[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he hall is cavernous, angular, dazzlingly white. Artworks are scattered sparsely around – a neon sign declaring Movement of the Liberation of the Coca Plant; a man-sized drawing of a banana cluster that skewers fruit-supply giant Del Monte with a modified version of its famous sticker; a series of suspended cymbals that invites visitors to enjoy the beauty of sound. The exhibition is Under The Same Sun: Art From Latin America Today, organised by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. It occupies a few floors of Mexico City’s avant-garde Museo Jumex, which wouldn’t look out of place in New York or London. As a temple of contemporary art, the museum is as different from the cathedral, pinata and sombrero image of Mexico as flower domes are from shophouses in Singapore.
To be sure, the sprawling metropolis has been steadily gaining world renown for its contemporary art scene. Cool art galleries such as Museo Jumex, fairs and initiatives have popped up in the past decade. Not that the city is new to international fame. Muralist Diego Rivera made headlines with his communism-themed images in the 1920s, followed by the sensation that was his wife, Frida Kahlo, and her bizarre self portraits. Their works, tumultuous love and lives, root the country’s vibrant art culture.
For this artistic fervour, Rolex has decided to set the seventh edition of its Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative in Mexico City, despite its notorious safety record. “International artists are fascinated by what’s happening in Mexico,” says Rebecca Irvin, the company’s head of philanthropy. It’s also an opportunity for Mexican artists to connect with their international counterparts.
THE BIG HITTERS
So it is that more than 150 guests gather on this chilly December night in 2015 in Museo Jumex for the launch of an intensive weekend of show and tell. Industry titans and their pupils will discuss what went down during their year-long collaboration. There will be book readings, film screenings, art installations, music recitals and dance performances.
Headlining names include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose critically lauded film The Revenant was just about to be released in theatres; Michael Ondaatje, who gave the world The English Patient; Pritzker prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor; choreographer Alexei Ratmansky from the American Ballet Theatre (ABT); multi-disciplinary conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and composer Kaija Saariaho.
(RELATED: Read about what went down on the set of The Revenant in The Lessons of Alejandro Inarritu.)
The biennial programme sets out to preserve and enrich global culture by pairing an established artist with an emerging talent. The latter will receive 50,000 Swiss francs (S$72,000) to participate and complete his or her project, while an honorarium of 75,000 Swiss francs will go to the mentor. The result of their efforts will be showcased at the Rolex Arts Weekend.
For various reasons, master artists have heeded the call. In its 14-year history, the initiative has attracted such boldfaced names as Zhang Yimou, Martin Scorsese, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Brian Eno, Gilberto Gil and Peter Hall.
For Sri-Lanka-born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, this was a chance to show that talent has no boundaries: “What excited me was that the project was a very international one, not just (for) the English-speaking world or European world.” The finalists he had to choose from hail from Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Bulgaria. He picked the last.
Now based in the United States, Miroslav Penkov learnt English in Bulgaria partly by studying words he could not understand in The English Patient. Thus, he was gobsmacked when the Booker Prize-winning author spent the majority of their first conversation asking for his book recommendations.
LEAN ON ME
Says Ondaatje, citing poets: “I think the real problem today is that we all need mentors, at any stage in your career. Even (William) Yeats, when he was getting on in years, learnt from the much younger Ezra Pound.”
Ondaatje sums up the experience of his fellow master artists. Some, like Danish-Icelandic artist Eliasson, insist from the outset that the “teaching” be two ways. Others find comfort in having a trusted sounding board. “As a choreographer, you usually work alone, you’re left with your doubts. Having Myles around and hearing what he thinks was great,” says ABT’s Ratmansky. Agrees Tipton, a gamechanger in lighting design: “If you play it right, they will really tell you what they feel, and from that, you can learn about yourself and your art.”
Self-doubt is crippling in most professions, but in the creative field, it has an upside – it forces exploration. For Eliasson, whose heavy-hitting, 20-year career includes shows at the Venice Biennale and Tate Modern, numerous award-winning public projects and a current professorship, witnessing his protege Sammy Baloji’s experimental approach helped him see the rut he was in.
Admitting that having an established method has made him “repetitive and boring”, Eliasson says: “I tried to go back to the time when I had not come up with a language, to be fresh like Sammy. I learnt that in hesitation, in doubt, should I do A or B, there is strength. Because I am always so certain, I enjoyed the luxury of leaning back into the uncertain.”
Says Inarritu of self doubt: “I think it’s the only way to create. If you already know the answers, why keep looking?”
He certainly didn’t have any, when he signed with the programme, admitting that he had neither the patience nor the skills to teach anyone. “When the organisers told me how to proceed, I was terrified because I had never taught anything in my life,” the Oscar-winning director says. “It’s a mystery where my process comes from.”
Luckily for his protege, Israeli filmmaker Tom Shoval, Inarritu in 2014 was set to direct The Revenant in the dead of winter in the Rockies. Challenging conditions abounded, as the world now knows through the public revelations of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Nevertheless, Inarritu swallowed his pride and insecurities to allow Shoval on the set to observe his method, mistakes and all. Inarritu calls it his “dirty laundry”.
