It's pumpkin season on Naoshima
Some backstory about one of the most famous pumpkins in the world (after Jack o' Lantern)
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You may have heard that Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin returned to Naoshima last Tuesday. If you haven’t, well, it’s back. I was there for the event, and I talked a little bit about it on my blog (see the link above).
I also posted two videos on Youtube (well, four, but two of them were posted as they happened without editing or anything else. I’m not sure they’re that interesting beyond their “breaking news” function). You can watch them now:
Today, I want to tell you about the backstory of the whole thing.
And let’s start from the beginning.
Yayoi Kusama, her polka dots, her pumpkins
She’s probably one of the most famous artists alive today. I won’t tell you her life story now, it’d be too long and her Wikipedia page already has a good biography.
The thing you need to know now if you don’t know her is that polka dots are her main thing. Pumpkins probably are her second main thing.
So a few years after Soichiro Fukutake started installing artworks and museums in the southern part of Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, he invited Yayoi Kusama to contribute to the open-air part of his art sites, and to the surprise of no one, she decided to make a pumpkin with polka dots.
On September 15th, 1994 she introduced her Yellow Pumpkin to the world. It wasn’t her first large polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture, probably not even the first yellow one, but it was the first that she produced with its permanent location in mind. It was placed at the end of a stone and concrete pier near the southern tip of the island. Fun fact: it’s also the closest area of the island to my house. But she didn’t know that at the time. Me neither, I had never even heard of her or Naoshima back in 1994.
Here it is:
This is the very first picture I took of it, not in 1994, but a few years later in October 2010 when I visited Naoshima for the first time.
Over the next two decades, both Naoshima and its pumpkins grew in fame and popularity to the point that the sculpture probably is today one of the most famous public artworks in the world.
Yes, I said pumpkins, plural, because a second one joined the fun in 2006 in a different location on the island.
Somehow, it never got the same notoriety, but I assume that the Yellow Pumpkin’s location, with
my neighborhood the Seto Inland Sea in the background, plays a big part in the fact that it got everybody’s love.
I think you’ll see what I mean if you’ve never been on-site, but you see pictures like this one:
It’s one of my favorite pictures of the Pumpkin, I took it in 2017.
I think my best experience of seeing the pumpkin, and even of visiting the island, was in June 2020. It was a few months in the pandemic, after the end of the first wave in Japan. I went to Naoshima with my daughter, and we pretty much had most of the island, the museums and also the pumpkin to ourselves (we literally were the only visitors in the Lee Ufan Museum for example, can you believe it?)
It was a great father-daughter bonding moment in addition of the rest. If you’re curious about it, you can read it all there.
It also was the last time I saw it before…
The Naoshima Disaster!
So, yes, it was all fun and games for many years until August 9th, 2021!
A typhoon was coming. Not a big one. It was not supposed to affect the area much, it was probably going north or something. I kinda forgot. I only remember that the forecast was not worrisome. I even had plans for the day. Except that, in the morning, the winds turned out to be much stronger than expected. I remember having to cancel my plans, and I spent the whole day at home, most of it in front of my computer. When suddenly the news broke with this video that the whole world saw (at least the part of the whole world who cares about art):
It ended up being completely destroyed. Most of its pieces washed ashore, and just a few bits were lost at sea.
I’m underlying this because a lot of approximations and falsities were spread all over the web during the past year. People never seem to check facts nowadays, unfortunately, not even a lof of web writers and web journalists who have become masters in the art of copypasta. Some are even probably your source of information about Naoshima (I know that the quality of the sites ranking high on Google is often doubtful). Oh well.
Back to our topic. On that fateful day, the waves got the pumpkin, destroyed it and then its pieces washed ashore and were later picked up by Benesse’s staff (the organization that owns and manages the pumpkin and most of the art on Naoshima - actually two organizations, but I won’t bore you with the details right now).
The pumpkin was no more. The art world was in shock. The Japan tourism world too, although it had other things to worry about.
Honestly, and strangely, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
Some people wondered how it was possible that the pumpkin was destroyed in the first place. Didn’t it survive many typhoons before this one? Yes, it did. Mostly because, when a typhoon is coming, a group of people is tasked to put it in a safe place nearby. You can see it being done there (in August 2019):
So why didn’t this happen on that fateful day?
Remember, I told you that the typhoon wasn’t supposed to be bad on that day. I even had plans and all. If I have plans other than staying home during a typhoon, believe me, it’s not bad. It simply was not deemed necessary to remove the pumpkin. It was being monitored, but when people monitoring it realized that it actually should be removed, it was too late. It had become unsafe to do it (see the video above again, imagine doing this with strong winds and waves). All they could do then was to continue monitoring it and hope the worst didn’t happen. Well, the worst happened…
And yes, I dared say that I had mixed feelings about it. I didn’t even dare to say it publicly at the time seeing the number of people who were in shock and I didn’t want to shock them even more.
Was I surprised and shocked? Yes, for a good five minutes. Was I sad? Kind of. Was I distraught? Not really.
