Cultural Melting Bath
Naoshima is a living art museum, with such works as Cai Guo-Quiant's "Cultural Melting Bath."
Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

Naoshima, Japan: An Island on Exhibit

At Benesse House on Naoshima island, hotel guests sleep among artworks by some of Japan's finest.
At Benesse House on Naoshima island, hotel guests sleep among artworks by some of Japan's finest. (Benesse House)
By Christine Temin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Two delicately modulated shades of gray, separated by the faintest of horizontal lines. That's all the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto needs to define sea and sky.

Fourteen of these icons of minimalism are arranged on an exterior wall of Benesse House Museum on Naoshima, a rocky island in Japan's Inland Sea. Sugimoto accepts that in being exposed to the elements, the photographs will eventually fade into nothingness, while the view they emulate -- the real water, the real horizon line -- will endure. The photographs are distillations of that view, which, in comparison, is positively cluttered, with ferries crossing the water and other islands cropping up here and there.

The 14 photos are called "Time Exposed." The fascination with passing time that prompts Sugimoto to hang his work outdoors is also expressed in the titles of two exhibitions coming soon to Washington museums. "Hiroshi Sugimoto" opens Thursday and runs through May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and "Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History" will be at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery April 1-July 30.

The iconic seascapes will be well represented in the Hirshhorn show. But true fans of Sugimoto, the most celebrated contemporary Japanese photographer to have attained worldwide acclaim in the past 20 years, will also be tempted to make the pilgrimage to Naoshima, where the artist is represented not only by those hushed seascapes, but also by his own version of a Shinto shrine. Adding to Naoshima's appeal is that the architect of both Benesse House and the nearby Chichu Art Museum is Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Tadao Ando, as much a star in his field as Sugimoto is in photography.

For many contemporary art lovers, these two names would be enough incentive to make the trip to Naoshima, about 400 miles southwest of Tokyo. But in addition to the Sugimotos and Andos, the island offers major indoor and outdoor works by A-list artists including James Turrell, Richard Long, Walter De Maria and Cai Guo-Qiang. Cai's seaside work, "Cultural Melting Bath," is an American Jacuzzi set amid totemic limestone rocks from China. You can make a reservation at Benesse House Museum to soak in the Jacuzzi (bathing suits required.) While relaxing, you can contemplate the gnarled anthropomorphic rocks -- and possibly the meaning of life. It's a quintessential Naoshima experience, a meeting of cultures through contemporary art. (It's hard to escape the point that America is represented by a brand name.)

Be forewarned about getting to Naoshima. It's a challenge involving careful coordination of train and ferry schedules; even Japanese people who can read them have been known literally to miss the boat. The middle of the Inland Sea feels like the middle of nowhere. Like the Retretti Art Centre's labyrinth of underground art galleries carved out of bedrock in a remote corner of Finland, or the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary museum on a 340-acre West Texas site that once housed an army fort, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima is deliberately hard to get to -- designed to be that way. But the difficulty makes arrival all the sweeter. (Would you really want to be able to pick up the Holy Grail at Home Depot?) The schlep factor also means you won't encounter many people without a serious interest in contemporary art. Most have serious money, too: Rates at the island's toniest hostelry, Benesse House Museum, start at about $255 a night for a standard double.

You won't encounter many people at all. Benesse House has but 10 guest rooms. An annex, Benesse House Oval, reached by a steep monorail ride not for those afraid of heights, adds another six rooms, larger and more luxurious than those down the hill. In the Oval's courtyard are several site-specific pieces of art involving rocks, water and sky. These upper rooms, with spacious balconies and their own kitchens and living rooms for those in search of complete solitude, feel like a halfway house to heaven.

To meet the growing demand for rooms, another Ando hotel complex, comprising Benesse House Park, with 41 rooms, and Benesse House Beach, with eight, is scheduled to open in late May.

Along the beach are strategically placed artworks, including Yayoi Kusama's oversize "Pumpkin" sculpture, perched at the end of a pier. Benesse literature explains that the black polka dots on this bizarre squash that looks like something from a geneticist's nightmare come from the polka-dot hallucinations Kusama has experienced since childhood.

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The ongoing transformation of Naoshima began 15 years ago, when Japanese businessman and art collector Soichiro Fukutake asked Ando to collaborate on creating a retreat where art and nature would meet and mingle, a traditional aspect of Japanese philosophy expressed in an utterly untraditional way. In order to keep the pristine feeling of this landscape, for instance, Ando virtually buried the Chichu Art Museum, which opened in 2004.

The building is barely visible above ground. You burrow your way into it, through an oblique angular entrance that's an update of the age-old hidden entry to Japanese buildings. Inside, you discover spaces that Ando designed specifically for several works in the Fukutake Foundation's collection. Only three artists are represented here: Turrell, De Maria and, surprisingly, Claude Monet. The "Water Lily" paintings by the latter have no horizon lines, and seeing them in this underground setting is disorienting.

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