Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Light and darkness

Naoshima, where we are staying for two days, is sprinkled with art installations, including a series of houses that have been reconstructed and then serve as galleries for a permanent collection. The most striking of the installations was (in my opinion) in Minimidera, built by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The piece inside is by James Turell, called the Back Side of the Moon. The docent at the door briefs you before you go in to this incredibly dark, silent spot.

You walk through a short bent passageway so dark that you have to put your hands on the wall to feel you way. The wall is slightly corrugated and I could hear the fingers of the person in front of me brushing up against the wall, the tap of the docent on the wall warning us of a bend. You reach the room and the docent there firmly took my arm and guided me to a bench to sit. She murmured instructions in Japanese, which of course were lost on me. I sat there waiting for my eyes to adjust. At first, all I could see were the afterimages, the places where the bright sunshine outside had left my cones saturated. They were sharp and angular, the shapes of the walls and plantings outside.

After a few minutes I was surprised to find my eyes had adjusted and I could see the faint outline of what looked like a screen on the wall in front of me. The docent invited us to stand up and walk around if we felt comfortable (thank heavens we are traveling with Hank, who is fluent in Japanese). I walked tentatively toward the screen, though assured that the floor was flat, I was still afraid of falling. I then realized that there were two light sources to the sides of the space, looking like misty tunnel entrances. I nearly walked into the back wall, there was so little sense of depth in this space. I paced between the two diffuse regions of light at either end of the room, fingering my prayer rope and breathing prayers.

By the time we were gently shooed out of the room I could stand at the entrance and see people walking about, slowly feeling out the room. I want to go back, it is an incredible place to sit, to stand, to walk, to pray.

The unabashed slurping of the noodles in the restaurant at lunch was a fascinating thing to listen to, the sounds of joyful eating.

We saw several more art houses in Naoshima, including Ishibashi, which looks much like the abbot's quarters at the temples we saw in Kyoto. The house seems like a sketch of a Zen Buddhist monastery, wall screens are partially painted, with intricate detail in one corner, fading out to nothing. The screens are by a noted artist Hiroshi Senju, who painted the screens in Philadelphia's Japanese house in Fairmount Park.

Go'o Shrine, a Shinto shrine on top of the hill on the far side of the island from where we are staying has an installation as well. A glowing set of glass steps rises up the from the ceremonial floor to the shrine doors. Underneath the shrine is a narrow passageway (you nearly have to sidle in) lined in oxidized metal, which bends sharply at the end where there is another glass staircase, reflected in a pool at your feet. The pool of water is so still it looks almost like a glass mirror, the staircase is lit from above (the top step is embedded in the ground above). I wished I had my tripod to take a photo -- and that they were allowed!

We went back to Minamidera. I walked in the space again, amazed at how little light you need in such utter darkness to see your way. There is no way a photograph could ever capture the sense of light and the simultaneous sense of endless depths and no depth.


  1. I half expected this post to follow with a "lightnings and clouds" or " dew and rain" or "frost and chill"--all breathtaking.

  2. That was in my mind! There were clouds and dew and rain and chill, but no frost or lightnings in this spot...