The word chichu in Japanese means “deep within the ground” and Ando Tadao’s museum building, Chichu Art Museum, is just that. Within Naoshima’s southern hills where salt terraces had once been active, Ando has created a bare concrete wall structure that has been embedded into the ground, with geometrically shaped apertures allowing light to enter specific areas of the building. In this way, the manmade building avoids altering the natural scenery and the views afforded by the Seto Inland Sea, but also takes in abundant light sources, allowing the viewer to experience the liminal boundaries between the inside and the outdoors.
Ando’s building, created in 2004, is an artwork in and of itself, but within its corridors, Chichu Art Museum is the home to permanently installed works by three artists, each of whom showed a keen interest in exploring light, and the spectrum between the natural and the artificial: Claude Monet (1840-1926), represented by a series of his late Water Lily works (created between the years of 1915 and 1926); Walter De Maria (1935-2013), represented by his site-specific installation, Time/Timeless/No Time (2004); and a number of James Turrell’s works.
On the evening that I arrived at Naoshima, I had signed up in advance to experience a special private viewing of Turrell’s Open Sky (2004) at sunset. Prior to the start of the program, I entered Turrell’s Open Sky in the late afternoon. Cool to the touch, the work—encased in marble and plaster and reminiscent of the insides of a ziggurat—opened up to a square of slightly overcast sky that resonated with Ando’s other apertures. I could hear the wind and see its effects on the wisps of cloud passing over the opening, an occasional silhouette of a bird randomly coming into view. On that afternoon, Naoshima’s sky was an opaque shade of smoky grey, tinged with a hint of icy blue.
After the museum was closed to the public, a small group of us was led back into Open Sky around 5:50 p.m. Open Sky’s parameters change with and reflect the seasons; the natural light from the aperture affects the start time and color transitions so that no two Open Sky experiences are the same. Early dusk was upon Naoshima, and the temperatures much cooler than earlier. Snuggled in blankets, silence washed over the room as the participants waited in anticipation, the quiet occasionally punctured by late season crickets calling out in the dusk. LED lights and xenon lamps complementary to the changing colors of the sky were projected within the room in order to make even brighter the shades of the physical sky. At the start of the program, the sky was grey, lit with an intensely blue light. Then, as the light slowly turned an intense shade of emerald green, the sky became concord grape purple. The light next became deep blue, and the sky turned blood red. And so on over a course of 60 minutes. The hallucinatory illusions that the artificial light played on the physical sky were alternately surreal and discombobulating, as well as calming and tranquil. By the time the lights turned from bubble gum pink to a penetrating shade of white, the sky outside was pitch black, as if a velvet blanket had covered the opening. The range of colors the sky turned, and the different textures and opacity were mesmerizing. Walking back through the museum and into the Naoshima night after the program ended, I could not help but feel that something around me had changed, even though nothing had, and my Turrellian experience had only been temporary.
Special thanks to Mitsue Nagase of Benesse Holdings, Inc. and Yoshino Kawaura of the Fukutake Foundation for their kind assistance.
Earlier this fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea that belongs to Kagawa prefecture, Japan. Measuring about 10 miles in circumference with approximately 3,000 island inhabitants, Naoshima—with its gently rolling hills and sandy coastline of green pine trees—used to be a fishing village back in the day. Then, in the name of modernization and progress during the post-war period of economic growth, refineries were built on Naoshima and a neighboring island, Teshima; soon, toxic emissions and the dumping of industrial waste affected the balance of the ecosystem. In the late 1980s, these islands were apparently but barren wastelands. Enter Soichiro Fukutake of Benesse Holdings, Inc., who sought to bring life back to Naoshima in an attempt to actualize his idea that culture (and its material objects) should and could become effective economic drivers.