red pumpkin naoshima
Photo by cotaro70s

There are a number of open-air art museums in the world, places where large works stand amid the elements, often situated harmoniously in the environment so that each is elevated by the other.

And then there is Japan’s Naoshima Island.

One of the roughly 3,000 islands located in the Seto Inland Sea between southern Honshu and the island of Shikoku, Naoshima was long obscure. It was known, if at all, for the Mitsubishi plant that employed many of the island’s nearly 9,000 residents.

But time and industrialization – and nearly two-thirds of the island’s residents – moved on. It was then, just 30 years ago, that Soichiro Fukutake, head of the language arts and test-prep publisher Benesse Corporation, decided he wanted to share his extensive art collection with the world.

In doing so, Fukutake began the transformation of this region from a post-industrial decline to a vibrant arts-based economy.

The Origin of Naoshima As The Art Island

"The Oval" by Tadao Ando
Photo by Todd Lappin

Choosing Naoshima Island, Fukutake hired the internationally-known Japanese architect Tadao Ando, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, to design a museum, and a hotel, and then another museum – and another, and another. Over the subsequent 30 years, Naoshima Island has become one of the great museums of the world, indoor or outdoor, an entire island devoted to contemporary art in its many forms.

Among the names represented here is Japan’s beloved matriarch of modern art, Yayoi Kusama, whose giant, polka dot “pumpkins” are the island’s icons.

Naoshima Island, Japan
Photo by Jason Schlabach

But there are many other artists represented here: Luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria, Lee Ufan and Richard Long are represented on the tiny island.

Chichu Art Museum

Chichu Art Museum
Photo by Todd Lappin

Dominating the island is the Chichu Art Museum – entirely underground, and thus named chichu (literally, “in the ground”) – that nevertheless uses natural light to illuminate its collection. Those works include some by the artists above, as well as by an artist who is not contemporary, but whose epic, quasi-environmental works have inspired generations of artists and art lovers: One of French Impressionist Claude Monet’s large-scale “Water Lilies,” as well as four smaller pieces, are displayed in minimalist settings that make them appear almost to float in the air.

The Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004, is situated above the sea, and was built adjacent to Benesse House, opened in 1992, a luxury hotel of only 10 rooms in which one can stay surrounded by monumental environmental art. Designed by Tadao Ando, the galleries are open to those who stay in the hotel after it is closed to visitors, giving greater space to view the art.

Another Japanese architect who has contributed greatly to the look of the island is the late Kazuhiro Ishii (1949-2015), who designed all of the municipal buildings on the island, including the local schools, a gym and the town hall. All can be visited during normal business hours.

Kazuhiro’s work has come to be known as Naoshima Style.

There are other recent additions to the island, including the relatively new (2009) public bath house, or sento, cleverly called I Love Yu, a Japanese/English pun that plays off of the double meaning of yu, which means hot water in Japanese. Like everywhere else on Naoshima, I Love Yu also integrates contemporary art, and the fusion of utilitarian spaces with art means that visitors are more likely to come into contact with local residents.

Honmura Village

Honmura Village
Photo by cotaro70s

In the village of Honmura, on the east side of the island, a number of artists have taken seven distinctive local buildings – including one that used to be a parlor for the playing of the beloved Japanese game called Go – and turned each one into a unique environmental art experience. This Art Houses Project easily charms visitors, in contrast to some of the larger works.

Honmura itself was built to evoke the castle towns of the “Warring States” period of civil war in Japan, during the 15th-16th centuries, and is thus a unique visit even without the art houses.

How Art Is Transforming Islands Outside Of Naoshima

 Teshima Art Museum
Photo by Yellowmo

The successes of Naoshima have begun spreading to other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, and the Setouchi International Art Festival, held every three years, has expanded to include nearby islands.

One of them is Teshima Island, population 920, a half hour’s ferry ride from Naoshima. 2010 saw the opening of the Teshima Art Museum, shaped like a drop of water, which has, in turn, inspired the restoration of the terraced rice paddies that surround the museum is yet another example of the merging of architecture, art and landscape – and another example of how art can transform, even revive, post-industrial areas.