Since 1970, prior to the island’s cultural development, Naoshima’s mayor focused on fostering education in its central region, with the construction of a primary school and a 3 building academic complex; these buildings were conceived by the architect Kazuhiro Ishii. However, Naoshima’s economic transformation started in 1985, and can be credited to Tetsuhiko Fukutake, chairman of a company that specializes in education : the Benesse Corporation (Fukutake Publishing at the time). Instead of developing a standard tourist-focused initiative, based on leisure and entertainment activities, the island leaned towards an educational project involving children’s holiday camps, which would draw visitors from throughout the world to the island.
Following Tetsuhiko’s death in 1986, his son, Soichiro Fukutake, pursued his father’s long term vision by aiming at education, architecture and contemporary art, in association with the islanders. Soichiro expanded the program by including two other islands, both connected by a common issue : the real urgency of transforming their outdated economies into modern ones. Indeed, Inujima had lost its thriving copper sector upon which it had depended on from 1909 to 1919, whereas Teshima needed to change its image following a scandal linked to industrial waste storage.
An outstanding topography : Economy-Education-Art
Naoshima’s activity is divided into three interrelated areas :
- The North is the site of productive economic activity, which is mainly comprised of the refining of copper, silver and gold. Mitsubishi Materials, the largest employer in the island, leads these activities.
- The island’s central region concentrates the residential and educational areas. In 1998, the region welcomed the Art House Project, which sought to revive abandoned village houses through artistic initiatives. The Benesse Corporation took charge of their restoration in collaboration with artists, preparing the constructions for permanent installations. The Kadoya house, which is 200 years old, is one such example; it was given a new lease of life by the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s installation Sea of Time ’98.
- The southern region hosts a cultural area, within the framework of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima; through its outdoor artwork and a series of museums, it conveys an intimate blend of art, architecture and nature.
The interaction among the island’s areas benefits from the persistent presence of contemporary art in the islander’s day to day lives : they take part in the houses’ restoration, the realization of artistic projects, and even mediation. These combined efforts lead, above all, to the deep transformation of an insular community. The same can be said about the two other islands, in 2008 Inujima transformed the 2000m2 surface of its former copper factory into an exhibition site. Two years later, the island hosted the Art House Project, where five traditional houses were restored and revived by the architect Kazuyo Sejima, generating new art exhibition spaces. Whereas in Teshima, an architectural work inspired in a curved drop-like form developed by architect Ryue Nishizawa, hosts Matrix, by the artist Rei Naito.
A complete work, when art shapes the spirit
Soichiro Fukutake’s visionary conception of the museum project is inspired by insularity; an island is a territory drifting between land and sea, it is profoundly touched by isolation; and this creates a strong ability to adapt, to compensate or concentrate resources in order to sustain its human, animal and organic populations.
The Benesse House, which was designed by Tadao Ando, evokes the island’s timeless spirit since 1992. The museum also includes a hotel-museum, originally built at the heart of the national park. Visitors can choose to stay at the hotel, and physically experience the works of art in good time and not simply in passing, as with traditional museums. Art, architecture and nature restructure and alter our bodies and spirits taking them towards the very essence of life. Thus, within the first museum, Bruce Nauman’s work, 100 Live and Die, is accompanied by equally intense pieces by Nam June Paik, Yukinori Yanagi, Richard Long, Alberto Giacometti or Yves Klein… The Chichu Art Museum (2004), designed by Tadao Ando to host three works by western artists, which follow a visual and spiritual line : five paintings from Claude Monet’s Nymphéas series, a monumental sculpture by the American Walter de Maria : Time/Timeless/No Time (2004), and finally three installations by the American artist James Turrel : Afrum Pale Blue (1968), Open Field (2000), Open Sky (2004).
Along these lines, in 2010 Tadao Ando built a museum dedicated to the South-Korean Lee Ufan, collecting paintings and sculptures from the 1970’s to the present day. The works of art blend into the island’s wild nature creating an intimate connection which invites the visitor to discover the sites through long walks : Niki de Saint Phalle, Dan Graham, Yayoi Kusama… the magnetic atmosphere of the environment, inspires one to go beyond physical objects and focus on the phenomenon of sheer vision, of contemplation.
Through the vanishing of all temporality, the island turns into a space of paradoxes, floating between reality and imagination. In Naoshima, art has the power of altering the spirit, crossing from that which exists to contemplate another dimension.