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Changing Perceptions: Contemporary Art on Naoshima Island

The art stays the same; you change. This is the conceptual center to James Turrell’s contemporary masterpiece Backside of the Moon. The intriguing art installation occupies a place known as Minamidera, one of the museums in the Art House Project on the island of Naoshima in Japan. It’s an island of only four thousand permanent inhabitants about an hour away from Okayama. There, the art house Minamidera, built in traditional wood and stone, blends subtly into a residential neighborhood, and yet every detail was carefully designed by Turrell in collaboration with renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando to perfectly mold the experience of viewing Backside of the Moon.

The entrance to the Minamidera is a series of turns down a darkening corridor. With each pivot along the black, charred-cedar walls visitors feel their way into the simple maze built within this unique museum. Leaving the sunlight behind them, they arrive in a vacuous room, seemingly devoid of light and sound. There in the sensory emptiness, they fumble to find seats on a long, hard bench along the back wall. Only dimly aware of those around them, each visitor is now left to wait. The only instructions to the experience are given while the visitors are still outside. The guides of Minamidera simply explain that the viewing will last for fifteen-minutes and should be conducted in complete silence. At Minamidera’s opening day in 1999, James Turrell claimed there has to be “one light inside and one light outside.” At first, the interior light appears to be darkness.

As the seconds draw on within Minamidera, participant responses to this slow anticipation vary. Some report the feeling of detachment from the external world as tranquil, describing their awareness as only extending to the edge of their existence. Others are unsettled by the indeterminate space and thick darkness. They begin counting out the time, trying to navigate the unmooring combination of no light and no sound. Participants must decide whether or not to keep their eyes open when there is nothing to see. Closing them feels more familiar, but it also feels like avoiding a reality of temporary blindness. It is a disorienting decision.

An interval of meditation or suspense before viewing an art installation is a common characteristic of contemporary Japanese art. In the darkness, some visitors are reminded of the nearby exhibit of artist Lee Ufan, who designed an elongated switchback path for viewers to walk down in preparation to see his famous pairing of a massive iron-ore block beside a massive slab of iron. This path, like the wait in Minamidera, compels the viewer to consider their state of awareness and to anticipate what they are about to see. The intervention of sorts helps transport the viewer from seeing ordinary sights of a rock and iron or darkness and light to realizing something out of the ordinary such as a work of art. Here in the inky silence of Turrell’s exhibit, many visitors begin to wonder if the seconds are primarily preparation or part of the work itself.

Then, ever so slowly from the obscurity of Minamidera, the participants realize they are observing a faint light from across the room. With each passing moment, vague suggestions of luminance coalesce into what appears to be a blue screen with orange framing on either side. As participants become confident that the glow is not merely their imagination, the fifteen minutes end, and a disembodied voice invites visitors to explore the room. By now, the room is lit by faint blue and orange hues, and the blue light forms a rectangle that could be a projection on the far wall. Stepping away from the bench out over the smooth floor quickly changes the visitors’ spatial perspectives, and closer inspection reveals that the “blue-screen” from across the room is, shockingly, a window into an adjunct blue space of indiscernible dimensions. And the viewers seemingly discover space out of nothing, like the light developed from darkness.

Suddenly a local guide reveals Turrell’s grand design: nothing in the room has changed since the visitors entered. Instead, each person’s gradually calibrating vision discerns the light out of the abyss—the light that was always there. Similarly, walking around the room alters and adjusts each visitor’s view of the back wall, dispelling his or her assumption of a “blue screen.” This is what Turrell calls interacting with “the physicality of light.” His medium of light and shadow forces the viewers to become an integral part of his works. The experience hinges as much on the onlooker’s perception as on the artist’s alteration of physical reality. Turrell relates this concept to the “illusion of the train,” or the moment “when you are in a train that is not moving and another train next to you moves, and you think you’re moving.” For Turrell, how we view reality can matter as much as what we are actually viewing. Minamidera demonstrates just one way our experience with art is fundamentally altered by our context, as we view the same work in different ways.


Western Art in an Eastern Space

One of the most striking examples of art transformed by its surroundings can be found on the other side of Naoshima Island. There, five late masterpieces by Claude Monet are permanently exhibited in the Chichu Museum. Each is part of his famous Water Lily series. The typical museum, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., exhibits Monet as a clear continuation of the 19th century western tradition. There, his works are hung in lofty, wood-paneled halls with carefully controlled lighting. Monet’s ephemeral impressionist landscapes are grounded in their ornate and gilded frames. Then, when the Chichu was completed in 2004, Monet became a western artist in an eastern space.

The Chichu shows Monet in a way completely original. As visitors walk toward the Chichu, the approach features a lily pond that introduces visitors to Monet’s own inspiration. (It’s a somewhat ironic reversal, as Monet famously created his own Japanese garden near his home in Giverny, France in 1893.) Once inside, visitors must remove their shoes and change into slippers to enter the Monet room. There they walk onto a sea of white marble tiles. One wonders if art feels different in socks and slippers. Could this be a type of preparation, like the “blindness” at Minamidera? Each of floor’s 700,000 pieces were individually hand-cut, but not all by experts. Local island residents chiseled many of the one-inch tiles, investing their own labor and so adding warmth through their hand-made imperfections. Moreover, one tile in ten thousand is tinged slightly orange to delicately offset the blue in Monet’s watery scenes. To take the place of artificial lighting, the ceiling features a skylight that runs along the edges. With the room’s rounded corners, natural light floods the entire space, changing the gallery with the time of day and weather outside. The result reflects Monet’s own efforts to capture light while painting in his garden studio. The paintings hang frameless, suspended in the transforming light. The minimalist room complements the five large masterpieces, as the Chichu’s design fulfills Monet’s hope for the presentation of his Water Lily series: the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.”

Through inventive presentation, Monet’s artwork is transformed from impressions at the turn of the century to current, even contemporary, interactions of space, light, and form.


Changing Perceptions

Minamidera is one the art houses on Naoshima; the first art house is the two-century-old home called Kadoya that houses a work by Tatsuo Miyajima called Sea of Time ’98. Among wood rafters and paper walls, Sea of Time is a dark pool in a traditional Japanese room. Visitors walk around the edge gazing into the serene and still black water. There, 125 digital LED counters colored red, yellow, and green sit submerged just under the fragile liquid surface. Each counter counts from one to nine and repeats, again and again. None of the counters include zero, creating an infinite progression and invoking the local Buddhist belief in reincarnation. For the artist Miyajima, the design “is a question of how we can bring to existence a contemporary work of art in the unique space of Naoshima and the unique space of a Japanese house.” He would creates this harmony by having the rate of each counter set by a local island resident according to how quickly they feel time moves. Looking into the pool, visitors watch 125 ways to experience the passing of time. Each island resident faces the same objective minutes and hours, but finds their own individual expression of that reality.

The question becomes what do these examples of contemporary art on Naoshima Island have in common? Simply put, each one illustrates how we can see the same works of art in different ways. James Turell’s Backside of the Moon alters the perspective between a single individual and a single piece of art within fifteen minutes. Assumptions must be questioned and perceived reality changed. Meanwhile, Monet’s Water Lily series must be similarly re-read in the new light of the contemporary exhibition space at the Chichu, where the luminance captured in Monet’s garden changes with the weather in Japan. Finally, Sea of Time demonstrates how the human perception of time can fluctuate, even among neighbors.

Considering these works of art becomes a simultaneous acknowledgement of common ground and realization of diverse experience. And the more we observe, the more our own entrenchment in any single perspective might begin to change.

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