Naoshima: Island of the Future

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 1994, Fiberglass Sculpture, Courtesy of Steve Aldana.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 1994, Fiberglass Sculpture, Courtesy of Steve Aldana.

What is the sound of silence? Does it have a smell, a taste? As the ferry pulled into Miyanoura Port the first thing I noticed was the quiet. Two circles of light illuminated the grass to the left. Thin poles, curving up toward the sky, dotted their outlines. Atop the antennas small globes acted as weight bearers, bending them left with the wind.

Beyond the lights I could make out a giant pumpkin painted red with black spots. The fiberglass installation had a round doorway; it begged you to enter. Inside, the walls were black, the floor dotted with coloured lights, and of a day, circular rays of sunlight would stream through the polka dot windows to ignite a disco ball dance party.
Inside this enlarged vegetable I became acquainted with Yayoi Kusama, the ‘Princess of Polka Dots’. At four metres tall, Kusama’s Red Pumpkin is an example of public art at its finest; simplistic composition with an interactive quality. The presence of this avant-garde Japanese artist’s work on an island populated by around 3500 people was the first hint of Naoshima’s quintessence.

On the other side of the island resides the Yellow Pumpkin. Since 1994 it has been a fixture at the end of a dock jutting into the Seto Inland Sea. Its placement in the centre of the concrete is peculiar. There are no boats moored to the dock. Throughout the day small crowds of Japanese tourists gather around and pose for pictures with this spotted icon of Naoshima. At night the Yellow Pumpkin emits an orange glow, the irregular form visible from Tsutsuji-so Lodge on the far side of the beach.

Conceptually Kusama’s pumpkins are representative of the blending of the synthetic and the natural. This organic vegetable has been recast in sculptural form to appear enlarged: mutant- like, strange and unfamiliar. Functionally, the Yellow Pumpkin serves no purpose; it merely exists, and therein lays the magic of Naoshima.

The foundation of the island supports a vision of “coexistence of nature, art and architecture”. Naoshima’s current director Soichiro Fukutake, sees culture as superior to the economy. Acting on this insight, he initiated the transformation of this industrial refinery to “Art Island” in 1992, and has invested close to 11.2 billion Japanese Yen in its construction.

Fukutake sees Naoshima as the antithesis of Tokyo, a city he believes to be lacking in humanity due to its absence of historical landmarks and nature. On inheritance of his father’s company, Fukutake Publishing Co. Ltd, he moved the headquarters from Tokyo to his hometown Okayama, and changed the name to Benesse Holdings, benesse meaning “well being.”

To realise this island of “wellbeing”, Fukutake commissioned contemporary Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Echoing Fukutake’s own views on the significance of the environment, Ando’s design aesthetic places a great emphasis on the use of natural light and the elements to create a spiritual experience for the visitor. Photography on the exhibition sites of Naoshima is banned. You find yourself no longer preoccupied with capturing what you are seeing, but rather experiencing it.

What first became apparent as the mini bus pulled away from the port and the reception bars on my IPhone disappeared, was Naoshima’s isolation. It is far removed from the tech savvy Tokyo, an island without Internet reception, Wi-Fi or television, yet so foreword thinking in its architectural layout. The futuristic concrete structures combine with the natural landscape to cast a veil of utopic calm over the island.

Tadao Ando, Chichu Art Museum, 2004, Concrete, Courtesy of Steve Aldana. 

Tadao Ando, Chichu Art Museum, 2004, Concrete, Courtesy of Steve Aldana.


This overwhelming stillness follows you outside the museums. It is emphasized in the simplicity of the architecture and the salty ocean breeze. In an impossible way, the reinforced concrete structures blend seamlessly with the natural setting. Geometric shaped installations are scattered all over the island. Steel squares, balancing on their corners, move back and forth on the winds. So often I would find myself still, watching the way the light hit the steel and reflected off its surface. In this way the landscape energises the art, and in the case of the Chichu Art Museum the art is submerged within it.

The walls of raw concrete, the cold corridor soundless but for the echo of my steps: in its’ sterile simplicity the space was reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s conditioning centre of Brave New World. A guardian walked silently past, her white smock suit hanging loosely. She did not look up, though her aura was warm. The corridor opened out into a courtyard of pebbles and stones. Bordered by a glass railing the stairs led around the courtyard to an upper level. I saw a man resting on an angled wall looking upward. I hesitated before I sat beside him, wary of the cold concrete. A cloud moved across James Turrell’s Open Sky. The concrete beneath me was heated.

This is the magic of Tadao Ando’s architecture, calming and meditative. Ando places emphasis on the unadorned space. His minimalist design aesthetic is realized in the combination of cast concrete, stone or wooden floors and open glass windows. By manipulating the element of light throughout interiors, his designs allow for bare concrete walls to be brightened by light and shadow. It is through this emphasis on space that Ando manages the “represent the beauty of simplicity.”

Chichu Art Museum is built into the topography of the site and nature invades throughout in the form of green bamboo courtyards and open-air exhibition spaces. The building has been designed specifically to house its permanent collection. On Naoshima, art is given space to breathe. Like a past time the emphasis is on modesty, this imparting upon them a more affective power.

Scuffed boots were swapped for traditional Japanese slippers. The rectangle doorway ahead was unlit, a void. I turned the corner and the Water Lilies were framed in the archway. The slippers made no sound on the tiled floor. Moisture blurred my vision. The light was soft, the walls white and curved, and all around: Monet, Monet, and Monet. I’d seen his paintings in books; my high school art teacher would pass around grainy photocopies of his works. But I’d never seen them. The colours were soft, liquid, they melted into one another in thousands of dappled brushstrokes. I rotated on the spot, unable to move or refusing to, I wasn’t sure. I was inhaling deeply, trying to breathe them in. Time had halted and I wanted to stay in that room forever, to hold onto that feeling…

Even now I’m trying to get it back.