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Museum Without Walls in Japan

The works in the museum are by about two dozen artists, including Jasper Johns (his 1968 White Alphabets), Bruce Nauman (the giant neon 100 Live and Die), and Cy Twombly (a painting that is a gorgeous chalk-like scribble). There are also commissioned pieces by another dozen or so, including Kan Yasuda (meditative giant disks called Secret of the Sky), Jannis Kounellis (a work of rolled lead and driftwood and ceramics, positioned against a window like some industrial obstruction to the view), David Tremlett (wall paintings), and Richard Long (a stone circle on the floor and a painted circle on the wall). In general, there is one work by each artist; taken together, they form a miniature survey of late-20th-century art. My particular favorite is a series of photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto: at a glance, they look like multiple prints of a single image of ocean and sky, but on closer examination they turn out to be rather different. Each has its own mood. They are hung on the terrace of the museum so that if you sit in one of the chairs provided, the horizons of the photos line up with the actual horizon, and the sea you are gazing at lines up with the seas of the photos. The effect is ineffably magical.

Around the museum, scattered in various outdoor spots, are works and installations by Yayoi Kusama (the giant pumpkin), Alexander Calder (a standing fulcrum mobile that shifts with the wind), Dan Graham (Cylinder Bisected by Plane), and others. You can look through the catalogue (available in English and sold at the front desk) and then go on a treasure hunt, but it's nicer just to walk around, trying to guess who made the various pieces and what they mean, and then look at the catalogue to see if you were right and what you missed. I loved Walter De Maria's giant reflective globes, in which you can see yourself and the whole of this landscape. And there's Cai Guo-Qiang's Cultural Melting Bath, a version of which was shown a few years ago at the Queens Museum of Art: in the early evening, you can lie in a Western-style hot tub filled with medicinal herbs and experience cosmic harmony while you watch the sunset through the filigree shapes of giant scholar's rocks (the craggy stones Chinese literati once used to remind themselves of the landscape's rough splendor).

While you have to find the outdoor installations yourself, you are given a guide to the ones in the town of Honmura. A few old houses there, externally very much like all the others, have been restored with special care. Inside you'll find neither cooking pots nor futons rolled back for the day but, rather, room-sized installations known as the Art House Projects. Several projects are under construction; the most striking of the completed works are those by James Turrell and Tatsuo Miyajima. The Turrell house, restored in collaboration with Ando, mixes traditional, Zen, and Modernist elements in its external details. You walk into darkness, feel your way to a bench, and sit for at least 10 minutes before your eyes are able to discern, glowing out of the void, five rectangles of blue light, a cobalt intensity breaking the blackness and throbbing away from and then closer to you. It's pure meditation. In the Miyajima house, there is only a thin walkway around the edges for viewers; the entire place is flooded with water, and under the water numbers in red and green on a series of LED's change constantly, creating an effect that is eerie and haunting and unbelievably beautiful—at once primitive and futuristic.

These projects are the most uncanny of all. As you wander through the village to see them, stopping also, perhaps, at the town's two shrines, people nod and smile. They like the art in their town; moreover, they seem to like the smartly dressed visitors from Tokyo and New York who have become familiar to them. This is what is so particular about Benesse Island. Unlike many experiences of contemporary art, this one is very warm. Here, the intellect, the senses, and the heart all find their satisfactions.

Benesse Island, Naoshima; 81-87/892-2030, fax 81-87/892-2259; www.naoshima-is.co.jp; doubles from $210; admission $8. Bullet trains from Kyoto (1 hour, 15 minutes) put you in Okayama, from which you can take a train to Uno Harbor and catch one of 19 daily ferries to Naoshima Island. There is a frequent shuttle bus to Benesse Island. English is spoken at the complex.


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