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Deborah’s PARALLAXploration in Naoshima, Japan

I love contemporary art. It enables you to see things from different perspectives. It shows you dimensions of life that you might not normally notice. And the best art always awaken in me a desire to create. (Since I’m a designer, that’s a pretty important thing.)

Whenever I travel, my to-do list always includes visiting art museums. It allows me to absorb the culture and history of my destination though the art works on display. For my PARALLAXploraton trip this year, I travelled to a destination that I can only describe as one big art gallery – Naoshima Island in Japan.

The journey from San Diego to Naoshima was very, very long: two flights (10hr +1hr), one ferry ride (1hr) and lots of ground transportation (over 3hrs). The lack of sleep and long travels caught up with me quickly, as I felt exhausted before I even got to the island. Then, just as I arrived, I got sick. If you’ve ever been sick while travelling, you’ll agree that being sick is the worst thing that can happen while you’re traveling. In most cases, it almost makes the journey seem like it wasn’t worthwhile. However, looking back, I can say that my trip to Naoshima (illness and all) was totally worth the visit because I got to visit the best art museum in my life – the island itself.

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Before 1987, Naoshima was a quiet island that had emerged as a source of industrial production due to factories located in the north part of the island. Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder of the Benesse corporation, shared his vision of creating and educational/cultural area of the island with the mayor of Naoshima at that time, Chikatsugu Miyake. His company purchased the south side of the island and his son then slowly transformed it according to his vision. Tadao Ando designed the museums and hotels and eventually art began to spread into areas outside of the southern part of the island.

I was especially amazed by two things on the island. One was the presentation of artworks in the Chichu Art Museum. I’ve visited many galleries and art museums throughout the world, but I’d never seen anything like this. Typical museums don’t have enough room for curators to be especially creative in their presentation of the artwork.

However, Chichu Art Museum is the exact opposite of most museums. It has only eight artworks and devotes a huge amount of space to each one in order to ensure that viewers engage each piece. In the Claude Monet space, viewers have to change into soft white slippers and enter a special room in order to see Chichu’s collection of Monet’s Water Lily paintings. The Monet installation features pure white walls, white marble cubes on the floor, and natural lighting coming into the room around the edges of a white ceiling. The way that the paintings were presented heightened my experience of the art – making me feel like I was seeing the painting through pure white fog. The purity and sheer whiteness of the space made Monet’s colors pop in a way that’s difficult to describe. It easily blew away previous museum experiences and my old notions of what a “good” museum is supposed to do.

The second thing that stands out to me about Naoshima was the Art House Project, which I found in the Honmura residential area of the island. The project takes empty houses and turns the spaces into works of art, weaving in the history and memories of the period when the houses were homes. Most of the Art Houses are blended well within ordinary and residential houses, so the experience is like a fun treasure hunt. I was given a map to navigate the six art houses and each time I found one, I received a stamp on my map.

Each art house was done by an individual artist, so each one has an entirely different feeling. Some were transformed in a crazy way and I thought some of them were a little over the top. Some are just like normal museums, presenting art pieces. Interestingly, visitors cannot anticipate which house gives what experience until they enter. Among them, I most like being in “Minamidera”, the Art House Project designed by Tadao Ando. It featured James Turrell’s work inside: sitting in pitch black and waiting for something to happen flexes a person’s sense in unusual way and certainly provides a different experience than a traditional gallery.

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While I was there, I also participated in the Naoshima Rice Growing Project. The purpose of this project is to bring the tradition of ‘rice cultivation’ back into the daily life of Naoshima. The Rice Growing Project approached the act of growing rice as an art activity as well – after the first crop, they held an exhibition that documented the changes on paddy fields. The rice that the project creates is used for local events.

One rainy morning at the local rice paddy field, I met up with Isao and Mikako – the only people who work at this project as a full-time job. Rain was heavy that morning, so we worked inside for a few hours separating the good quality rice from the rest. They told me about how they started participating in the Rice Growing Project and what they thought about where the project was headed. Mikako thinks that the project is a great way to interact with the local community and that the project adds value to the other art projects on the island. She wanted to convey that this island is not just for tourists. After a lunch of Onigiri, it stopped raining so we went outside and removed weeds from the rice plants. (I was not in good condition at that time, so I had a hard time devoting my energy to the work.) However, the few hours of work I did took a toll quickly – the next day I had back pain. It gave me a deep respect for their passion and for the work that they do everyday.

This PARALLAXploration allowed me widen my perspective of art and creativity. I especially enjoyed my time with Isao, Mikako, and the Rice Growing project. It helped me understand the history and value of Naoshima and put a context around the rest of the island’s extremely artistic culture.

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