Finding the Art Island

A small island’s fame as a destination for art tourists is growing by the day, but the big picture is more complicated.

From the moment the ferry to Naoshima leaves Uno port, the sea-rooted mountainscape unfolds around you. It’s here in the Seto Inland Sea where you can most readily appreciate how Japan is one big mountain range sitting on the ocean floor, with bits here and there poking up above the waves. Even on clear days, the atmosphere sets the distance between you and the surrounding peaks, with close-by islands sharp and vivid, while those further away are delicately blued by successive washes of haze.

Several minutes later, Naoshima dominates the view as you pass along its western side from the north. The Mitsubishi Materials copper-smelting factory blights the northern shore, but this gives way to green hills — you can hear the cicadas! Then, turning into a cove, as the ferry speakers swirl musically to life with an arrival announcement in four languages, you catch your first glimpse of the low, inviting village of Miyanoura, nestled in a valley.

Naoshima: An island of picturesque villages crisscrossed by narrow lanes; densely forested, seemingly untouched mountains; and a collection of museums and installations boasting the likes of Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Yayoi Kusama, to name but a few.

The “Art Island.”

If you have not been to Naoshima, know that the high points of the experience are difficult to overstate.

Take, for example, the Chichu (underground) Art Museum, which was designed by Tadao Ando and opened in 2004. After a brief, winding journey up the mountain, you purchase your tickets in a low, glass-walled building before walking further along the road, up a ramp, and into the mountainside through a concrete tunnel.

Entering Chichu Art Museum. (With the author’s son, “for scale.”)

Inside, you are greeted by a sequence of rooms, voids in the mountain with variously designed openings to the surface. The concrete walls of a three-story-high, triangular courtyard contain a wraparound ramp with a long window at eye level that runs the whole way down, so you can peer into the inner space as you descend. A rough layer of raw, white marble chunks lines the floor of the courtyard, which visitors can walk on. From purely architectural spaces like this, you transition into separate zones permanently dedicated to three artists: Monet, Turrell, and Walter De Maria.

Chichu Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

After donning plastic slippers and shuffling along a smooth floor tiled in ungrouted marble cubes, you enter Monet’s room, a chamber featuring several of the artist’s water-lily oils painted in his later years. The space is dominated by a massive conjoined diptych done in brooding, overcast hues. Other, smaller views on the side walls convey sunnier moments. But even these moods are not fixed, because the paintings are lit solely by indirect daylight filtered carefully from around the ceiling’s perimeter. Subject to the season or the whims of the weather, each visit to these paintings is different. The room is breathtaking for its dynamism, and its evident sincerity.

Chichu Art Museum has drawn its share of praise, and has also been described less favorably as a Bond villain’s hideout and a millionaires’ playground. To this I would add that the museum (as with others on the island) is reminiscent of the fantasy architecture in video games. No two rooms the same, appearing at improbable scales, one after the next, with simple planes and apertures and minimal texture or ornament. Rather than making such impossibilities feel real, Chichu Art Museum pulls you into a virtual space, an unreality where art resides, and the only earthly context is the abstracted sky above.

Outside the bounds of these near-sterile museums, Naoshima is decidedly real. The forest is dense, the insects massive: thumb-sized hornets, golf ball-sized beetles. Multicolored orb-weaver spiders adorn the underside of most awnings. King among them, the dreaded mukade — a type of giant centipede — commonly grows over ten centimeters in length, though 20-centimeter specimens are not unknown; it has a poisonous bite and often makes its way indoors in search of insect prey. Visitors to the island are advised to check their shoes before putting them on, particularly during the spring rainy season.

A large grasshopper on Naoshima.

Wild boars plunder gardens at night. The legendary tanuki, or raccoon dog, is another of Naoshima’s nocturnal wanderers. In the daytime, blue-tailed lizards dart away as you pass by. The island’s network of open gutters and streams host a civilization of small freshwater crabs, who take to the streets and are occasionally pancaked by cars. Feral cats abound.

Yayoi Kusama’s red pumpkin in Miyanoura on Naoshima.

