There is a wonderful aesthetic unique to Japan. It is spare and austere. Like some modern architecture, there is a reduction that forces you to focus.
This is more than the Western wannabe of the Zen garden, which appealed so much to the warlords of the Kamakura period. Like modern Americans, they subscribed to a code of self-centered self-reliance. Perhaps there is more room for the self when the field of view is not cluttered.
There is an ancient aesthetic in Japan that is more than simply simplicity.
It is more than the voids in the landscape scrolls and screens which are not voids at all, but undelineated space for the viewer to enter.
It is an understanding that art, like nature, is there to direct your attention, and that the object and viewer only exist together.
But what strikes me on this tour as we bask in contemporary art and architecture, is the unbroken connection between ancient and modern Japanese art, architecture and aesthetics. I have always seen how Tadao Ando loved concrete the way a temple builder loves wood, and to see the stacked bark roofs and the lovingly polished Ando concrete is to see an appreciation of materiality that goes back a millennium or more.
We visited the Miho Museum in Shiga prefecture, lovingly designed by the American architect I. M. Pei with reference to and reverence for place. This was a stunning museum experience not only because the building was primarily underground, but because each gallery focused on a limited number of items and displayed each to its fullest, beginning with a Syrian mosaic and a massive leaning Gandhara Buddha (photography is not allowed in the exhibits so we will have to make do without the objects.)
Each room had perhaps six to eight pieces – Greek sculpture, Persian relief, Egyptian statuettes but the lighting and presentation were exquisite and you realized you saw more and retained more than the typically more “full” gallery. Perhaps you can see the forest through a single tree.
Our Japanese guide is constantly reminding us that our amazing meals are meant to be enjoyed with our eyes as well as our mouth, and even the bento box caresses each item with its own frame, its own box to present it as a more satisfying experience.
We went to Naoshima island and saw Chichu museum, designed by Tadao Ando a dozen years ago. Again, the museum is largely underground and was designed to display but three artists – the Frenchman Claude Monet and the Americans James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Again, no photographs are allowed, but each artist had a space and there were a total of eight works – five Monet, three Turrell and one de Maria, and the experience was fulfilling.
The Benesse Museum on Noashima has been around a quarter-century but it, too, is very spare in presentation – an entire triple-height room devoted to a single Bruce Nauman piece, a skylit courtyard devoted to another piece, and Sugimoto’s photos that are displayed on exterior walls and even a mile away in the distance.
The Japanese aesthetic was perhaps most pronounced at the Teshima Art Museum on a nearby island. It is a concrete shell structure of the most exquisitely polished concrete I have seen, meant to house a single work consisting of water droplets that emerge from the floor and flow at various speeds in various directions. Architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito. Mesmerizing, liberating.
We saw much more and I could say more, but I won’t right now.