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The Austere Art Of Teshima Art Museum

Appreciate nature's tranquility


At first glance, Teshima art museum appears to be a vast space dedicated to nothing. There are no pillars, no furniture, and, most surprising of all for an art museum, no apparent kind of art within its austere interior.


What it does have in place of paintings or sculptures, instead, is water. Groundwater seeps up towards the surface through the semi-porous floor, forming puddles. The two circular openings which frame the trees outside allow the wind to shape the water that rises, gathering it together in some places. In others, it shapes so that the water trickles in thin, shimmering streams, racing to meet other puddles. This is the art of Rei Naito’s Matrix, and it is in fact the sole piece of artwork that this museum has.


The museum itself, established in 2010, is a collaboration between the artist and the architect Ryue Nishizawa. As the name suggests, the museum is located on Teshima Island, and very much like its neighbours in the Seto Inland Sea, the island has constellations of art projects throughout.  The museum's shell structure is pearl white, like an egg and almost as thin (the shell is a mere 25cm in thickness) and it appears to emerge from the greenery of the hill and the terraced rice paddy alongside it.


Teshima Art Museum(Photo from: commons.wikimedia.org)

Many of Nishizawa's buildings have a quality of understatement about them, and the best thing is that you don't even have to look at his buildings to know this — the website of SANAA, in which he is a co-founder, is delightfully stark and embodies this muted sensibility. Most of SANAA's buildings embodies a plainness and a lightness — aesthetic qualities which stems from what the architectural historian, Terunobu Fujimori, has dubbed the "white school" of architecture. With its shell-like appearance, there is a sense that the museum has floated down from the air somewhere and landed to rest amongst the island's greenery.


One soon becomes aware, upon entering the museum, that (on the surface, at least) there is not much to do. You can watch the water move. Or perhaps, if you look at the trees outside which are framed by the museum's ovals, you'll notice a thread of white ribbon attached to it, and you can watch this string drift with the wind. There is a tension in this presentation, one that is at odds with the very modern sensibility to always be doing something, rather than being. Nature's tranquility is very much part of the presentation of the museum's art, and in this museum, and in Teshima, where you are surrounded by the birds, the wind and the sounds of the sea, it encourages you to dwell on it in appreciation. 


Panorama of Teshima Art Museum(Photo from: commons.wikimedia.org)

So then, the museum has much more in common with religious places, like a church, where the sacredness of the place itself can be felt. Much of what constitutes our experience of being alive today seems to be about the frenetic need to document a representation of a thing, rather than experiencing it: anyone who has seen the beeline towards the Mona Lisa and the throngs of people who come not to see it, but to take a picture, knows this to be true.


All one can do is stand, or find a place to sit and experience the building itself as a space, and watch the water flow and the string move and think about what it means. One also begins to sense that the fact that the museum is a collaboration between artist and architect is a statement that reaffirms the idea that architecture itself can be art.


Inside Teshima Art Museum

(Photo from: commons.wikimedia.org)

It is art because it manages to circumvent, through its understated power, the instinct that people have to covet anything that is beautiful as the backdrop of their lives. The “no photography” rule within the interior certainly helps with this. Granted, there is a separate building nearby that contains a gift shop and a cafe, and things of that sort which represent the straightforward commerce of tourism, but this feels less like an artistic compromise and more of an approach to facilitate the museum, which itself feels pure in its emptiness. We all need to eventually use a restroom somewhere, I suppose.


In this emptiness, it is easy then, to think that watching the water trickle is like watching paint dry. I advise that this might be a cynical way to go about it, but then again, it might also be true, in the sense that there is an important point in observing such an activity. To watch something unfurl slowly is to experience the passage of time itself, and to be reminded of the rarity of being fascinated by something so simple as water and the wind, and with this, we regain a curiosity and attention that we have forgotten we've had, that children have in spades, that was waiting there for us, all along.


For information on how to get to Teshima Art Museum, you can access this webpage on the official website.

607 Karato, Teshima, Tonosho-cho, Shozu-gun, Kagawa Pref., Japan 7614662