I’m slowly starting to upload my photos and write about the trips we’ve taken recently. A few days ago, we took a train to Kyoto, then to Okayama, then a bus to Uno on the Seto inland sea, then a ferry to the famous Art Island of Naoshima!.

Visiting Naoshima was Nicole’s idea. She works at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design and is into art stuff. People from the college visited Naoshima a few weeks earlier, so when she and Todd decided to visit us here in Tokyo, she decided she wanted to also go to Naoshima. We decided to tag along.

Naoshima is an island in the Seto inland sea, the two nearest cities are Uno and Takamatsu City. The biggest industry on the island used to be a metal refinery run by Mitsubishi. Then, the Benesse Company, which as far as we could tell is a publishing business, selected the island and commissioned Tadao Ando to build a museum for contemporary art works. Pretty mysterious. The museum prompted guest hotels, a second museum (the Chichu) and a series of “Art House Projects” situated in renovated buildings in a fancy part of Naoshima Island.

As a result, the approach to Naoshima is far less quaint than you might expect after having travelled 7 hours from Tokyo. It is, in fact, rather industrial. Most of the people on the ferry with us did not appear to be art lovers. But the museum has changed the island. Tourism is now a serious endeavor. The local bureau of commerce publishes a map promoting, in addition to the museums, a tour of the Mitsubishi factory, a visit to a workshop where you can make pottery out of slag, and a museum (coming soon!) based on the 007 novel “The Man With The Red Tattoo” by Raymond Benson, which takes place on Naoshima.

The art at the Benesse museum is a pretty mediocre collection, but the museum is great looking. There’s an impressive cement cylindrical room with a ramps winding up the wall and a pointed skylight, but the giant room houses a 9 foot tall slab that flashes neon apercues like “Cry and Die” or “Rage and Live” or “Rage and Die”. Whatever. I was particularly unimpressed with two of the the Richard Long pieces, basically circles on the floor filled with driftwood. The Benesse book on Naoshima has a photo of Long in some kind of safari outfit foraging through the trees for worthy logs. Yeah, right. I liked very much these tiny wooden weeds placed in the seams between some of the concrete blocks, adding a feeling of natural incursion to Ando’s concrete fortress. The exhibition prompted an impassioned debate over dinner over the nature of art.

The next day we headed out for the Art Project Houses. These are fantastic. Essentially, the Benesse people (beneficent leaders!) purchased 200 year old Japanese houses in the Honmura district of the island and gave them to artists to renovate and do stuff with. There are no pictures of it, but Minamidera, a newer project by Tadao Ando and James Turrell is fantastic. The burnt cedar construction has no windows or doors. You go around the back, where a guide leads you into the pitch dark. You’ve been told to sit and not move until you see the light. You wait. You see nothing. Not even the hand in front of your face. Minutes tick by. You’ve been there forever. Then, you think you are hallucinating. You see something flickering, ever so faintly. Suddenly it pops into focus. A purplish rectangle of light. You get up, move towards it. Its a clear as day. Amazing.

Pictures of the other Art House Projects we touristed are on flickr.

Turrell had a few other works in the Chichu museum, which were also great. A favorite is on where you walk up a staircase towards what seems to be a purple screen, then you can step inside it. Its like you’ve walking into a TV. If you turn around, the real world from whence you came now seems orange and fake. Basically, these are experiential sculptures with light. Very cool.

The Chichu Museum is a giant edifice built almost entirely underground, architectural without being monumental, as the tourist literature explained. It really is spectacular, and I’ll link to Todd Lappin’s photos of it when they’re up. The construction is really for three artists: Claude Monet, Walter de Maria, and James Turrell. The rooms are designed specifically for the works, which really shine in the space. Monet’s room displays the art in natural light from above, and de Maria’s huge granite and gold installation benefits particularly from the Chichu display, taking on a church-like quality.

At dinner this second night, there were no arguments over “what is art”. This was for two reasons. First, we’d obviously seen art. Second, we had dinner at a yakiniku* place in town and ended up socializing with some inebriated locals who weren’t into philosophy. Instead, one was the general manager of the aforementioned Mitsubishi plant, and the other was the head of the Naoshima Board of Supervisors. At the end of the night, the Chairman rode off on his moped while the General Manager bowed good night. All in all, a deeply satisfying day.

*grilled meat, a Japanese version of Korean barbeque