I had never heard of Naoshima. Most of the art lovers I know have never heard of Naoshima. When I heard that the ICP trip was going to include a multi-leg, expensive trip to the site as part of its Japan trip, I said, "where?".
Well, there is definitely there there in Naoshima. (For a broader overview, go to http://metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/503/art.asp). It is simply the most remarkable synthesis of art, architecture, and nature I am likely to see. Broadly, one can break down the components of Naoshima into 4 categories: traditional Japanese houses given over to installations, outdoor installations, custom museums, and the hotel/spa/museum combo of Benesse House.
The most amazing one of these for me was the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Museum. One walks up a small hill to enter a museum that is built almost entirely below ground. You enter at ground level at the crest of the hill after walking past Monet-like water lily ponds. These ponds are no accident for one discovers a room of late Monet water lily paintings set in a room that has been lit entirely with deflected daylight. One realizes that you have never seen paintings like these in natural light unless you are a billionaire collector. They hardly seemed real. But what made this place unforgettable was the synthesis of the architecture to the art of James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Mr Ando had created spaces in this maze-like cavern specifically to house and show these specific works. I've never been in a structure that was built to show half a dozen art works that are permanent and never meant to be rotated. It's a kind of commitment that I found awe-inspiring.
At every turn, Mr. Ando found a way to show you the art in some kind of optimal view, give you a feeling of spaciousness and contact with nature, and at the same time utterly controlling every view and angle. It's an experiential orgy. The building is built in such a way that there is no clear plumb line. You walk up or down a set of stairs and feel yourself to be on level ground, yet every thing you see tells your mind that the real world could be canted this way or that. You know which way is up since there are abundant sky views cut into the structure (including a prayer inspiring room for a Turrell sky painting), but other than that you are in M.C. Escher territory.
There is some debate about whether the architecture is the real star; whether the building so overshadows the art, that one only sees the building. For me this was not the case. I was stunned at how integrated the building and art were. I couldn't imagine one without the other. They seemed perfectly balanced. I've often said that DIA Foundation in Beacon, NY is the perfect place to see certain art. If you don't enjoy Sandback and Serra at DIA, then these artists will probably never speak to you. I felt the same way here. Turrell and de Maria will never have stronger advocates than the experience of this place. It shows their art to best possible effect and even makes it more than you thought it was.
There is so much more to report on about Naoshima, but I'll cut it a bit short here. I could fuss about the hotel rooms, I could extol the beauty of the George Ricky outdoor installations, I could swoon over the Miyajima and Turrell japanese house installations, and I could testify about the Hiroshi Sugimoto temple construction. But I won't. Naoshima is there to be seen and lived in. Describing it diminishes it somehow. It is a place art lovers should really try to just go to. It's a lot of work and bother, and it's not cheap, but it's a place like no other. In an art world that is always under threat of homogenization and global blandness, it's great to see a place that celebrates its sui generis status while being a forum for international art. Check it out.