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Museum Without Walls in Japan

On a remote Japanese island, an art collection spills out of a Tadao Ando building onto hillsides and docks — and into your hotel room.

Modern art has its pilgrims. We trek to obscure places to view major installations or to see magnificent collections in their entirety. As soon as I could, I went to Bilbao to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. I have driven across the desert to visit the Chinati Foundation, set up by Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas, and I have even dragged myself to Tîrgu Jiu in southern Romania to see Brancusi’s Endless Column, recently restored by the World Monuments Fund. I am currently planning to go to Arizona to visit Roden Crater by the Light and Space artist James Turrell, who has spent more than 20 years transforming a natural volcano, to mind-blowing effect. My most recent such enterprise was a trip to Benesse Island, an art complex on Naoshima island, off Japan’s southern coast, and it was in many ways the most pleasurable so far. The art is fabulous, the setting exquisite. Benesse Island would seem to invite intellectuals on honeymoon, Zen souls in search of inspiration, or passionate idealists ready for a moment’s quiescence.

To get there, you take a train from any southern Japanese city to the Inland Sea and then board the ferry that plies an archipelago known as the “thousand islands.” This is some of the least developed land in Japan; fishermen live in the same way they have lived for hundreds of years — rowing out each morning to try their luck, worshiping at unremarkable, yet somehow lovely shrines (which I could see from the ferry’s deck), hanging out their nets to dry overnight.

After about an hour on the ferry, I reached the island of Naoshima and the village of Honmura. There I was met by a driver from Benesse House, who took me outside the village, through the scrubby landscape. It was hard not to notice, here and there, something strangely anomalous: a gigantic fiberglass pumpkin at the end of a dock, or a forest of carved rocks surrounding a hot tub, or a sort of enormous salad bowl on a brick plinth down by the sea. After we ascended a steep incline, I found myself at a building so cleverly integrated with the landscape that I could have passed by without seeing it. This is Benesse House, the center of the Benesse Island complex, and home to one of the world’s great private art collections.

Tetsuhiko Fukutake, head of Benesse Corp., a large textbook publishing company, fantasized about building a museum where he could share his collection with people who genuinely wanted to experience it — but he did not like crowds and he did not like ostentation. So he came up with the implausible idea of building his museum here, on an island in the Inland Sea. After his death in the mid eighties, his son set up a campground furnished with yurts — which is still in use — and recruited one of Japan’s leading architects, Tadao Ando, to design the museum and to incorporate 10 guest rooms into his scheme. Ando visited in the rain, fell in love with the site, and set to work, half carving and half constructing the building into the face of the island. In 1992, the doors of Benesse House opened, and in 1995, the Annex, with an additional six rooms, was completed.

Benesse Island is not just a museum. It is certainly not just a hotel. It is a synthesis of the two, and that synthesis feels very Japanese. It reminds me, more than anything, of the Buddhist monasteries where, for a small fee, you can stay with the monks to contemplate the world as they do, eating their food and living in graceful seclusion, neither monk nor tourist. The rooms at Benesse Island are not fancy, but they are extremely comfortable and elegant and they have good art in them — in mine hung some signed Keith Haring works on paper. Each room has a wall of glass, so that there seems to be nothing between you and the sea. Meals are served in a dining room that is part of the museum, and there, too, I was surrounded by art. There are always a few striking arrangements of flowers, and more of that amazing view, and the food is excellent and complex: meals of many laboriously crafted components, delicate and flavorful, all served in equally well-crafted ceramic dishes.

Tadao Ando’s museum building is a study in simple geometries weighted against one another. The basic structure is a spiral in poured concrete (which seems to be a muted homage to the Russian Constructivist Tatlin) with a rectilinear wing in rough stone that houses the guest rooms. The whole thing is built into the hillside. To reach the Annex, at the top of the hill, you get into a cable car and are carried on an angle up to a wonder of fountains, a great central pool, and a radial arrangement of rooms. The style throughout is powerful but not grand. Below the museum there are a few exhibition spaces, also by Ando, that house large works of art. It is part of the charm of the place that it’s very hard to tell quite where the museum ends and the natural landscape begins. Wild grasses grow uninterrupted over the roof of the building, and art is displayed partly in the museum, partly in the semi-museum spaces, and partly on the open seashore. Benesse is not a place for boundaries.

The works in the museum are by about two dozen artists, including Jasper Johns (his 1968 White Alphabets), Bruce Nauman (the giant neon 100 Live and Die), and Cy Twombly (a painting that is a gorgeous chalk-like scribble). There are also commissioned pieces by another dozen or so, including Kan Yasuda (meditative giant disks called Secret of the Sky), Jannis Kounellis (a work of rolled lead and driftwood and ceramics, positioned against a window like some industrial obstruction to the view), David Tremlett (wall paintings), and Richard Long (a stone circle on the floor and a painted circle on the wall). In general, there is one work by each artist; taken together, they form a miniature survey of late-20th-century art. My particular favorite is a series of photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto: at a glance, they look like multiple prints of a single image of ocean and sky, but on closer examination they turn out to be rather different. Each has its own mood. They are hung on the terrace of the museum so that if you sit in one of the chairs provided, the horizons of the photos line up with the actual horizon, and the sea you are gazing at lines up with the seas of the photos. The effect is ineffably magical.

Around the museum, scattered in various outdoor spots, are works and installations by Yayoi Kusama (the giant pumpkin), Alexander Calder (a standing fulcrum mobile that shifts with the wind), Dan Graham (Cylinder Bisected by Plane), and others. You can look through the catalogue (available in English and sold at the front desk) and then go on a treasure hunt, but it’s nicer just to walk around, trying to guess who made the various pieces and what they mean, and then look at the catalogue to see if you were right and what you missed. I loved Walter De Maria’s giant reflective globes, in which you can see yourself and the whole of this landscape. And there’s Cai Guo-Qiang’s Cultural Melting Bath, a version of which was shown a few years ago at the Queens Museum of Art: in the early evening, you can lie in a Western-style hot tub filled with medicinal herbs and experience cosmic harmony while you watch the sunset through the filigree shapes of giant scholar’s rocks (the craggy stones Chinese literati once used to remind themselves of the landscape’s rough splendor).

While you have to find the outdoor installations yourself, you are given a guide to the ones in the town of Honmura. A few old houses there, externally very much like all the others, have been restored with special care. Inside you’ll find neither cooking pots nor futons rolled back for the day but, rather, room-sized installations known as the Art House Projects. Several projects are under construction; the most striking of the completed works are those by James Turrell and Tatsuo Miyajima. The Turrell house, restored in collaboration with Ando, mixes traditional, Zen, and Modernist elements in its external details. You walk into darkness, feel your way to a bench, and sit for at least 10 minutes before your eyes are able to discern, glowing out of the void, five rectangles of blue light, a cobalt intensity breaking the blackness and throbbing away from and then closer to you. It’s pure meditation. In the Miyajima house, there is only a thin walkway around the edges for viewers; the entire place is flooded with water, and under the water numbers in red and green on a series of LED’s change constantly, creating an effect that is eerie and haunting and unbelievably beautiful — at once primitive and futuristic.

These projects are the most uncanny of all. As you wander through the village to see them, stopping also, perhaps, at the town’s two shrines, people nod and smile. They like the art in their town; moreover, they seem to like the smartly dressed visitors from Tokyo and New York who have become familiar to them. This is what is so particular about Benesse Island. Unlike many experiences of contemporary art, this one is very warm. Here, the intellect, the senses, and the heart all find their satisfactions.