Idyllic Naoshima island reshapes its image through art
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
Visitors in front of one of the artworks that dot Naoshima Island.Akira Kojima and one of his crafty can creations. The retired steelworker sells them to tourists.Akira Kojima began sculpting figures from drink cans after noticing a face in one.
Art with a capital 'A' in Helvetica font. There's no missing the message as you step off the ferry on the island of Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, which appears to be floating on the Seto Inland Sea.
The terminal itself is a work of art. It was designed by the team SANAA (winners of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize), and right across from it sits one of Yayoi Kusama's distinctly spotted vegetable sculptures.
Walk further and you'll stumble upon trippy installation art, ranging from stainless steel slabs swaying in the breeze to a "Cultural Melting Bath" of volcanic rocks ringed, Stonehenge-like, around a jacuzzi. When you finally reach the main village of the island, you can duck into its public toilet--designed by architect Tadao Ando.
Naoshima is that kind of place, an idyllic art island on the Seto Inland Sea. Yet it is a status not all the locals appreciate.
"About half the people think it's a good thing that all these art museums have opened here," says Akira Kojima, a resident of Naoshima's main village, Honmura. "But the other half can take them or leave them. They don't want all these visitors coming and crowding the roads."
Measuring 14 square kilometers, the island has less than 3,500 inhabitants. During the Golden Week holiday season, however, it is inundated with tourists. The people literally hit the island running, rushing from ferries into awaiting buses to tour the sights.
Last year, 13,634 people squeezed onto the town's lone bus system, according to the city hall. Others came by car, rented bicycles or walked, making the actual number of visitors even higher than that.
Naoshima is a remarkably pretty place. But although it looks like a fishing community, most of its men actually work (or worked, as many are retired) at Mitsubishi Materials Corp.'s smelter and refinery, or related companies on the island or nearby. Before that, the island was known for salt.
Art came to Naoshima in 1989 when Benesse Corp., the education giant that runs Berlitz Language Schools, unveiled the first of its facilities on the southern end of the island.
Known as Benesse Art Site Naoshima, it has grown to encompass several distinct museums, all designed by Ando and filled with big name works by the likes of James Turrell, Lee U-fan and and Cai Guo-Qiang.
Ando, incidentally, is an appointee to the government committee set up to redevelop the tsunami-struck Tohoku region.
The Benesse art wave reaches as far as the village of Honmura, where several homes have also been turned into galleries, together called the Art House Project.
The entire island is, in effect, one big art project, says septuagenarian Satoko Otani, who has served four terms as a Naoshima councilor.
"This used to be an isolated place, which was both good and bad," says Otani, whose has spent close to 20 years in elected office. "Here, if you work (off-island), you have to get up very early to catch a ferry to the mainland. That's one reason young people leave," Otani said.
Otani once petitioned for a bridge to be built, and collected 3,000 signatures. But the drive was met with opposition, largely from the proponents of the art development project.
"That was the end of that," Otani said.
Otani now builds bridges of a different sort, acting as godmother to young people wanting to settle on the island. So far she's helped seven, and they've opened up the small cafes and restaurants in Honmura.
Meanwhile, Kojima, once cool to the museums, has gotten into the art act himself. Looking at the top of crushed coffee drink can one day, he thought he saw face. He took out his pliers and began shaping other cans to bring out expressions hidden under the pull-tabs. Eventually he started adding wire arms, hats and musical instruments made from bottle caps. He sells the sculptures from his house in Honmura for 980 yen each.
"During Golden Week, there's a line of tourists waiting outside the door," says the 67-year-old. This Golden Week was different, though, as the queue had yet to form.
"I really can't explain why I started making these. One day, I just saw a face staring at me," says Kojima of his can creations. "I'll give the art museums credit. I don't think I would have started doing this if they hadn't come."