This weekend I was lucky enough to snag tickets (and sneak into some of the private events for which I couldn’t buy tickets) to the Rolex Arts Initiative Weekend in Mexico City. The program invites “masters” in different arts to serve for a year as mentors for an artist on the brink of large-scale recognition in the corresponding field, this rising artist designated as the protege. In the words of the Rolex Foundation Board themselves, the mission of this corporate program endorsing the arts is “to contribute to global culture by helping ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation.” Commenting on mentorship as the cornerstone of the initiative, in an oversized luxurious magazine handed out at the gala at the end of the program, Chairman of the Board of Rolex Bertrand Gros writes, “we firmly believe in the idea of personal transmission of knowledge and the value of exchange between generations and cultures.” And I wasn’t the only attendee to note the parallels between this approach and the age-old tradition of apprenticeship to learn a craft and pass on techniques to the next generation of masters.
This past weekend was the culmination of the year of mentorship and collaboration, and every event left me feeling inspired, wanting to create in the arts, and one day hopefully connect with a generous mentor like those in the Rolex Initiative (I can’t help but dream big, I suppose). Recognizing the names of many of the mentors, I expected to enjoy their input the most, but I was pleasantly surprised that the proteges were equally impressive, just not as acclaimed (yet!). I was also intrigued by the emphasis of the programming on the mentorship experience and how it impacted both the mentor and protege to work side-by-side and learn from each other. The tagline of the program, which appeared on promotional material in every sightline at the Centro Cultural del Bosque in Chapultepec reads “Behind every great artist is a great artist.” At first I found this slogan trite and verbally redundant, but as I heard it repeated, I grew to appreciate how it reflects a sense of gratitude and recognition of those who influence and support us and aptly underscores the promotion of mentorship at the core of the Rolex Arts Initiative.
I’m still riding on the uplifting takeaways from this weekend: that the world’s rich cultural heritage can be preserved and extended through such multi-generational exchange; and that the creativity of today’s artists can be pushed even further when open, imaginative minds come together, drawing upon unique backgrounds to inform contemporary work in a similar medium.
One of the first events I saw was in the visual arts category with the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson as the mentor and Sammy Baloji (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as the protege. For over a decade, Eliasson has been recognized as an innovative installation artist, using the elements (light, water, ice) as materials. Currently he is gaining critical acclaim for his “Ice Watch” iceberg installation in Paris coinciding with the COP21 (Paris Climate Conference).
On Saturday, the two presented Baloji’s photo collage mounted on the curved ceiling of the Teatro Julio Castillo in the Centro Cultural del Bosque. Baloji’s images were of the urban landscape of Dakar, Senegal; the photos of crumbling architecture call into question notions of colonialism and the productiveness of imposing “Western modernization and efficiency” to non-Western environments. As Eliasson termed it, the artists then “ping-ponged” back and forth, commenting on the unfinished and chaotic character that is inherent to any urban setting and on how different organizations of urban space arise from distinct priorities of modern societies.
Addressing visual qualities of the montage, Baloji described the collage of photographs as resembling fractals of the city, and Eliasson encouraged viewers to consider the work as one large composition. Eliasson also highlighted the placement of the photos, noting the perspective of the photos placed at the bottom of the collage (shot from above, looking down onto structures) versus at the top (showing more skyline). Eliasson commented on how the curvature of the ceiling gives the impression of the piece collapsing onto the viewer and praised the participation demanded of the viewer since where you stand in relation to the piece dramatically changes what you can see (calling the viewer a co-producer because of this active involvement Baloji requires of viewers).
Next was the event I had anticipated the most: my favorite film director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu spoke with his protege, Israeli filmmaker Tom Shoval. While Iñarritu’s films are really what I know him for, I was moved and impressed by the award acceptance speech he delivered at LACMA last month about immigration, the unsuitability of the term “illegal aliens,” and the fundamental characteristics of humanity that make us, humans, gravitate towards cinema and other forms of storytelling. That speech succinctly articulates the fundamental essence of stories that helps me understand why I find storytelling (in literature, visual arts, film, etc.) so compelling. After watching this speech 10+ times last month, I had high expectations, and Iñarritu did not disappoint; his comments at Rolex Arts Weekend were similarly thoughtful and ethically-grounded.
The moderator, founder and director of the Festival International de Cine Daniela Michel, began in English with brief introductory remarks, and she then gave the floor to Iñarritu. Although the events had been fully in English up to this point, he began in Spanish, discussing the Rolex Foundation and his initial disgust at receiving the invitation to serve as a mentor for a corporate-sponsored program. He also commented that he did not view himself as a teacher and did not know what to expect out of mentoring a younger filmmaker. But he then proceeded to explain that he thought more about the challenge of the offer, accepted, and had an incredible experience; interestingly, he now concludes that the Rolex Foundation has distinguished themselves among philanthropic efforts in corporate culture (that tends to be profit-centric) for how Rolex aims for its impact to be measured not just in profits but also in its support of craftsmanship and cultural exchange. I completely identify with Iñarritu’s initial skepticism (I tend to favor artists like Diego Rivera, who see themselves as working for the common people, and I originally scoffed at the notion that a luxury watch brand could be involved in producing socially-grounded or accessible art) but, like him, I found myself wooed by the program for its dedication to personal transmission of knowledge and collaboration.