The first reason was that there was no chance on earth that it doesn’t eventually get replaced.
I’m going to reveal a little secret here, but the sculpture that was installed on that Naoshima pier in 1994 is not the same sculpture that got destroyed by a typhoon in 2021. It has been replaced before! It just wasn’t publicized. Wear and tear does happen when you spend 365 days a year, 24/7, a few centimeters from the sea. You think typhoon winds are bad? Well, yes, they are. But wait til you try the winter winds around here. Probably not as strong, but they last much much longer.
So, yes, the Yellow Pumpkin had been replaced before. How could it not be replaced this time?
The other reason I wasn’t distraught is that well… Why is it that people always focus on what’s famous? (even on that day, other artworks got damaged… they didn’t make the headlines - I talked about it on that post) I thought that maybe without the Pumpkin, visitors to Naoshima would focus a little more on the other things?
Replacing the Yellow Pumpkin
With the Pumpkin gone, what was next?
Sure, the Pumpkin had been replaced before, but not only it was a bit secretive, but it also was a planned thing. Not this time. No replacement was ready nor planned at the time.
The rumor mill started running all over the art world. Was it the end of Naoshima’s Yellow Pumpkin? Would a new one be made? Would this one be fixed?
The world only saw pictures of the Pumpkin in the one, still in one piece, just damaged. The pictures I saw of it afterward were a bit different. It eventually broke into several pieces. I don’t think these pictures ever made it the web, there were sent to me privately. I don’t think Benesse will ever read this newsletter, but I’m pretty sure they don’t want these pictures out in the world. And I don’t want to antagonize them.
There was no way it could be where it ended. That Pumpkin had become Naoshima’s symbol. It probably was Yayoi Kusama’s most famous work of art. It couldn’t just be gone.
Benesse said it was going to be repaired, but it always seemed very unrealistic to whoever knew its real condition. I assumed that they said that because famous art, like many other things, contains a big part of storytelling, even more so in Japan where facts are often secondary to a nice story. But the reality is that Yayoi Kusama turned 93 years old this year, and while she’s apparently healthy, there is no way she can make a new Pumpkin.
When we think about large scale art being made by artists, we don’t often think about whether they physically made it by themselves, or sometimes at all. The truth is that they usually don’t. It’s not cheating. It’s not a scam. It’s always been the case. Do you really think Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel by himself?
I mean, it’s a bit like an architect designing a building. They don’t have to physically build it to have their name on it. Drawing it is usually enough.
It is implied that artists do more than just design their pieces, but how much more remains a variable depending on many factors.
So, yeah, no chance on earth that Kusama herself makes a new pumpkin. But how much of the original did she physically make anyway? She drew its shape, most likely painted it. All of it? Probably. But it’s unlikely that she physically built the mold, poured the melting plastic in it and all that. So making a new one now wouldn’t be that different. It still would be hers.
Personally, I would have liked to see it being repaired, with apparent scars and all, a bit like some kintsugi, but… you know… storytelling… If it was going to return, it quickly became clear that it was going to return in the exact shape, size, color and everything else.
The next step of the story was probably legal, and definitely financial.
Lawyers, insurers and all these people of course are a part of the story. The role they really play is never fully told, and even my “informers” couldn’t really get the details here. Except for one. The main hurdle to remaking the Pumpkin was financial. As no replacement had been contracted, did Kusama’s people hiked up the prices like it sometimes happens in areas hit by a disaster? Was it its worth all along? No idea, but the price that Kusama’s people demanded was between two and ten million dollars! A realistic number I heard is about $4 million.
Benesse Holdings is rich, but can they just spend that much on a whim, without years of budgeting? Not sure.
So yes, the return of the pumpkin took a long time, not necessarily because it took a long time to remake it, but because negotiations took a long time. I even heard (but can’t confirm, it’s more a rumor than anything) that Fukutake himself had to get personally involved and possibly even shell out of a few dollars from his billionaire pocket.
And finally, last Spring, a few weeks after some copypasta clickbaiting scribblers announced that it would not return at all, it was clear that it would indeed return. In the Fall. Probably just after the end of the Setouchi Triennale 2022.
Well, surprise, it returned last week! One month before the end of the Triennale for all to enjoy!!!
The Pumpkin is back!
And you can now admire it again in all of its splendor.
Is it exactly the same? Well, almost. Look at the picture above closely. On the black part, right to the left of the pedicel. It looks like the head of a rivet to me. You also can see them on the first video I posted. I don’t remember them being there before.
Apparently, it’s pretty much the same on the outside, but it’s thicker, heavier and reinforced on the inside. Which makes me wonder… Sure it should resist wind and waves better, but what about the people carrying it from time to time? Won’t it be too heavy for them? I am going to have to assume that they also have revised the contingency plans. I can’t wait to see what happens for the next typhoon. I’m pretty sure we’ll have people filming.
And in the meantime, it’s back where it belongs.
Well, I guess this is the end of our story for now.
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