The island of inspiration

Visitors to Naoshima, a small island off the south coast of Japan, are surrounded by art. You can even spend the night in one of its galleries

I’m standing in a hut in pitch darkness and a man is trying to tell me what to do. In Japanese. This is something of a problem, as I don’t speak the language, and he clearly doesn’t speak English. As he gently presses on my shoulders, I attempt to take a seat and promptly sit on someone’s lap. Whispered apologies and slightly hysterical, hushed giggles ensue before I find a space on the bench and then quiet falls. As we continue to sit there in the darkness, a faint glow begins to shine gently. It’s like the dawn of sight, and it’s all part of the masterplan. In James Turrell’s Minamidera, the perception of light is a matter of careful design. And in an age when ‘experience’ has become the focal point of so many advertising, branding and marketing campaigns, here the experience is all there is.

A modern art mecca
Light plays an important role in many of the galleries and installations on Naoshima, a small island off the south coast of Japan that in recent years has become something of a modern art mecca. Three galleries feature works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria and Lee Ufan. The buildings were designed by Tadao Ando, the self-taught Japanese architect who predominantly uses cast-in-place concrete, with steel, wood and glass, in his structures. On Naoshima, light is his fifth element.

On my visit, the blue sky and puffy white clouds of Japanese high summer created a compelling, ever-changing frame for the gorgeous artworks on display. Sometimes it’s front and centre, as in Open Sky, another Turrell piece on show at the Chichu Art Museum, where visitors sit on a bench built around the edge of an outdoor stone room and stare up at the sky. At other times, the use of light is more subtle. Five Claude Monet paintings, on permanent loan from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, are exhibited in purely natural light, a curious contrast with the more conventional experience of intricately lit museums. Outside, the garden features the same water lillies as painted by Monet. Watching the light move across the centrepiece of Walter de Maria’s piece, Time/Timeless/No Time, a giant black ball which reflects the visitor has a strangely calming effect. The influence of nature is present throughout every step that visitors take through the rooms and corridors of the museums, providing a consistently fresh view of art and architecture, creativity and design. All told, it’s an overwhelming visual experience.

The reinvention of Naoshima has been underwritten by the Japanese Benesse Corporation, ‘benesse’ meaning to ‘live well’. The public company, founded in 1955 as an educational publisher, opened Benesse House in 1992. This museum houses works by a plethora of modern artists, including both site-specific pieces and a small collection of abstract expressionist works by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. It’s also a hotel, so the few guests willing to fork out upward of £250 a night get to do their very best Ben Stiller impression and spend the night in the museum.

It was worth every penny. From my room, I could gaze down into the outdoor gallery featuring photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto even as I stared out across the Seto Inland Sea.

The pumpkin icon
Helpfully, staying at the museum also means free transport around the small but hilly island, and there’s much more to Naoshima than the three main galleries. Outdoor installations are dotted throughout the landscape, including Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin sculpture, which has become the island’s unofficial icon, and Cai Guo Qiang’s outdoor jacuzzi, which hotel guests can actually use.

Meanwhile, Turrell’s Minamidera is part of the Art House Project, located in the sleepy village of Honmura. Here, curators gave old houses to artists to do with what they would. Not all are entirely successful: Yoshihiro Suda’s installation Gokaisho is so quiet as to be practically non-existent, while Shinro Ohtake’s conversion of a house into a crazy physical collage, complete with a replica Statue of Liberty punching her way through one of the floors, is more zany than zen. But Tatsuo Miyajima’s digital installations are poignant 2   3 and poetic and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o Shrine uses sunshine to confound viewers’ expectations. In Honmura, the very act of wandering about becomes an artistic endeavour. When I found myself taking a photograph of an electric meter I was suddenly finding indescribably beautiful, I knew it was time for a nap.

Go and live
It’s not easy to get to Naoshima. It’s an hour’s train journey from Okayama, itself about four hours on the Shinkansen ‘bullet’ train from Tokyo and then there’s the ferry ride over from the drab port of Uno. And nothing about the trip is cheap, with every different gallery and museum requiring another hefty entrance fee. But it’s a magical experience. In an age where we’re all in a pellmell race to capture and bottle every ephemeral moment before dashing on to conquer the next, Benesse compels visitors to Naoshima to slow down and take a breath. There are no subliminal marketing messages; indeed, photography is strictly prohibited at most of the sites. As such, the pressure’s off. Instead, visitors are reminded to look and, more importantly, to see.

One of my favourite moments during my two-day trip occurred late at night in Benesse House, as I sat staring at Bruce Nauman’s 1984 piece, 100 Live and Die. In it, brightly coloured neon phrases flash up individually, advising viewers to ‘kiss and die’, ‘sleep and die’, or ‘sing and live’ or ‘laugh and live’. Every six minutes, all 100 orders light up simultaneously, in a dramatic moment of visual hyperbole. As I got up to head to bed, I waited for just one more phrase to flash up. ‘Go and live’, Nauman told me. I couldn’t have hoped for a better takeaway message.

Helen Walters is a contributing editor to Creative Review.

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