September 29, 2010 15:33

Art in communion with nature in Japan

By Tatyana Franck (translated by Lauren Hasty)

 

What do a museum of antiquities by IM Pei nestled in wooded hills, a contemporary art complex designed by Tadao Ando on an island in the Inland Sea, and a sculpture museum and outdoor contemporary art centre housed on the top floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo have in common? They are all turned towards a dialogue between Nature and Culture...

 

This focus is not new for Japan, it’s even considered to be its specificity on the international art scene. The ability to combine Culture and Nature in such a perfectly organized manner, without neglecting any of the aspects of the two components, is one facet of Japanese culture.

 

Naoshima,  mon amour

In the midst of the Japanese inland sea, only a few hours from Osaka, Naoshima Island has become a haven for contemporary art lovers. In 1987, Soichiro Fukutake, founder of the publishing group Benesse, called on the architect Tadao Ando, with the aim of creating a place where “art, architecture and nature can interact with each other, outside of everyday life". The Benesse Corporation initiated this ambitious project through art projects having the major objective of reviving extraordinary but dormant places by inserting art and architecture on natural sites within the local culture. The mission was accomplished with flying colours, simply and efficiently, and the originality of the success is undeniable.

 

How? Tadao Ando designed a complex, which featured a hotel, The Benesse House, embedded within a multitude of museums and artistic facilities. The hotel even houses its own museum, which boasts one of the largest collections of privately owned contemporary art in Japan.


 

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 1994

 

 

For the most part, the works were designed for the site, but the permanent collection includes older works as well by Bruce Nauman, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Sugimoto Hiroshima.

 

One of the first pleasant surprises, a work by Yanagi Yokinori entitled "The World Flag Ant Farm" (1990) features flags from almost every country in the world, made up of different coloured pigments where a colony of ants built their farm. Weakened by the many communicating passages created by the colony, the flags gradually crumble.



 

Yokinori Yanagi, The world flag ant farm, 1990

 

Cai Guo Qiang, Cultural Melting Bath: Project for Naoshima, 1998

The museum features a hotel, and each of its 16 rooms is filled with interesting works of art. Four room categories are offered, depending on their location on the island, with the most magical being the Oval category, just a few meters from the museum, whose six rooms are connected by monorail to the hotel, and offer a fantastic view of the sea.

 

Monorail going from The Benesse House to Oval

 

Overview of building Oval

 

The other categories include Museum, with rooms located inside the museum near the restaurant; Beach, featuring rooms along the beach and finally Park, located as you can guess, on the park.

 

The Chichu Museum

The other great museum by Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima is the Chichu Art Museum, a concrete structure, whose name means "soil" because it is almost entirely underground. Barely visible from the outside, the underground space is solely apparent thanks to the presence of skylights that, inside, allow natural light to bathe the works.

The museum was built as a setting for a Monet painting, a large canvas of 6 by 2 meters from the Water Lilies series. The collector, who also funded the construction, then decided to add 4 other small paintings by Monet, whose size stress the importance of the main work. The room’s white water lilies differ from those found in Paris’ Musée de l’Orangerie from both the aesthetic and emotional perspectives as one moves through bare concrete corridors, illuminated by skylights, and insulated from the typical distractions and endless queues!

We make our way silently through in our small special slippers on a floor made of tiny white marble squares and then enter a large room with soft bright light and discover, on the back wall, the large painting Water Lilies by Monet, surrounded by the almost religious like silence, spectral light and timeless atmosphere.

 

Only four artists are exposed at the Chichu Museum. Each offers its own dialogue between nature, culture and Light: Monet, James Turrell, Walter De Maria and ... Tadao Ando, who is listed under artist in the presentation of the museum, not only as an architect, because the museum itself is a work of art.

 

Walter de Maria partnered with the architect to build a kind of cathedral of concrete stairs in the centre of which rests on a black sphere surrounded by granite in which you can see the reflection of columns covered in gold leaf on the wall.


Indisputably brilliant when dealing with light, the artist James Turrell has created several installations for Naoshima, one specially designed for The Chichu Museum. Based on an optical illusion, it leads the viewer into another dimension ... photography is prohibited but without regret for the allusion is impossible to capture with a camera!

 

 

Lee Ufan

The third museum, also designed by Tadao Ando, is devoted to the Korean minimalist artist Ufan Lee and will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in 2011 ... It opened its doors in June 2010.

 

Inside, a series of small rooms shelter the installations. Natural light enters through skylights and the experience is powerful. The viewer is invited to think freely and quietly.

