The Joy of Being.
Updated: Apr 13, 2019
I have visited many temples in my life, belonging to all sorts of creeds.
And yet, this is the first time I entered a temple. This is a temple.
I had no intimation of what would befall me, as I arrived on Teshima and Naoshima islands, the art islands across from Okayama, in the Seto Inland Sea. A rich tycoon had this bright idea and invested in building a series of museums on these islands, which others then took up. The project started in 1987 and now it's become a treasure hunt for us, running around the islands with our maps in our hands, looking for the installations hidden in nooks and crannies or in plain sight, illuminated at night, to be rediscovered by daylight. Buses run everywhere, but you can also rent a bike or walk, as I did.
So I walked on the road, by the forests, admiring the sea below, listening to bamboo stalks clunk against each other, hearing what I believed to be the water inside them rush and flow, until I arrived at the rice terraces which had been re-built (after years of abandon, due to pollution) together with locals, specifically as a scenery for Ryue Nishizawa's building, built for Rei Naito's installation.
I have never seen an art project as comprehensive as this. A scenery, built for a building, built for an installation. But then, I realized during the two days I spent here, I actually haven't seen much of the world. I now feel terrifyingly, deliciously ignorant – there is still so much to discover, it seems.
A maze of rice terraces led me to what seemed like a giant dollop of a being nestled in a landscape... Later, I found out it was in the shape of a water droplet. So a "giant dollop of a being" was actually a very apt description! From the very start, I thought I would see some abstract masturbation of a self-satisfied contemporary artist. I was skeptical. I was unprepared. The surprise would be the greater, the more wonderful for this lack of preparation. I am evil, because I will ruin it all for those who will now read this. But how prepared can you be to enter the Temple of What Is?
I bought my ticket from the beautiful ticket shop, from beautiful, soft-spoken young people all dressed in soft grey coats. I walked through the pathway, politely indicated as "route." It's a narrow, winding path, bordered by pretty weeds and trees. You arrive at a series of low shelves, where you are invited to take off your shoes and wear the most comfortable slippers you have ever worn. The girl then explains that there will be little objects and water on the floor, and that I should be careful, and that I should be quiet, and that it was forbidden to take photographs. Ok, I say, mystified.
I entered through the narrow cement doorway.
And faltered. And stopped. Stopped in wonder.
That is the word. The leitmotiv of these 2 days. Space.
Une espace. A space. Alan. That's it. I could say a space of being, a space of light - but it's simply a space.
Calm beige cement, rounded, not a single straight line. Absolute harmony created by absolute homogeneity in color, but refreshingly broken by the two humongous and asymmetrical skylights, creating a play of shadows and light, letting in the blue of the sky, the white clouds, the surrounding trees, and as you move, a mountain. The wind coming in, sometimes, a few rare leaves flowing in – birdsong. Not more than 20 people came and went, sometimes we were less than 10.
I faltered, stopped, walked on. What was going on here? What were those people looking at, down on the floor? I saw small puddles of water, no doubt rain left from the night before – but was it really water? Or plastic made to look like water? It looked like mercury. But – look; ripples on the surface. It is water. I walked on. A much bigger, central puddle…
Then slowly I started to distinguish droplets of water, small and big, stagnant and running, and suddenly the whole floor was shimmering with continuous movement of water, all around the central puddle. Rivulets, glistening serpents of water, gliding forth on the slightly inclined, smooth floor, converging with other rivulets, taking along indecisive droplets, rushing towards the central puddle… Then droplets, rolling along, growing fatter, unexplainably coming to a stop in front of a bigger droplet, staying there passive until joined by a tiny droplet which changes the equation, or by a gust of wind, or a small insect stopping by for a drink… It is hypnotic, all this glistening, gliding, rippling movement…
There are small objects, small ping-pong balls, small saucers here and there. I see water collected around a ball, it's very curious, so I stay and watch, and to my great surprise, I see a droplet being spit out from the head of the ball. It slips down, stays around the ball, not wanting to leave just yet, then starts its voyage down the incline… Another droplet is spit out... Once you have seen one source, you start seeing others: holes in the concrete, some spitting forth droplets one at a time, others leaking rivulets, others spurting a first, then a second, third and fourth droplet in fast succession, then stopping, then starting again. Some of these droplets don't follow the others but are swallowed by the saucers which must contain recesses underneath… Water hurled forth, droplets gliding, or goaded, guided, then distracted, deviated by another puddle, which they then join, are joined by, then stagnate, but become too fat to stay still, glide again, sometimes becoming a shimmering mercury serpent, a river of mercury glass come alive. Alien. Mercury. No – just water.
