SAM's Adventures

Secret Japan Revealed

By Gil Appleton BA '62

Travel writers are fond of describing places as “the best-kept secret in (insert destination)” to entice visitors – implying perhaps some form of exclusivity, but usually far from the case. On a recent trip to Japan, I found a place where this cliché came true: the Benesse Art Site, a wondrous collection of art works and buildings scattered among a group of islands at the south end of the Seto (Inland) Sea.

The Art Site is not well known outside Japan. I had heard about it from a group of Australian curators who visited some years ago; noted Australian artists have exhibited in temporary shows at the Site. Benesse was the brainchild of a wealthy Japanese publisher and art collector, Tetsuhiko Fukutake, who in 1985 conceived the idea of establishing a special place to promote culture. The first initiative was a camp for children held on the island, Naoshima, which is now the centrepiece of Benesse. Like many of the islands on the inland sea, Naoshima was in decline, and degraded by years of heavy industry. Fukutake joined forces with the mayor of Naoshima, who shared his dream of a pristine and educational cultural area, and development of the art site began.

Image of Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, one of Naoshima's many outdoor artworks

After a trip from Tokyo involving bullet train, local train and ferry, Naoshima’s port offered our first taste of the island’s outstanding architecture: the airy Marine Station designed by the male-female partnership SANAA (whose winning design for the extension to Sydney’s MCA was controversially shelved). Nearby is a large red pumpkin, visitors’ first experience of Naoshima’s many outdoor artworks.

Most Naoshima buildings are products of another felicitous partnership, between the philanthropist and the great, self-taught Japanese architect Tadao Ando, whom Fukutake commissioned to design both art museums and accommodation. Everything about the buildings testifies to Ando’s passion for simplicity of design and excellence in detail.

Image of Go

The glass staircase leading to Go'o Shrine

On Naoshima there are three places to stay: Oval, a luxury section high on a hill with panoramic views and a cable car to transport guests to other parts of the site; Park, a low-key, elegant building overlooking a beach and many outdoor artworks; and Beach, an attractive weathered timber building with accommodation for groups or families. The rooms in Park, where I stayed, mix simple contemporary elegance with references to traditional Japanese design, notably sliding timber doors reminiscent of rice paper screens. Near Reception, a life-size male sculpture by Anthony Gormley greets guests. In all the accommodation, works of art are sited throughout in areas designed specifically for them.

The first museum to be opened, Benesse House (1992), is built around Fukutake’s own art collection, with work by leading Japanese contemporary artists such as Yukinori Yasuda and Shinro Ohtake, as well as Western “names” such as Hockney, Pollock, Basquiat, Twombly, Richard Long and Jasper Johns and one woman – Jennifer Bartlett. While there are some excellent individual works, it has to be said that the quality is patchy; there is no discernible overarching collection concept. As is often the case in Japan, the excellence of the architecture tends to overshadow the quality of the art. Constructed in Ando’s trademark polished concrete, the building encourages a focus on the artworks while offering glimpses of the surrounding forest and the sea below.

The Chichu Art Museum (opened 2004) is conceptually very different. It is entirely underground as a result of Ando’s desire to avoid obtrusive monumentalism. Only the café permits a view of the outside world. Nevertheless, thanks to light wells, an interior courtyard and subtle lighting, it’s not dark. Chichu houses the work of just three artists: a room of huge Monet water lilies; a cathedral-like space dominated by steps, by Walter de Maria (USA); and a light work by James Turrell (another Turrell work was recently installed at the NGA in Canberra).

Image of Tadao Ando-designed Lee Ufan Museum

Tadao Ando-designed Lee Ufan Museum

The more recent Lee Ufan museum highlights the work of the Korean/Japanese artist. For me, this small, exquisite building sited in a valley is the masterpiece among Ando’s works, many of which I saw on this trip. It combines all his distinctive features in one beautiful, coherent whole. As the brochure says: “The plan, composed of a triangle and a rectangle on the land between the building and the sea, creates a rhythmic development of space in harmony with nature”. And Lee Ufan’s delicate works marry brilliantly with Ando’s architecture.

At various places around the Art Site, often near the sea, on beaches, jetties or headlands, there are outdoor artworks, easily accessible on foot – there are regular shuttle buses to all sites for the less mobile. In the main town, Honmura, the Art House Projects were conceived to revive abandoned houses with site-specific work. Among them are a house with a floor filled with water lit from underneath by tiny, constantly changing coloured lights; and a Turrell/Ando collaboration where visitors enter and sit in total darkness – an eerie experience. Yet another house, patched together from bits and pieces of timber and iron, somehow squeezes in a huge torso modelled on the Statue of Liberty.

The Art Site continues beyond Naoshima. Using local ferries, one can visit another island, Inujima, where the Seirensho art museum (2008) is on the site of a former copper refinery, an industrial heritage site. Within the museum is a remarkable artwork assembled from pieces of the childhood house of the novelist Yukio Mishima. The museum is a kind of homage to Mishima, a controversial figure still admired by many Japanese. On another island, Teshima, the most recently opened museum (October 2010) – the work of architect Ryue Nishizawa – stands on a hill overlooking the sea, surrounded by disused rice terraces restored with the help of local residents.

The stated aim of Benesse is “to create special places by situating modern art and architecture within the nature and the unique culture of the Seto Inland Sea, a landscape with a powerful cultural and historical resonance … We seek to inspire visitors to consider the meaning of Benesse – Living Well … and build(ing) a relationship of mutual growth between art and the region ... in order to make a positive contribution to the local community”. For this visitor at least, these ambitious aims are well on the way to fulfilment.