Naoshima – The Secret Art Island

I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of Naoshima. In all my years studying art, it’s never come up. Not once. It’s a small island off the coast of mainland Japan completely dedicated to art. There are numerous galleries on the island housing artworks from as celebrated names as James Turrell, Claude Monet, David Hockney, Yayoi Kusama, Walter de Maria and Jackson Pollock -among others. Naoshima unites art, architecture and nature together in a way that is completely mind-blowing. All of the galleries are built into the ground and do not protrude above the surface. The architect behind the masterpieces, Tadao Ando, also insists on using only natural light. Naoshima can be split into three sections; the Benesse Art Site, the Art House Project, and the ‘I LOVE YU’ Naoshima bath.

The Benesse Art Site

This is the main area and consists of three galleries – the Chichu Art Museum, the Lee Ufan Museum and the Benesse House Museum. A subterranean space surrounded by the scenic Island Sea, the museums invite consideration concerning our relationship with nature. They’re important not only for housing important artworks but for being extremely uplifting, unique spaces.

The main construction materials in the architecture of Tadao Ando are concrete, steel, glass and wood. The Chichu and Lee Ufan Museums incorporate these four simple materials in a beautifully minimalist, Japanese design. Ando limited the architecture only to an underground structure and refused to have any exterior design rising out of the ground. Taking advantage of the landscape of Naoshima, the museum buildings provide a gentle transition between inside space and outside. Being in harmony with its surroundings, the site gives density to the works of Ufan, Turrell, Monet and de Maria, provoking the sense of infinity; limitless. Naoshima is just as much about space as it is about artwork.

There are five Monet paintings made visible entirely by natural lighting whilst being underground. The size, design and materials of the room were selected to unite the paintings with the space. They are all from the ‘Water Lily’ series from Monet’s later life. The iridescent sunlight upon the paint’s surface turns moss green into neon purple. Interestingly, visitors are asked to take their shoes off before entering the room. Although this is a Japanese custom (but not typical within art galleries) it certainly turns the space into something quasi-religious. Taking our shoes off felt like an act of respect. Monet’s paintings are hung in a way to defy any negative thoughts.

James Turrell is renowned for using light as his medium. His works are literally scattered around the globe – I’ve been lucky enough to see them in The Guggenheim New York, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa and now a tiny island in Japan. I’m not one for glorifying artists, but every time I experience Turrell I find myself taking a step away from my daily life and reflecting upon humbler things.

Being familiar with Turrell’s light projections upon bare walls, I thought I knew what to expect in the Chichu Museum (Open Field, 2000). We were led into a room, with our shoes off, and asked to walk up a set of stairs toward a purple light. I could’ve sworn it was only a projection, until we walked through it. The glowing rectangle was in fact the entrance to a sloping room completely bathed in a hazy lilac hue. We padded round the space not knowing where it ended and where it began; our whole bodies immersed in the light. When we looked back to the entrance from which we came, the stairs had vanished and multiple neon rectangles took their place. The experience was surreal and extremely uplifting. People say that art can be used as therapy to cure ailments – Turrell makes me see why.

The Art House Project

Located in Naoshima’s district of Honmura, Art House Project involves the restoration of old houses and the transformation of these houses into works of art by artists. These spaces are shaped by architecture, previous inhabitants, and Japanese traditions and aesthetics. Haisha (2006) is an abandoned warehouse converted by Shinro Ohtake. The floor is made up of multiple glass panels covering old photographs, tickets, leaflets, receipts – memories. Every room in the house is different. One is completely black; we blindly felt our way around it using our hands, smoothing the wavy walls as though it were a maze. Another room cases a 16 foot Statue of Liberty and American paraphernalia coat the walls. This house is clearly about memories, history, and personal experience.

Naoshima Bath “I LOVE YU”

Designed by Shinro Ohtake, the same artist that converted Haisha, “I LOVE YU” is an art facility that also functions as public bath – and a pretty unique one at that. Made out of reclaimed materials, the bathhouse oozes Ohtake’s mismatched style. Inside, a life-size elephant sculpture stands proudly above the baths. Erotic photos and images line the bottom of the big tub. You can see them faintly through the water but just like a memory the more you try to grasp them the more they slip away as the water ripples and distorts. A beautiful greenhouse lies at the bottom of the bath full of rich foliage and exotic flowers. The rest of the bath is covered in crockery, mosaic and seemingly a lot of history. Nothing is new here; everything is used, worn, and has a history.

To explore such an art historically significant yet largely unknown project on a tiny little island off Japan felt very special. To me, it’s the secrecy of Naoshima, it’s anonymity, that is most baffling. In a way, I hope it stays that way.