At age 20, just beginning my final year of university and one of the most tumultuous periods of my life, my mother took me out for a day in London. As usual we visited one of our favorite museums, the Tate Modern, without much thought as to what we would see. At the time, a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s work was being exhibited. Her obsessively repetitive and mesmerizing work had a resounding effect on me, immediately hypnotizing me with its back story of her 1970s ‘happenings’ and mental health difficulties. Her narrative and her pumpkins then proceeded to shape my developing interest in Japanese art and culture.
Fast forward to my first Japanese winter, huddling under my kotatsu as the sea wind battered my sixth-floor apartment. I knew that when, despite concerted efforts, the cold of winter began to seep into my bones, it was time for a jaunt to brush away the cobwebs and ennui that had inevitably gathered. What better way to do so than to take an impromptu visit to the idyllic island of Naoshima?
Immersion in and interaction with nature is the raison d’être of the pieces and museums of the Benesse Art Site. Those that visit aren’t simply voyeurs, but contributors. The spaces change based on a variety of factors from the perspective they’re viewed from to the time of day in which they’re viewed. This results in a truly uplifting and restorative experience.
As the island came into view, I spotted a pinprick of Kusama’s “Red Pumpkin” gleaming in the midday sun, and my homage was then fully underway. The first stop upon arrival was one of the many cheap and cheerful bike rental shops. As I began my journey on my little mamachari, the sense of freedom that I felt cycling around the island was second to none. The landscape of Naoshima is positively Mediterranean, with its rugged cliffs and fecund hillsides.
My first stop was Chichu Art Museum. Tadao Ando, Chichu’s architect, designed the museum to have the lowest possible impact on the landscape of the island, hence my nearly missing it when zooming along the blissfully clear island roads.
Chichu’s parking lot and ticket office are positioned about 200 meters from the museum itself, allowing for a walk up through the miniature Monet-inspired garden. Despite it being January, riotous colors bloomed in the beds. Ando’s intuitive design ethos slowly unfolded as I began to navigate Chichu. The initially bleak concrete passages transformed as they led me to courtyards steeped with natural light that perfectly framed the sky. Sloped passages surrounded the courtyard, leading me to feel as though I was in an Escher painting. A dimly lit concrete genkan awaited in the second building, where a museum assistant, dressed in a clinical grey uniform, instructed me to remove my shoes. Happily obliging, I padded across to the next corridor onto crisp white mosaic tiles, the corridor took two turns, before opening out into the Monet room.
I gasped audibly, and my eyes flooded with tears. The walls of the room were a crisp white, light flooding them from the ceiling. I had never seen a Monet before, and I’d been guilty of thinking of his work as insipid and, worst of all, “pretty.” What a heinous crime that was. Natural sunlight perfectly lit his “Water-Lily Pond” diptych, causing the textures and colors to cascade outward. “Pretty” didn’t do it justice. I spent around 20 minutes with just four of his “Water Lilies” paintings. The sense of light that naturally came from the paintings was perfectly amplified by Ando’s design aesthetic. The museum also contained works by James Turrell and Walter de Maria that, although not as overwhelming as Monets’, were truly experiential and elucidatory. The museum is also home to a restaurant with an outdoor seating area with incredibly stunning views of the Seto Inland Sea.
The next port of call was the Lee Ufan Museum, home to the works of the renowned South Korean minimalist. For me, this was an extremely peaceful space. The sense of natural rhythm is palpable. Ufan uses the natural pace of his own breath to dictate the repetitions within his paintings, and as a result his work feels visceral and perhaps more reflective and introspective than the art housed in Chichu. His work clearly speaks to his knowledge of eastern philosophy and Confucianism, rendering a stark contrast to his European contemporaries.
After the Lee Ufan Museum, I meandered on toward the Art House project in the Honmura area of the island. Many sculptures dotted the coast line, turning my journey into equal parts scavenger hunt for modern art and appreciation of the pieces’ natural setting.
One such sculpture was Kusama’s iconic “Pumpkin” (1994), a six-foot-tall yellow gourd smothered in black polka dots that juts out from a small pier. A true vision of the surreal and avant-garde, it looks like it could easily have been sent down from a neighboring planet. Adding to its otherworldliness is the interplay between its bold colors and the softly changing light that envelops it. Luck was on my side. I had been blessed with a crisp, hazy winter sunshine, which shrouded one side in a dark, mysterious shadow and bathed the other in a strong light, amplifying the contrast of colors tenfold. I could have easily remained to watch it morph with the passing of the day, but more art beckoned me.
The Art House Project is a group of seven properties that have been turned into works of art. They combine traditional craftsmanship with surreal, hyper-modern influences. The houses are dotted along the labyrinthine streets, creating a strong sense of the community that the project helps to sustain. All houses have a strong sense of traditional craftsmanship combined with modern aesthetics, and many focus on light and the passing of time. They force the viewer to accept a change in their usual pace and strongly alter perspective.
The motto of the Benesse Art Site is simply “Well-Being,” a promise it truly delivers. The whole experience of visiting Naoshima was, for me, completely cathartic. I feel it is easy to get into the rhythm of your daily life here. It’s a special thing in itself, yet we often forget to stop and admire the pumpkins.