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The first masterpiece you see as the ferry approaches Naoshima, a subtropical island in the Seto Inland Sea that has been turned into a kind of theme park for contemporary art and architecture, is Naoshima itself. The gray-blue haze that blurs it from a distance gradually thins to reveal a landscape of craggy green hills and pristine beaches that wouldn’t look out of place among the Balearic Islands. If it were in the Mediterranean, it would long ago have been overrun by the club-going jet set. Instead, Naoshima has become a site of cultural pilgrimage akin to Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston; Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France; and Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
The sense of awe one feels at the Benesse Art Site Naoshima (BASN)—named for the publishing company that launched the project in 1987—doesn’t just derive from the works on display at its many museums and outdoor sites, which are by some of the biggest names in Asian and Western art. It’s also a function of the distance one must travel to see them: more than five hours from Tokyo to Naoshima’s Miyanoura Port. From there you can proceed still farther to the islands of Inujima and Teshima, outposts of the growing Naoshima art empire. The archipelago’s remoteness—and the fact that its sites are so spread out—means that you’re never elbowing past people to commune with art. Even as Naoshima’s popularity grows, it still feels as though you have the island practically to yourself. Especially if, as most visitors do, you spend a few nights at Benesse House, a waterfront museum-cum-luxury-hotel that gives guests privileged access to works by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, and Alberto Giacometti.
To watch TV at Benesse House, you have to rent one. But that would break the spell, disrupt the sense of timelessness. Yes, there’s a restaurant—and it’s good—but that’s not why you go. The only thing to do is see art. Think of it as a high-culture ashram. This cultish vibe is encouraged by a staff that speaks in reverent tones about the project’s mastermind, Soichiro Fukutake, executive adviser of Benesse Holdings. In 1985 Fukutake’s father, Tetsuhiko, envisioned Naoshima as a place where—as the promotional materials put it—“children from all over the world could gather.” The town’s mayor in the mid-’80s, Chikatsugu Miyake, dreamed for his part of developing the southern half of the three-square-mile island as a cultural area. Fukutake Publishing (later renamed Benesse) bought land there in 1987 and soon commissioned architect Tadao Ando to build Benesse House and the accompanying museum. Ando would go on to design three more museums on Naoshima, including one dedicated to his own achievements.
Naoshima is secular, but it nonetheless exudes a quasi-religious aura. Take Minamidera, a barnlike wooden structure—also by Ando—built in Naoshima’s old fishing village to house an installation by the light and space artist James Turrell. Darkness envelops you as soon as you walk in. You lose all bearing. Several minutes pass before the feeblest of glows becomes apparent in a rectangular frame that, for all you can tell, could be right in front of your face or across the room. Have your eyes adjusted to the inky blackness, or was a light gradually turned on? The effect is as transcendent as it is subtle.
Turrell may be American, but the work’s sensibility is undeniably Japanese. It’s an extreme example of what the novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki observed in his seminal essay on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows”: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.... Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
Just as shadows delineate light, the art at BASN evidences the roughhewn splendor of the islands. Consider, for example, the lone Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph that hangs in the middle of a jagged rock face, visible only from a distance. Or Yayoi Kusama’s giant yellow polka-dot pumpkin, sitting solemnly at the end of a pier as if contemplating a journey across the sea.
“Our aim is to create significant spaces by bringing contemporary art and architecture in resonance with the pristine nature of the Seto Inland Sea,” says Ryoji Kasahara, head of art management at the Fukutake Foundation, which supports BASN.
The purest example of this symbiosis is found not on Naoshima proper, but on Teshima, 20 minutes away by ferry. The Teshima Art Museum, a white shell designed by Ryue Nishizawa of the architecture firm Sanaa, contains a single work that is easy to miss since it looks a hell of a lot like emptiness. Upon contemplation, the piece—by artist Rei Naito—reveals its complexity. The space is open to the elements, and two large oval holes in the roof offer views of the surrounding trees.
Teshima wasn’t always so pristine. From 1978 to 1990, it served as an illegal dumping ground for industrial waste. After a hard-fought legal battle, work began in 2003 to clean up the island and revamp its once-thriving agriculture. The eight art sites on Teshima make it an essential excursion for those staying on Naoshima for several nights. Likewise with Inujima, the smallest of the BASN islands. Its centerpiece is the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, a marvel of adaptive reuse built from the ruins of a copper refinery. BASN has also established cultural programs on the nearby islands of Shodoshima and Megijima, and sponsors installations on yet more islands once every three years for the Setouchi Triennale (the next edition is in 2019).
But of the hundreds of artworks on the three islands, Ando’s Escher-like concrete structures on Naoshima are what stick in my mind months after my visit. I think of his Oval at Benesse House, an elliptical courtyard dug into the top of a hill, accessible only to hotel guests and only by funicular. I think of his ingenious, daunting entrance to the Lee Ufan Museum, far more powerful than the facile minimalism of the Korean artist to whom the museum is dedicated. And I think especially of his Chichu Art Museum, in itself worth the journey to Naoshima. Built in 2004 inside a hill, with multiple openings to the surface, Ando’s maze is a study in contrasts. Darkened hallways lead to galleries drenched in natural light. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
The stark, ominous architecture unifies an unlikely trio of artists—Turrell, Walter De Maria, and Claude Monet—and turns their pieces into objects of veneration. They mean something different here than they would in more neutral surroundings. Monet’s five enormous water lily paintings—displayed in a room we must remove our shoes to enter—feel far removed from the quaint pastoralism of Giverny, France. On a spiritual plane of its own is De Maria’s installation Time/Timeless/No Time, set in a large chamber illuminated by a skylight. The attendant urges silence, as if not to disturb the giant orb of polished black basalt that sits precariously atop a wide flight of steps, like a spherical avatar of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Golden pegs line the walls like so many disciples, imploring you to pay obeisance to the orb. This concrete cathedral feels like the nerve center of Naoshima, the core from which its aura emanates. And despite the flood of light, all you see is darkness.
How to Do Naoshima
Traveling to Naoshima from Tokyo involves taking a bullet train to Okayama (four hours), a local train to Uno Port (45 minutes), and a ferry to the island’s Miyanoura Port (20 minutes). Leaving from Kyoto cuts the travel time by two and a half hours. It’s also possible to fly into and out of Takamatsu Airport, on the nearby island of Shikoku. Teshima is accessible by ferry from Uno Port as well as from Naoshima’s Honmura Port, and Inujima from Ieura, Hoden, and Tonosho Ports.
There are three ways to get around Naoshima and Teshima: shuttle bus, bicycle, and private car, which can be arranged in advance through outfitters. Car is by far the most practical option. Bikes can be rented by the ferry terminals, but the initial feeling of exhilaration one gets from cycling freely along winding seaside roads quickly gives way to exhaustion when the elevation rises. Inujima, the smallest of the islands, can be explored only on foot; thankfully, its cultural sites are all close to one another.
Where to Stay
It takes at least two days to see everything that matters on the three islands. The only decent lodging option is Benesse House, on Naoshima. With its striking rectilinear architecture; its excellent kaiseki restaurant, Issen; and its seaside setting, Benesse satisfies most definitions of luxury accommodation, but don’t expect a pool or a gym. Here it’s all about the art: Guests are allowed to visit the adjacent museum during extended hours. benesse-artsite.jp.