The Art Islands of the Inland Sea


Note: Around twenty years ago the small fishing islands of the Japanese Inland Sea, who were faced with an aging population, declining birthrate and disappearing industry, caught the attention of the art-loving billionaire chairman of the Benesse Corporation, Soichiro Fukutake. Fukutake’s donations helped revitalise the economy of the islands (particularly Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima) by turning them into contemporary art centres.

Throughout the islands, you will find eclectic artworks by Japanese and foreign artists in museums, abandoned houses and in the open air. The art and architecture blends harmoniously with nature on these mellow islands and demand to be experienced rather than just looked at.

Twelve islands are currently taking part in the Setouchi Triennale International Art Festival.

The Inland Sea

The Inland Sea

“Rather than art, it would be more fitting to discuss how each individual being perceives richness and fulfillment before they leave this fleeting mortal world. This perception is an intensely personal process that involves each person thinking for him or herself.”

                                   — Fram Kitagawa; General Director of Setouchi Triennale 2010 and 2013

Visiting the art islands of the Inland Sea was an intensely personal experience. Few of the artworks are mere things to look at, hung on a museum wall. Instead they were to be to be experienced; to enter, to physically connect with.

At Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima I slipped off my shoes and donned the provided slippers to view, first, Monet’s water lily paintings from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, stepping across an inlaid floor of small cubes of white Carrara marble in a room where the walls are rounded so as to wrap around me, natural light blinking in from above. Chichu, designed by Tadao Ando, is built entirely underground and lit only by the natural light that comes in through the skylights and courtyards.

In slippers again, I walked towards and into James Turrell’s blue lights, and up and down the staircase of Walter de Maria’s Time/Timeless/No Time granite-and-gold leaf installation; walking around the piece, viewing from different angles and watching the movement of sun and time change my perspective.

In Naoshima’s Art House Project I wandered through old abandoned houses remade into works of art. At the Minamidera house I found James Turrell again. His house is a piece that requires visitors to enter a pitch dark room and feel along the walls to take a seat at a bench. And then … well, I won’t say as that would ruin the experience.

Haisha by Shinro Ohtake. Part of the Art House Project.

Haisha by Shinro Ohtake. Part of the Art House Project.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s contribution is a restoration of an Edo period shrine and construction of optical glass staircase linking the main structure to an underground stone chamber, “uniting heaven and earth”. You enter the chamber with a torch and look up at the shrine, and heaven, from below.

Go'o Shrine by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Part of the Art House Project.

Go’o Shrine by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Part of the Art House Project.

At Naoshima Bath “I♥湯” (a play on words: it uses the character for hot water, which is pronounced “yu”) I steamed myself in hot water under the gaze of a massive elephant statue that was salvaged from a Thai sex museum, while surrounded by all manner of kitsch collected on the artist Shinro Ohtake’s travels.

No cameras (obviously) in the bathhouse. This is the exterior.

No cameras (obviously) in the bathhouse. This is the exterior.

On Teshima at Les Archives du Coeur, I stood alone in a dark room as a stranger’s heartbeat, recorded in Paris in 2010, thumped in time to a blinking lightbulb.

Christian Boltanski: Les Archives du Coeur

Christian Boltanski: Les Archives du Coeur

But nowhere felt so intensely personal as Teshima Art Museum. This place, calling itself a museum, designed by Ryue Nishizawa, is shaped like a droplet of water and perched on a hill among terraced rice fields. The museum houses a single artwork, Matrix by Rei Naito. And it’s like nothing I’ve seen — and like nothing at all.

No cameras allowed in the museum. Here it is viewed from a distance.

No cameras allowed in the museum. Here it is viewed from a distance.

The winding trail that leads to the museum.

The winding trail that leads to the museum.

No slippers here, you walk inside barefoot and are advised by a solitary, serene attendant to not step on the small goblets of water that skim across the floor. The water springs from little ping-pong balls placed on the floor, or from the rain that falls through the two large openings in the roof. Again, there is only natural light.

I was alone in the museum with nothing to break my focus on the little puddles breaking into streams that trickle away into the void. The only sound the wind, the birds and, in the distance, the sea. I wondered if this is what meditation feels like; I don’t think I have ever felt so close to absolute stillness. It is an emotional experience and one that is difficult to describe because, essentially, it was a feeling of nothingness. Just a careful contemplation of the something that lies at the point where art, architecture, nature and existence meet, and boundaries fall away. I didn’t want to leave.


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