizens. Then there is the vast amount of gold ore lying under the kingdom's sands, estimated at 20 million tons, according to Australian government statistics. The Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma'aden) has five operating gold mines, with proven gold ore deposits of 1.3 million ounces and current exploration suggests deposits of more than 8 million ounces elsewhere on its acreage. This year British and Australian gold mining companies obtained exploration licenses.

With gold production having peaked in 2011 at 2,645 tons, and the output of the four traditional producers — South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia — on a downward curve, Saudi Arabia, in addition to its gushing black gold, appears to be experiencing a gold rush of the more traditional type.

The big question now is whether gold will continue to rally in 2011. Gold bugs are dreaming of an ounce hitting $2,000, while other pundits suggest the rally may be over and it is better to buy silver.

MENA central banks holding gold appear to have no desire to sell. As Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, told Reuters in October: “Lebanon will sit on its gold... In a world where you could see major crises, the payment instrument of last resort is gold — especially for a country like Lebanon that doesn’t have natural resources.” The same could be applied to individuals. Personally, as a gold bug myself, I'm hoping for another glittering year in 2011.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services