Naoshima and Teshima — “The Art Islands” on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea — are a world out of this world. In 1986, reclusive Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake financed the construction of the Benesse art museum and resort on Naoshima Island. Fukutake dreamed of creating what he called an “independent country of the mind and imagination.” The islands’ prominence grew as Fukutake attracted more artists to build defining works, and increasingly ambitious museums appeared on neighboring islands. The Art Islands are no longer a kept secret; they’re a well-known delicacy for those who wish to journey off the beaten path and discover a mythical place where magic still exists.
My eyes pop open like a child’s on Christmas morning. In my mind, I plead, “Please be the morning … please.” I roll over and power on my Amazon Kindle … 2:05 a.m. Shit. I rise from a comfy bed set on the floor of a traditional ryokan guest home and draw myself an onsen bath. I throb with energy. Sleep will be impossible.
Monet’s Cerberus — The Chichu Art Museum
A sterile-looking docent slips away my dirty shoes and shrinks out of the light. I’m pushed off through a walkway of rough corrugated stone, feeling its sharpness on my feet. I enter into an unsettlingly bright chamber with three massive Claude Monet landscape oil paintings. I step to the middle painting. I ride its flourishes with my eyes, and for 15 minutes I study the masterpiece in solitude. At first, Monet’s swampscape pulses and gurgles. Then it begins to warp, envelop in on itself, twist — and strange faces emerge from its depths. I back away. Suddenly, the other two paintings hungrily bark for my attention. I quickly leave that place. Some things are better left unexplored.
The Secret of the Sky — The Benesse Art Site
The Monets scrambled my brain like eggs. I confusedly stumble right through a wall of glass and into an enclosure with towering walls of concrete. Two humongous river stones sit in its center. I climb one and lay, belly-up, on its surface. I follow speeding clouds and firefly lights as they dance in swirling twists. “Why is the sky so complicated?” I muse, aloud. Another voice speaks back to me, “Why is the sky so complicated?” When I look up, I am alone. I set my head back down and fall into a deep sleep.
The Taneda Club
I wake, surrounded by bags and equipment. A small girl greets me in Japanese — Risa Taneda — the youngest member of the Taneda Club farming collective, I’d later learn. I follow her to a wheat field, where I meet Risa’s grandfather, the club’s leader. He invites me to join the Taneda Club in the fields. We toil for hours: threshing, bundling and stacking wheat to dry. Wiping away sweat, I think to myself, “This is much easier than art.”
Pinball — The Teshima Art Museum
The Teshima Art Museum is a giant concrete chamber shaped like a bean. Water bleeds up through perforations in the flooring, surfs along subtle bevels, and pools where pores drain it away. The overall effect is akin to watching the god process of life-giving on the moon, but these particular water droplets have actually stolen the gift of life and are attempting desperately to escape — it’s absurd.
I contemplate this strange world’s rules. Guests are not to touch the water (“art”) but two gaping skylights open the museum to nature. Before I exit, I approach the information desk wherea pair of twins dressed in all white sit attentively, tranquil mirrors of each other. We begin throwing riddles at each other — I told you it was absurd.
“If guests cannot touch the art, and the museum’s art is water, what happens when rain pours through the skylights?” The two look at each other. A nod passes through them, and the twin on the left turns to me.
“When the rain enters the museum, it becomes the art.” Checkmate.
That evening, sprightly spirits hopped a “No Trespassing” sign and shared stories, laughing and loopy in an independent state of mind and imagination. In sharp contrast to the daytime whites and blues, the sky bled each night on the Art Islands. On the roof of Naoshima’s Benesse House Museum, the sun shone a heroic dark red. In the land of the rising sun, I loved to watch it set.