Just now I am reading Sei Shonagon’s Pillow-book, dating from around the year 990, which is regarded as a model of linguistic purity and highly valued by readers because of the extraordinary beauty and evocative power of her language. Since the book is owned by Mels, I came across a passage he had marked decades ago: It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters. (page 51 under 16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster)
That night Mels and I talked about how time seems to fall away and how words from a thousand years ago still can sound so fresh and so nearby. We compared various Japanese writers we had read and then I hit upon the idea that Japanese are very moved by impressions, like for instance a pond or lake with water lilies and dragonflies and a certain light at a certain hour of the day. That happened to be the very thing we had seen a week ago. We travelled for a week, while my big work was drying in the studio of the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. We visited the art projects and museums on Naoshima and Inujima, two islands in the Kagawa and Okayama prefectures. On Naoshima there are 3 very beautiful museums, all built by the architect Tadao Ando.
The main museum is the Chichu Art Museum, which exhibits permanently works by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell. One goes up the path towards the museum surrounded by lush flowering shrubs and past a long pond with water lilies drifting along. Standing in the huge Monet gallery one is overpowered by his five paintings from the “Water Lily” series. The works hang in a vast and empty white space, with beautiful neutral light, with a white floor. Even the frames of the spacious paintings are from white marble. As a visitor you start to float and get sucked into these paintings. One realises after a while that here in this museum everything, and I mean really everything, has been done to honour these art works.
The way to the works is paved with the real thing as you go up to the museum along the pond with surrounding flowers. After you have been in the Monet gallery, you can sit in a white marble empty space to digest the experience. Of course you are walking in slippers provided by the museum and in deep silence, as if walking in a shrine. And a shrine it is! A shrine to art. Standing there, facing the Monet works, I thought: yes, these works are at home here in Japan! I know where they came from and I know how the impressionist’s paintings hang in the Musée d’Orsay and how Paris feels like and many of these paintings seem at home just there. But to built a museum around these art works as a tribute to them is something I never have seen before. I saw it now in the Chichu Art Museum.
Inujima is something special. You can take the ferry from Naoshima or take the one from Hoden. This small island has for centuries been the quarry for castles on the mainland, like the Okayama Castle or monuments. Find Keiko Arimoto and you will discover a lot of the history of Inujima. She is the archivist and storyteller of the island and publishes five books about Inujima, seen from different angles. Sit in her restaurant en enjoy her food while you chat about her passion: Inujima, Dog’s Island. A big boulder along the coast has the shape of a sitting dog.
The main art project is situated in the old ruins of a copper refinery which was only in use for a very short time. It opened in 1909 with the newest technology to retrieve the copper from the earth. It closed after just ten years because the copper price fell. At that time between 3000 and 5000 people lived on Inujima. Now, in 2012, the population has shrunk to 50.
Architect Hiroshi Sambuichi writes about his Inujima Art Project Seirensho: My interest is in expressing the details of the earth through architecture. I wanted to turn Inujima into the most sophisticated art island in the world, powered by natural energy.
He did make a very balanced artwork by renovating the copper-mine and building an art museum in it. The voyage down the mine shaft in pitch dark corridors (you get taken along by a guide) is spectacular. At every turn is a mirror, reflecting the image of the sky at the end of the labyrinth. You start your adventure with the smoldering image of the sun in your back. This work is a collaboration by Hiroshi Sambuichi and the visual artist Yanagi Yukinori, whose art works fill the rest of the museum and the art house projects on the island.
Mariëlle van den Bergh