The region offers an impressive image of the contrasts in contemporary Japan, a country where rural tradition meets a penchant for over-industrialization and concrete, where ancestral temples stand alongside cutting-edge technological infrastructure. The Inland Sea, though praised for its gentle climate protected from heavy rains, is having a hard time erasing its industrial past and decades of pollution-related scandals propagated at numerous (now closed) copper mines and plants, leaving behind ravaged landscapes, abandoned cities and countless ruins.
Today, however, three small islets at the heart of the archipelago welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who journey by train and several hours by boat from Tokyo to enjoy a place where art is part of a sublime nature. In Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima stand concrete open-air museums, exhibitions spaces and gardens providing an atmosphere of rare strength and finesse, between construction and rehabilitation.
The founder of this unusual ensemble, Soichiro Fukutake, was born not far from there to a father whose love of art was passed on not only through an inherited collection but also through some land located on the southern part of Teshima. He decided to dedicate this space to visual art, daring to fight the area’s desertification and revitalize the region’s image by launching a vast museum project, with Tadao Ando as one of the main architects, far from the “monstrous metropolises”.
The least one can say, even if you cannot help but see the project as an immense tourist attraction, is that the collection is stunning and grand, entirely integrated to the landscape and the history of the islands it occupies. It includes: the Benesse House Museum –named after Fukutake’s foundation—which has a resort where a few lucky guests can enjoy the impressive collection outside of opening hours; the Chichu Art Museum that literally disappears into the ground, buried in the dirt, exhibiting pieces by Walter de Maria, James Turell and even a collection of Monet’s Nymphéas lit with a special natural-light system. Further on is the Lee Ufan Museum dedicated to the artist, as well as the ruins of an ancient refinery, Hero Dry Cell, housing a piece by Yukinori Yanagi entirely dedicated to writer Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide there.
Finally, since 1998, as part of the Art House Project program, ten additional exhibition spaces were conceived in the traditional buildings in Honmura village. The small fishing village, which was already home to a museum built by Kazuyo Sejima for Rei Nato’s piece Matrix, welcomed artists to create works in the abandoned spaces amidst their homes. In one of the most ancient houses at the center of town, Tatsuo Miyajima installed Sea of Times ’98, co-created with the village inhabitants. Each person could decide on a speed at which their own little LED light timer would count, and then all the counters were placed in a central basin, as a way to immortalize multiple lives. Shinro Ohtake repurposed a dentist’s office into a Museum of Kitsch. The former house for playing Go was transformed by Yoshihiro Suda, who arranged wood carved flowers around a camellia tree that he planted in the courtyard (Three of Spring). Appropriate Proportion is a piece by Hiroshi Sugimoto who imagined a fiber-optic glass staircase connecting the remains of a Shinto temple to a grave mound, signifying “the harmony of birth and death”.
“It is a paradise for the living,” says Soichiro Fukutake. Paradise, perhaps, but he explains: “It is not a holiday destination. It is a place for resisting modern society, a place for exhibiting a new vision of the 21st century. The spectator should sense a tension.”
Cover : Aerial view of Chichu Art Museum. © Benesse Artsite