Post #2: Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima, Japan
Eric Tse
March 15, 2020

This was one of my first real architectural trips. I say "real" because previously I had been to various parts of the world, but only with my parents, and generally on bus tours. I was quite fortunate to have an upbringing where travel was included, but you can only really do and see so much on a bus tour. This trip to Japan was part of my final studio in grad school, so definitely lots of architecture. The highlight for me was the Chichu Art Museum by Tadao Ando, a building I didn't know about and almost missed for being too cheap – I balked at the ~$25 entrance fee, but luckily traveller's remorse kicked in. Forgive the low quality photos – they prohibit photo taking so all I could get were some clandestine shots.
After the studio portion of the trip, where we saw iconic buildings like the Yokohoma Port Terminal (Foreign Office Architects, c. 2002) and Sendai Mediatheque (Toyo Ito, c. 2001), a few of us planned a trip to Naoshima art island. I wasn't so good at planning back then and was mostly tagging along, however I got separated from the group so it turned into a solo adventure. The plan was to wake up super early to check out the famous Tsukiji fish market, but I slept in that day… hence I missed the group. I did end up going to Tsukiji and witnessed the lively tuna auction (highly recommend), then I was off to Naoshima on my own.

The trip involved various modes of transportation – high speed train, bus, and ferry – totalling 4-5 hours from what I remember, then I rented a bike on the island and got to exploring. There are various art pieces strewn throughout the island, including work by Yayoi Kusama for example, as well as other buildings like the Benesse Museum. The Chichu Art Museum is mostly integrated into the landscape, so it doesn’t stick out like a regular building. The entrance was marked by some nondescript signage and nice concrete, ala typical Ando, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

This is one of my favourite architecture experiences because it feels like you are being transported to a different world – one crafted by light and shadow. The museum only had 4 exhibits, each prompting the viewer to contemplate their perception of the world. There were a couple by James Turrell, one by Walter de Maria, and a collection of paintings by Monet. The whole experience is mediated by a procession that alternates through enclosed dark spaces and outdoor light spaces. And then each exhibit becomes a moment of meditation in between, like the Turrell sky frame where you can sit on a bench below and watch the clouds pass by.

I often reminisce about my experience at Chichu when thinking about the principle of Zen-blime. Being embedded into the landscape, the building feels more like a gateway to another world rather than a destination in of itself. In typical Ando fashion, concrete is the material of choice, forming a monolithic shell through which one traverses between exhibits. The alternating indoor/outdoor sequences plunge you into darkness to become grounded, then open to an uplifting world of light. The oft-cited writings of Junichiro Tanizaki from "In Praise of Shadow" seem relevant here, describing how darkness gives form to light:
"Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of the shadows. Were the shadows to be banished from its corner, the alcove would in that instant revert to mere void. (34)"
Personally I also draw connections to Chiaroscuro, the Renaissance painting style characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark. I did a minor in art history during undergrad and this is one of the few things that stuck in my abysmal memory. I also remember being struck by a particular painting, perhaps Caravaggio, the details of which I can't recall, in some museum somewhere, maybe the Louvre. While I appreciate art, I am not usually struck by it, particularly classical pieces. But this painting really stands out in my memory as making an impression upon first sight. It was that feeling of the world fading away and time slowing, busy museum goers and sounds in distant perceptual background, while being drawn into something else. Similarly, Chichu is like processional and spatial Chiaroscuro, going from dark to light, into another world.
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