The American artist James Turrell once told me that he likes his works to be located in remote places. That way, you have to make an effort to see them, and the time you expend on the journey, he explained, is like a ticket of admission. Having paid it, you look long and hard at the thing you’ve travelled so far to see. In comparison, he went on, going round a museum is like glancing at the covers of books rather than reading them.
This is a similar idea to that of religious pilgrimage. The journey alone puts you in a particular frame of mind, focuses your concentration. Just being in another place makes you see even similar things differently. Distance in time and space shifts you into an altered state of mind.
I’m still waiting for the right moment to visit Turrell’s great project at Roden Crater in the Arizona desert, an extinct volcano that he has been in the process of turning into a mixture of modern art and celestial observatory since the early 1970s. But I did manage to see a group of his works on the island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. This place is an extraordinary blend of Tate Modern and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, minus the pirates. But this wasn’t a proper pilgrimage, I must admit; more a last-minute change of plan.
We almost didn’t go there at all. Josephine and I were in the middle of our first trip to Japan – and I wasn’t in the mood for a sudden immersion in the international avant-garde. I wanted to see thoroughly Japanese things such as the Zen gardens of Kyoto and the ancient wooden Buddhist temples of Nara. As a jobbing critic, looking at a lot of contemporary art on the other side of the world struck me as far too much like a busman’s holiday.
Josephine disagreed, and she was quite right. We changed our schedule while staying in an updated ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. This was a modernized and very comfortable version, but nevertheless a place where tight footwear discipline was imposed. We were relieved of our own shoes on arrival, and, as we were shown our room, great emphasis was laid on the importance of wearing the correct slippers at all times. One pair was allocated for walking around the premises and the non-sensitive areas of our bedroom, a second pair – ‘toilet slippers’ – should be worn inside the threshold of the bathroom. And no slippers were permitted at all if we stepped onto the platform on which the luxurious futon bed was placed.
This was unnerving, and coincided with a particularly difficult phase of our relationship with Japanese restaurants. These had never been easy, partly because of our own failure to master any Japanese at all except a few civilities and greetings. Another factor was the rarity, outside Tokyo, of waiters who spoke or understood English. The consequence was that we fell back on the colour photographs illustrating menus, and the information that can be transmitted in this way is limited if you don’t really know what you are looking at.
Our first Japanese lunch turned out, contrary to our expectations, to consist entirely of bean curd sweets. In another restaurant we were misled by a picture of what looked like a delicious oriental version of green tagliatelle. The image didn’t disclose that the dish in question was served stone cold. Japan, we discovered, was a looking-glass world. Superficially, it seems like anywhere else in the 21st century. But the more you experience it, the more you find the rules of life are subtly different.
After a succession of gastronomic shocks or out of toilet-slipper anxiety, we decided to change our itinerary, cancelled our booking in another, more traditional ryokan, and instead headed south to see something more familiar: modern art.
It certainly takes time to get to Naoshima from almost anywhere else in Japan, so Turrell would denitely approve. First you need to go to Okayama, the nearest large town – several hours by bullet train from Tokyo – then you change to a local stopping train that dawdles for another hour or so to the coast, where you have to wait for the ferry. I had the impression that in Japan things are either astonishingly rapid – such as the marvellous Shinkansen high-speed train – or surprisingly lackadaisical, like every local bus and train we took.
But once we got to Naoshima we wanted to stay. Just as Turrell had said, the journey – and the slowing down to contemplation speed – is part of the process. Soichiro Fukutake, the man behind the transformation of this little spot into a modern art lover’s Shangri-La, is of the same opinion. Most museums, Mr Fukutake has said, are just places for displaying art. But he believes that: ‘The art, the building and the environment should work together to wake up the viewer.’
The phrase he used – ‘wake up’ – recalls the term satori, meaning ‘awakening, comprehending or understanding’, used in Japanese Buddhism. His intention, in other words, is to create a place that is not only a display of first-rate works of art, but also a site that alters consciousness in the way a temple or a shrine might do. And he has succeeded.
Naoshima is a small community with a population of a little over 3,000. At a meeting in 1985, the site was originally imagined by Fukutake’s father and the local mayor as a place where children from around the world could gather. The family fortune comes from education, and Benesse Holdings, Inc., in which it still has a stake, owns, among other enterprises, Berlitz Language Schools.
After his father’s death, in 1986, Fukutake began to create an art world shrine on Naoshima. Over the years, the project has grown and grown, coming to include ever more works by a multiplicity of artists, and spreading onto the neighbouring islands of Teshima and Inujima. People really do make a pilgrimage to come here. On the ferry I recognized some fellow citizens of the art world. An Italian in an elegant tweed jacket, for example, was apparently making a round trip from Tokyo – just possible if you catch a very early bullet train, but still requiring a lot of commitment.
We made our visit on a brilliantly sunny spring day, and the first item we encountered after a short trip on a shuttle bus from the ferry terminal was Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin (1994). This eight-foot high, yellow polka-dotted sculpture of a bulbous vegetable is the emblem of Naoshima. That morning Pumpkin was silhouetted against a sparkling sea, itself sprinkled with islets shaped like conical puddings. By then the group of pilgrims on the ferry had scattered. We had the place entirely to ourselves. The effect of this colossal gourd was surreal: somewhere between the prize item in a greengrocer’s shop and an alien spaceship.
To an eye familiar with western modernism, Pumpkin looks very much like a piece of Pop art – which perhaps it is. In the 1960s, Kusama lived in New York and exhibited with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. But Pumpkin is not quite like their cool, ironic works. The polka dots, for example, come from vivid hallucinations Kusama began having at the age of ten. She calls them ‘infinity nets’. And we had seen bizarre images of giant vegetables, much older ones, in an exhibition of 18th-century Japanese art in Tokyo. So is Pumpkin eastern or western – or an inextricable blend of the two?
