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Naoshima: Art and Life in Harmony

Traditionally, art and life flowed seamlessly together. To commemorate a historical event, people would carve totem poles or chisel marble statues. To celebrate a graduation or birth, a parent would sew a quilt. In these ways, art was made in response to, and as a part of, everyday life. It’s a familiar story that over time the majority of artists moved away from traditional processes and styles. Their art bypassed the church or public square and headed for the gallery, art space, or the web. As this trend has continued from the twentieth century into the twenty-first, there have always been people who seek to bring art and life back together. During The Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s administration took note of the way Modernism had begun to divorce art from life in the United States. Thus, they implemented the Federal Arts Program as part of the New Deal. The program was described in a 1938 congressional motion as “the engine of a revolution that…radically democratized and decentralized art, rejoining both artist and art to the lives of the people”. More recently, in Chicago in 1993, the organizers of Culture in Action worked to bring public art together with people’s lives with their 18-month community-specific art program. For Culture in Action, eight artist-lead projects took place in disparate communities, both responding to those neighborhoods and situated in them.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Appropriate Proportion, 2002. Go’o Shrine, Naoshima, Japan. (Photo Credit: Valeria Reyes)

One year prior, Soichiro Fukutake, the son of the founder of the Benesse Corporation, a major Japanese publishing company, launched the first phase of a similarly minded project on the tiny Japanese island of Naoshima. Fukutake sees harmony between local history, nature, and art as the path to a new kind of society. “’People talk about Utopia, the afterlife, paradise. I thought, why not create Utopia in reality,” he said during a lecture in March. In the 21 years since the project began, Naoshima, with a population of 3,000 and a circumference of only 10 miles, has become a global contemporary art destination. And it’s far from finished. Over time the project has expanded to neighboring islands Teshima and Inujima, with more in mind for the future.

Walking with friends along the quiet roads from the port to the island’s center, the first artworks I experienced in Naoshima were part of The House Project. In the ongoing project, four abandoned homes, a shrine, and a temple in the sleepy Honmura village have been converted into art sites. Unlike the apartment shows I was familiar with in Chicago, these exhibitions are on permanent display, the earliest one since 1998. Wandering through Honmura’s narrows streets, each place we came across contained its own surprises. In a former dentist’s home, a two-story Statue of Liberty rose up from a glass floor collaged with comic book pages. Nearby, the stairway of a shrine, rendered in glass melted from camera lenses, descended underground. At another home, we stepped through an old doorway into a living room that had been converted into a large, dark shallow pool of water illuminated by small glowing numbers counting from one to nine at various speeds.

A ten-minute bus ride away, we discovered the outdoor sculptures of the western coast. Nine large-scale works were spread between a shop and hotel near the water, the most popular being Pumpkin, an oversized gourd rendered by Yayoi Kusama in her trademark polka-dot style. Further down the coast were nine other sculptures, more spread out and alone in nature. Each corner we turned revealed another piece set against the sea, waiting to be discovered. Encircling and at times entering sculptures in the open air felt relaxed and intimate, like the pieces were ours to explore. Also on the western coast, The Chichu Museum strove for an equally open experience. Though an underground art museum, its skylights and architecture made us forget we were below the earth. The way the geometric courtyards and concrete cutouts filtered the sunlight blended perfectly with the often light-based artworks within. The whole experience felt as if we weren’t just looking at art but moving through it.

Back at The House Project, I experienced James Turrel’s Backside of the Moon, a pitch-black room whose contents only revealed themselves as our pupils dilated. Stumbling with strangers through the near dark towards a light I couldn’t understand filled me with a strong sense of intimacy – both with the piece and the other viewers. I felt it would be my most unfamiliar art experience of the island. However, Naoshima’s bathhouse proved to be the most novel. I ♥ Yu (pronounced “you”, yu is also the Japanese word for hot water) was a flamboyant structure, inside and out. Once there, I removed my clothes, washed, and sank into the pool in the center of the room. Edo era erotic tiles beneath me, a mosaic in front, and a giant elephant atop the wall dividing the men and women’s rooms, I felt totally immersed in art.

Standing inside of Dan Graham’s Cylinder Bisected by Plane. Benesse House Museum, Naoshima, Japan. (Photo Credit: Hiroaki Takachi)

I should note that Naoshima functions more like a large museum than an artists’ colony. The majority of the work is by creatives who live elsewhere like architect Ando Tadao or artist Shinro Ohtake. Still, increased local art and creativity was an inevitable result of the island’s transformation. As my friends and I explored The House Project, we came across eye-catching yarn silhouettes attached to the sides of homes. Over by the port, we escaped the rain in a small, but colorful karaoke bar, its walls crammed with vibrant drawings and photos. The creativity was infectious. Somewhere between the Chichu Museum and the beach sculptures, my friends and I started braiding the grassy wall next to us for fun. As we walked away, the braids remained, just one more novel surprise for someone to discover.

The art on Naoshima does not fill a traditional role in society like a quilt or a totem pole. Yet, it brushes up against everyday life just the same. In transforming Naoshima, Fukutake wanted to create a new way of living. Immersed in the island, I felt that surely this new way of experiencing art was the perfect way to do it.

To learn more about Naoshima, visit their website here.

Chicago Artist At Large is an ongoing series about native Chicago artists working and studying outside of their home town. A native of the Chicago suburbs, I’m currently I am 8 months into a two year period working as a teacher in Amakusa, Japan.

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