It was a bit disconcerting, being led to a bench in a pitch-black room and being told to sit there, wait, and let my eyes adjust until I could see. So I sat there for five minutes, maybe ten, worrying I’d be the first person in the history of this room who failed to see anything at all, when I finally made out a faint glow that gradually, ever so slowly, grew into an entire wall of light at the far end of the room. I was amazed I hadn’t seen it before, and when I was told I could get up and touch it, I groped my way across the room, arms outstretched, until I bumped into a rail barrier that prevented me from going any further, leaving me grasping nothing but thin air.
Now this was an art installation with attitude! And it was only the beginning of a day on Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea that’s devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art and architecture that lifts visitors out of the ordinary and propels them on a journey of discovery. As a precursor perhaps of contemporary art to come, Naoshima eschews the confines of the usual museum experiencs: spectators looking passively at paintings on a wall, in favor of installations that provoke thought and demand participation. Known as the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, it offers two striking museums, interactive installations housed in traditional buildings, and outdoor sculptures spread throughout the island in a combination of beauty both natural and manmade.My experience described above took place in Minamidera, one of four commissioned, permanent Art House Projects, which team artists with traditional architecture. Designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, Minamidera is a starkly simple building of blackened cedar (a traditional method for preventing fire and infestation) constructed to house James Turrell’s Backside of the Moon. Kadoya, a 200-year-old farmhouse, contains a darkened room with an installation by Tatsuo Miyajima, who designed a shallow pool with 125 submerged colored numbers that blink on and off at various frequencies, each one representing a human life and controlled by an islander who determines the number’s lifespan. Go’o Jinja is an Edo-era shrine that has been transformed by Hiroshi Sugimoto with the addition of glass stairs and a narrow underground passageway that leads to a traditional tomb-like room. At Kinzo, a 200-year-old house remodeled by Rei Naito, visitors are allowed in individually (by reservation only) at 15-minute intervals so they can appreciate the building’s rebirth as an artwork.
Naoshima’s role as an art mecca began with the 1992 opening of Benesse House, a concrete structure designed by Ando and developed by the Benesse Corporation, an educational company based in Okayama. Perched on a hill with commanding views of the Seto Inland Sea, it contains an exclusive hotel, cafÃŠ, restaurant, and works both inside and out by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others. At Cai Guo-Qiang’s outdoor Cultural Melting Bath, lined with rocks imported from China and boasting excellent Feng Shui, visitors can bathe in herbal waters while taking in the view (bathing suites and reservations required).
Benesse House was joined in 2004 by the Chichu Art Museum, also designed by Ando. Reached via a pathway that skirts a pond and garden reminiscent of Monet’s garden at Giverny, the museum is again concrete, this one with circular passageways and various levels leading to only a few carefully chosen installations that occupy an entire room. In a room designed by Walter De Maria, a huge granite ball on a flight of stairs seems ready to roll at any minute and provides a focal point for gold-leafed bars occupying the church-like space. There are also several more works by Turrell, including Open Sky, set in a roofless courtyard and open for sunset viewings on weekends.But for me, the highlight remains Minamidera, where, you might say, I finally saw the light.