Benesse Art Site Naoshima

13 May 2016

Refusing to play second fiddle to architecture, the island’s artworks spill from the containment of Benesse House, and try out new homes in the wild

Soichiro Fukutake’s desire for change is so great, it has sent ripples from one side of a sea to the other. This story begins with a photo of two men standing in front of the sea in question. Both are middle aged, both wear suits, and both are bespectacled. They are framed by young pines, and long grass straggles over their polished shoes. One wears a pale suit, white shirt, and a striped tie. He holds an architectural plan. The other is older and wears a dark suit. He is pointing to something out of shot. It is 1985. The men are Chikatsugu Miyake, mayor of Naoshima Island at the time, and a new local landowner; Tetsuhiko Fukutake, Soichiro’s father. In the photo, the sea is silvery under a champagne sky. But don’t let it fool you. The factories of Kobe, Ōsaka, and Hiroshima have been pouring their poisons into these waters for decades. The whales don’t come to play here any more. The island itself, too, is a careworn place. As Fukutake and Miyake gesticulate dreams of uniting art, architecture, and nature here, they are well aware all three will require a helping hand.

The Seto Inland Sea looks as though it was created by tearing Shikoku from Honshū, leaving a scattering of crumbs in its wake. Naoshima is one of these crumbs. It nestles in tight to the port of Uno in Honshū, yet is administered from Takamatsu on more distant Shikoku. The island is small, with a population of a scant few thousand in a handful of urban clusters forming a belt around its middle, separating the grey concrete of the refineries in the north from the green of the undeveloped south, where Tetsuhiko bought his swathe of land. Fast forward four years, and Fukutake Senior has gone. His empire of cram schools and textbooks has passed into the hands of his son, who will soon rename it Benesse, from a blend of the Latin bene ‘well’ and esse ‘being’. Soichiro has realised his father’s dream of building an international camp for children with rows of yurts imported from Mongolia. On a hump of grass, like a child’s drawing come to life, a cat perches, four paws neat, on the webbed feet of an upturned frog. The cat has one black eye, one pink, a red nose, orange body, and a blue curl of a tail. The frog is no less garish. The needles of a single evergreen outline them both against the sea, like Our Lady of Guadelupe’s halo. Karel Appel’s Frog and Cat is Soichiro’s first permanent gift to the island.

Soichiro’s ambitions for Naoshima first solidify in the form of three great horseshoe shaped buildings constructed under the watchful eye of Tadao Ando. The super-starchitect is about to become a permanent feature of this island kingdom. His Benesse House opens its doors to guests, of the human and artwork varieties, in the summer of 1992. Its block, circle, and containing wall slosh their way, ankle deep, through the headland, while its ramps, plazas, and vestibules cast flirty looks at hummocks, slopes, and the horizon. Ando’s visions arise with increasing regularity. He designs the Benesse House Oval with its floppy fringe of greenery in 1995, and is, somewhat startlingly, persuaded into a dalliance with building in wood for Benesse House Park 11 years later. Nearly a decade passes before Soichiro finally gets round to spending some of his wealth on a shrine to his architect’s work. Rather than building something new, he chooses to renovate a 200 year old traditional wooden house. Lest the irony be too great, Ando is allowed to fill it with his signature tide of concrete.

Refusing to play second fiddle to architecture, the island’s artworks spill from the containment of Benesse House, and try out new homes in the wild. The aptly named Out of Bounds exhibition also sees the arrival of a new emblem for Naoshima. It splash lands, spotted, ribbed, stalked, and ponderous, onto a concrete jetty jutting out into a bay. Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin is taxi cab yellow by day, and lit up at night. Now the fetters are off, and an ever growing number of site specific artworks frolic with wild abandon amid winding paths and pine thickets. Before long, they are spotted in the backstreets of Naoshima town. They clamber through the windows of empty houses in Honmura District, burst up through the gravel of courtyards, spatter gaily across walls, crawl menacingly down corridors, and bloom joyfully over ceilings. In September 2001, 10 official years of art, architecture, and nature are celebrated with Standard, a spasm of creativity that rocks the island from peak to pier.

Naoshima is catapulted to world class status with Ando’s architectural masterwork in 2004. For his Chichū Art Museum, he captures shafts of sunlight, and plunges them deep into the earth to illuminate the artful emptinesses of James Turrell and Walter de Maria’s giants speechless spheres. In its holiest of holies, surrounded by immaculately uniformed guards, are five of Monet’s Water Lillies, like windows onto some other, brighter world. When the next big wave of art breaks over the island in 2006, Naoshima Standard 2 overflows into the Seto Inland Sea, sending ripples to a disused copper refinery on nearby Inujima, and the ferry ports in Takamatsu and Uno. The waves break on more distant shores in 2010 with the first Setouchi Triennale, an artistic outpouring that deluges not only Naoshima, but also the islands of Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Shodoshima, and Oshima. Three years later, five more islands are caught up in the flood.

Today, Naoshima is transformed: heartbeats resonate through its forests, tributes to Lee Ufan echo down concrete tunnels cut into a quiet valley, an über-kitsch bathhouse screams out I♥︎湯 (I Love YU). Soichiro is still there, somewhere, in the middle of it all, but as art, architecture, and nature collide in pine thickets and pachinko parlours, the ripples keep flowing outwards. This is now the story of artists and architects, locals and visitors, builders and gardeners, bus drivers and shopkeepers, and a sea that is slowly regaining its sparkle.