A High-Tech Ancient Stillness

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Listen to Pico Iyer discussing the ‘art island’- impact of Covid-19 and more, recording by Inés Labarta.

By pushing deep into the future, the stunning “art island” of Naoshima leads you into the best of the Japanese past.

            You’ve surely never seen anything like the Chichu Art Museum, tucked away on the remote, silent island of Naoshima, in Japan’s Inland Sea. You walk along a narrow mountain road – the great blue expanse of the sea on one side of you and, the first time I visited, slopes flooded with the rich scarlets and oranges and russets of late autumn on the other – and come to a cool glass-and-concrete box placed in the middle of an empty parking lot. You buy your ticket, then walk for six or seven minutes up a spotless, deserted driveway, past a garden featuring Monet’s favorite flowers from Giverny, up to a long series of high, grey, enclosing tunnels designed by the maverick architect Tadao Ando. All the workers around you are wearing white and, being Japanese, stand as silently and motionlessly as installations along the corridors. There are few doors or windows to be seen, and you’re not allowed to use ink in the museum.

            You proceed along these industrial spaces for a while – every now and then a dazzling rock garden flashes out beside you – and then come to a set of rooms built underground and illuminated only by natural light. In one of them are five late Monet water lilies, all framed in stark white Italian marble and coaxed out from the background by shaded light from an opening high above. In another is a single 7-foot granite sphere at the center of a huge chamber, installed by the American “land artist” Walter de Maria, surrounded by 27 wooden sculptures covered in gold leaf. Thanks to the light coming into the room, the piece changes every time you walk towards it, around it, implicating you in the act of creation. The only other three galleries are devoted to installations by the contemporary American master of light, James Turrell. In the most remarkable of them, “Open Sky,” you enter a small space, silent as a church, and sit on a pew against one of its four grey walls. Then you look up to where a small rectangular slab has been cut out of the ceiling, to reveal the sky.

            Two black birds suddenly bisect the blue. A fleece of cloud drifts past. The small room, you realize, is always changing, and transfixing. A yellow butterfly appears, and becomes an event.

            Walk out of “Open Sky” and back to Monet around the corner, and you see that the Impressionist is really doing a Turrell: separating out a great rectangle of Nature and watching how it’s transformed by the changing light. Return from Monet back to Turrell, and you see how the blue has softened in the past ten minutes, and the American is showing us, as the Frenchman did, how much Nature is a work of art, if only we can wake up to the fact.

            So many museums offer you something to see; this one, I came to feel, was teaching me how to see. And as I began walking round it on a radiant December day, I realized that nowhere I had seen in my quarter-century of living in Japan had, unexpectedly, taken me deeper into the classic old Japan I sought out when first I moved here. The three very distinctive artists, I realized, all work together (in the Japanese way) so you soon lose a sense of who is who; but each enhances and throws light on the other, so the whole becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. This was not a competition but a choir.

            By framing a piece of Nature, Turrell (like Monet) was doing just what a wooden gateway does in a Japanese garden, giving it shape by imposing sharp limits. And in all the rhyming pieces – as throughout the museum – I was reminded of the classical Japanese principle of emptiness: take nearly everything out of a room and what remains becomes a revelation, everything. “The less there was to see,” as Don De Lillo writes in his mystical novel, Point Omega, of a man at a slowed-down screening of Psycho in a New York gallery, “the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point.”

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            I’m rightly notorious among my friends as the worst person in the world with whom to go to a museum; set me in the Prado or the Met, and I’m instantly stealing towards the café. At the wondrous Art Institute of Chicago, some years ago, I spent two hours in the gift shop and never even made it to the galleries. Yet in Naoshima, I became a stranger to myself. My first stop, within an hour of arriving on the island, was, by chance, the Chichu, and I stayed there till the doors were closing on me (the Monets, as the sun began to fall, becoming as massive and sepulchral as Rothkos, almost black). Next morning I was the first to arrive at the solitary ticket office, and for four hours I just walked back and forth between “Open Sky” and the water lilies and de Maria’s reflecting sphere.

            When I wandered down a grey Ando corridor to the museum’s tiny café – a small room with a single blond-wood bench placed in front of a long horizontal window looking out on the blue sea – I couldn’t tell at first if I was looking at a Monet pond or a Turrell sky.

            I would have stayed all day if I didn’t have other things to do, so alive and transported had I become. And when I walked back along the deserted mountain road to my hotel, Benesse House, twenty minutes away, everything I passed seemed an astonishment. A white heron out on the rocks looked like an installation. The 88 Buddhas a local artist had placed by the side of the road, made out of industrial waste, stopped me in my tracks. The sea itself, the outline of islands in the distance, had become a marvel. I’d walked along the same stretch of road on my arrival, less than 24 hours before, and noticed nothing much at all.

