My first stop, after taking off my shoes, is the Monet gallery, a naturally lit room purpose-built to showcase five paintings from the artist’s “Water Lilies” series, including a breathtaking six-meter-long diptych, the pride of the collection. Nearly blind, his eyes clouded with cataracts, Monet lunged at these canvases like an ecstatic stabbing at the world, his vision of the water lilies coming from someplace within, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
A small sign points me to the next gallery. I wait my turn, as only a few people are allowed inside at the same time. A museum guide then escorts us into a white-walled space where we climb a set of steps that leads into a room suffused with violet light. Edges disappear as I walk farther into the space. When I turn my gaze back toward the entry the white gallery wall suddenly appears as radiant saffron—yellow vibrations borne out of a violet field, a hallucinatory shift of color. This is Open Field, one of three light installations by American artist James Turrell. It’s the optical equivalent to a Monet.
The third artist in the Chichu collection is Walter De Maria, who, like both Turrell and Monet, is focused on the phenomenon of light and time. His piece, titled Time/Timeless/No Time, embodies the ceremony and cadence of a cathedral and is sited at the very bottom of the museum off of a sunken courtyard filled with chunks of rough marble. A massive orb of granite polished to a mirror’s sheen sits beneath a rectangular skylight on a platform midway up a set of wide concrete stairs. Along the signature Ando walls, 27 trios of four-foot-tall gilded mahogany pillars milled as triangles, squares, or pentagons are positioned on the ground, midway up the wall, and nearly to the ceiling. The granite orb reflects it all: the pillars, the stairs that wrap around it like a collar necklace, the mutable sky. The gallery’s east-west alignment—like the Seto Inland Sea itself—allows for the sun’s path and intervening clouds to cast an ever-changing light. When sunlight hits one or a few of the golden pillars they become luminous organ pipes resounding a silent music—could this be what’s meant by music of the spheres? It does not elude me that De Maria was also a composer of music.
I catch up with Macduff at the edge of a pond as he’s photographing Slag Buddha 88, a work by Tsuyoshi Ozawa that comprises 88 small Buddha statues cast from industrial waste dumped illegally on Teshima island. It’s just one of 20 outdoor installations scattered around the Benesse House area, each a discovery tucked into the landscape. Other highlights include Cai Guo-Qiang’s Cultural Melting Bath, a congregation of craggy Chinese scholars’ rocks centered on a working hot tub near the beach (hotel guests can book a soak); several balletic works by George Rickey; and Yayoi Kusama’s giant, oft-photographed fiberglass Pumpkin, which sits alone at the end of a concrete pier looking out toward Shikoku and the Hershey’s Kiss–shaped island of Ogijima.
A lingering evening stroll along a beach scattered with shells and sea glass leads us eventually to the Issen restaurant at Benesse House Museum, which features pieces (many of them site-specific) from more than two dozen international artists, including Jackson Pollock, Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman. We are served a multicourse kaiseki meal—pickled vegetables, sashimi, custards, grilled kobe beef—while enjoying both a view to the artwork and to the sea, where I track the pattern of lights from ships passing between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan.
The next day, a brief ride on a small passenger boat takes us across to Teshima, a 14-square-kilometer island of about 1,000 people. One of the missions of Benesse is to help revitalize local communities with aging, dwindling populations, and Teshima, still recovering from a major industrial waste scandal that goes back to the 1970s, was an obvious candidate for the company’s largesse. Benesse (the name means “to live well”) expanded its art program here in 2010, including the island in its inaugural Setouchi Art Festival and overseeing the installation of some groundbreaking projects.
We hop a local bus to tour the three main sites, starting with Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur, which overlooks a desolate beach on the island’s northeast tip. An ongoing project, the small building records individual heartbeats, including yours if you are willing to add to this archive of the most primal drumbeat of all, the human heart.
Located in the livelier Ieura area, Yokoo House is a collaboration between renowned painter Tadanori Yokoo and the young Tokyo-based architect Yuko Nagayama, whose restoration of the century-old home (complete with hand-hewn beams and vernacular charred-wood siding) introduced screens of red- or smoke-tinted glass. Inside, Yokoo’s plucky mix-up of traditional with pop is evident both in his vivid paintings as well as in a walled rock garden of cadmium-red boulders positioned around a mosaic-tiled stream; the latter is glassed over, allowing me to walk over this chromatic waterscape. My senses are turned about when I enter a tall, cylindrical silo-like structure whose inner surface is wallpapered with reproductions of pastel-colored postcards of Japanese waterfalls. It’s with some trepidation that I step nervously out onto what seems to be a bottomless well. When I look upward and see the ceiling mirror that creates this brilliant illusion, my jittering knees are finally calmed.