Naoshima Bath Japan

Naoshima Bath

Dipping into modern art

Text Hannah Vasdekys | Photography Matt Monfredi

Accessibility to art is a given on Naoshima, where art installations, museums, pioneering architecture and nature blend in harmony. The result is an island in Southern Japan that has become an unlikely destination for art fans.

The arrival of modern art and architecture in this relatively remote place can be largely credited to the Benesse Corporation. The building of the Benesse House Museum in 1992 marked the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Benesse Corporation and self-taught Osaka architect Tadao Ando. To date, the minimalist architect has designed seven structures on the island.

Naoshima Bath is the most recent addition to the collection of art projects on the island. Unveiled in 2009, the bathhouse was conceived as both a work of art and a communal gathering point.

Shinro Ohtake, who was commissioned to design the bathhouse, is known for working with found materials and pop-culture debris. A common theme throughout previous projects is a series of ‘scrapbooks’ filled with dense layers of pages cut out from vintage comics and packaging material that are collaged together, often painted over and form abstract arrangements.

The design of Naoshima Bath expands on Ohtake’s scrapbook notion from sculptural to architectural. Topped by a white neon outline of a reclining nude woman with a red neon sign of the phonetic character for “yu” — referring to the hot water of the baths — the building’s facade is covered with an eclectic mix of patterned Indonesian tiles, found posters and exotic plants.

Naoshima Bath Japan

Inside, the facilities conform to those of the traditional Japanese public bathhouse. However, Ohtake has installed, at the bottom of each bath, collages of Edo Period erotic prints, stills from 1960s roman porn movies and vintage Thai record sleeves. The collages can only be viewed through the water and shift in and out of focus with the ripples caused by other bathers.

Other notable features of the bathhouse include a life-size elephant perched on the bath partition and a multi-coloured skylight. Windows at either ends of the baths offer glimpses into a cactus-filled greenhouse.

Once stripped of every last stitch of clothing and immersed in the warm water, as with so much of the work on Naoshima, the divisions between art and life simply dissolve.

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