Soichiro Fukutake made his estimated US$1.1 billion (S$1.6 billion) fortune through his share in Benesse Holdings, the company behind the Berlitz language schools. He is also founder of the Benesse Prize, a three million yen (S$40,000) cash award presented at the prestigious Venice Biennale since 1995 to artists who display an experimental and critical spirit.
At 71 years old, Fukutake knows what he does not like: Art donning the pristine white walls of world-famous galleries like the Louvre in Paris and Moma in New York.
“I call these ‘white-cube galleries’, where one finds good artworks simply hanging on the walls. I do not think that it is possible to feel a strong message from the art in such an environment,” says Fukutake, who admires artists like French sculptor Christian Boltanski. The latter conveys powerful interpretations of the human experience in his works.
A large installation titled No Man’s Land is one example. Exhibited at Park Avenue Amory on New York’s Upper East Side, the artist built a five-storey crane sculpture that repeatedly drops a giant claw into a 7m-high mound of discarded clothing in an act that questions the futility of everyday life.
Such messages resonate with Fukutake, who himself grew up with a love for painting water colours. Like Boltanski, Fukutake found himself questioning big cities where many are cut off from nature and obsessed with the frantic rat race. “Today, cities are far from spiritually fulfilling places,” he says.
So, instead of setting up a museum in bustling Tokyo, he chose to create his art shrine four hours away on the small islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima in southern Japan. Collectively known as the Benesse Art Site, the project is funded by Fukutake’s eponymous foundation which runs on dividends from its shares in Benesse Holdings.
If you have not yet visited Naoshima Island, think of it as a mini utopia where the feverish pursuit of material desires is quietened, if for a moment. Once ravaged by industrial waste, the near-ruins of these islands struck a chord with Fukutake, who “felt the necessity to revitalise the island community”. Helping Fukutake achieve his vision is Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, known for his love of minimalism and awkward angles.
The Chichu Art Museum is a fascinating example of Ando’s work. As Naoshima’s charm lies in its rolling terrain and quaint villages, the entire museum was built underground so as not to disturb the landscape. Instead, it is carved into a hill with slanted walkways and sudden slits in the walls that let in pockets of sunlight or afford a peek out to the sea. Even on its own, the museum is a stunning maze of light and shadow.
And rather than cramp the walls with paintings by many famous artists, Fukutake picked just three artists to house in Chichu. This is so each art piece has ample space to work its magic on visitors.
At the heart of the museum lies five paintings from Monet’s water lily series, cradled in a huge concrete space lit only by natural light. A perfect setting, considering the artist’s fascination by the effect of light on the subjects of his paintings. These are surrounded by the works of minimalist artist Walter De Maria and James Turrell, the latter known for his installations that play with light and space.
“The entire museum, beyond each individual artwork, can thus be seen as one whole; the museum itself is one integrated artwork,” says Fukutake. Just take De Maria’s granite sphere in Chichu Art Museum, for instance. Measuring 2.2m in diameter, its magnificence might still hold court in a crowded gallery. But here, the cool beauty of the sphere is amplified by its lone setting against the soaring ceilings and soft rays coming through meticulously positioned skylights. Visitors have been known to sit and stare at this piece for hours, taking in different perspectives as the lighting changes throughout the day.
“By harmonising (the art, architecture, and nature), the message emanating from an artwork can then be felt very strongly,” says Fukutake. “You need to focus on the artwork itself, the architecture built around it, and the surrounding environment.”