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            The story of how the art island – once known as the “Naoshima Cultural Village” – came into being might almost be a parable about how to turn the old into the very new, the poor into the sumptuous and then the new into the old again. In the early 1980s, Naoshima was just another forgotten island, with three thousand or so people on it, more or less left behind by Japan’s fast-rising new economy. When Donald Richie, the great American writer who lived in Japan for the better part of 66 years, visited in the 1960s, he saw at first (he describes in his classic book, The Inland Sea) nothing but an old man sorting through dried squid, on a “sad little island” so small you can walk to all its sights in an hour.

            But in 1985 Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder of a publishing company in the nearby town of Okayama, joined with the then mayor of Naoshima, Chikatsugu Miyake, and decided that the very neglectedness of the place made it a perfect opportunity, a tabula rasa. They would take the entire southern part of the island and convert it into a cultural and educational centre (the northern part, true to allegory, has been home, since 1918, to a huge Mitsubishi copper refinery, and occasionally, from the hills around the Chichu, you can see its huge chimneys belching smoke into the otherwise cloudless sky).

            Though Fukutake died six months later, his son Soichiro took over the project and, in 1988, invited the self-taught Ando to design, in effect, a whole swatch of its southern half. It was an inspired choice. Fukutake had visited the “Church of the Light” Ando had designed in a small, non-descript building in suburban Osaka. On a typically grey, forbidding wall, the architect had simply cut out one long, thin horizontal strip, and one long, thin vertical. Every morning, when the sun comes up, the two straight openings form a glowing, living cross, and the almost empty slab of concrete becomes an uncanny spiritual illumination.

            Soon Ando was installing 10 Mongolian yurts on a beach in Naoshima, as if to suggest that this outpost of traditional Japan would be a home to the world; you can stay in them, for not very much money, even now. In 1992 he built the Benesse Museum, including ten hotel rooms on its second and third floors, so that guests could wander around the galleries after nightfall, or simply enjoy the museum’s holdings above their beds. Then, in 1995, he added an Annex (now called Oval), which took his futuristic classicism even further: to get to one of the six rooms there, you find a secret door on the second floor of the museum, open it with a special key, ride a private, six-seat monorail to the top of a mountain – and find yourself with a dazzling view of the sea below, and a nearby roof that offers 360-degree views over much of the island, its bays and the winking lights of fishing boats drifting slowly across the water.

            Then, he built Benesse House, a more regular hotel, a few minutes away, with rooms along the beach (Fukutake had long since changed the name of his company to “Benesse,” his phrase for “living well”). Each of the chic structure’s 49 rooms looks out on the sea, and there is original art in every room, as well as along the corridors. Walk to the bathroom and you pass eerie light sculptures, and minimalist photographs of seascapes that take you into a quiet, meditative state of mind.

            The beauty of the idea is that every aspect of the complex comes from the same imagination, which means that all is of a piece. The hole in Oval’s roof echoes and deepens the space in Turrell’s “Open Sky.” And the brilliance of the notion is to realize that two contemporary foreigners, associated with the American Southwest, and a 19th century Frenchman, are all working with the same principles of light and sky and emptiness to create works of reflection more Japanese than many Japanese artists are.

And everywhere you look, as you stroll between Benesse House and the Chichu, you come upon other art: an unworldly glass cube stands alone on a beach; a giant fiber-glass Yayoi Kusama pumpkin adorns a pier; at one point, a Hiroshi Sugimoto series of black-and-white photographs of the horizon – “Time Exposed” – is hung up on the cliffs, so that wind and seaspray and Time itself can have their way with it. Very soon you are losing all sense of what is officially in the museum and outside it, and coming to see everything with the reverent attention you might bring to a canvas on a wall.

This is not a designed city like those famous white elephants Brasilia and Chandigarh. It’s more like the quintessential Japanese traditional meal, in which you are served five tiny, exquisite, seasonally perfect items and each one, consumed slowly and deliberately, sets off detonations inside you.

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True to Ando’s sense of these places as the object of a “pilgrimage” – you take off your shoes to enter the room full of Monets, for example, and walk through a large, darkened, entirely empty antechamber just to get to it – Naoshima is a long way from everywhere. I live in Nara, which looks, on the map, very close to the Inland Sea. But still I had to take a bus, a train, another train to Kyoto, a bullet-train to Okayama, then a local train and a ferry and a bus to complete my five-hour journey (those coming from Tokyo can fly to Takamatsu, eight miles from Naoshima, but still need to take an occasional hour-long ferry from there, and then a bus to get to Benesse House). The island is ever more favored by black-clad trendies from New York and Milan – as well as the chic young Japanese art students I see at local Lou Reed concerts – and yet the typical Japanese has never heard of it, and might express little interest in something so far from the go-go-excitement of clamorous modern urban Japan. There are few convenience stores on Naoshima and no video arcades; you can call a taxi, but are reminded, if you do, that there’s only one on the entire island.

            Instead, a 40-minute walk from Benesse House will bring you to a local village, Honmura, that is all old wooden houses, laid out on a grid after a fire in 1791, surrounded by Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The place could not look more like a (rare these days) vision of traditional Japan. But as a series of hyper-contemporary artists have been invited to come in and make installations around the village, an ancient castle town that seemed out of date a generation ago, and a little embarrassed about its antiquity, has been reborn as a haven for the most up-to-date visitors.

