Dipping into modern art at Naoshima’s bathhouse

Filled with collages, posters, exotic plants and even an elephant, 'I Love Yu' promises to be an unusual bathing experience

by Andrew Maerkle

At 2 p.m. on July 26, operations commenced at the first public bathhouse on the island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea between the mainland of Honshu and Shikoku. Titled Naoshima Bathhouse “I Love Yu” (the “Love” represented by a heart symbol and “Yu” in kanji form) and designed by artist Shinro Ohtake in collaboration with the creative unit graf, the bathhouse is the latest addition to a growing collection of art treasures commissioned for Naoshima by Soichiro Fukutake, president of the Benesse Corporation based in nearby Okayama on the mainland.

Since the 1992 opening of the Benesse House Museum on Naoshima, Fukutake’s Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation has sponsored site-specific projects by individual artists as well as the construction of facilities such as the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Art Museum, which launched in 2004 and is home to a suite of Monet “Water Lilies” paintings.

The bathhouse is envisioned as both a work of art and a communal gathering point. In a statement released to the press, Fukutake said that the bathhouse “was initiated out of my feelings of gratitude to the people of Naoshima for their support of the previous various art projects executed on the island.” He expressed the hope that the bathhouse will be “loved by residents and help support their vitality.”

The bathhouse, located on a 326-sq.-meter plot close to the island’s Mianoura Port, was purpose built and entailed over a year of production by Ohtake and graf.

Born in Tokyo in 1955, Ohtake is known for working with found materials and pop- cultural detritus. Among his representative works is a series of “scrapbooks” filled with dense layers of pages cut out from vintage comics, packaging material and other ephemera that are collaged together and often painted over with abstract compositions. Taking on sculptural qualities, the scrapbooks can weigh up to 29 kg.

The bathhouse expands the scrapbook concept from sculptural to architectural dimensions. Capped by a white neon outline of a reclining nude woman with a red neon sign of the phonetic character for “yu” — referring to the hot water of the baths — extending jauntily into the sky above her head, the building’s facade is covered with an eclectic mix of patterned Indonesian tiles, found posters and exotic plants, while its roof supports a squat, treehouse-like structure of no apparent purpose.

Inside, the facilities conform to those of the standard public bathhouse. Upon entering, visitors pass a reception counter on their way to male and female changing rooms, and then proceed to the baths, which are separated by a white partition that extends down the center of the open, rectangular hall.

However, Ohtake has used the layout of the bathhouse to create a series of frames that invite meditation on the physical act of seeing. Most notably, he has installed, at the bottom of each bath, collages of Edo Period shunga erotic prints, stills from 1960s roman porn movies and vintage Thai record sleeves among other materials. The scintillating collages can only be viewed through the water, but they constantly shift in and out of focus with the ripples caused by other bathers. Try to move in for closer inspection, and your own movements foil the attempt.

Other details include a life-size elephant perched on the bath partition and a canopy-like skylight coated with broad strokes of red, green, blue and yellow paint. Windows at the far ends of the baths provide glimpses into a cactus-filled greenhouse, while sliding doors that lead from the changing rooms to the baths are ornamented on each side with colorful stained-glass compositions.

In his own statement about the bathhouse project, Ohtake explicitly linked the idea of the baths with memory, explaining, “There may be much common ground between public bath spaces and the filing drawers of human memory.” As such, he has turned the bathhouse into an unreliable archive, an intensely informational space that toys with the bodily and psychological limits of vision.

In attendance at the July 25 bathhouse preview, Tomoko Yabumae, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, told The Japan Times that the work opened a wide range of associations for her. “The bathhouse is fundamental to people’s way of living here,” she said. “So for me there is an eroticism present in the work — in its connection with life functions — similar to that apparent in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ urinal sculpture.”

Keiko Aso, from the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama, noted that because of its functionality, the work will be deeply rooted in daily life on the island. “The bathhouse will be used by many people and even succeeding generations,” she told The Japan Times. “So I think one of the really interesting points about the work is the question of how its value will change over time.”

The Kyoto-based architect Waro Kishi contrasted the bathhouse and museum experiences. “Presenting art in an environment like a bathhouse where you are both physically and psychologically vulnerable, the project succeeds in creating an experience that is completely opposite from what you might encounter in the ‘white cube’ of the museum,” he said.

Locals interviewed by The Japan Times on July 25 were all aware of the opening of the bathhouse but had mixed feelings about its potential impact on the community of just over 3,500 residents. Ayumi Hamaguchi, whose family runs the Little Plum Bar adjacent to the bathhouse, and whose grandmother provided the land for the bathhouse, said, “It’s a good attraction for tourists but it’s also something that locals can use on a daily basis.”

A representative from the Naoshima Tourism Association, which administers the bathhouse operations, said that the bathhouse was the kind of project that could only happen on Naoshima. However, he cautioned, “It’s hard to say whether locals will use it. Everybody has a bath at home, but they can go to the bathhouse to see something special. Some people might not get that much out of it, and others might be inspired by it.”