The Rolex Arts Weekend in Mexico in early December celebrated the culmination of a philanthropic initiative that paired emerging and establish artists from around the world
Creativity is the fruit of uncertainty — it may not be a conventional definition, but it’s an idea that caught the imagination of seven of the world’s most successful artists at the celebration of the culmination of the 2014-2015 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in Mexico in December.
The Rolex Arts Weekend gathered more than 150 artists and writers from all over the world in Mexico City on December 5 and 6 to witness a series of performances and meet the seven mentors and their protégés, who have spent the last year exploring ideas, sharing experiences and learning from each other in a mutually beneficial exchange.
Launched in 2002, the Rolex Arts Initiative aims to make a contribution to global culture by seeking out gifted young artists from all over the world and pairing them with masters in their fields for a year of one-to-one mentoring. “It’s based on the traditional concept of mentoring in the arts, where younger apprentices learn their craft alongside older practitioners,” explained Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy at Rolex. “We believe that behind every great artist is a great artist.”
The 14 mentors and protégés celebrating the culmination of their collaborations illustrated the diversity and global outlook of the initiative. Priztker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor worked with Paraguayan architect Gloria Cabral. Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu was paired with Israeli filmmaker Tom Shovel. American lighting designer Jennifer Tipton collaborated with Sebastián Solórzano Rodriguez, who also hails from Mexico. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho selected a Portuguese protégé, Vasco Mendonça. Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje worked with Bulgarian writer Miroslav Penkov. And finally, Danish-Icelandic multimedia artist Olafur Eliasson chose to collaborate with Brussels-based Congolese artist Sammy Baloji
It was Eliasson — who from the first preferred to see his year working with Baloji as an equal exchange, rather than a one-way transfer of knowledge from master to apprentice — who first raised the topic of uncertainty in art. It was, he said, one of the things about which Baloji was able to teach him. It was valuable “to actually spend time with somebody who is in the process of verbalising the emotional state in which they are,” he explained. “I realised that I had, to some extent at least, already verbalised. I have already formalised my language, meaning that I have become repetitive and boring. So, interestingly, Sammy was not boring compared to me… What I learned was that in the hesitation and in the doubt there’s a strength — a strength that I maybe have forgotten, because I’m always so certain. I enjoyed the luxury of leaning back into being uncertain.”
Iñárritu elaborated on this theme. “I fully agree with Olafur when he says that culture is like a process of uncertainty,” he said. “I believe that the world is the way it is because of all the certainty in it. All politicians are sure of themselves. They have to be certain. The media is also certain. In fact, people on Twitter have to have opinions that are certain. All dictatorships are certain — that’s why historically dictatorships and culture have been totally opposed to each other, because culture feeds off of uncertainty and the search for an answer that will never come, because that’s the process of existence.”
All of the mentor-protégé pairings emphasised the mutually beneficial nature of the initiative and said that they planned to continue working together after the year is formally concluded.
“I believe that our relationship has not come to an end — we have only just begun,” said Eliasson. “We have made a few attempts to start a creative experiment together, a special creative experiment in Lubumbashi, in the context of a festival in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi that Sammy has been co-organising… I’ve become emotionally invested in Sammy’s work. I follow it both because I’m interested in Sammy, but also as it is for me a source of inspiration.”
Since 2002, Rolex has worked with 368 artists in more than 40 countries. Even as the hundreds of former protégés continue to enjoy the fruits of their collaborations, both with their formal mentors and in many cases with each other, a new set of mentors are preparing themselves to take up the reins. After a fascinating program of installations, live music and dance performances, conversations and presentations, the weekend climaxed with the announcement of the mentors for the 2016-2017 cycle, who — to paraphrase Eliasson — are preparing to make their marks on history.
“We often put success at the end of the process, turning thinking into doing,” the artist explained. “But truth is that success is very often in the process itself. We have creativity or the impact that creativity has on the world, which is why we call it culture… Culture is a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s the nature of this conversation we are all having in this room right now. So culture is something much bigger than we can tap into, and if we succeed in making creative decisions, we can actually influence the world.”
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 58.