Chichu Art Museum (which literally translates to Art Museum in the Earth) was built by famous, self-taught architect Tadao Ando. The grounds are completely underground so as not to blight the stunning natural landscape of the island. A lot of the pieces in the museum are built around specific dimensions and compass directions allowing light into the rooms to interact with the installations. The rooms are supposed to be magnificent pieces of art in themselves. I’m craaaaaazy excited to check this place out!
Here’s a birds-eye view (it’s another ‘no pictures’ museum so everything below will be either from the museum website or from the postcards and book we bought after the tour (which I’d totally recommend getting))
We follow a perfectly uniform concrete staircase down into the ground and are greeted by a museum guide who leads us to a wall behind a white line. We are asked to remove our shoes. “One moment. Please wait for the others to exit”. We don’t even know what’s behind the wall. After a few minutes a group of five people come around the corner and quietly nod and gather their shoes. The guide motions with her arm and allows us to pass into the room.
The moment I come around the corner I am instantly affected. Overwhelmed. What is this, Stendhal syndrome? I felt it once before, in front of the David.
I step around the corner and there is a massive Monet Waterlilies piece on the next wall in front of me. No wait, there is a concrete space between where we are and a room in the distance. The doorway of that room perfectly frames the Monet which is actually set at the back of the next room. The doorway looks like it’s the frame for the art. The measured depth to the viewpoint. It’s flawless.
This pic from the book is close to my experience but off centered a bit and shot from below. It does no justice to the feeling of coming around that corner onto the impeccably framed Waterlilies. But even looking at this now I’m brought right back to it.
The room is all naturally lit from slits in the roof. Even the floor is cool. As we walk towards it the room expands on either side to reveal not the one, but five massive Monet pieces. This effect of the evolving art upon approach is nothing short of genius within genius. And this is why they only let 5 people into the room at once, so each gets time alone with each piece.
And they are remarkable pieces
We stand in front of each Monet for as long as it takes to feel you’ve scoured each masterful stroke and detail. Still slightly overwhelmed we return to our shoes.
The guide points us down a hallway. It leads to a sloping concrete ramp with just a small slit in the wall looking onto a courtyard. The lines and the lighting make art right out of the space itself. This place..
All of the spaces between exhibits were like this, sort of a traveling art piece to walk through. I’ll put them all here as one unit. There is no denying Tadao Ando’s brilliance when you move through these spaces. And depending on the time of day, the light from the openings and the shadows cast will change the lines in the room. The pieces change over time. It’s unreal
We get to another section and again have no idea what to expect. Honestly, I could leave already and be perfectly happy with my experience. But no, there is lots more.
Next up are installations by James Turrell.
The first is called Open Sky. It is a simple room that has an opening in the ceiling. LED lights cast a subtle glow into the room and mix with the natural lighting, melding the two together. It seems like a simple effect but the results are otherworldly. I would love to see this at night. Apparently the colors change over time. A soft red or orange with the stars through the opening sounds amazing.
Here is a pack of 6 postcards showing alternate lighting in the room
Next is ‘Afrum, Pale Blue’. It is another ‘simple’ room installation where a light is projected in the corner. It is in the shape of a three-dimensional cube and seems to be a solid object floating in the corner. On approach you realize that it is a trick of depth and dimension. But the cube feels like it has a weight and gravity to it.
Those two were cool but the third one blew my fucking mind. It’s called ‘Open Field’.
Our group of five are led to a staircase rising up to an open door frame. The interior of the room is orange and beyond the doorway is a soft blue. There is no explanation and I’m not sure what we’re even looking at.
Staring at it straight on seems like a surreal floating violet rectangle above a ziggurat
That’s super cool but then the guide asks us to walk up the steps in unison. It feels a bit like a ritual. Each of us slowly ascends to the precipice. The room expands behind the doorway into a deep blue space of indiscernible depth. “Please, go in”, and we each tentatively take a step inside. Now we are surrounded in blue. It’s disorienting. Are we on a slope? I can’t really tell where the room ends. I walk slowly towards the back. Whoa this is a trip, I can’t tell when my feet are going to hit the ground. I’m reaching out with my hands but there’s nothing there. It’s not darkness though, just a bathing deep blue light that seems to get to a deeper purple near the back of the room. I look around and everyone is in the same boat, cautiously creeping to the other side of the room. The only thing that could make this better is if we were all in astronaut suits.
I reach the end. Can’t tell if I’ll fall off the side of the planet or not. I turn around and look back towards the entrance and am captivated again. Now the doorway is framing the room we entered from like it’s a giant floating orange rectangle surrounded in purple light. The opposite effect as when we came into the first room with the steps up here. It’s majestic, how is this even possible? Is the entrance the art piece? Is it the whole experience? This might be the coolest thing ever imagined.
We all make our way slowly through the ether back to the entrance. Everyone’s expressions are a mix of confusion, whimsy and astonishment.
Ok Chichu, what the hell else do you have in here? This place is insane.
The next exhibit is by Walter De Marier, entitled ‘Time / Timeless / No Time’. It is also an installation piece in a large room. We come around the corner into the room and take a second to adjust to it. There is a massive black sphere in the center of the room. A set of concrete steps leads up to it, flattens and then continues up behind it. Along the walls are sets of gold pillars in threes. There is a rectangular hole in the ceiling shining light down on to the top of the sphere and cutting through the pillars to cast shadows on the wall. This is bonkers. Is this a clock? What’s going on in here? Has the vibe from the Presence album cover by Zeppelin to it but not creepy.
There are only a few people in the room and everyone is sneaking as quiet as they can around it so as to respect each others enjoyment of the space. I walk up to the sphere in the middle and it is absolutely perfect. It distorts the room in its reflection and offers a whole new universe to explore the space in. I slowly walk around it and the lines and lighting smoothly transpose with my movements. The room curves around it distorting the angles. We get up to the top and look towards the entrance. The wall we entered through is also filled with golden pillars. I’m floored.
The 27 pillars are all gold rectangles, triangles and pentagons. None of the sets have the same combination. Light reflects off of them differently depending on where you stand in the room and what gets refracted off the sphere. I can imagine sitting in here all day witnessing the shifting lines and light in the room as the sun passes by overhead.
We sit on the steps for a bit and watch. Move to the other side and watch. Watch it through the sphere. Back down the steps and watch. From one set of pillars to the other. The light ever so slowly changing, the room evolving. It’s astonishing.
When we feel it’s left a significant enough mark we quietly exit back through the door.
Thank you Chichu our minds are expanded a million fold! Just blown wide open. We exit to the gift shop and gobble up a mitt full of postcards and a great book that details each art piece (some pictures shown above). Holy shit, everyone who recommended this place was absolutely right. It is hands down one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my entire fucking life. We still have Benesse House and whatever we stumble across on Naoshima to see today, but if anything tops this in the next five years I will be pleasantly surprised.