Friday, December 10, 2010

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

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