The Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima Island, Japan is one of the most unique art museums in the world. The careful combination of simplicity and intensity in its curation, display, architecture, and design mean that with only three installations, the museum is complete.
It begins with the architecture, which is considered the fourth artwork of the secluded Japanese museum. Architect Tadao Ando designed the Chichu Art Museum with several concerns – first to minimise the environmental impact of the structure; second, to collaborate with the artists and artworks in the design to be wholly site-specific. As the curators say, ‘Whether outside, in a room, or in a surrounding environment, the works are specifically intended for these spaces’.
Chichu Concrete, Trent McBride, Flickr
The museum has no exterior; chichu literally meaning ‘in the ground’. Only the entrance level is at ground level, the rest of the multilevelled building is underground. A now iconic arial photograph of the museum shows the outline of the geometric shapes of the different rooms, disconnected from each other by the passages underground.
A project of the Benesse Corporation, and part of the island-wide Benesse Art Site, the museum was constructed in 2004 as a secondary site to the already constructed Benesse Art Museum to the Naoshima’s west, and the Art House Project on the eastern coast.
Tadao Ando took a brutalist-style approach to the Chichu Art Museum, using concrete to create clean lines and in-built decoration. Part of the beauty of Ando’s simple approach is the attention paid to the empty areas of the museum. Every detail has been considered in terms of how it will be experienced by a person moving through the space.
Upon entering the floor immediately slopes away and you follow a concrete corridor downwards, probably missing a left turn and continuing down to the bottom where you find a triangular courtyard of pebbles, the sky far above you. A small figure at the bottom of a well.
The first encounter with art is Impressionist Claude Monet’s Water Lillies, seen at a distance through an empty, circular room to a white one, whose doorway perfectly frames Monet’s Water-Lily Pond (c.1915 – 26, oil on canvas, diptch 200 x 300cm each). The effect draws you in immediately; the curved walls of the first room were designed specifically to guide your line of sight. The room itself is white, with walls of local white coarse sand plaster and floor titled in Bianco Carrara marble. The roof is a skylight that illuminates the room with natural light that is softer than any electric light could ever be, and pays homage to the artist’s obsession with changes in light.
The purchase of Monet’s painting inspired the creation of the Chichu Art Museum. The curatorial concept was bring together artworks that ‘confront nature’, whether sunlight, neon light, natural materials or natural subjects, Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria are all interested in ways to manipulate and enhance the way we experience nature.
James Turrell has three works displayed in the Museum. The American artist has been consistently interested in light and how we perceive it. The three works track his experiments over the past thirty years, culminating in Open Field (2000, fluorescent lights, neon tubes), an entirely overwhelming work from 2000. It is completely surreal to ascend steps towards a TV screen of blue light, only to step through it and realise it is a room, entirely filled with neon light. There are no edges or a point of reference, looking back towards the doorway, the entrance room has changed colour and now it looks like the two-dimensional screen.
The artist specified all dimensions of this room, everything from the curvature of the walls, to the hidden light source, to the paint on the floor. Turrell has long been aware that the setting of an artwork contributes as much to the experience as the artwork itself.
The final installation is by American land artist, Walter De Maria. Time/Timeless/NoTime (2004, granite, mahogany, gold leaf, concrete) itself feels like approaching a throne. The entire floor is a flight of steps and in centre sits a massive, impassive, black granite sphere. I would like to call it majestic. At certain times of the day, sunlight enters from a cut in the roof and reflects off the polished surface to the gold-leaf rectangles on podiums around the room. Tadao Ando worked with the artist to design the space to fit with the artwork, orientating the room in order catch the sun’s path; another example of site-specific collaboration between artist and architect.
Walter De Maria considers the whole room the artwork, just as the Chichu Art Museum considers the whole building the museum, and after visiting, anyone would consider the whole of Naoshima Island an art experience.
Obje d’art situated in the coast near Chichu Art Museum (地中美術館), Naoshima (直島), Kagawa, Japan, Masa Sakano, Flickr
Words: Amelia Willis