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Naoshima, Jackson and me

September 18, 2015


© the nomad

    I’ll never forget the day my wife woke up with Jackson Pollock.


     My surprise is that I could have sworn she’d gone to bed with David Hockney.


     Michelle is generous with her affections; especially so when it comes to such pillars of experimental contemporary art. Less than a day on Naoshima Island, on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, and my limitations were becoming embarrassingly obvious.


     We are here on a kind of retreat; two and a bit days in which my wife will indulge her love for contemporary art, I will get my fix of unconventional architecture, and in a very Japanese way, we will combine our passions while barely leaving our room.


     We’d been told of the Benesse Art Site by a friend, whose advice pretty much began and ended at: Go. Enjoy.


     So here we are, having triumphantly managed the first, we are making a spectacular success of the second.


     When it comes to researching holidays, we’re close to world class. Up there, anyway. There can barely have been a room, a rate, a side-trip or a shrine that went unconsidered while planning our Japanese holiday.


     But nothing prepares you for this.


     As recently as the early 1980s, Naoshima was a lumpy and unexceptional 14-square kilometre rock on the Inland Sea, notable mostly for a refinery, and populated largely by the families of those who worked there.


     But Japanese industrialist Tetsuhiko Fukutake had plans. Big plans and with a billionaire’s budget. He would take the unremarkable and make it extraordinary. He would engage an architectural rising star to design a series of galleries which he would fill with the work of some of the world’s greatest contemporary artists.


     He would have that same architect, Pritzker Prize-winner Tadao Ando, design an exquisite series of accommodations which would allow guests to sleep not just near the artworks but in them.


     And he would wait for the world to arrive. He wouldn’t wait long.


     Within a few years the Benesse Art Site had become a place of pilgrimage for people like Michelle (there for the art) and people like me (there for the architecture) and it is beautiful in its vision and in its absurdity.


     We are staying in Benesse House, one of four accommodation options within the site, mostly because it is the one closest to what they call the Museum, but is actually the largest of the galleries. Our room, one of just 10, is just a couple of metres away. If it takes you more than 30 seconds to get there, you’re already lost.


     Technically, it closes at 9.00pm but there was no one there to stop us when Michelle and I went off-piste after a late dinner. It was, in a childishly enjoyable way, our own ‘Night at the Museum.’


     For the next couple of days, we roam the island, walking between some of the galleries, or taking the hotel-provided mini-bus for those further afield.


     Only once do we go our separate ways. The Chichu Art Museum, just a few minutes up a winding road, is another of Ando’s glorious absurdities. Mostly underground, its five main galleries afford only occasional glimpses of sky, which provides the only illumination of the artwork. It is here, in what I have come to see as an island-wide rivalry between art and architecture, that architecture wins. Handsomely.


     Michelle has disappeared to another queue, where she waits patiently for a brief viewing of a selection of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ series.


     I have taken myself off to a quiet corner, where Ando has managed to frame a slice of bright blue Autumn sky. I try to concentrate on my book and I lose. That’s the thing about remarkable architecture, it will always claim your eye.


     This is how we spend our days. She, refilling her heart with the art of her imagination. Me, forever stumbling across glimpses of Ando’s genius. A line here. An angle there.

© the nomad

     On our last night, we walk the few hundred metres down the hill to a restaurant by the water, with views out to the mountains of Shikoku. We used the final few minutes of daylight to wander some of the island’s earliest installations, among them Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dot pumpkin.


     There is nothing joyless about the island’s unofficial motif. Like much of the site, your first reaction is to smile. Your second, if what we saw is any guide, is to take a photograph. The only pumpkin to launch a million selfies.


     Later, in our room, I turn to a volume on Tadao Ando, purchased at the Museum shop. Next to me, Michelle prepares herself for another night with Jackson. Or David. 


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