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Islands In The Dream: The Art Museums Of Teshima & Naoshima
Robert Barry , September 6th, 2020 11:17

In the middle of Japan's inland sea, a small group of islands offer up unique experiences of works by James Turrell, Walter De Maria, Yayoi Kusama, and others

At first glance, there is something curiously underwhelming about the sole exhibit in Teshima Art Museum. We had journeyed for the best part of a day. First, the long bullet train ride from Tokyo to Okoyama, followed by a rickety regional train to the coast, a boat through the Seto inland sea to Naoshima, a bus across that island, a smaller boat from there to Teshima, and one final bus from the west side of Teshima to the cliffs and rice terraces to the east. From the bus stop we queued first in one building for our tickets only to be instructed to then walk a circuitous route around the cliff edges to the entrance of another building, before entering which we had to remove our shoes and absorb a list of rules forbidding photography, mobile phones, or any physical contact with the work. And now here we were, in this strange flattened dome, like a cross between a giant igloo and a moon base, a single circular hole on one side of the roof to let the light in, several puddles on the floor. Had it been raining and the janitors failed to mop up?

It takes a while to sink in, but once it does, ‘Matrix’ by Rei Naito reveals itself as nothing short of magic. Across the forty by sixty metre ground of the museum, there are scattered drops of water in constant motion. Some slow, some fast, slinking across the floor in different directions, they break up and join together into little pools. The whole ensemble is like a Jackson Pollock action painting come alive, but with none of Pollock’s grandstanding machismo. The atmosphere throughout is of intense calm, almost beatific. It is a work of extraordinary subtlety and almost indescribable beauty, which TripAdvisor reviewers regularly describe as the most “inspiring” or “mind-blowing” work of art they have ever seen. But ‘Matrix’ is just one of dozens of permanent installations populating the islands of Teshima, Naoshima, and their smaller neighbour Inujima, an inland archipelago that may be the art world’s best kept secret.

I've been thinking a lot about our trip of two years ago to these islands of Japan's inland sea. It may seem strange to be speaking o intense communal experiences in faraway places at a time when nobody is seeing very much of either. But as the art world gradually starts to re-open, to piece itself together once more after the enforced hiatus of the lockdown, it may be worth pausing to consider what it is about the experience of art that makes it so special, so transportive. There's a lot of bullshit and weird money involved in the exhibition spaces of Naoshima and Teshima – and the art world generally – but there's also something else, a kind of seductive secular ritual, something close to sorcery.

The origins of these ‘art islands’ date back to 1985, when Tetsuhiko Fukutake, president and founder of the Fukutake Publishing Co., met local mayor Chikatsugu Miyake to discuss acquiring a patch of land on Naoshima to create a site, according to the company’s website, “where children from around the world could gather”. The following year, Soichiro Fukutake succeeded his father as head of the company, and it was under his leadership that the company set about developing the southern half of the island, with the help of award-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando. In 1989, Karel Appel’s ‘Frog and Cat’, a colourful, totem pole-like sculpture, became the first artwork on the site, surrounded by a hive of Mongolian yurts. Since then, the yurts have been replaced by the Andao-designed Benesse House, a hotel and museum where rooms start from AU$334, along with a brace of other museums, outdoor sculptures, and permanent installations, many housed in converted former fishing huts along the coast.

If you stay in Benesse House, you can stalk the corridors in your slippers at night, soaking up priceless works by David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Yves Klein and others, in perfect solitude, undisturbed by the hordes of tourists that come during the day. We decided instead to rough it (comparatively speaking), staying in one of a trio of little cabin-like bungalows called Episode 1, on the edge of Naoshima’s south-eastern village, Tsumuura. The rooms were basic but perfectly comfortable, with a small kitchen area should you wish to cook for yourself. But I would recommend popping round the corner to the neighbourhood diner, Umikko, where we ate deliciously glutinous fried udon noodles, cooked and assembled on hotplates at our table, rich with umami and soy.

From there, it was a brisk walk up the hill to the Honmura district, home to the Art House Project. Honmura dates back to the Edo period and some of its distinctive huts with their tiled roofs and smoked cedar board walls date four hundred years old. By 1989, many of these dwellings were abandoned. Artists were sponsored to restore and convert them into permanent installations. These range from the sublime – like James Turrell’s breathtaking play of of time and perception in the Minamidera house – to the ridiculous – Shinro Ohtake’s former dentist surgery turned into a ramshackle living collage of neon lights and mismatched fittings. Further art houses can be found on neighbouring Inujima and Teshima island, where highlights include the ‘Storm House’ of Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Here visitors will find themselves racked by the recorded sounds and flashing lights of an uncannily realistic simulated thunderstorm.

The main draw to Naoshima is the Chichu Art Museum, to the south-west of the island. Built by Ando in 2004, the concrete structure almost disappears into the hillside from the outside, but from within it provides a unique and futuristic environment within which to view a small collection of elegantly housed works by Turrell, Walter de Maria, and Claude Monet. This may sound like a slender offering, but part of the charm of the place is the sense of space and calm, the care devoted to showing off each work in its very best possible environment. I had never really been a fan of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ before, finding them mimsy and decorative. But here, deep underground yet lit exclusively by natural light streaming through slits dug into the edge of the ceiling, they took on a majestic, almost religious quality. The vivid colours and the sensuality in each brushstroke came alive in ways I would never previously have imagined.

We may not have enjoyed the secluded privilege of Benesse House’s nocturnal private view, but the whole island of Naoshima is like a museum in itself. Nothing could quite compare to the surreal enchantment of our night-time walk home along the coastal path, happening quite by chance upon the serene dance of George Rickey’s sculpture ‘Three Squares Vertical Diagonal’ swaying in the breeze and a Yayoi Kusama polkadot pumpkin on the beach, as we trudged back to our more modest digs. Visiting Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima felt like a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of an alien race with impeccably good taste. Perhaps the most profound quality of the place is the effect it has on its visitors: calm, quiet, and collected to a person, the place made haji of us all.