Walking through French Baroque palaces-turned-museums and pushing through crowds at the New York Met is a traditional, storied cultural method of viewing Great Masters hanging in gilded frames on the walls.
Walking into the Monet room at the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan, however, is more like visiting a shrine.
The beaches, mountains and forests of a tiny, half-abandoned fishing island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea unexpectedly contain acclaimed artwork and architecture. Naoshima is an art experiment commissioned by a real-life eccentric billionaire, the head of the Japanese Bennesse Corporation, who gathered a collection of some of the world’s most celebrated modern artist and contracted their museums just as carefully. This summer, I spent a day discovering Naoshima’s art during a Lewis Center for the Arts trip. There are several “museums” on the island – buildings constructed with the specific intent to showcase art, like the popular Chichu Art Museum – as well as numerous outdoor installations, sculpture gardens, art houses, and other art projects. The Chichu Art Museum only features three artists – Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria – but the museum and exhibits necessitate the viewer to interact with the spaces and artwork in novel physical and emotional ways. The number of people who are allowed into the museum at one time is capped, and groups enter in intervals so the experience never feels crowded. The entire trip, from the moment I stepped off the ferry, greeted by Yayoi Kusama’s famous giant yellow polka-dotted Pumpkin, was an immersive experience. On Naoshima, the process of appreciating art is not just the from the perspective of looking at paintings on the walls, but engaging all of your senses, physical and cerebral, to expand our understanding of art and art spaces.
The guiding philosophy of the island, inspired by Japanese minimalism, is ma, meaning the “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts.” While minimalism refers to the physical form and space, ma is the peaceful feeling and quiet reflection arising from the soothing, cool smooth concrete, the softness of natural light, the pauses that invite meditation. Both the architecture and art of a ma-shaped space work to emphasize simplicity, negative space, a reverence for light and nature. Tadao Ando, the architect behind several buildings on Naoshima, is a master of this idea, imbuing simplicity with depth, reflecting, “If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.”
The Chichu Art Museum was designed by the celebrated modernist and minimalist Tadao Ando, one of the most renowned living Japanese architects and winner of the ‘95 Pritzker Prize. The entire museum is crafted from Ando’s signature smooth grey concrete. Tadao Ando has something of a cult following in Japan and amongst modernist enthusiasts and is famous for design that plays with your perspective, drawing on natural elements like water, sunlight, bamboo, river stones, and the use of the natural landscape, and using modest building materials like glass, concrete, steel and wood. While designing the space, Ando commented that “any sacred space,” including museums, “must be related in some way to nature.” The hallways tunnel underground without feeling claustrophobic. The air inside the museum is cool and refreshing, wafting through open window slits and doorways to interior courtyards. The halls are illuminated only with natural light, so the experience changes based on the season and time of day, leading some reviewers to describe his work with romanticized phrases like “the poetry of light.” When I visited, I found walking between the exhibits to be an unscripted journey, as some hallways led to dead ends and others looped back to the same place and M.C. Escher-esque staircases wind back upstairs. One hallway led me to an inner courtyard with a perfectly symmetrical field of bamboo shoots and river pebbles, another to an overlook of the sea. Just steps away from the museum cafe and down a short flight of rocky steps, I found myself overlooking the sea from a 60-foot cliff, alone except for nothing but the sound of ocean waves and bumblebees hovering over bright yellow wildflowers.
Within the Chichu Art Museum, James Turrell’s Open Field (2000) obliges the viewer to experience his piece as a personal, physical journey that reflects on light, space and perspective. After waiting in a short queue, small groups are guided into a windowless, dim room bathed in a surreal orange neon light. A small staircase leads to a large rectangle of blue light on the wall, like the blank screen of a projector powering up. The guide motions for us to walk through the projection, and in amazement, I reach my hand out and find it’s not a flat projection but another narrow, rectangular room. A pervasive, eclectic blue light gives the feeling of being in an optical illusion when I look at my body and the room they appear shadowless, like 2-dimensional shapes. The group is instructed to walk down a gentle slope at its own pace, observing the room and our bodies and the light. When I turned around to walk back out, everything clicked into place with a gasp. The orange room I walked through is glowing in the center of my field of view from the back of the blue room. Suddenly, I am gazing at a square of endless wheaten-gold fields on the horizon, surrounded by an ethereal blue sky expanding towards and encompassing me.
The Chichu Art Museum is fifteen minutes away from the ticket office, leading visitors down a pathway alongside a meticulously maintained water lily pond, a replica of the ones in the gardens of Giverny that endlessly inspired Monet, providing a sort of living, breathing introduction to his work. At the entrance of the Monet room in the Chichu Art Museum, you must wait your turn and then take off your shoes and slip into white slippers. Inside the room, you are inundated by white; the floor, ceiling and walls are pure marble. You are free to wander, stand in awe, and enjoy viewing the large-scale panels on each wall at your own pace from different positions in the room. The tall room glows and shimmers with natural sunlight streaming from above, enhancing the violet and indigo colors of the life-size water lily panels on each wall. The emphasis on the negative space and blank whiteness of the room give visitors the opportunity to view Water Lilies in a new way, the way the museum architecture inspired me to re-think the art museum experience in itself.