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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

Naoshima - From Surviving to Thriving (Day 206)

A great day in Naoshima and a fabulous example of how an island has moved from surviving to thriving.

In the 1980s a small fishing island, just 14.22km², had a facelift. From a fairly unknown place, Naoshima is now one of the world’s art and architecture destinations. So how did this come about? The mayor at that time Chikatsuga Miyake met billionaire Soichiro Fukutake, the former head of Benesse Holdings. Between them, they had a vision for the small island, to transform it into “an area that fosters people and culture”. Soichiro was an art lover and chose Naoshima to house his art collection where he wanted to make an impact and share it with the world. His company bought a large chunk of the south side of Naoshima and hired world-famous architect Tadao Ando to design numerous buildings as well as commission a number of site-specific installations by Lee Ufan, James Turrell and Walter de Maria.

So guess where we spent the day today?

We arrived by ferry and hired a couple of bikes (Ok, I admit it, mine was electric) and first on the list was cycling straight over to the other side of the island to go around the Art House Project. Artists have taken empty houses in Honmura and turned the spaces into works of art.

The first one used to be the home of a Dentist, the outside now looks a bit like a junkyard with a mishmash of materials on the walls and floor. As we walked in, the floor had postcards, bits of blue paper and even bank notes covered in glass. One room was jet black with triangular inglenooks and another painted swathes of blue and looked like an artist’s representation of the night sky. Behind the staircase was a tall white statue of liberty – random!

We parked our bikes and walked down a narrow lane of tiny wooden homes to find our next Art House. This was completely different, a typical Japanese room with screens that had been painted. At first I thought it had been haphazardly sprayed with paint, however, the more I looked I could see a soft misty landscape of hills and trees. Subarashī or in English – Wonderful.

We walked back down the lane and met an elderly lady taking her cat for a walk…on a lead! It seemed quite strange until we turned the corner and came across another lady doing the same thing!

The other art houses included one with camellias ranging from white to deep pink strewn on the floor. I thought they were ceramic but instead, they are beautiful wood carvings. Another had a large rectangular pool in a dark room with many LED numbers floating and counting up and down. Tim didn’t realise it was water and dipped his foot in it by accident.

We had spied a cluster of strange giant pearly balls by the quayside. This turned out to be where people park their bikes for the Naoshima Port! Well – this is the strangest bike shed we’ve ever seen. After stopping for a coffee, we walked up some steep steps to a Shrine. I didn’t realise this was one of the Art House Projects until an elderly gentleman asked to stamp my ticket. Leading up to the shrine was a staircase that looked like huge slabs of ice, then we were given a torch and guided to a long dark thin tunnel, which was under the shrine and (spoiler alert) could see the “ice” steps carrying on underground.

Our last stop here was a James Turrell installation inside a wooden building designed by Tadao Ando. We had to queue as only 2 groups of 8 could enter at any one time. Inside it was pitch-black and we had to touch the wall to feel which way to go. Eventually, we were instructed to sit in silence. It took quite some time for the American party to quieten down though – they were very excitable.

After a few minutes, I could see a faint large rectangle in front of me like a cinema screen. Gradually this became clear. We were encouraged to walk around and feel the “screen”. It was, in fact, an empty space, an opening in the wall illuminated by tiny hidden lights. Apparently, these lights were always on, our eyes adjusting to the darkness, however, this evening I have read that the lights are slowly turned on. What to believe?

We cycled south, near the coast to an area where we could not take our bikes any further. A quick photo of one of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkins’, which have become the unofficial mascots for the region, we hopped onto a free bus, past The Benesse House complex and the Lee Ufan Museum. Sadly time constraints meant we had to make a decision what to do and what to leave. I knew we should have stayed here overnight.

Note: If you ever decide to come to Japan, we highly recommend visiting this island and staying for at least two days. Personally, I’d stay for three and relax on the golden sand beaches and stroll around the beautiful island, seeing the art at your leisure.

The bus took us to the Chichu Art Museum, another piece of Ando’s architecture built specifically for certain art installations. Once we had weaved through the cool cement corridors, we entered Walter De Maria’s ‘Time/Timeless/No Time’ a large sphere of polished granite perched on a landing with golden long shapes surrounding it. We then replaced our shoes with slippers and walked into the Claude Monet’s room where 5 large Lily Pad paintings were being displayed against a backdrop of thousands of tiny white stone tiles. Personally, I don’t think these paintings were his best. In my novice eyes, they looked like practice pieces. The Monet paintings I have seen have been so much more detailed, richer in colour and texture.

Lastly, we queued up to see James Turrell’s ‘Open field’. This was very similar to one of his installations at MONA in Tasmania. We walked up some black steps into a large space with curved white walls tinged with blue from hidden lights. It reminds me of films I have watched where a person dies and walks into nothingness before being directed to heaven or hell.

What a fascinating island. There was a real sense of community and it seemed that every local had buy-in and fully supportive of this change to their home. They were all very helpful, guiding the tourists to the next artwork. From a vision of two people, this beautiful island has been transformed from one that was just about surviving to one that is now thriving. Subarashī!

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