Part I: Benesse Art Site Naoshima: an Art Island as a Catalyst for Social and Economic Change
December 21, 2014

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.

Yayoi Kusama "Pumpkin" Photo: Shigeo Anzai

Fukutake, who inherited this mission from his late father, took on the task.  Starting with the Naoshima International Camping Ground built in 1989, he then commissioned renowned architect, Tadao Ando, to build the Benesse House in 1992.  Benesse House is a hotel and museum surrounded by and in nature that immerses visitors in an environment filled with contemporary art.  Other projects followed, including the Art House Project begun in 1998, the Chichu Art Museum created in 2004, the Lee Ufan Museum completed in 2010, and others throughout Naoshima and even the surrounding islands.  In revitalizing a community that was suffering both from rapid decrease in numbers and a steep increase in average age, Fukutake believes that art is a catalyst for true social and economic change.

When speaking about his reasons to commission site-specific contemporary art and for bringing it to Naoshima, Fukutake has mentioned in Naoshima: An Art Paradise in Seto Inland that, unlike objects of material culture such as books or music, unique artwork cannot be readily reproduced.  Artists pose questions about the world and society around them through the artistic process of creating singular objects.  The questions that these works pose cannot be readily gleaned and contemplated in a busy urban area where the mundane but complex day-to-day can become overwhelming.  Therefore, Fukutake decided to situate contemporary art and architecture in a natural environment, far away from urban centers.  

Fukutake’s grand experiment appears to be successful indeed.  My own trip began by bullet train to Okayama prefecture, a train to Uno, and then a short commuter ferry ride from Uno Port to Miyanoura Port in Naoshima.  Island inhabitants returning from the mainland on shopping excursions for supplies mingled among art lovers making the sojourn on the ferry.  Amid the peaceful backdrop of islands dotting the horizon, and as the ferry approached Miyanoura Port, I was greeted by one of Naoshima’s hallmark outdoor sculptures, Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin.  Dotted in red and black, this sculpture is big enough that people can walk inside, and take their first memorial shots of their arrival in Naoshima.  Kusama has two iconic and whimsical pumpkins in Naoshima.  Pumpkin (1994), a yellow and black speckled object that is oddly reminiscent of a sea urchin, sits contently at an old pier that juts out to the sea at the southern end of the island.  The shuttle bus driver who picked me up from Miyanoura Port and took me to the Benesse House Park where I was staying mentioned that in honor of Naoshima’s position in the Seto Island Sea, the stem of Red Pumpkin faces Okayama prefecture and the stem of Pumpkin faces Kagawa prefecture.

The lounge of Benesse House Park overlooks an area of natural vegetation and site-specific works, including George Rickey’s Peristyle V (1963-95), and water elements that gently lead into the sea.  Peaceful and contemplative, the building is located on a plateau on the south side of the island that seamlessly integrates itself into its surroundings.  I felt as if I had arrived to a strange place where abstract contemporary artworks had been artificially placed into a natural environment, yet placed in such a way that the art felt a part of the space around it.  The air smelled faintly of the sea, and I could hear the waves gently lapping at the perimeter of the island.  In my lovely hotel room that overlooked the same vista—boats and ferries slowly chugging by islands scattered throughout the horizon, I was greeted with an aquatint etching by James Turrell of First Light, 1989-90, Carn (1989-90), a tantalizing hint of what awaited me at Chichu Art Museum.  My pilgrimage had begun.

References: Naoshima: An Art Paradise in Seto Inland (Naoshima: Setouchi Art no Rakuen, Shinchosha, 2011); press materials from Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

Special thanks to Mitsue Nagase of Benesse Holdings, Inc. and Yoshino Kawaura of the Fukutake Foundation for their kind assistance.

Benesse House Park Photo: Osamu Watanabe