100 Happy Days / Day 62: Naoshima

I am up way before my 6:30am alarm. Today is art immersion day and I will be visiting all the wonderful museums of Naoshima! Super excited!

A really big bonus for me is that Tadao Ando, the architect whose work has, in my eyes, defined a whole new realm of architecture and space, is going to appear at Ando Museum today! Even though I won’t understand a word of his lecture, I would still go, partly because I’m a fan, and partly because when Kenneth heard about this he practically begged me to go buy his book and get his signature!

Naoshima has lots of outdoor art pieces and the most famous and captivating of all has to be the Yayoi Kusama’s giant pumpkin that is… just sitting there on the jetty. I never expected myself to be moved by a sculpture but when I see it for real, large and yellow and polka-dotted sitting almost defiantly at the edge of the jetty, it just makes me feel so joyful!

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Benesse museum is my first stop as it opens earliest at 8am. The rest of them open from 10am, which is a shame as the operating hours are too short. Benesse is actually a Japanese company; and the name was changed to a combination of 2 Latin words, which mean well, and live. This desire for a life well-lived presented itself as the first centerpiece – 100 ways to live and die by Bruce Nauman.

I sit there in the big volume space with an enchanting skylight. I sit down and watch the neon words flash before me.

“Laugh and live”.
“Suck and die”.
“Go and live”.
“Try and live”.
“Live and die”.

The room is sometimes brighter; and sometimes dimmer. I look up and realize that the light from the sun is shifting ever so slowly across the skylight, sometimes veiled gently by the feathery clouds passing by. Somehow I never notice this when I’m outside, but in a room, where our brains expect the constant glow of artificial lighting, the gently swirling currents of daylight really have a presence, and I almost feel like I am underwater.

Walking through Ando’s buildings is almost like a spiritual journey. I am taken on quiet, meditative walks before the vistas open up in moments of exceptional power and beauty. Sometimes there is a peek of what is to come, sometimes a deliberate turn before my breath is taken away. His bare concrete walls are strong and silent; leaning in at times to protect and conceal till the right moment.

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One of my favorite art installations at Benesse House is an outdoor square with 2 giant, smooth rocks. You can sit on it, or lie down, like I do. The square roof opens to the sky and I gaze up for the longest time, mersmerized by the white clouds blending together and drifting apart like dancing smoke. I cannot see what lies beyond this square, but I can hear birds and the lapping waves of the sea. I want to lie down here for as long as possible!

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The next museum is Lee U-Fan museum, named after the Korea-born artist who grew up and did his art in Japan. This Ando designed museum and the works are a mastery in zen.

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I am especially moved by one of the installations where, within the darkness of a large stone’s shadow, I can see scenes of waves and people being projected. It is as if the rock has stood still and seen all of eternity. Everything changes, yet everything is the same. Makes me wonder what it really means to be a human being, this temporary resident of a planet millions of years old Caught up for that brief flash of time in our flurry of life, with our hopes, our struggles, our love, our pride, our dreams… then, just as quickly, vanishing silently into nothingness. Makes life seem so meaningless doesn’t it? Or maybe this is exactly what makes each of our lives so special and so valuable!

Walking on, my legs start to tire and I realize that this little island isn’t so little after all. As the talk by Ando is at 2pm, I decide to take the bus back to Honmura area to have lunch and to find his book.

Cafe Oomiyake is listed as a protected cultural property and it is now a guesthouse and a cafe. I order a mustard hamburger rice (yes, hamburger can go with rice) and walk around to explore the building and grounds. It is 400 years old, which means it survived the world wars welcoming a great many men and women of the past through these same doors.

The food is delicious! I certainly recommend eating here if you are planning to come to Naoshima.

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The shop nearby also has the biggest collection of souvenirs and books and I am so happy to find one which is in English!

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It is still early and I decide to visit Ando museum first before the crowd gets in. Ando museum is converted from an old traditional house, its interior gracefully transformed by Ando’s masterful use of concrete. As I am about to leave, I discover that Mr Ando has arrived early!

