Constructive chilling on Naoshima
A tiny Japanese island is also a contemporary art idyll.
Naoshima lies like a stepping-stone in the middle of the Inland Sea of Japan. The island has a population of 3,400 – but this figure is considerably augmented every day by the sunglassed hipsters who trail across the island gazing at contemporary art. Naoshima is the home of the Benesse Art Site, a collection of museums and installations that have turned this far-flung destination into a Mecca for art aficionados.
The Benesse Corporation is a giant Japanese concern that owns – among other things – the Berlitz language school. The name of the company derives from the Latin for “living well”, hence the corporation’s desire to plough its profits into cultural projects like Naoshima.
The island’s number one attraction is Benesse House itself, a combined museum and hotel complex designed by Tadao Ando. The main body of the museum is a gallery containing works by, among others, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Jackson Pollock. This is connected by monorail to The Oval, perched like a rocket base on a hillside above. A brisk walk away lie two more Ando structures, known as Park and Beach, which have their own fair share of artworks. The surrounding landscape is dotted with art installations, while in the nearby village of Naoshima – a place of neat, toytown attractiveness – artists have restored a number of old buildings.
In 2004 a second museum, the Chichu Art Museum – also an Ando showcase – opened its doors. It explores “the relationship between people and nature”, which explains the presence of four of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings. There’s also an enchanting work by James Turrell: a white room that literally frames the sky.
Naoshima fits firmly into the “cultural tourism” category, although we’ve also heard it called “constructive chilling”. Hotel guests have the run of the place until 9pm, long after the day-trippers have caught the last ferry home. Not only that, but they have the pleasure of waking in minimalist, Ando-designed rooms that feature genuine works of art.
The complex also features a spa, a café, a lounge bar and a couple of restaurants. Stalking the museum corridors at night in search of dinner is one of the great pleasures of Benesse House. But the experience of staring out to sea beside Yayoi Kasuma’s strangely melancholy pumpkin sculpture also lingers in the mind.