Naoshima: The Art of Relevance

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

Photo: Chichu Museum, Art by James Turrel

By train, Hiroshima is the closest big city to Naoshima at 40 minutes of travel. Tokyo is 3.5 hours away. The island is one of three thousand others in Japan's Seto Inland sea, and with a meagre population of 3,000, all the while suffering from the adverse effects of industrial pollution, Naoshima was a hair's breadth from fading into obscurity.

Yet in 1987, Soichiro Fukutake saw immense potential in the quaint forgotten piece of land, and endeavoured thus to transform it into a bridge between the disparate urban and rural social-cultural landscapes. Now Benesse Holdings runs the show, with Japan and its artistic community at large reaping the benefits of their chairman's savvy.

Photo: Terry Barentsen

Tadao Ando spent two decades developing the estate, with a Benesse House and Chichu Museum as just two of a string of architectural crown jewels. In a feat of deference and humility, the buildings flowed with the island's natural geometry, and let the sea, sky and ground shape them instead.

Photo: Wellington Sculpture Trust

When Benesse House flung its doors open in 1992, Naoshima landed on the map with a bang. Galleries, formal and informal, appeared all over, going so far as to stake claims on neighbouring islands, and installations sprung up everywhere like daisies in spring. The art was not confined within alabaster cubes, or kept solely on walls or glass cases; art breathed new life into abandoned houses and shrines, beaches, piers, and a myriad of places you wouldn't think to look.

Photo: Cereal Magazine, Art by Yayoi Kusama

Tourism skyrocketed shortly, and business flourished. Industry improved, and Naoshima was irrelevant no more.

All it took was for someone to see potential in a fading island. Poignant, no?