The best place to view contemporary art is not on a white-walled museum in New York, Paris or even Tokyo. Rather, it’s an archipelago in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. It has transformed what were dying industrial waste dumps, into a glamorous destination for adventurous art lovers. From two thousand year old forests under the sea, to giant underground art museums – you’ll discover something that makes life on earth possible, and also that observes life on earth as a vessel and as art.
Words: Lei Fu, Subeditor: Bea Renshaw
Art, it is often said to be “a lens through which to see the world differently”. ‘Differently’ could mean more intensely, or more clearly, or in a new and unfamiliar way. This inevitably requires a separation between the artwork and the real world. Art sets up territories and borders; the lines that define where the ordinary world ends and the art world begins. Mostly, this is straightforward enough. A painting has its frame; a sculpture has its plinth; even in the more challenging categories of installation and performance art, these boundaries are typical that of the space and the artwork.
But what if the artwork demands to include itself, the space that houses it and even the surrounding environment as integral to its conception? Where does the art world stop and the real world begin? Or could this separation in fact, be transcended in pursuit of a new understanding that encompasses both?
My thoughts of this were prompted by a visit this summer to the Teshima Art Museum. The droplet-shaped building is the result of a six year collaboration between the Pritzker prize-winning architect, Ryue Nishizawa, and artist Rei Naito. The museum is in fact less of a facility to house artwork, than a gigantic art installation in its own right. It is set amid a breathtaking landscape of terraced rice paddies, high above soft sea horizons.
“Most urban museums are just places for hanging beautiful art,” says 69-year-old Soichiro Fukutake, president of the Benesse Education Corporation and also the owner of the art work on three islands in Seto Inland Sea. “The art, the building and the environment should work together to wake up the viewer.”
When first seen from the road, the museum appears as a strikingly alien presence. Two smooth globules: one large and spreading, one small and beadlike, emerging pristine from the ground as if they were the long-buried shells of eggs laid by a mythical creature.
A pathway first leads you through a copse of trees and past a sea view, before arriving at the entry of the larger volume. You enter the space shoeless through a narrow funnel, which seamlessly expands to a vast interior cavern (40 by 60 meters). Two large circular apertures open to the sky, filling the space with light and birdsong, which dance off the smoothly polished concrete in soft reflections and vibrant echoes. Several fine gossamer ribbons hang from the edges of the holes, registering the slightest movement of air. The space appears to capture and distill its surroundings.
But this is not all. You soon notice that puddles of clear water that are dotted across the spreading expanse of the floor, which gather and merge into larger pools under the apertures in the roof. Closer inspection reveals this miniature landscape to be in constant motion — glistening water darts from place to place, following imperceptible topographies. These puddles and streams are fed by tiny springs. Droplets of groundwater bead out through the concrete floor. All inside the museum is subtle, yet filled with animation.
In this creation, there is no boundary between the artwork, the space that enfolds it, and the energies that animates it. ‘Matrix’, the title given to the work, well expresses this condition. Naito described her artistic goals in the handbook as “revealing the linkage of all things, the infinite connections of life on earth; its hidden bliss. It is beyond the self, beyond the human; it is a presence that is there in the space. Space is nature itself. I want to reveal the wondrousness of this.”
The architect Nishizawa, likewise emphasised the erasure of the boundaries between art, its frame, and the surrounding environment. “The architecture aims to create a dynamic space that is both closed for the work of art and the environment, and yet open at the same time. Our goal is to generate a fusion of the environment, art, and architecture, and we hope that these three elements work together as a single entity.”
The owner of Teshima Art Museum, Fukutake, describes himself as “a revolutionary whose weapons are art and architecture”. Fukutake’s aspirations are deeply bound up with reviving local environments and landscapes. At Teshima, this involves overcoming the stigma of pollution that has resulted from the past exploitation of the island as a dumping site for industrial waste.
The museum presents not only an artistic vision of harmony between art and environment, but it also serves as a powerful critique of environmental indifference. With its dazzling presence surrounded by golden rice terraces, it could be said that the aesthetic treasures the museum is framing, are precisely those of the landscape itself. Suddenly, art and the world swap places, and Teshima itself starts to glow with the luminous aura that suffuses all great works of art.