 

 

The Setouchi Art Festival

The Ufan Museum's opening coincided with the anxiously awaited première of The Setouchi International Art Festival, which lasted 100 days, and took place on Naoshima, six other nearby islands (Shodoshima, Teshima, Oshima Kingdom Jima Megi Jima Jima Ogi) and the port of Takamatsu, which Fukutake intends to continue as an annual event in order to present new displays of art.

 

One goal of this festival is to revitalize the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. The festival hopes through the work of artists, architects and other employees in association with local people and based on the traditions and histories of these islands, to revitalize and rejuvenate the region.

Even the Japanese ritual of the public bath (onsen) is presented as a work of art. Located just off the port of Miyanoura, I Yu ("hot water" is pronounced "yu" in Japanese) offers a unique way to enjoy the traditional Shinto bathroom. Designed by designer Shinro Ohtake, I Yu is the antithesis of the aesthetic creations by Tadao Ando, offering a mix of kitsch ceramic and images, and presents diverse objects amassed by the artist throughout Japan, including a cockpit aircraft and even a small elephant from an erotic museum. At the entrance you have the choice between a single entry Worth 400 yen or for 1,000 yen you can have a complete kit that includes a bath towel designed by the artist, a soap and shampoo. The new space has been immediately adopted as the new meeting space for social life.

 

The Naoshima's onsen

 

 

Teshima

On the island of Teshima, Olafur Eliasson has creatd a breathtaking installation entitled "Beauty", composed of white sand, which falls in the dark... needless to say this picture does not compare to the real experience.

 

There is also a statue of Mariko Mori, which required the construction of a pond and was inspired by an ancient Celtic legend.

 

 

A small museum was opened in late July, buried deep in the middle of a pine forest in Teshima, which accommodates the Heart Archives installation by Christian Boltanski.

After returning to the surface, in only a few kilometres you will see the historic houses in a village that were recently converted into small spaces to welcome the works of other international artists. Contemplating the numerous art works on the island requires spending long periods of time standing. If you come in the summer, plan your schedule to reserve your visits ahead of time in on the Internet to avoid queuing for hours!

 

The construction of the Teshima Art Museum has also begun and should be nearing completion this fall. The building Teshima, collaboration between architect Ryue Nishizawa and the artist Rei Naito, will be in the form of a drop of water.

 

Practical Information:

 

To go to Naoshima one must take the ferry from Takamatsu or Uno. That's about 20 minutes of travel.

  

If the festival is a success the organizers will consider the long-term project, repeating this fantastic experience every year...

 

Food is a major element of the cultural heritage of Naoshima, and fishing is one of its most important economic activities. The best places to eat are found around the harbour where you can enjoy sushi and yellowtail sashimi as well as and seafood caught nearby, served with a pint of Kirin beer. Do not expect the local population to speak English! You need simply to trust your host for the selection of menus...

 

For something a little different, book a table at Issen, the Benesse Museum restaurant, where the menu features traditional Japanese dishes often prepared with the day's catch. Enjoy a delicious grilled eel admiring while the huge painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the dining room of the museum.

 

The restaurant with the window’s reflection of a sublime Basquiat



Miho Museum


A Japanese millionaire, a genius architect, a mountain carved raw and rebuilt all combined together to form one of the greatest museums in the world, unknown to masses, and only 40 km away from Kyoto.

 

The Japanese millionaire fireball mentioned above, Mrs. Mihoko Koyama, was persuaded by her spiritual guide that "humans have a duty to promote the beauty of the environment and their own aesthetic sensitivity, assuring that beauty has the power to heal the heart of those confronted with hardship ". Not long ago, Barack Obama saluted the memory and héritage of Lady Mihoko Koyama before the Emperor of Japan.

 

The great interpreter of her formidable intuition was the small Chinese man from Canton, the great IM Pei. The Miho Museum was, by his own admission, the most challenging project he had ever undertaken. Completed, in four years, the inauguration was held in November 1997.

 

Hidden in the hills covered with pines, it is without doubt the absolute masterpiece from the architect and designer of the Louvre pyramid.

The building, housing a vast collection of antiquities, is said to have cost nearly $250 million. The guided tour, as well as the constitution of the collection, is full of surprises.

 

As a collector, Mrs. Koyama, who founded the sect Shinji Shumeikai in 1970, followed the example of Mokichi Okada, whose invention of an imitation diamond made his fortune in the late 1910s, thus giving him free rein to develop his taste for art, which he considered "the key to Truth, Virtue and Beauty". Heir to a family of textile manufacturers, Mrs. Koyama began her collection of tea ceremony items in the fifties. In the eighties, she decided to share her treasures with the public and, at the end of the decade, focused her interest on non-Japanese antiques.

