Monday, July 19, 2010
I miss a lot of things, not all of which I realize I miss until I'm around them again and am struck with the familiar pang of memories long past. One of those things is art.
Naoshima island has lots of art, carefully placed on beaches and on cliffs overlooking the Seto Inland Sea or packed haphazardly on the walls of the Art Houses scattered around the island. The Nao Shima sento (public bath) pictured above is a fine example of the massive throw-together of different objects I've always loved (as anyone who's ever been in my bedroom, dorm room, or current apartment can attest) set against the traditional Japanese wooden houses and narrow streets of the island (which, unlike the rest of Japan, was not obliterated during World War II). The inside was decorated with Japanese pulp covers, a blue and white ceramic collage of pearl diving, a desert landscape made up of potted plants, and a really big elephant.
Nao Shima would have nothing to offer except old houses and fantastic views had Japanese architect Tadao Ando and a handful of others not brought contemporary art and architecture to the island, with the end result being creativity blended with the natural environment unlike anyplace else I've seen in Japan.
We rode rented bicycles around the island, stopping at oceanfront fields to gleefully view sculptures and statues from all angles, then rush on to the next stone pillar or severed boat sculpture. We toured bizarre art houses ranging from temples with rock gardens and scattered flowers to clapboard structures with digital numbers counting down and waterfalls painted on dark blue walls. There was so much to see, and all of it was spread around the island in a place where people lived and worked, not roped off or into bright o-miyage-crammed tourism zones.
The greatest place we visited was Ando's Benesse House, the island's biggest museum and main attraction. Besides the awesome things inside (including a ring of Ultraman action figures and an ant farm made up of sand painted up with the flags of the world), Ando's architecture blends the concrete building with the natural arc and grassy outline of the surrounding hill. The courtyard above is hung with time-lapse pictures of the sunrise on the Seto Inland Sea, and in the still of the twilight I could see the other stout islands jutting out of the water and the bridge from Honshu to Shikoku stretching out over the horizon. I had not expected to feel this way, but the scene brought me back four years and across half a world to a hill in southwestern Vermont where the Green Mountains jutted above the tall cedar walls of the art studios, a rusty diving board stood guard in a forest grove, the occasional hovercraft lumbered across the lawn, and ceramic sea creatures rested on the shores of a peaceful, reed-filled pond.
That any place could remove me so completely from the mundane daily struggles of the post-college abyss is a testament to its power. The only thing left is not to forget.