Naoshima’s journey to becoming an international art star began a few decades ago, when a very wealthy man named Soichiro Fukutake took up his father’s comparatively modest cultural investments on the island after the latter’s death. What started as an “international children’s campground” project soon morphed to encompass the realm of art, as the younger Fukutake embarked on an ever more ambitious plan, in partnership with the island’s longtime (1959–1995!) mayor Chikatsugu Miyake and noted self-taught architect Tadao Ando, to turn the island into an art destination for tourists. This plan, after much work and considerable expense, has given Naoshima fame and visitor numbers on a scale almost unheard of in small-town Japan. But a fuller picture of the island’s long history challenges the notion that Naoshima could be re-branded so easily.

Naoshima has had several identities. Like the other inhabited islands among the 3,000 or so dotting the Seto Inland Sea, for centuries Naoshima relied on the abundant fauna and flora in the surrounding waters for its sustenance and economy; fishermen organized into collectives and divvied up the sea into carefully demarcated zones. The port cities where they brought their catch were a notable counterpoint to the tightly controlled inland, farming areas during the feudal Edo Period (1603–1868) — in the ports, different classes mingled and moved with relative freedom.

At the dawn of industrialization in Japan, the Inland Sea region (or Setouchi) quickly transformed, with factories permanently altering much of the coastline. Naoshima and the nearby island of Inujima, both located near the coast of Honshu (Japan’s largest and most populous island), became hosts to new metal refineries. The island refineries extracted copper from imported ore, though Inujima’s factory was shuttered and the island nearly deserted as a result. The factories dotting the sea polluted the waters to such an extent that the Setouchi fishing industry largely collapsed and still has not recovered, despite recent efforts at cleaning up.

Part of the factory campus on the north side of Naoshima.

But Naoshima did not end one identity when it started the next; rather, it is still home to fishermen, as one sees when passing the fish farms just offshore, or smells on a hot night near the fish processing building south of Honmura on Naoshima’s east coast. Every winter, during the slow tourism months, locals of all stripes gather for some extra income preparing and packaging locally-gathered nori, the seaweed commonly associated with rolled sushi.

And unlike Inujima, the Mitsubishi Materials refinery on Naoshima is humming along, having switched from lead to copper as well as to processes — supposedly — subject to far more stringent environmental protocols. Nestled within the huge factory campus are a number of related industries and even separate companies, including gypsum and cement plants and various trades focused on metals and machinery. The steady, high wages from factory jobs have made Naoshima much more affluent than neighboring communities of similar size. Many of the factory workers live on the island in company housing, but others commute from the mainland. These commuters and the constant traffic of large trucks to and from the factories are the primary reasons for the island’s frequent and well-maintained ferries — not the tourists.

The obon dance at the 2018 Naoshima Summer Festival.

Naoshima’s identities live largely in harmony, part of a complex whole that is a source of pride for locals. During this year’s Naoshima Summer Festival (or natsu matsuri), the entire island came together for the traditional obon dance, where factory workers and fishermen and -women slowly paraded around a circle of lanterns alongside museum staff, representatives from the Fukutake Foundation, and members of the island’s growing service sector. The major groups were banded together in matching, color-coded robes, visually signaling the diversity present in Naoshima’s collective consciousness. As they passed the festival’s announcer, she called out all of the groups and many of the individuals by name.

A ferry docked at Miyanoura Port on Naoshima.

What is an art island? Can such a thing really exist? And what is it like to live on one? Naoshima’s interwoven identities defy easy classification — as with anything worth looking at, the closer you get, the more complex the island becomes. Over the next few years, as part of the Art Island project, I will trace the intersection of art, place, and community on Naoshima and neighboring islands in a series of articles like this one. I invite you to follow the story here, and post your comments below.

All photographs by A. D. McCormick unless otherwise noted.

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A. D. McCormick is the director of the Art Island Center on Naoshima.

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A. D. McCormick

A. D. McCormick

A. D. McCormick is the director of the Art Island Center on Naoshima.

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