There he is, sitting alone on a chair. I walk over and shake his hand. “Thank you for making such beautiful spaces for people to enjoy.”

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He asked for my name, signed the book and hence certifying my status as an official fan now. I am so excited to bring this book back to Kenneth!

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Just before 2pm, I return and by now the museum is crowded. I find a spot to squeeze in and for the next 45 minutes, I sit listening to Ando lecture in Japanese. I understand probably about a hundred words from his entire lecture, but judging from the laughter of the audience, I conclude he is a funny guy indeed. Satomi is a big fan of his and she says to me, “He is a very Osaka man”. I do not know what that really means, but I suppose it is something good!

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After the lecture, I take the bus back to Miyanoura, to visit Chi Chu museum. It actually means underground museum, designed to be in harmony with nature, not to overpower it. The aerial view is really interesting. Picture from here.

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Monet has 5 of his works housed in this museum. I had seen some prints of his famous impressionist paintings, but did not feel much for them. But I am truly amazed when I step into the space with water lilies floating before me. It is truly something to behold! I admire it from a suitable distance and to my astonishment, when I approach the painting, what I assumed were seamlessly blended brushstrokes are actually a myriad of discrete colours! I have tried acrylic painting before and it’s really quite difficult to paint something that looks like absolute nonsense up close but transforms into a beautiful, atmospheric painting when seen from a distance. Now I appreciate better why he created such a stir with his impressionist styles. It is pretty groundbreaking.

It starts to drizzle and with some spare time, I head to the museum cafe which has a panoramic view of the sea and changing colours of the clouds. And which also has cheesecake!

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I stay behind for the night program, which is the open sky by James Turrell. His works are really interesting and his mission is to objectify light and to make them feel tangible. Minamidera, a collaboration between him and Ando is a must visit.

It is a cloudless evening which is a pity as 30 of us stare at the open square with nothing moving except the subtle changes in colour. I have never spent an hour doing absolutely nothing except staring up at the sky and observing the changing light. The blue gradually deepens, and midway through the hour, I see a single star. Bright and alone in the sky. By now, the sky is pitch black. Slowly another smaller star appears in sight. For the next half hour, I stare at these 2 stars gleaming through the darkness. Some have fallen asleep in this room. I imagine a world where the sun never rises, and how it would be like to be living in perpetual darkness. The vast cosmos are pitch black and without the light energy emitting from the suns, we would see nothing. I feel like a little moth, afraid of the dark and cold, always drawn to the safety of light.

When we exit the installation space, there it is – a whole sky full of stars! It is a pity the stars in the sky move all the time and this night, the position of the room just misses this beautiful cluster. I cannot spend a lot of time admiring this sky as there is no more shuttle bus out to the main roads. The only remaining one is meant for Benesse hotel guests.

I decide to run as the temperature has dropped below the comfort level of my jacket. After some time, I spot another couple walking the same way, and I keep in step with them for safety and company. Their accommodation is way nearer, so I have to brave the next 30 minutes with my phone torchlight as there are no street lamps. I start running and my own long shadow scares me at times as it gets reflected onto the walls.

Finally, I reach the main bus stop 15 minutes before 8pm. Finally there is light and civilization! Just to check that there will indeed be a bus back to Honmura, I enter the only restaurant to ask for directions. I must be looking really pale from the past 30 minutes of quiet horror, because the waitress smiles sweetly and says, “If you are feeling cold, you can stay inside here till 8pm. Would you like some Japanese tea too?” What kindness and hospitality! Of course I say yes and gratefully settle down. Naoshima actually means honest island, and I can feel how this name has permeated into Naoshima’s people.

As I reflect on my scary night adventures on this island, it occurs to me that most of it is self-inflicted as I chose to go out exploring at night. In return for the efforts, I am able to experience something way more than what I could have if I had stayed behind in the comfort of my warm room. Sometimes, going to our jobs like clockwork everyday, we really don’t know what we are missing out in life. I hope I can continue to hold on and nurture this spirit of exploration! More epic adventures ahead!

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