Nic, Bob, and me at Kusama Yayoi's pumpkin installation
Well, I have now crossed another item off my list of “things to do in Japan before I leave.” For a long time I have wanted to visit a small island in the Inland Sea called Naoshima. It is known to be an art island, and although it’s about the same size as Yuge, it has the attractions of two large contemporary art museums. Most of the people who live on the island are somehow affiliated with the art world, and there are also many old village houses that have been converted into art spaces. I thought it was a bit out of the ordinary that such a remote island in the Inland Sea, like the island I live on, could have such a thriving art community, when usually such art is seen in big cities. Also, one of my favorite artists, Kusama Yayoi, an internationally know installation artist, has a couple site-specific installations on Naoshima.
A couple other English teachers from Matsuyama city (two hours south of me), Nic from Australia and Bob from the U.S. decided to go along with me since it was a three-day weekend. Although Naoshima shares the same waters of the Inland Sea with
trapped inside the pumpkin!
Yuge, it took a lot of money and time to get there. I first had to travel to mainland Shikoku by ferry (one hour), take a train to eastern Shikoku (two hours), then take another ferry out to Naoshima (one hour). Like Yuge, Naoshima is only accessible by boat.
As soon as the ferry pulled in to the port, I could see one of Kusama Yayoi’s installations in a grassy area near the port. It was a big red pumpkin with black polka-dots. Kusama Yayoi’s signature style is polka-dots which she includes in one form or another in almost all of her work. She has had a mental disorder since she was young which makes her see polka-dots all the time everywhere she looks. So she uses her art as an outlet for her ailment and to show people what the world looks like through her eyes. So, we went to take a closer look at it and realized we could walk inside the pumpkin which was lit by multicolored lights from the ground. And of course we took lots of photos.
A small museum (more like a showcase of paraphernalia) dedicated to “The Man with the Red
Tattoo” James Bond novel was near the port. The reason why is because the book takes place on Naoshima. We looked through it quickly, but we had spent most of the day traveling, so we decided to find something to eat and stay at our youth hostel for the night. The next day we would have to spend all day going to museums to see everything before we left. Once again, another example of Japanese hospitality, a random guy driving by us stopped and said he would take us anywhere we wanted to go on the island. Normally I wouldn’t take rides from strangers, but hitchhiking is quite common and safe in Japan, and I was with two other people. So, he drove us to the supermarket, waited for us to buy food, and drove us back to our hostel! People are just desperate to help you out here!
The next day we rented bikes and started out early towards the Art House Projects. These were mostly old village houses that had been converted into art spaces. Photos weren’t allowed at most of them, but I managed to take a photo of my favorite house called “Sea of Time”
"Sea of Time" installation in an old Japanese house
and the Shinto shrine. “Sea of Time” was an old traditional Japanese house, but when you walked in, the room was dimly lit and the floor was a pool of water. The guard told us to be careful when we walked around the pool as about three people fall in everyday. Inside the pool were many single-digit digital numbers that changed numbers from 0-9 at different speeds. The dark room with the still pool created a soothing, calm feeling, but the frantically changing numbers in the pool created a contrasting, stressful feeling. There was also a window in the house that was made out of some kind of new glass that can change from transparent to opaque. It was also a digital clock, which numbers changed from opaque to transparent! I didn’t understand it at all.
Even the neighborhood Shinto shrine on this island was a work of contemporary art. There was a cave-like hole in the ground that led to a very long, dark, and extremely narrow passageway. When I got to the end of the passageway, there were big blocks of glass that were cut to look like ice that made steps up out of the ground.
Ultra Man as far as the eyes can see!
The steps continued up out of the ground and into the shrine.
Next we were off to the two big museums of contemporary art. Both were designed by the world renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. One was called Benesse House, and the other was called Chichu (meaning “in the earth” or “underground”). Chichu was indeed built underground in a hillside, and we met a group of Australian architecture students at our hostel that had traveled to Naoshima to see the architecture, rather than the art. Probably any architecture enthusiast would kill me for saying so, but Tadao Ando’s buildings often looked like big concrete parking garages to me.
However, aside from the concrete eyesore, there were several interesting features to Tadao Ando’s buildings. The way the museum built underground in a hillside let light in was very inventive. Upon entrance to the museum, I walked down a long, narrow hallway where the ceiling was just an opening at ground level to the sky above. It let enormous amounts of light in and made the hallway very bright. Then, suddenly I turned around a corner to continue down the hallway, except around the corner there was no light let
glass blocks leading out of the ground to the gods of the Shinto shrine
in at all. So, if you stood right at the corner and looked at the hallway to your left and the hallway to your right, it was a perfect separation of light and dark, white and black. The walls of the hallways were built at an angle too, which made you feel like you were walking sideways. There were also a few creative courtyards underground that made good use of light and space. And of course, the fact that the whole museum was built underground is pretty remarkable too.
I thought the art in Chichu museum was much more impressive than the art in Benesse House. It included installations by James Turrell, whose art I had seen before in Pittsburgh. His art is a lot of optical illusions created by light, and Nic, Bob, and I all agreed that one of his installations made us all feel like we were in that scene from the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie where the TV addict kid gets shrunken to TV size. Also at the Chichu museum were four Monet paintings (much bigger than I imagined them to be).
Finally we rode our bikes out to a
glass stairs continuing up to the shrine
beach to see another Kusama Yayoi pumpkin. This one was yellow with patterns of black polka-dots and stood in front of a beautiful backdrop of the Inland Sea.
My overall feeling of Naoshima was a positive one. It was great to see that contemporary art can exist in such naturally beautiful and remote places as a small island in the Inland Sea, and not just in swanky skyscrapers in big cities. However, I think a bit of the posh attitude from the big city art industry has rubbed off on this tiny island. Some of the guides and guards and other people associated with the museums and art house projects were a little patronizing, which interfered somewhat with the down-to-earth feel of the small island. But the quality of the art was not at all disappointing. There was an eclectic mix of art (everything from optical illusions, to big pumpkins, to Monet’s “Water Lilies”), so it was hard not to find something to like!
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