 

After an hour-long travel by train and bus from Kyoto, winding along small mountain roads, electric cars greet the visitor on a path paved with marble. The small vehicles are open to the breeze and painted white and driven by smiling young female wearing white gloves.

  

The electric cars are navigated through a long tunnel, which crosses the heart of the mountain.

The tunnel leads to a suspension bridge 120 meters above a wooded ravine, leading visitors to the museum entrance, nestled in a hill. The sudden appearance of the building is quite poetic, and according to the architect, was inspired by a fourth century Chinese tale entitled The Spring of the Peach Blossom, in which a fisherman access Shangri-la, paradise through a hidden cave.

 

 

At the end of the suspension bridge, the visible part of the museum with the silhouette of a curved roof is reminiscent of Shinto temples. The structure is 80% buried in order to preserve the topography of the site. Pei promised the authorities that the hill site would be fully rebuilt "identical" to how it was found, and every tree - some ancient - replanted in the same place.

 

The entry into the huge atrium, of polished stone and glass, offers a new surprise: through the glass, the eye plunges immediately into a stunning landscape of conifers.

 

Japanese objects occupy the galleries of the north wing surrounding a rock garden. But by accepting the challenge of building this museum, Pei suggested to his partner: "The Museum as a shell is important, but its contents should be world class." The south wing contains antiques from China, Korea, India, Central Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle East.

 

Among the masterpieces, the second largest standing Buddha in the world (2m50!) second only to another measuring 2m59, Said Sahri-Bahlol, which resides in the Museum of Peshawar, Pakistan. This statue attests to the time of Alexander the Great in the vast Afghanistan.

 

Two criteria guide the acquisition policy, which was implemented twenty years ago: that the work is one of the highest expressions of culture and that it transmits a rich spiritual content. Among the acquisitions, this beautiful mosaic from Pompei.

 

The spectator is stunned to discover that there are still such masterpieces currently on the art market.

 

 

Open-Air Museum, Hakone

Just south of Tokyo, Hakone is a mountain town near Mount Fuji. The Fujiyama usually stays covered under thick fog and appears only a few days a year. Hopeful viewers must therefore be satisfied with the prints by Maitre Hokusai at the Matsumoto Museum.

 

The little “Swiss” train Hakone-Tozan provides access to the museum of modern sculptures the Hakone Open-Air Museum. It opened in 1969, as the first museum of it’s kind in Japan.

 

The Hakone Open Air Museum has managed to achieve a harmonious balance between nature and art by offering 70,000 m2 of gardens with 120 outdoor sculptures. They are not necessarily the best from each artist but they are remarkably staged in connection with the surrounding mountains.

 

There is a great mix of styles and promenade brings many surprises.

 


Apart from the sculptures, the Hakone Open Air Museum also offers gallery spaces, one of which houses a large collection of sculptures by Henry Moore. There is also a Picasso Pavilion exposing in rotation more than 300 ceramics, paintings, prints and sculptures by Picasso. The collection is embellished with a large number of portraits of Picasso by the American photographer David Douglas Duncan.

 

Wishing to create a pavilion for children, the Hakone Open Air Museum created "Forest of Net" which is an all-wood structure that uses traditional Japanese temple techniques while presenting a futuristic shape resembling a bird's nest. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the museum, a giant net, a hand-knit network of colored nylon rope was installed by the sculptor Horiuti Noriko providing a place for children's recreation.

«  Sensing Nature » Mori Museum

The Mori Art Museum is one of the foremost centres for contemporary art in Tokyo. It is housed atop the Mori Tower, a skyscraper boasting 54 floors, whose founder, Minoru Mori was, during the Japanese property bubble, the richest man in the world.

 

From the 24th July until the 7th of November 2010, the Mori Art Museum presents an exhibition entitled "Sensing Nature" that exposes three Japanese artists and their representations of nature through vast installations.

 

The exhibition is subtitled "Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature". Each artist recreates either a natural phenomenon or physical experience of nature, or even organic perception in urban areas.

 

The first installation is quite spectacular because Tokujin Yoshiokanous shows the snow, or rather a poetic imitation thereof. In the middle of a white room, a large plastic tank 15 meters in length is filled with feathers. At regular intervals, two fans at each end are activated and the feathers take to the air. This beautiful impression of snow gradually falls to the ground as the fans stop and offers a refreshing moment in Tokyo’s hot and humid summer.

 

The installations by Takashi Kuribayashi are less interested in recreating a natural phenomenon and more in its interpretation. In order for the viewer to distinguish the submerged part from the visible part of a Siberian landscape, one enters a room with a low and irregular ceiling, where the artist has added a penguin that dives into icy water, then lifts his head out of water and sees the terrain of the land, representing two natural but distinct (emerged/submerged) worlds.

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