            Slip into a centuries-old tatami building in Honmura, and you may find a towering Statue of Liberty bursting through the floor. Go to the local Shinto shrine on the hill and you see an illuminated glass staircase that Hiroshi Sugimoto has constructed underground, as if to link the old to the new and our world to the next. Visit the site of a former Buddhist temple and you’ll come upon another unworldly Ando and Turrell construction. You walk into a room of absolute darkness and, hand against a wall, are led towards a bench, on which to sit. For eight or ten minutes you stare into the distance and make out nothing. Then slowly, very slowly, you realize that the space is not empty, after all; a cool blue rectangle is pulsing against the wall at the other end. It takes time and stillness and attention, Turrell is suggesting, to (quite literally) see the light.

And just as the works in the Chichu are changing with every hour of the day – following the organic rhythms of Nature more than the more static declarations of Art – so the whole island is perpetually in development, as if to invite a closer and another view. In 2010 a new Ando structure came up in a field to house the Lee Ufan Museum, featuring minimalist rock-and-light works by a Korean-born Japanese artist (with spaces, characteristically, called “Shadow Room,” “Silence Room” and “Meditation Room”). That same year, the Setouchi Triennale was inaugurated to invite international artists to come, every three years, to set up installations in Naoshima, and on eleven other islands across the Inland Sea, and two port towns. A whole large region is being made new with the Pygmalion eye of art.

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            When first I began walking through the Chichu, I’ll confess, a part of me was unnerved; the whole experience seemed a little too controlling, too unsparing and self-conscious, even fascistic. All choices are eliminated, and all openings erased; it’s easy to feel as if there’s no escape from the mind of Tadao Ando. In certain rooms only one person is allowed to enter at a time. “You feel like you’re in a laboratory,” said a lawyer from Melbourne, as we watched white-clad women disappearing down the long, steel-grey corridors, as if to the Starship Enterprise’s control room.

            But after a while I came to see that this sort of immaculate selection was, in fact, what made the place so special; by surrendering a part of yourself, you open up much more. Indeed, the place helped to explain all Japan and the heart of Japan’s pragmatic perfectionism, which can seem inflexible and rule-bound to many an outsider until she finds the freedom within that. The effect is like that of stepping out of a clangorous city street and into a silent meditation room. The only time I’d ever felt this kind of intimacy – and luxuriousness – was when I stayed in the super-lavish 17th century Tawaraya ryokan, or traditional inn, in Kyoto.

            Indeed, when I made it to the Benesse House Museum at last, and came upon a stunning collection of modern art – a Warhol, a Hockney and a Rauschenberg hung in a single small room – my first response was disappointment. Each of the works was striking, but each took me into a completely different world from the others. I started thinking about which one was my “favorite” and I lost any sense of whether I was in Santa Monica or Zurich. It was like hearing several loud, distinctive voices all shouting at once.

            In the Chichu, by comparison, each work becomes part of the others and disappears into a whole. As the afternoon began to wane, tubes of light appeared along Ando’s grey, cold corridors and in one place produced a great field of light.

            Every now and then, it’s true, I was reminded that architectural conceits are sometimes made to be seen and not lived in. My first morning in Benesse House, I found the nozzle in my shower so ingeniously contrived that I wrestled with it for several minutes before inadvertently spraying the entire room with a kind of rainforest effect. When I moved to Oval, I had to call the front desk (four minutes away by monorail) just to find out how to open the door to my terrace – and, having succeeded at last, realized it would be no easy thing now to close it.

            But when I went to dinner that evening, I walked past 15,000 blue glass cubes – a newly installed artwork – that gave me back a shivery reflection of myself. Even I had become a museum-piece! And when, my last night on Naoshima, I climbed up to the roof above Oval, I realized I hadn’t felt so calm, so opened out, so quietly ecstatic in years. Indeed, I wondered if I’d ever been in Japan before.

The next morning – inspired by the island’s sense of attention – I hurried out before dawn to see how the rising sun would set off golden reflections on two great de Maria spheres placed inside a custom-built Ando underground structure on the beach. The whole event became so exciting I almost missed the characteristically tasteful and impeccable breakfast served in the Museum. By then I couldn’t have told you if I was in the future or the past; I knew only that I’d found at last the Japan of stillness, clarity and perfection that can hide within the most everyday, and super-contemporary, of details.

Pico Iyer

About Pico Iyer

Pico IYER is the author of fifteen books, translated into twenty-three languages. In 2019 he brought out two books on Japan, where he's been based for thirty-two years, Autumn Light and A Beginner's Guide to Japan. These supplement the book he wrote after his first year there, in 1988, The Lady and the Monk.

Pico IYER is the author of fifteen books, translated into twenty-three languages. In 2019 he brought out two books on Japan, where he's been based for thirty-two years, Autumn Light and A Beginner's Guide to Japan. These supplement the book he wrote after his first year there, in 1988, The Lady and the Monk.

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