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Naoshima – Japan’s art island

Naoshima bath house

Where have empty houses been transformed into perception-altering installations, art museums grow from the natural surrounding and giant pumpkins sit by the sea? On Naoshima, Japan’s art island, where even the bath house (pictured above) is a work of art.

Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan exemplifies the way art can be used to regenerate a community in economic decline. Depopulation and pollution threatened the residents’ livelihoods, when in the late 1980s private investment intervened to revitalise the island. The CEO of publishing corporation, Benesse, worked with the Mayor of Naoshima to drive economic regeneration by displaying his own private collection as well as commissioning site-specific architectural projects and art installations, involving the local community.

Honmura art project

Honmura Fishing Village

Honmura is a small fishing port on Naoshima and home to the Art House Project, a group of abandoned residential buildings and shrines transformed into works of art. Kadoya, the first art house created, features ‘Sea of Time ’98’ by Tatsuo Miyajima comprising LED counters set to different speeds by residents of all ages, illustrating shifting perceptions of time as we grow older.

Charred cedarwood sidings cover many of the buildings adding a beautiful colour and texture to the town, and this renewal of materials is theme of the island as art is created from the decayed and unwanted.

Burnt wood at Honmura art project, Naoshima, Japan.

Go’o Shrine, a reworked Shinto shrine features a glass staircase leading from an underground passway to the worship hall representing heaven and earth.

steps at at temple Honmura art project.

temple at Homura art project

Also built on the site of a shrine, Minamidera contains James Turrell’s “Backside of the Moon”. Visitors are led into the room in complete darkness (we got lost and I sat on somebody…). Then as your eyes adjust to the lack of light, shapes start to appear playing with our modes of perception.

Delica neon sign at Honmura art project, Naoshima.

Haisha (photographed above) was the home and office of a local dentist in a previous life. Rather than demolishing these vacant houses, the artists transformed them into something new, often in collaboration with the people of Honmura. Located in residential areas, these site-specific pieces are embedded into the community. The artist Shinro Ohtake designed this house, using his scrapbook style with a montage of cuttings on the floor and a neon-lit Statue of Liberty simulacrum squashed into one its rooms.

Naoshima Bathhouse – I♥湯 or I love Yu

Refreshing, relaxing and a new cultural experience for me, one of my favourite things to do in Japan was visiting to the sentō or bath house. I♥湯 or I love Yu, the Naoshima bath house, again designed Shinro Ohtake, is a play on words with ‘Yu’ phonetically meaning hot water in Japanese.

I love Yu bathhouse sign

As in Honmura, the art work is placed at the centre of the community and the space of the bath house aims to foster cultural exchange between tourists and locals.  Although this is a more touristy experience than other bath houses in Japan, the interior space is worth experiencing to see this artist’s scrapbook style. And how often do you get the chance to get naked and wash yourself in an art installation?

I love water bathhouse Naoshima.

I love Yu is a cultural collage as you can see in the image below as various tiles from different periods and styles are juxtaposed. A tiled image of a female diver surrounded by jellyfish and an elephant statue look down on bathers, whilst peering down to the bottom of the bath, you can catch glimpses of pop cultural images through the shimmering water. This scrapbook-style adheres to the decay and renewal theme of the island with old fishing boats, a plane cockpit and empty picture frames recontextualised on the outside of the building becoming art rather than junk.

Tiles on the Naoshima bathhouse

Ohtake uses a mix and match postmodern style culminating in the kitsch 1970s influenced female silhouette framing the bath house entrance.

Lady symbol for the Naoshima Bathhouse.

Benesse House Museum 

Architect, Tadao Ando’s vision is integral to the Naoshima Art Project creating the Benesse House Museum and hotel, designed to fit into its surroundings, not just in order to preserve the beauty of the island coast, but also to use the interaction of culture and nature to create art. Interactive works such as Kan Yasuda’s ‘The Secret of the Sky’, allows the viewer to lie on a curved stone seat and gaze upwards with the modern concrete of the building juxtaposed with the blue sky or starry nights.

The Benesse Art Gallery shows works by big names, including Warhol, Rauschenberg and Hockney, but a piece that resonated particularly with me was Yukinori Yanagi’s ‘Ant Farm Project‘. It critiques our discourses of national identity by allowing ants to live in the flags of national states so that they symbolically create patterns without borders. In the cafe, our relationship with television is questioned by Nam June Paik’s ‘Sonatine for Goldfish’, where a goldfish circles and circles a vintage set. Bruce Nauman’s work 100 Live and Die with his trademark neon signs flashes combinations of words about life and death, from tragedies (‘young and die’) to the mundane (‘sleep and live’).

Kusama on Naoshima

After visiting the Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern in London this year and with her work inspiring a fashion collection, I was looking forward to visiting her iconic pumpkin statue.

Kusama's pumpkin with light stream.
When we arrived at our accommodation, I couldn’t believe that we could almost swim up to the yellow and black dotty pumpkin. Kusama’s red and black pumpkin is one of the first things that you see as you arrive and leave Miyanoura port. As in the residential spaces of Honmura and the communal bath house, the viewer is able to get very close to the art works and interact with them.

red and black pumpkin top.

Red and black pumpkin by Kusama at Naoshima.

For more Kusama photos, check out Kusama: seeing and wearing dots, my previous blog post.

Visiting Naoshima

On our stay, we slept in a yurt mere seconds away from the sea. How relaxing to listen to the sound of the waves and watch the natural glow of jellyfish.

Our yurt on Naoshima

You can find out more about visiting Naoshima on Benesse’s website and I would recommend Naoshima Tsutsuji-so Lodge as a place to stay. There are regular buses from Miyanoura port to the Benesse House but it is not actually very far on foot (around 30 minutes) or by cycle.

There is art everywhere on Naoshima, even these little frogs are placed to add colour to an industrial building along the coast road to Honmura.

The architect, Tadao Ando also designed two galleries that we didn’t have time to visit – Chichu Art  Gallery, which is mainly built underground so as not to detract from the natural landscape, and a gallery devoted to the work of Lee Ufan. So we have an excuse (as if we needed it) to return.

Fancy taking a trip to Naoshima now? If you’ve visited already, please share your experiences. Are there any other art islands that you’d recommend visiting?

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I must go there…one day

    September 28, 2012
    • I’d really recommend it and if you go, bear in mind David’s suggestions too (below). I think I’ll spend my lunch break now dreaming of returning 🙂

      September 28, 2012
  2. Very good overview of Naoshima.
    Are you still in the area?
    If yes, I warmly advise you to pay a visit to Teshima and Ogijima too. Each island really has its own culture and identity and they’re all amazing (especially those three for very different reasons)

    September 28, 2012
    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately I’m back in the UK now…We didn’t have enough time in the area but I would love to have seen the islands that you mention. Teshima Art Museum looks amazing! Ogijima looks lovely too and worth visiting. I hope we go back to that area and can explore these other islands.

      Carolyn

      September 28, 2012
      • I hope you get to see them.
        Teshima Art Museum is indeed the most amazing building I know, and the rest of the island is great too, and “lovely” is indeed a qualificative that fits perfectly for Ogijima.
        🙂

        September 29, 2012
  3. Hello! Last year is my first time to visit the island! I didn’t have too much time therefore there were still some museums that i haven’t visited yet. But I definitely will visit the island again! Below is my website showing some pictures taken in Naoshima. http://vidaennippon.blogspot.com/2014/01/art-attraction-island-naoshima.html

    January 13, 2014

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