Looking beyond art’s boundaries

Teshima island's new museum encourages viewers to see art in a very different light

by Julian Worrall

Art, it is often said, is a lens through which to see the world differently. “Differently” could mean more intensely, or more clearly, or in a new and unfamiliar way. This inevitably requires a separation between the artwork and the world. Art so understood thus sets up territories and borders, the lines that define where the ordinary world ends and the art one begins. Mostly, this is straightforward enough: A painting has its frame; a sculpture its plinth; even in the more challenging categories of installation and performance art these boundaries are typically that of the space that the artwork and its audience occupies.

But what if the artwork demands to include itself, the space that houses it and even the surrounding environment as integral to its conception and perception? Where does the art stop and the world begin? Or could this separation in fact be transcended in pursuit of a new understanding that encompasses both?

These meditations were prompted by a visit last month to the opening of the Teshima Art Museum, a major new addition to the burgeoning collection of contemporary art and architecture populating the Seto Inland Sea, under the Medici-like patronage of Soichiro Fukutake, the president of Benesse Holdings.

The result of a six year collaboration between the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa, and the artist Rei Naito, the “museum” is in fact less a facility to house artworks than a gigantic art installation in its own right, set amid a breathtaking landscape of terraced rice paddies high above soft sea horizons.

W hen first seen from the road, the museum appears as a strikingly alien presence: two smooth globules, one large and spreading, one small and beadlike, emerging pristine from the ground as if they were the long-buried shells of eggs laid by some mythical creature. A pathway first leads you through a copse of trees and past a sea view before arriving at the entry to the larger volume. You enter the space shoeless through a narrow funnel, which seamlessly expands to a vast interior cavern, 40 by 60 meters. Two large circular apertures open to the sky, filling the space with light and birdsong, which dance off the smoothly polished concrete in soft reflections and vibrant echoes. Several fine gossamer ribbons hang from the edges of the holes, registering the slightest movement of air. The space appears to capture and distill its surroundings.

But this is not all: Added to this distillate of the real is a slice of pure magic. You soon notice that puddles of clear water are dotted across the spreading expanse of the floor, which gather and merge into larger pools under the apertures in the roof. Closer inspection reveals this miniature landscape to be in constant motion — glistening rivulets dart from place to place, following imperceptible topographies.

These puddles and streams are fed by tiny springs: Droplets of groundwater are beading out through the concrete floor. Tiny white discs and spheres affixed to the floor and ceiling form another family of elements, using a similar vocabulary of delicate objects that Naito has used elsewhere in her work. All is subtle, yet filled with animation.

In this creation, there is no boundary between the artwork, the space that enfolds it and the energies that animate it. “Matrix,” the title given to the work, well expresses this condition. At the museum’s opening press conference, in halting and moving language, Naito described her artistic goals as “revealing the linkage of all things, the infinite connections of life on earth; its hidden bliss. It is beyond the self, beyond the human; it is a presence that is there in the space. Space is nature itself. I want to reveal the wondrousness of this.”

Nishizawa likewise emphasized the erasure of boundaries between art, its frame, and the surrounding environment. “The architecture aims to create a dynamic space that is both closed for the work of art and the environment, and yet open at the same time. Our goal is to generate a fusion of the environment, art, and architecture, and we hope that these three elements work together as a single entity.”

The brilliance of this realization reflects both the sureness of touch in Fukutake’s artistic patronage and the clarity of his vision for a culture-led revitalization of the region. Describing himself as “a revolutionary whose weapons are art and architecture,” Fukutake’s aspirations are deeply bound up with reviving local environments and landscapes. At Teshima this involves overcoming the stigma of pollution that has resulted from the past exploitation of the island as a dumping site for industrial waste.

So the museum presents not only an artistic vision of harmony between art and environment, it also serves as a powerful critique of environmental indifference. With its dazzling presence surrounded by golden rice terraces, it could be said that the aesthetic treasures that the museum is framing are precisely those of the landscape itself. Suddenly, art and the world swap places, and Teshima itself starts to glow with the luminous aura that suffuses all great works of art.

The Teshima Art Museum is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (till 5 p.m. from the beginning of March), closed Mon., Tue. and from Dec. 27-Jan. 4. It will also be closed for maintenance from Jan. 24-28. For more information, visit www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/teshima-artmuseum/index.html Julian Worrall is assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at Waseda University’s Institute for Advanced Study.