Naoshima Island: Embracing Encounters

by Julia Blasius

Two rectangular steel slabs lean precariously against each other’s inner edge, a boulder sits positioned about ten feet from either face. A thick rod of curved steel lies perched on a rock like a wet feather. Closer to the entrance, a hexagonal cement beam protrudes out of the ground. Beside it are encroaching trees from the surrounding forest, behind them another large boulder, to the right a slab of steel in company with the beam soaring into the sky. This is the entrance to the Lee Ufan Museum on Naoshima Island.

Nicknamed “Ando Island” or “Art Island,” Naoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea whose evolution as an island turned art project began in 1987. In collaboration with Chikatsugu Miyake, then mayor of Naoshima, Soichiro Fukutake, founder of Benesse Holdings, Inc., sought to create an immaculate educational and cultural environment. They embraced Pritzker-Prize winning Tadao Ando whose conceptual thread for the project became the “coexistence of nature, art, and architecture.” Out of Bounds (1996) the first outdoor exhibition, emphasized the dynamic vitality of environment and art, forging Naoshima’s path toward including more site specific work. Tadao Ando continued to produce four architectural structures on Naoshima, as well as one other on Teshima island.

Ando’s structures breathe apace with the atmosphere here. Adhering to his Japanese brutalist style, industrial roots are softened by spontaneous plant growth, gentle breezes, the amplified calls of birds, and sunlight. His designs are visually uncomplicated in their material honesty--cement, steel, glass, light, and space. Intricate clefts and cutouts guide light into these forms that seek to tuck themselves away.

The Chichu Art Museum is most exemplary of Ando’s intention for “coexistence.” Completed in 2004, the complex is underground, thus avoiding an architectural image except for the aerial view of basic shapes -- a triangle, 3 squares, and 3 rectangles. These shapes lay flush with the land’s surface. One of these holes in the ground houses a group of Monet’s Water Lily paintings. Floating in this heavenly space, a divine light floods the round-edged room, illuminating each painting with their original truth. James Turrell’s Open Field (2000) begins with steps into a blue-toned room, orange hues suddenly appearing behind (though they were always there), creating the sensation of looking into a softly humming white-violet void. Walking toward this tumescent glow the floor marginally descends, seemingly dropping off into nothingness. A small voice advises the body nervously, proceeding like a gnat to an LED porchlight. As is characteristic of his work, Turrell augments full body sensory relation to space via the effects of light, hue, and dimension. At Chichu, this space is the Earth.

Ando went on to construct the Lee Ufan Museum in collaboration with Ufan in 2010. Lee Ufan, an artist and prominent figure of the Mono-ha movement uses industrial and natural materials including metal, glass, rocks, and dirt. In defiance to Modernism, Ufan emphasizes the relationality of raw materials with one another in space. His works are neither here nor there, exerting “beingness” in their realm of incompleteness. This Heideggerian “beingness” transposes us to this realm, where every particle of the work is present and meditating.


The six enclosures begin with a ceiling-less hallway that places you at the corner of the first space. Existing half outdoors and half in, eyes dilate instantly at the sight of a large rock at the far end of the triangular chamber positioned off-center to a large metal slab laying flat, one corner bent upwards as though peeling on some imperceivable continuum. Entitled Relatum - A Signal (2010), this room Correspondence Place echoes with birdsong.

Among the remaining indoor rooms, Ufan’s well-known rhythmic brushstroke paintings; an installation of glass atop cut steel, holding a square reflection of blue from the skylight above; a reverse video piece of the Seto Inland Sea waves; and a room of single, light gray brushstrokes lit naturally. Ufan’s works immediately bring us to meet them, demanding an utmost presence. Waves crashing in reverse, a reminder of the ocean surround; the reflection of the sky, a gesture intimating the proximity of sky -- Ufan and Ando seek to conceive encounter.

When you leave, you leave the way you came. Perhaps you notice that the shadow line has moved, there is a little less sun since you first arrived, and perhaps you sit to watch this line continue to float like a figure, until it is gone. It is only now that you realize it may be time to leave.

Joel CampoComment