In this case of ego versus principle, principle won. “Cinema now is unfortunately hitting a wall; 90 per cent of the audience’s diet are films to entertain and only as a product to get profits,” he says. “They have a reason to exist, but, when films like Tom’s cannot get to other countries, to be shared and enjoyed, it’s a problem.”
He adds: “To see what other cultures and nations in the world are doing is to realise how close we are, no matter what the media and politicians say. Every conflict comes from a lack of understanding – ‘I don’t want to hear you, I want to exterminate you first.’ In that sense, film is a bridge, culture is a bridge.”
WHO’S TO JUDGE?
As the arts weekend gets into full swing at the Centro Cultural Del Bosque, Mexico’s biggest performing arts centre, guests are treated to the world premiere of dance protege Myles Thatcher’s Body Of Your Dreams, among other numbers. Thatcher learnt from the Bolshoi-trained Ratmansky, but his talent is obvious. The dance, which mocks society’s obsession with obtaining the perfect figure, is cynical yet funny, modern yet delightfully relatable. Dancers in tight gymwear contort and shove, grovel and adore, to the scratchy repetition of the word “body”. It’s just the piece to bring fidgety millennials to theatres.
In other theatres, pairs take turns at the show and tell. The Spanish-speaking public pack halls to hear the experiences of representatives from Latin America — Paraguayan Gloria Cabral, who’s attached to Swiss architect Zumthor, and Mexico City’s own celebrated son, Inarritu.
Of the works shown, some, like Thatcher’s dance pieces and excerpts from Penkov’s new novel, Stork Mountain, are clearly accessible. Others require experience to appreciate. Where I hear strident tunes in Vasco Mendonca’s compositions, my neighbour, an Iranian musician who plays with the Silk Road Ensemble, detects complex melodies. But, we both scratch our heads after getting lost in Sebastian Solorzano Rodriguez’s maze-like light installation.
But removing the commercial imperative is precisely the luxury of the arts programme. Artists are given the financial backing to explore and experiment, guided by the best practitioners in their field. And, while there are clear success stories, such as that of Tracy K. Smith, the 2010 protege in literature who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize two years later, not all career trajectories are the same.
And that’s okay, according to Eliasson. “The creative industry increasingly wants to objectify success. The media write about the price, the quantifiability, the awards. But the success of culture, of art, is both to make a great work but it is also the making itself. Because the creative impact is not just from the final artwork, it’s also in the way you make it and the impact this way has on the world.”
He refers to the intense research into the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that Baloji undertook to prepare his art. The latter’s findings formed the basis of The Other Memorial, a copper dome that he created for the Venice Biennale 2015. In mimicking a World War I memorial church in Liege, Belgium, made from copper taken from the DRC, and imbuing it with motifs of African scarified bodies, Baloji drew comparisons between the coloniser and the colonised.
Says Eliasson: “I was fascinated by the intricacy of Sammy’s research… Creativity lies not just in the final outcome, but in the whole array of ways of working. There is art everywhere. The world might not see it, but it doesn’t matter. If Sammy sees it, it’s enough.”
Art appreciation for its intrinsic value, valued according to one’s personal experiences. Certainly, it’s an investment that will withstand any market fluctuations.
FILM :ALEJANDRO INARRITU (MEXICO) AND TOM SHOVAL (ISRAEL) “This is the best film school I can ever attend.” – Shoval, on being allowed to see Inarritu work on the set of The Revenant.
ARCHITECTURE: PETER ZUMTHOR (SWITZERLAND) AND GLORIA CABRAL (PARAGUAY) “I wanted to keep her.” – Zumthor, on admiring the confi dence of young Cabral.
THEATRE: JENNIFER TIPTON (UNITED STATES) AND SEBASTIAN SOLORZANO RODRIGUEZ (MEXICO) “It’s great to have a companion who will tell you what he or she really feels. From that, you can learn a great deal about yourself and art.” – Tipton
MUSIC: KAIJA SAARIAHO (FINLAND) AND VASCO MENDONCA (PORTUGAL) “When learning to know him more, I am also learning about myself.” – Saariaho, on the diff erences in generations and cultural background.
LITERATURE: MICHAEL ONDAATJE (CANADA) AND MIROSLAV PENKOV (UNITED STATES) “I learnt some of my English from reading The English Patient. I didn’t understand it, but I persisted because of the music of the sentences.” Penkov, who didn’t speak English until he was 14.
VISUAL ARTS: OLAFUR ELIASSON (DENMARK, GERMANY) AND SAMMY BALOJI (BELGIUM, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO) “We often put success at the end of the process. But the truth is, success is very often in the process itself.” – Eliasson
DANCE: ALEXEI RATMANSKY (UNITED STATES) AND MYLES THATCHER (UNITED STATES) “There are no plans to perform it again.” – Thatcher, on the reprise of Body Of Your Dreams. Upon approval Please sign: Name and