Naoshima: Journey to island of art

By Gail Orgias

The renowned Pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Photo / Gail Orgias
The renowned Pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Photo / Gail Orgias

It's not quite the Holy Grail, but somehow standing at last on the jetty in front of the renowned Pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, we feel the same sense of achievement. It's an oversized 2m orange squash with black polka dots inspired by the polka-dot hallucinations that Kusama has experienced since childhood. The effect is surreal, rather like this place.

The journey to get to Naoshima Island hasn't been easy, involving a careful coordination of train and ferry schedules, but surprisingly, we have had little trouble. Japanese people are only too happy to help if you look lost.

The island is the brainchild of Siochiro Fukutake of the Benesse Corporation, owner of Berlitz International, who wanted to turn Naoshima into a world-class celebration of nature, art and culture. It's an interesting contrast with the fact that the metal refining industry, on which the island economy is based, has destroyed much of the natural environment.

On arrival at the island we are checked into a room in the Park, which opened in 2006, one of the few wooden buildings designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando - think minimal - which overlooks a terrace and garden with the backdrop of the Seto Inland Sea.

With only a short time to see everything, we quickly pick up an exhibit map and walk around some of the outdoor art works while it is still daylight. It's an impressive line-up that includes pieces by Walter de Maria, George Ricky and Shinro Ohtake.

Next day we walk the coastline where there are artworks everywhere, including the "cultural melting pot", a communal outside Jacuzzi surrounded by totemic volcanic stones.

From there we head up the hill to the Chichu Art Museum, not entirely visible from the outside because the architect, Ando again, has designed the building beneath the ground to preserve the landscape and fit in with the hillside site.

We descend through a series of dimly lit passageways where all the walls are tilted at a disorientating 6-degree angle. The selection of work is restrained and impressive: three artworks by Walter de Maria, James Turrell and Claude Monet. The most memorable work is in the Monet Gallery with his 6m long Water Lily painting.

But before we enter an attendant instructs us to take off our shoes and put on a pair of slippers before stepping onto a "carpet" of 700,000 2cm marble cubes. The combination of the filtered light and the lack of distraction makes for a powerful experience.

On our last day we take the bus to view the six Art House projects in Honmura village. Old village houses have been converted into art spaces to show artworks of Japanese and international artists. We walk up the narrow path that zigzags the hillside to view the Go'oh Jinja shrine by Hiroshi Sugimoto. This is where the shrines and temples are mainly sited and the work is a redesign of the original shrine.

We contemplate the raised wooden structure known as the Honden and a wooden canopy that sits over a massive block of granite. But most intriguing are the large rough glass blocks that form a stairway descending into a crypt. If you don't feel claustrophobic, it's possible to enter the crypt at a lower level and travel along a concrete passageway that opens out to a view of the Inland Sea.

And the other outstanding work is Backside of the Moon (1999) by James Turrell, housed in the Minamidera, a large black building of charred cedar wood, again designed by Ando.

It's an unnerving experience to walk into complete darkness and utter silence. But after what seems an interminable length of time, perhaps 15 minutes, a faint purple glow appears to reveal points of light. The artist hopes to recreate the light that exists in dreams - certainly the force of the harsh daylight when you emerge is like an abrupt awakening.

It is well worthwhile having a splurge and staying at least one night in Hotel Benesse House. It's a beautiful hotel but the best part is that you are free to wander the galleries after the visitors have left, getting up close and personal with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Richard Long, Cy Wombly and others.

You can also take a monorail up to the Oval - not for the faint-hearted as it is almost vertical - have a drink at the bar and watch the superb sunset. "Benesse", after all, means to live well.

Checklist

Naoshima Island

* Getting there

* Air New Zealand operates between Auckland and Tokyo-Narita with Pacific Economy fares starting from $2076 per person return. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz

* Take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Okoyama (five hours), the local JR train from Okoyama to Uno Port (one hour) and the ferry from Uno to Honmura Port (20 minutes). There's a shuttle bus service to Benesse House. See www.bh.naoshima-is.co.jp

* Naoshima has no banks and credit cards are not generally used.

* Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years is at City Gallery, Wellington, until February 7, 2010.

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