Artistic Champion: The Prestigious Benesse Prize Comes To Asia
Ask billionaire Soichiro Fukutake of Japan’s Benesse Holdings what struck him about the first artwork he has ever purchased—one by Japanese-American 20th-century modernist painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi—and he says, “I felt a strong message from his work. If you look at artworks from that point of view, then you would know straightaway. The message that you feel from a work of art comes from the artist’s passion, soul and spirit.” (For the record, his pick of the artwork with the strongest message is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which shows the tragedies of war.)
This belief that art should convey a strong message continues through the arts and culture initiatives undertaken by the Benesse Holdings and its charitable arm, the Fukutake Foundation, such as the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and the Benesse Prize. The former is an art project that transformed an industrial backwater on the Japanese islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea into a treasure trove of contemporary art by the likes of Claude Monet and Lee Ufan; while the latter was established in 1995 at the Venice Biennale to recognise outstanding artists and support the winner’s artistic practice. Former recipients include China’s Cai Guo Qiang and Denmark’s Olafur Eliasson.
Two decades and 10 editions later, the 11th edition of the Benesse Prize shifts its focus to Asia, with the Singapore Biennale 2016. Five nominees participating in the Singapore Biennale have been shortlisted—the Philippines’ Martha Atienza, Vietnam’s Bui Cong Khanh, Indonesia’s Ade Darmawan, China’s Qui Zhijie and Thailand’s Pannaphan Yodmanee—and the winner will be revealed on January 12, at the Singapore Art Museum. The winner receives a commission to create a work to be exhibited at the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and a cash prize of three million yen. Fukutake, the chairman of the board of the Fukutake Foundation, tells us more.
Why is it important to support an artist’s artistic practice?
Soichiro Fukutake The Benesse Prize is not just about awarding a wonderful work of art but offers the winner a chance to come to Benesse Art Site Naoshima to create an exhibition of works. We want to discover their thoughts on topics such as nature, history, community and wellbeing—all these, with some sort of resistance as well.
What do you mean by resistance?
SF Resistance—it is one of my favourite words. Resistance to the status quo in a society, or what is happening around you in the world today. There are many works of art, not just visual arts, which are created because of this spirit of resistance. Otherwise, any contemporary artwork will not have any strong message to give out.
Why shift the focus of the Benesse Prize to Asia?
SF When you look at today’s world, there seems to be a shift from the Western paradigm—and a lot of our values have been formed based on such Western values and capitalism—to an Asia-driven age. With Benesse Art Site Naoshima, we bring contemporary art, especially artworks expressing a strong message, to peripheral communities, to a region severely damaged by industrialisation. Art is used as a weapon to revitalise the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and greatly contributes to creating a happy community there. We are convinced that is what contemporary art can do. I would like to see the same happening throughout Asia, as we stand at a turning point of a Western-led to an Asian-led world. I hope Asia can be the centre of this shift.
The idea of “using what exists to create what is to be” lies at the core of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, where nature, art and architecture coexist in harmony. Can you elaborate on this?
SF Unlike authors, musicians and film directors, visual artists are probably the ones that have the least potential to earn a lot of money because they cannot mass-produce their works. These artists pour all their energies into creating these works, and I want to provide an appropriate space for such artworks to be exhibited in the best way possible, where the messages can get through to an audience. And the space cannot be in a big city, because big cities are full of contradictions, challenges and issues, which artists want to fight or resist. Naoshima provides a fantastic environment, where such messages can come out strongly. We had world-class architects such as Tadao Ando create architecture where art can be housed within nature—these elements are present together, and in harmony, to maximise the messages brought out in the artworks by these artists. This is what we are trying to do and I guess there are not many other organisations that are implementing this kind of approach.
How can private corporations engage more meaningfully in arts and culture?
SF Financial capitalism is driving the world today, but we should be shifting to “public interest capitalism” and I hope that Asia can start to incorporate and implement such ideas. Foundations or charitable organisations can own shares in a corporation, and they can use the dividends thereof to fund cultural activities. For example, Fukutake Foundation is a shareholder of Benesse Holdings. I would like to promote this idea in Asia as well. There is too much inequality between the haves and have-nots, but we have to think of ways to make sure that people, even without much money, can feel happy. That is what we have to think about as a corporation, and for other companies to start thinking about as well.
Image: Shigeo Anzai (Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama)