Naoshima: Where Nature and Contemporary Art Become One

Naoshima: Where Nature and Contemporary Art Become One by Ana Brdar

Naoshima is a town composed of a cluster of islands that lies on the rugged coast of south Japan in the Seto Inland Sea of the Kagawa Prefecture. Once a sleepy fishing village with little tourist appeal due to excessive pollution of the waters surrounding it, Naoshima has since transformed into a pilgrimage site for art and architecture lovers alike, but also an attractive destination for inquisitive visitors from Japan and abroad.

The project of turning Naoshima into an art paradise as it exists today began in 1985, at the initiative of two men: then-mayor Chikatsugu Miyake and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, director of Fukutake Publishing and an influential art collector. They had met to discuss the potential of turning Naoshima into a cultural and educational center, an encounter that sparked a series of construction projects, marking the first steps towards island’s rehabilitation. First results were put on display in July 1989 with Naoshima International Camp, an area lined with Mongolian yurts that were used to accommodate people who were looking to experience nature of the Setouchi region. The project was designed by the renowned Osaka architect Tadao Ando while Frog and Cat, sculpted by the Dutch artist Karel Appel, became the first contemporary piece that was part of permanent exhibition in Naoshima. Three years later, Benesse House Museum was opened, a minimalist space that would become the central building of the island’s art complex, operating both as a hotel and exhibition space. In 1995, Ando designed the otherworldly Benesse House Oval, a construction intended to accommodate visitors to the island. Initially, the island hosted contemporary pieces that were brought over from collections and museums all over the world; among these were works by some of the biggest names of contemporary art, like David Hockney and Jasper Johns. However, from mid-1990s onwards, the artists were commissioned to create location-inspired pieces that would be permanently displayed in art spaces across the island. One such initiative was the 1994 “Out of Bounds” exhibition, whose aim was to encapsulate the fusion between contemporary art and nature. The most famous work to come out of this exhibition was Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, which has since become the artistic symbol of Naoshima. Another milestone for the island’s cultural journey was the opening of Chichu Art Museum, a Benesse-funded institution that was also designed by Ando. It houses pieces and installations by celebrated artists such as Walter de Maria and James Turrell, but also impressionist works, namely a painting from Claude Monet’s famous large-scale series “Water Lilies”. A more recent addition to the island was opened in 2010 at the initiative of Tadao Ando and Lee Ufan, a pioneer of Korean minimalist painting. The two collaborated to create a museum entirely dedicated to Ufan’s work.

The island of Naoshima is a large-scale experiment that has demonstrated how extracting art from its traditional confined spaces and placing it instead in an organic, natural landscape can elevate the ritual of observing artwork to whole new heights. With creative projects constantly on the horizon, Naoshima is on its way to become a one-of-a-kind ethereal space whose only purpose is to be fully and selflessly devoted to art.

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