After expounding on all of this in Spanish, he paused and the moderator interjected, reminding him to speak in English. But Iñarritu did not apologize, he had deliberately spoken in Spanish. He then turned to the audience, and the Rolex guests wanted English whereas the locals who had purchased the several poorly-publicized tickets for the general public to see the star demanded he speak in Spanish. He was in Mexico, after all, and felt some pressure to be faithful to his countrymen. Ultimately, out of respect for the program and his protege (Shoval does not speak Spanish), he paraphrased what he had said about the Rolex Foundation and spoke mainly in English for the remainder of the program (at the Gala Closing Ceremony, he transitioned back and forth between the languages but mainly spoke in Spanish).
Then Iñárritu got more into his approach to film, admitting he has no desire to understand his process, viewing it as chaotic and taking shape only at the end but accepting this as the way it works. He described sharing his process with Shoval as sharing his dirty laundry, since for him, making a film is a very intimate and sometimes miserable process that he prefers to keep to himself to save embarrassment. Explaining what drew him to Shoval, he characterized Shoval’s prior feature film and several shorts as “simply good films, not relying on gimmicks or tricks,” but portraying humanity and cultivating empathy. Iñarritu claimed that everything about a film is showcasing the taste of the director, contending that there are 100 decisions in every frame, and that watching Shoval’s films, he felt he understand the man before having met him. Iñárritu felt that he saw someone dedicated to representing humanity using an economical approach to cinema, showing ordinary moments without indulgent flourishes.
When the floor turned to Shoval, he told of how he first learned of Iñárritu, playing hookey one day, leaving school on a winter day in Tel Aviv to see a matinee showing of Amores Perros. As a film buff, he had been moved many times by experiences in the cinema, but this one stuck out in his memory. He then cued a scene for the audience from Iñarritu’s recent Oscar-winning sensation Birdman, and encouraged us to look closely at the details (particularly how camera-work in conjunction with Michael Keaton’s facial expressions provides an entree into the consciousness of Keaton’s character) in this masterful scene from a single-take film. Iñarritu responded to Shoval’s praise about the long-take technique, confessing that his commitment to film it all in a continuous shot was an immense challenge; it required that he plan fully in a way that editing cannot hide and compensate for, and it also required harmony among the whole group (actors, crew, and tech) that is not common to a film set. Just as the actors were under strain to nail their lines, expressions, and cues, the production crew also rehearsed their choreography and had to be agile and in proper positions (ducking out of shots as the camera turned) for the filming in a single-shot to work. Overall, Iñárritu characterized the one-shot film as an adrenaline-filled experience but also the product of close coordination of a large team.
The pair then transitioned to discuss Shoval’s films, showing clips from his 2014 feature-film Youth, described by Iñarritu as a “kidnap plot without cliches.” Shoval explained the autobiographical aspects of the plot and his desire to provide a portrait of the precariousness of middle-class in Israel, the middle-class struggling to get by and not sink into poverty. In jest, he claimed that the film’s story brings to fruition something extreme he and his brother might have done to help their family financially. The pair later spoke about a scene from Shoval’s short film Broken Heart, also a portrait of an ordinary relationship and nested with references best unpacked and appreciated by an Israeli audience.
Jumping back to Iñarritu and their mentorship year, they then spoke about Shoval’s experience participating in post-production for Birman and then the pre-production meetings, filming location scouting trips, and the filming of Iñarritu’s new film, The Revenant. They comically described extended road trips to find possible filming spots, the desert man and the tropical man exploring in the barren, icy wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Characterizing the entire process as chaotic, Iñarritu shared a quotation attributed to Stanley Kubrick that he has used often in interviews, the gist of which is that filmmaking is like trying to write a poem while on a rollercoaster.
Speaking of the influence a mentor can have on an impressionable artist, Iñarritu explained how sometimes someone can plant a seed of an idea that will then grow in another person, developing and manifesting in unexpected ways. He gave the example of how Martin Scorsese once recommended two films to him, I am Cuba and The Cranes are Flying, and over a decade later, at a recent screening of The Revenant, Scorsese identified parallels in the opening scenes of Iñarritu’s film and those of I am Cuba. Such sub-consciousness rumination and influence is a big part of how artists work, said Iñarritu, and he expects that Shoval will continue to process ideas from their year together, the planted seeds growing to influence his filmmaking.
Shifting to again discuss the value of the time they spent together, they compared their mentorship year to the tradition in the Renaissance era of sharing knowledge via apprenticeships. And then on a final call-to-action note, Iñarritu proclaimed that more exchange like that facilitated by the Rolex Arts Initiative can only help the world; he explained that film is a tool that can be used to solve world problems, since cultural exchange is key to understanding (at one point he stated, “there is no way to love someone without understanding them first”) and this must be the basis for harmony at a local and global level.