Japan’s Benesse Art Site Naoshima
Reflections of Life, Death and Art
TESHIMA, Japan – The scent of incense fills the air on the way up the hill to La Forêt des murmures, an installation by French artist Christian Boltanski on the island of Teshima. The piece consists of 400 wind chimes, in the form of miniature Japanese bells attached to differing lengths of metal rods planted in the forest floor. Beneath them hang rectangular pieces of translucent plastic inscribed with the names of someone dear to the person choosing to participate in the work. As the sun reflects off the clear strips, flickers of light dance among the trees and on the ground, creating an effect like fireflies darting around at night.
Boltanski’s work is part of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, an art project that is the brainchild of Soichiro Fukutake, the billionaire former chairman of Benesse Holdings, an education company which owns the Berlitz language school. Fukutake is also the general producer of Setouchi Triennale. The site spans three islands in Japan’s fabled Inland Sea, the body of water that separates the country’s main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and is home to dozens of permanent museums and installations that have become a lure for tourists and boon to the local economy that has struggled to cope with an ageing and dwindling population. On Naoshima, these include the Benesse House museum and hotel, as well as the subterranean Chichu Art Museum. Both were designed by celebrated architect Tadao Ando.
For Fukutake, a truculent critic of soulless urban life and modern corporations shirking their social responsibilities, the museums and festival are an effort to bring economic and social vitality back to the region. “I have no intention of building a museum in Tokyo or a big city,” he says. “The main premise is this: the environment and landscape frame the art.”
The Teshima Yokoo House contains a collection of work by graphic designer and artist Tadanori Yokoo, first known for his psychedelic posters for bands like the Beatles and Santana. Its main theme is death as a part of the cycle of life. Included is a triptych – one panel with smiling actresses from takarazuka theatre (maudlin all-female musical troupes with a cult-like following) striking a pose after dancing at the edge of a field of human skulls and bones – dubbed The Primitive Universe.
On another side of the island, Les Archives du Cœur, a permanent installation also by Boltanski, is a recording collection of thousands of heartbeats from around the world. The island’s sad past as a dump for industrial waste from scrapped automobiles might help explain its buoyant theme as a way of reversing that legacy.
Beyond Teshima, the island of Megijima is part of the Setouchi Triennale and home to Nishiura OK Tower by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul. The 10-metre high installation, set up in the Nishiura port, features images of about 20 current residents painted in vibrant colours on the exterior in the style of a gaudy movie billboard. A former central government official, who returned to his Megijima hometown from Tokyo to take care of his ageing father, narrates the lives of some of the 20 or so current residents being celebrated in vibrant, movie billboard form on the 10-meter-high tower. The tower shows people at milestones of life, such as weddings and birthdays, and how they appear today. Inside, the residents also tell their own stories in recordings.
Through Fukutake’s vision, the islands, once a symbol of the costs of Japan’s unchecked postwar growth, are coming back to life.