Invitation to Savour

A Forbes-listed Japanese billionaire sets up the ultimate space for art to enchant.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
A Forbes-listed Japanese billionaire sets up the ultimate space for art to enchant.
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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.

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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.” 

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The beauty of a lone granite sphere in Chichu Art Museum by artist Walter De Maria is amplified by its spacious surroundings.


The curvaceous dome of Teshima Museum is the perfect home for artist Rei Naito’s installation art that works with the beauty of nature by collecting water droplets through large unglazed openings. 


Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake is the man behind these enchanting art islands.


Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island is a stunning maze of light and shadow. 

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Three Michelin star El Celler de Can Roca is no stranger to playing with your senses. On a typical night, dinner includes dishes like chai-infused cream with blood orange and roses appearing on your table, smelling exactly like Shalimar by Guerlain (consider the cooks here pros at deconstructing fragrances and putting them in their recipes).

Having spent eight years in the kitchens of El Celler de Can Roca, head chef Hernan Luchetti is more than familiar with this level of attention to detail. As the restaurant also has its own distillery, Luchetti shares that it is common for them to develop their own wines to marinate ingredients and complement dishes. So the fig wine you have with your red mullet should go perfectly well with the fig sauce on the fish.

Now imagine turning this up a hundred notches. A single dinner for just 12 guests, one year to plan, and over 50 poets, musicians and graphic designers involved to make it all happen.

“El Somni (the name of the event, which means “The Dream” in Catalan) was held in a specific room where we set up screens to project images on the walls and table,” says Luchetti, who was recently in town for Comilona, an Argentinian food and wine festival. “Each dish had to be planned properly in a way that would tease your taste buds, but also match the music and images being played.

” Take the War scene that he helped execute. Shockingly graphic, it was one of 12 elaborate acts presenting “the evolution of the human being”. For this course alone, Austrian composer Wolfgang Mitterer strung together a fast-paced organ composition that mimics gunshots in the background.

Spanish glass artist Joan Crous was given a brief to fashion a plate resembling broken crystal pieced back together. The aim: “To give the idea that you might cut yourself while eating, so you’re more careful with each bite and really pay attention to what’s in front of you.

” For his part, Luchetti prepared classic hare royale, beautifully cooked and paired with a reduction of beetroot served tableside by waiters who carried around droppers of the violet sauce.

“There’s a reason why this dinner took a year to plan,” says Luchetti with a laugh. So far, there are no plans to repeat this extravagant experience, but given El Celler’s reputation, we are pretty sure it won’t be long before an event of similar scale pops up.

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