Art on the Magic Island: Naoshima, Japan’s best thing you’ve never heard of

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Japan’s best places, I’m increasingly beginning to realize, have a knack for separating you from the pace and flux of the normal, globalized world. This week, I got to experience that all over again with Naoshima. Where Nara distorts your sense of time, Naoshima distorts your sense of place—maybe it’s Japan, maybe it’s California, maybe it’s a little of everything in between, and none of it at the same time.

Naoshima is a small island in between Okayama and Shikoku. For most of its recent history, it was one of those islands which fit the trend of most Japanese towns and outposts, slowly being erased off the map as all the young people and industry moved up into one of Japan’s two epicenters. By the eighties it was a tumbledown fishing village with mostly old people and stray cats.

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But then something rather amazing happened: in the 1980s, the Benesse Coproration, one of the largest education companies in Japan, began funding a revival of the island through art. They began building large spaces and galleries, and (if you build it they will come) artists began flocking to the island to recreate the spaces around them. In a decade, Naoshima was transformed from a quiet fishing village to one of Japan’s most popular spots for the art lover. At the same time, it’s still off the beaten track enough that it will probably never reach Kyoto or Nara-levels of popular, meaning that only those who are genuinely interested will actually go there.

What makes Naoshima different from, say, just any other art gallery in Tokyo, is that the island plays a central role in the process of creation and the interaction with the art. This is most evident in the Art House Project, the island’s highlight, in which seven houses in Honmura village have been transformed into works of large-scale art instillations. On the outside most of these buildings stand unrenovated, leaving them lost to you without a map. Instead, Honmura could be any Japanese town, with its narrow streets, rusting doors, and fishing boats lazily rocking with the surf. This just means that when you actually do discover these places (and some of them are very difficult to actually find), it makes you feel like you’ve just stumbled in on it—fell down the rabbit hole.

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While each project is unique, all of them question the balance of Japan’s past and its modernity, exploring this through a combination of traditional Japanese and modernist tools of artistic expression. In the oldest house turned into an exhibit (reaching back about two hundred years), the traditional heath of the house has been filled in with a black pool and digital clocks. The clocks all flash different times across the water in a shimmering pattern, visually rendering time to be elastic, as uncertain as the water. Other buildings take traditional aspects of Japanese culture and reinterpret them in a modern way. In one building, for example, a traditional Japanese rock garden in the wabisabi style is imposed against a wall of plastic flowers. Another house is designed like that of a Kyoto nobleman’s, with the narrow outer hallway peering out on a carefully manicured garden, then leading towards a wall painting that uses graffiti to reinterpret what a scroll painting can be. Wander up the neighboring forest, meanwhile, and find a Shinto Shrine transformed thanks to a sea of white stones and a glass staircase rising from an underground cave towards the roof.

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When these themes are explored in a sheltered island like this, they take on a different resonance than if they were in the noise of the city. They show the subtle ways in which the rise of modernization (or, specifically Americanization) can pierce even the very remotest parts of Japan. The final house, unlike the rest, has almost been completely destroyed by the artist, with paint sloshed against the walls, newspapers from all around the world stuck to the floor, and a very gaudy, very plastic statue of liberty rising through the two stories of the house, smiling big and flashing a cheap electric firelight. America invades the space. And on an island where nearly everyone has left for the high-tech city, the costs of modernity becomes a pressing, genuine criticism.

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The other notable similarity in all the houses is that they all seek to confuse the viewer, to give them a sense of displacement. This is most often done through the juxtaposition of darkness and light: the black pool with the bright digital numbers floating below, or journeying through the narrow caves under the Shinto shrine only to find the brightly lit glass staircase eating up into the day like a portal (a stairway to heaven). The use of darkness is most striking in the Minamidera house, which places viewers in a (seemingly) pitch black room for fifteen minutes. Nothing changes, but over time your eyes adjust enough so that you can see that the back wall isn’t a wall at all, but opens out onto a field of purple mist. It’s awestriking to realize you weren’t aware of what was really around you.

It’s a scene that could be taken right out of Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, when the protagonist Toru Okada begins to realize the enormous power of the darkness, how the blackness can be the key to so much beyond it. The final few chapters of the book so closely mirror my experience in this room that I feel the exhibit has to be inspired by the book (or, who knows, maybe the book was inspired by the exhibit!) It left me in a state of complete and perfect disorientation, falling through space and time, and by the end I didn’t want to leave—like Toru, I learned there’s something comforting about the dark.

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After seven houses of rabbit-hole-tumbling disorientation, the rest of the island began to pull at me in a similar fashion; ropingly, circling round and making me increasingly feel like it wasn’t of this world. At points I could’ve been wandering through any Japanese forest—Cicadas screeching through the tangled bamboo vines—until I’d find a massive garbage can, or the infamous pumpkins looking out on the pier. The island shocks you out of accepting the ordinary, again and again until you’re not totally sure what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t be.’

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It’s certainly an exception to many different things: a provincial town with international cosmopolitan caretakers, a Japanese town with some very American influences. Farther down the island, for example, its larger art galleries owe a lot to Frank Lloyd Wright, with concrete exteriors broken by great glass vistas, looking out from a collection of palm trees facing the sea that looks much more at home in LA than it does in Japan. It’s everything at once, making it all a part of nowhere. Here there are more traditional modern art museums (‘traditional’ modern art, lol), which might also seem more at home in America. When you’re on the south beach, you can look out on a Japanese city at the edge of Shikoku. Even though it’s only separated by a small bay, it could be the other side of the world—it could be America and we could be Mars from over here.

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That’s why Naoshima is so special. The island itself is an art piece, standing to tell its viewer about what has been happening to Japan since WWII, and also offering (playful) ways of how to counteract that technological push. The exhibition begins when you step onto the island, and as you wander through, you’re interacting with the larger exhibition, so that all the installations, whether the houses the galleries or all the outdoor pieces (especially the infamous giant pumpkins), are not separate pieces but just parts to the greater whole. Modern attractions in Japan are almost never this coherent—they’re usually noisy and multifaceted, leaving you exhausted by their end. Naoshima, on the other hand, is a story you follow through, and even though it’s both very recent and very tucked away in one of the more remote parts of the country, it’s one of my must-see’s for the country.

And then you’re back on the boat again, back on as a mist begins to pull through the ship and veil the island. Okayama’s towers are waiting for you on the other side. You’re back to real life, then. Looks like Naoshima was always bound to be an exception.

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