The great jazz musician Duke Ellington remarked that east and west were blending into one another, and that everyone was in danger of losing his or her identity (and that was in the early 1970s). Nowhere today is it easier to observe that phenomenon than on Naoshima.
A few hundred yards along the beach we came across a work by the American land artist Walter De Maria. It consisted of two large granite spheres set in a cavity in a small cliff. These were so highly polished that they reflected the opening of this artificial cavern – including the viewer – so sharply that there seemed to be a video screen set into the stone. Here, it seemed to me, was an updated version of Plato’s cave; reality mirrored in a perfect geometric solid, embedded within the earth.
This was a clear case of saying a lot with a little. That principle – carried to a logical extreme by the minimalists of De Maria’s generation – was at the heart of much 20th-century modernism. But it struck me as I wandered around Naoshima that it is also very Japanese. There is no greater work of minimalist art than the dry garden in the Zen Buddhist temple of Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. This comprises fifteen rocks of various sizes set in a sea of white, raked gravel; almost nothing, but you could look at it for hours. It was made about 500 years before the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe remarked that less is more.
There’s not all that much in the Chichu Art Museum, one of four museums on Naoshima. But nonetheless it makes a big impression. ‘Chichu’ means ‘underground’, and the building is part cave, burrowed into a hill, part concrete labyrinth. The design, by Tadao Ando, makes it into a work of minimalist art in itself. We walked in via long corridors and courtyards, adorned, like the gardens of Kyoto, with a few carefully positioned stones.
Indeed, we spent a while in Ando’s maze of Zen concrete before we encountered any works of art (although doubtless Ando, rightly, would argue that his structure was itself an artistic creation). And when we did see pictures and sculpture, they turned out to be a truly startling combination. The Chichu Art Museum is devoted to three artists: James Turrell, Walter De Maria – and Claude Monet. But no plodding, conventionally minded curator would ever put this trio together. Turrell works in the avant-garde medium of light; De Maria was among the leading gures in the Minimalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, so they fit together reasonably well. But Monet was, well, Monet.
When he first heard about the project for the Chichu Museum, Turrell later told me, his reaction was also ‘What?’ The link between the three featured artists – two stars of postwar American art and the great Impressionist, born a century before Turrell – is in Fukutake’s mind. At first he had fallen in love with, and bought, a twenty-foot wide Monet of water lilies, then added four more – and eventually decided to put the two Americans into the mix as well. As I walked around the museum, I began to understand the connections he had seen: light, reflections, contemplation.
The five superb Monet water-lily paintings looked, somehow, more Japanese than the same pictures would in Paris or New York. Before going into the room in which they are shown, we had to take off our shoes – as we did when entering a temple – which seemed a bit extreme in an art gallery. Japanese men, Josephine pointed out, though otherwise dapper, all have shoes with broken-down heels.
Personally, I don’t like shuffling around in my socks under any circumstances. But once inside the Water Lilies gallery I understood the point. The floor of this artistic holy of holies is tiled with tiny cubes of white Carrara marble. Natural illumination filters in from above. The whole space was ethereally light and pure. Even the attendant – rather than bored or officious, as such people sometimes are, seemed immersed in meditation – and so, soon, was I.
What I realized, as I padded from shimmering painting to shim- mering painting was how oriental Claude Monet really was. After all, he was a collector and lover of Japanese prints, which hung all around his dining room, 6,000 miles away in Giverny. And his water lilies were floating in his imitation Japanese garden. A century before Duke Ellington made his observation, I realized, Monet’s western identity was already blending with the east. The freedom of his paint strokes might seem just a flourish of the brush, but when you step back they become plants, water or reflected sky – very much as I’d seen in 17th- and 18th-century Japanese paintings in Tokyo and Kyoto by Oriental old masters. ‘Modern art’ may be a Western invention, but, paradoxically, its roots and inspirations were often far away, in Oceania, Africa, the ancient Americas, and importantly, here in the Far East.
Standing in that room, I had a moment of satori. I could see that Monet’s subject was everything – growth, change, light, dark, heavens, earth – and nothing (just passing shadows on few feet of pond), which is very Zen. The pictures are about being and nothingness, you might say, or rather – on Naoshima – wellbeing and meditation. Mr Fukutake has said that through the projects on the island, ‘I’m searching for eternity.’
We could have spent days on Naoshima – and would have stayed if we could in the island’s Benesse House hotel. We had read about how its fortunate guests find original pieces by celebrated artists in their rooms, and can wander into the adjoining museum after closing time. Unfortunately, this paradise for lovers of modern art was fully booked, which did not put me in a state of Buddhist calm. On the contrary, it was downright frustrating.
A month or two after we got back from Japan, I ran into James Turrell again in the very different surroundings of Houghton Hall in Norfolk where he was staging an exhibition. I told him that we had been to Naoshima and he replied that this was the location of one of his favourites among his own works. It is called Back Side of the Moon (1999). To see it, visitors (or should I say pilgrims) are led into what at first appears to be total darkness. After about ten minutes it seems an immensely dim, blue or purple oblong of light – a sort of ghostly Rothko – becomes perceptible and then slowly intensifies. It is, like much on Naoshima, an experience that demands time. More in fact than we had had.
Unfortunately, and predictably, this was one of the sights on Naoshima we hadn’t managed to see. After three museums and sundry other works set in the landscape, and with nowhere to stay, we’d had to rush for the ferry back to the mainland. Even a Zen art pilgrimage requires more efficient planning than we had managed. But of course efficiency is a very Japanese quality too, and one we clearly had yet to master.
Read our The Pursuit of Art interview where Mark Gayford recounts some of the extraordinary journeys he has made in the name of art.