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Museum Without Walls in Japan

Modern art has its pilgrims. We trek to obscure places to view major installations or to see magnificent collections in their entirety. As soon as I could, I went to Bilbao to see Frank Gehry's Guggenheim. I have driven across the desert to visit the Chinati Foundation, set up by Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas, and I have even dragged myself to Tîrgu Jiu in southern Romania to see Brancusi's Endless Column, recently restored by the World Monuments Fund. I am currently planning to go to Arizona to visit Roden Crater by the Light and Space artist James Turrell, who has spent more than 20 years transforming a natural volcano, to mind-blowing effect. My most recent such enterprise was a trip to Benesse Island, an art complex on Naoshima island, off Japan's southern coast, and it was in many ways the most pleasurable so far. The art is fabulous, the setting exquisite. Benesse Island would seem to invite intellectuals on honeymoon, Zen souls in search of inspiration, or passionate idealists ready for a moment's quiescence.

To get there, you take a train from any southern Japanese city to the Inland Sea and then board the ferry that plies an archipelago known as the "thousand islands." This is some of the least developed land in Japan; fishermen live in the same way they have lived for hundreds of years—rowing out each morning to try their luck, worshiping at unremarkable, yet somehow lovely shrines (which I could see from the ferry's deck), hanging out their nets to dry overnight.

After about an hour on the ferry, I reached the island of Naoshima and the village of Honmura. There I was met by a driver from Benesse House, who took me outside the village, through the scrubby landscape. It was hard not to notice, here and there, something strangely anomalous: a gigantic fiberglass pumpkin at the end of a dock, or a forest of carved rocks surrounding a hot tub, or a sort of enormous salad bowl on a brick plinth down by the sea. After we ascended a steep incline, I found myself at a building so cleverly integrated with the landscape that I could have passed by without seeing it. This is Benesse House, the center of the Benesse Island complex, and home to one of the world's great private art collections.

Tetsuhiko Fukutake, head of Benesse Corp., a large textbook publishing company, fantasized about building a museum where he could share his collection with people who genuinely wanted to experience it—but he did not like crowds and he did not like ostentation. So he came up with the implausible idea of building his museum here, on an island in the Inland Sea. After his death in the mid eighties, his son set up a campground furnished with yurts—which is still in use—and recruited one of Japan's leading architects, Tadao Ando, to design the museum and to incorporate 10 guest rooms into his scheme. Ando visited in the rain, fell in love with the site, and set to work, half carving and half constructing the building into the face of the island. In 1992, the doors of Benesse House opened, and in 1995, the Annex, with an additional six rooms, was completed.

Benesse Island is not just a museum. It is certainly not just a hotel. It is a synthesis of the two, and that synthesis feels very Japanese. It reminds me, more than anything, of the Buddhist monasteries where, for a small fee, you can stay with the monks to contemplate the world as they do, eating their food and living in graceful seclusion, neither monk nor tourist. The rooms at Benesse Island are not fancy, but they are extremely comfortable and elegant and they have good art in them—in mine hung some signed Keith Haring works on paper. Each room has a wall of glass, so that there seems to be nothing between you and the sea. Meals are served in a dining room that is part of the museum, and there, too, I was surrounded by art. There are always a few striking arrangements of flowers, and more of that amazing view, and the food is excellent and complex: meals of many laboriously crafted components, delicate and flavorful, all served in equally well-crafted ceramic dishes.

Tadao Ando's museum building is a study in simple geometries weighted against one another. The basic structure is a spiral in poured concrete (which seems to be a muted homage to the Russian Constructivist Tatlin) with a rectilinear wing in rough stone that houses the guest rooms. The whole thing is built into the hillside. To reach the Annex, at the top of the hill, you get into a cable car and are carried on an angle up to a wonder of fountains, a great central pool, and a radial arrangement of rooms. The style throughout is powerful but not grand. Below the museum there are a few exhibition spaces, also by Ando, that house large works of art. It is part of the charm of the place that it's very hard to tell quite where the museum ends and the natural landscape begins. Wild grasses grow uninterrupted over the roof of the building, and art is displayed partly in the museum, partly in the semi-museum spaces, and partly on the open seashore. Benesse is not a place for boundaries.

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