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Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008

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Land of the Great Pumpkin


The last time I went to Naoshima was in June of 2001, when it was just an island with a museum, a hotel and some tents. It was called Bunkamura (culture village). The museum was Mr. Fukutake's own private art collection of mostly modern art. In 2004 came Claude, Walter and James (Monet, De Maria, and Turrell) whose works were put on permanent display, attracting hoards of people from all over Japan to this small island in the Inland Sea.

Although most people get to Naoshima by ferry, I have only been there by sailboat. I will never forget my first time sailing up to the island that time in 2001.

I didn't have much sailing experience then and my crew and I were not very good at reading sea maps. When we passed under the Seto Ohashi bridge heading east and saw all those islands in front of us, we knew Naoshima had to be one of them. But which one?

We also knew nothing about Tadao Ando, one of Japan's most famous architects. If we had, we would have easily been able to pick out the island with all the Ando architecture, as opposed to the islands with traditional Japanese houses on them.

In addition, we did not know about Naoshima's site-specific Out of Bounds exhibits, which meant that large sculptures were dotted around the island. If you are unaware of these, they look like alien communication satellites when approaching by boat.

Naoshima is now called Benesse Art Site Naoshima. It is not just confined to a museum and a few sculptures rusting outside. The museum has become the Mori Art Museum of Western Japan and the whole island has become one large, fantastic work of art.

Now, seven years later, after having plied the Inland Sea so many times by boat, I had no problem finding the island. Located at 133 degrees 58 minutes east latitude by 34 degrees 27 minutes north longitude, the site-specific art has blossomed into such imaginative sculptures as the famous "Pumpkin" by Yayoi Kusama, a one-of-a-kind sculpture that captures the imagination of anyone who sees it.

We also visited an entirely different part of the island this time, the Honmura District, where the Art House Project is situated. This project aimed to restore six old Japanese houses and transform them into works of art. Take "Haisha," for example, a house turned work-of-art created by Shinro Ohtake in 2006.

The house is, quite simply, covered in discarded corrugated steel, tree branches, old signs and anything else that the artist found along the way.

Some would call it trash but if you can so exquisitely arrange trash, then it is surely art. Besides, if it were trash, the house would smell. And it does not.

I think Ohtake's message is that if we could get those junky neighbors of yours to affix their junk to the sides of their houses, it would look a lot better. He also shows us that the distance between trash and art may not be so big after all. It just takes a great eye to get it there. Here is an artist who puts method to our madness. With Ohtake-san, we don't even need reincarnation — this man could recycle lives.

Then there is "Back Side of the Moon," by James Turrell and Tadao Ando. You walk into a completely dark house. It is so dark, you can't see anything at all.

There is no difference between having your eyes open or closed — it is complete darkness.

An Art Project staff person guides you inside and sits you down on the bench where you wait for the performance. After 10 minutes of waiting, the performance begins. Slowly, on the opposite wall in the distance, you see a blue light. Slowly, it gets brighter.

Eventually, it is bright enough for you to see the outlines of the people sitting next to you. At that point, the staff person asks you to stand up and walk over to the light. Once at the light, you can see quite well, even facial expressions of those around you. That's it — the end of the exhibit.

But in reality, there was no brightening light. The light was always there. What appeared to be a brightening light was merely our eyes adjusting to the darkness.

In this way, Mr. Fukutake explains, The Art House Project "incorporates activities of everyday life."

He also encourages people to experience art among nature, as demonstrated by another exhibit called Go'o Shrine, an outside exhibit where the steps to the wooden shrine are not the normal wooden or stone steps, but large, thick, clear, glasslike steps.

Subtle changes in our perceptions can give us a new overall perspective of something.

Which takes me back to that intriguing "Pumpkin" sculpture by Yayoi Kusama. If you ever go looking for Naoshima by boat, forget the GPS position of the island.

Just take it from Linus and "Look for the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."



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