A single bigger ball in the central pond spouts out droplets, which in turn form concentric circles… The reflection of these ripples on the ceiling, when the sun appears… The sound of the wind… The unexpected and delicious echo that is heard when someone coughs, or when I tap my pencil against my notebook (I was writing with a fountain pen, but one of the soft-spoken beautiful girls in soft grey coats came and asked me to write with a perfectly sharpened pencil instead), or when a Japanese inevitably sniffs his nose (the only place where that sound did not get on my nerves). All creates an intense, but light, airy, joyful atmosphere of meditation.
To start with, you anthropomorphize the water, you laugh with delight. I heard two girlfriends dubbing in onomatopoeia for them – it's irresistible: the softly curved shapes, the hesitancy, the rush, the enthusiasm, the shyness of each unique droplet is so heart-warming, you have the feeling you are surrounded by baby sea turtles rushing towards the sea, or little baby chicks, newly born, throwing themselves down a tree into a swamp where their mamma waits for them… But then, the more the wonder grows, the more you watch and are sublimated by this matter which is water – water, which rains upon us, which we are made of and drink and swim in and wash our bodies with -- the more it becomes mysterious; the more you realize that all these metaphors you create to try to understand what it is you are seeing are useless. Worse than useless, they stop you from seeing the truth of what is.
The water is.
I tried to describe it, but there is nothing to describe. It simply is.
I can't stop trying, though. I continue: This is a prayer. To watch water existing like this is to pray. It is to celebrate what is. It is a celebration of simply existing. A celebration of existence.
I saw water for the first time. It seemed alien. The artist and the architect made me see water as it is.
In this, is seems they reached their aim as they had stated it from the start. I read and bought the lovely booklet about the museum (in the café/shop also created by the same architect) and was astonished to read in it nearly everything I had written in my notebook. That an artist should have set out with a message in mind and that she should have found the perfect partner with whom to express this message (Rei Naito and Ryue Nishizawa), and that this message should have been so perfectly conveyed is an unbelievable success. That I should be so overwhelmed – bouleversée – that they should have created such an experience, allowing me to see something so elemental in such a new way -- not only water, but life and existence itself -- makes me bow with deep respect before these artists. This goes beyond the remit of art.
After that experience, I walked down to the port and along fishing boats, underneath a tori, through a pretty neighborhood, then reached a long, sandy beach with a wooden house at the end, in front of a forest. Let me copy-paste from the website: "Les Archives du Cœur", by Christian Boltanski permanently houses recordings of the heartbeats of people throughout the world. Christian Boltanski has been recording these heartbeats since 2008. Les Archives du Cœur is a testament to the recordees' existence."
Again, I was expecting nothing much.
Again, I was surprised!
It was wonderful to be all alone there. I opened a door, and found myself blinded in a dark, narrow room. Then I heard a heavy sound – a heartbeat. A sole, yellow lightbulb, hanging low, lighting up to accompany the length and intensity of the heartbeat. The heartbeat continued its frenzied tempo. The mirrors along the walls reflected the light. When you thought the rhythm was becoming monotonous, it would change, completely – although it was still the same person's (the name and details of the person are indicated on a screen before you enter the room) – making you want to stay on and hear what would happen next. I sat down in a corner and let myself be swept away by the beats and the light. But after a while it got too stressful. I had started to tear at the skin around my nails and though it was a worthwhile experience, I had to leave. It was comforting to be back on the sunny beach, with only the sound of the waves!
That evening, I stayed at a cosy, comfortable hotel at Teshima island. All alone at the hotel's public bath, its windows overlooking a forest, I immersed myself completely in the water and swayed myself back and forth, enjoying the water's caresses and listening to my heartbeat. Droplets from the condensation on the covered skylight above flung themselves in the bath.
* Photos of the museum taken from ©Benesse Art Site Naoshima.