The art islands of Japan

This article first appeared on Open Journal on June 1, 2016. Images taken by Mick Ross.

A couple of hours from the city of Okayama – a combined commute by train and ferry – are the remote islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima. Located in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, they are the unlikely home of the Benesse Art Site, a striking facility that melds art and architecture with nature. 


Benesse – derived from the Latin words bene, meaning ‘well’, and esse, ‘to be’ – was born from a meeting held in 1985 between the Chikatsugu Miyake, the then-mayor of Naoshima, and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder of Fukutake Publishing. Both shared a vision to develop the southern side of Naoshima into a place of culture and education. (The island’s north is an industrial base and is home to a Mitsubishi Materials smelter and refinery.)

The island of Teshima.jpg

In a piece titled, ‘The Seto Inland Sea and I – Why I Brought Art to Naoshima’, Tetsuhiko Fukutake wrote about what led him to choose Naoshima as the base of the art site: “I have strongly criticised today’s large cities by stating that ‘modernisation and urbanisation are one and the same’. However, I have no intention of completely disavowing modernisation and urbanisation. It is true that cities give people a feeling of freedom and are attractive spaces in their own right. I have high hopes that Japan will develop more cities that respect each region’s unique history and culture, rather than simply imitating Tokyo.”

“I want to connect these sorts of cities with unique, nature-rich islands through the medium of contemporary art, which bears a message for modern society. In doing so, it is my wish to foster mutual interaction between urban and rural areas, the elderly and the young, men and women, and residents and visitors. By discovering each other’s qualities, I believe that both sides can develop a sound mutual understanding and acceptance.”

The project started with the establishment of the Naoshima International Camping Ground in 1989. Soon after, in July 1992, the Benesse House Museum opened on Naoshima. The integrated hotel/museum was designed by reputed self-taught Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the entry of the grounds marked by prolific Japanese artist/writer Yayoi Kusama’s famous yellow ‘Pumpkin’ (1994).

Teshima Art Museum from above.jpg

The decades following Benesse’s opening have seen it steadily grow and evolve to include a number of art sites across Naoshima, and on the nearby islands of Teshima and Inujima. It also spurred the Setouchi Triennale, where temporary and permanent artworks are showcased across the region. The 2016 Triennale spanned 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea, along with the port towns of Uno and Takamatsu.

Naoshima itself is home to many museums and art sites. Among them is the striking minimalist Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004 and designed by Tadao Ando, much of the building is set underground and houses immense artworks by the likes of Claude Monet and James Turrell. The Art House Project, an ongoing work started in 1998, sees artists create their work in empty homes located around the island’s Honmura district. The interior of the Ando Museum in Honmura, set within a 100-year-old traditional wooden house, is the work of Tadao Ando and explores his work and architecture. The Lee Ufan Museum showcases the paintings and sculptures of artist Lee Ufan (in a space once again designed by Tadao Ando). The colourful I Love Yu Naoshima Bath allows visitors to take a traditional Japanese bath surrounded by the works of artist Shinro Ohtake, which are dotted throughout the building.

I Love Yu Bathhouse Naoshima.jpg

The centrepiece of nearby Teshima’s Benesse offerings is the stunning Teshima Art Musuem. Located on a hill overlooking the sea, the museum is the work of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa. Visitors walk a path through lush greenery before entering the sprawling concrete dome, which is 4.5m tall at its highest point and spans 40m by 60m. It’s a startling, awe-inspiring space where water droplets slowly spring from and move along the floor and two oval openings cut into its roof offer a dramatic view of the nature above and around you.

Other various artworks are found around the island, which is home to some 900 residents, including Teshima Yokoo House, a collaboration between artist Tadanori Yokoo and architect Yuko Nagayama, and the Teshima 8 Million Lab, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. While the smaller island of Inujima, home to around 50 people, has three art sites.

The once sleepy fishing and industrial townships of the art islands have flourished into communities that support and host some of Japan’s most compelling contemporary art. An outcome that supports the Benesse Art Site’s aim to “create signi­ficant spaces by bringing contemporary art and architecture in resonance with the pristine nature of the Seto Inland Sea, a landscape with a rich cultural and historical fabric.”