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The art islands

Nothing short of extraordinary, a paradise for contemporary art lovers exists just off the coast of Okayama. Its name is Benesse Art Site and everybody should beg a visit once in a lifetime.

by the Nanban Team

1985 is a capital date for the small archipelago off the coast of Okayama, formed by the islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima.

It’s in 1985 that Tetsuhiko Fukutake, Japanese entrepreneur and patron, gave a concrete start to a cultural project that would have completely changed its fate, turning those islands into one of the most spectacular experiment of contamination between art, nature and landscape.

In a quarter of a century, starting from a children’s camp, the three islands have become a center for the research of well-being based on contemplation and enjoyment of works of modern and contemporary art, scattered in open air and in different structures, some of which designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

NAOSHIMA

Disembarking at Naoshima’s port visitors are greeted by a light canopy designed by famous Japanese architectural firm SANAA and by a small playground with works by Yayoi Kusama, who also stands along the pier jutting from the beach into the sea with her signature giant polka dots pumpkin.

The island hosts some of the most important structures of the complex, called Benesse Art Site, all drawn by Ando’s hand: the first encounter is with the Benesse House Museum, a museum within a hotel (and viceversa) with works - amongst others - by Richard Long, Alberto Giacometti, Dan Flavin, as well as Japanese artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shinro Ohtake. It is undoubtedly the ideal place to stay on the island (also because you can wander the halls even after closing time), maybe in the rooms detached on top of the hill, the so called Oval, six rooms built around a black oval pool; but, for those seeking more affordable solutions, there are ten Mongolian yurts for a few tens of euro per night just a few minutes from a cosy beach.

Moving on board of electric bikes available, you can easily reach the Chichu Art Museum, with spectacular site-specific works of Walter De Maria and James Turrell, besides the exciting display of five paintings of lotus flowers’ series by Claude Monet, to host which a special immaculate room covered on the floor with Carrara marble tiles has been built, in order to better integrate the paintings with the context, recalling natural elements, together with the reconstruction of the Japanese garden made by the painter for his house in Giverny.

Also on the island is a huge space entirely dedicated to the Korean artist Lee Ufan, in a partially subterranean structure that evokes an intimate and meditative atmosphere.

Finally, the island hosts an art project spread, the Art House Project, a work in progress which currently features seven abandoned houses in the district of Honmura transformed themselves into works of art, as into a work of art has been transformed the local communal bath house, the sentō, where an embalmed elephant supersedes the ablutions of visitors, mingled with the inhabitants of the island.

TESHIMA

The highlight of the island is a miraculous work that skillfully blends art and architecture, with lightness and poetry, and is the outcome of a collaboration between Ando and the Japanese artist Rei Naito: a structure shaped like a drop of water in which perpetual and almost invisible fountains draw mercurial water scenarios changing depending on the time of day and the season.

Moreover, there is a further example of transformation of old abandoned houses into works of art, the Teshima Yokoo House, and the remote outpost of the famous work of Christian Boltanski, exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris and at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan in 2010: Les Archives du Cœur.

In a small building at the end of the road, a small building houses the recordings of the heartbeats of thousands of people from all over the world (with the aim of reaching all humanity’s heartbeats) and one of them, chosen by lot, becomes the temporary heart of an installation of light and sound.

INUJIMA

The smallest and most remote of the three (although the closest to Okayama as the crow flies), walkable, Inujima offers more house-museums, retrieved by Japanese architects and artists, and a fascinating museum housed in an abandoned copper refinery where, besides curious tunnel of mirrors, stands a poetic tribute to Yukio Mishima, composed of elements of his house suspended in mid-air.

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