Wednesday, 23 October 2013

ROLEX ARTS WEEKEND - Mentors & Protégés in Venice

Film mentor Walter Murch with protege Sara Fgaier Photo: ©Rolex / Bart Michiels
(Venice, Italy) If Rolex ran the world, how much more pleasant life would be. It was a great honor and privilege to attend the second day of the ROLEX ARTS WEEKEND at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on Sunday, featuring mentors and their protégés. To give you an idea of the quality of artists in attendance, by serendipity, later that evening I would find myself at the same dinner table as Academy Award winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch and his protégé Sara Fgaier, seated right next to Cindy Sherman, one of the world's most renowned contemporary artists.

"The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is a philanthropic programme that was set up in 2002 to make a contribution to global culture. The programme seeks out gifted young artists from all over the world and brings them together with artistic masters for a year of creative collaboration in a one-to-one mentoring relationship.

In keeping with its tradition of supporting individual excellence, Rolex gives emerging artists time to learn, create and grow.

Over the past decade, Rolex has paired mentors and protégés in dance, film, literature, music, theatre, visual arts and – as of 2012 – architecture. In the decade since it was launched, the mentoring programme has evolved into an enriching dialogue between artists of different generations, cultures and disciplines, helping ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation."

Architecture mentor Kazuyo Sejima with protege Yang Zhao
The language of the weekend was English, and we were herded around the Cini by pretty, long-haired (mostly blonde) young women dressed in elegant grey dress suits with matching heels, a kerchief tied around their necks -- I thought they were Swiss, but it turned out they were all Venetian from Venice and the Veneto. 

The afternoon kicked off at 3pm with Speed Talks, informal conversations between the protégés and guests of their choice from a different art form than their own, which lasted exactly 12 minutes. Emma Gladstone, who was emceeing the weekend, called it a "Cruel Game," and we soon learned why: after 12 minutes the mikes cut off and the lights went down, no matter if the speaker was in the middle of a divine revelation. It was a brilliant way to regulate the time, and should be implemented at the Academy Awards. My friend pointed out, "After all, it is Rolex."
Dance protege Eduardo Fukushima with mentor Lin Hwai-min Photo: Rolex / Ambroise Tézenas
The protégés were no mere beginners, but established artists in their own right from all over the planet, ready to be lifted to the next level with the assistance of their mentors. 

Rolex has not provided photos of the talks, and we could not take any, but first up was Chinese architecture protégé Yang Zhao, who has a Masters in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design, in addition to his own practice, Zhabyang Studio. Zhao chose to speak to Taiwanese dance mentor Lin Hawi-min -- the protégés were not required to speak to a participating mentor; apparently they could pick the brain of any agreeable genius. Lin Hwai-min (who is witty and whimsical, and has spent a lot of time in the US) is hailed as Asia's premier choreographer, whose masterpiece, Legacy, the first theatrical presentation of the history of Taiwan, coincidentally premiered on December 16, 1978, the day that President Jimmy Carter announced the end of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Taipei.

Lin Hawi-min reminded us: "Before I was a dancer, I was first a writer who grew up in the 60s. Back then, we really believed that young people could make a difference." He said that even though their language was Chinese, they were speaking in English, which was awkward, although both he and Yang Zhao seemed to be comfortably fluent. Lin Hawi-min presents the same program wherever he performs, whether it is London, New York City, Moscow, or Chinese peasants in the countryside, many whom have never seen contemporary dance before. "There is no bad audience, but bad performances."

Next, Lin Hawi-min's protégé, dancer and choreographer, Eduardo Fukushima, a Brazilian with mixed Italian and Japanese ancestry, spoke to the cultural theorist, Homi K. Bhabha because he "liked the way his mind worked." From Wikipedia:

Homi K. Bhabha (born 1949) is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University. He is one of the most important figures in contemporary post-colonial studies, and has coined a number of the field's neologisms and key concepts, such as hybridity, mimicry, difference, and ambivalence. Such terms describe ways in which colonised peoples have resisted the power of the coloniser, according to Bhabha's theory.

Fukushima asked if Bhabha was busy enough at Harvard, and Bhabha joked, "I feel like I'm being questioned for tenure!" During the conversation, he gave us a nugget: "A great work of art is impossible to forget because it's difficult to remember."

Literature protege Naomi Alderman with mentor Margaret Atwood - Photo: ©Rolex / Bart Michiels
Naomi Alderman was the literary protégé of the esteemed Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. Alderman chose to speak to Cindy Sherman, "widely recognized as among the primary contemporary artists of the past 35 years." From the New York Times:

Cindy Sherman
“She’s undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of our time,” said Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at MoMA, who has spent the last two years organizing Ms. Sherman’s retrospective. “She is always addressing issues at the heart of our visual culture. In this world of celebrity makeovers, reality TV and YouTube, here is an artist whose different modes of representation seem truer now than when they were made.”

Commercially she is often credited with taking photography out of a ghetto and putting it on the same firm fine-art footing as painting and sculpture. In May 2011 Mr. [Philippe] Ségalot, bidding on behalf of a client, bought a 1981 image in which she posed as a teenage girl. For six months it was the most expensive photograph sold at auction, bringing $3.9 million at Christie’s.  

Sherman and Alderman both like scary things. Alderman spoke about how she created her computer game, Zombie, Run! She was taking a jogging class, and everybody was asked why they were there. Most said the usual: "to be fit," "to lose weight, etc. But one woman said, "I want to escape from the zombie horde," which became the basis of Alderman's smartphone app that you listen to as you jog.

Alderman asked Sherman if she were a feminist, and she replied, "I'm not dogmatic."

Visual arts mentor William Kentridge and protege Mateo Lopez Photo: ©Rolex/Marc Shoul
Columbian artist Mateo Lopez was the protégé of South African artist, William Kentridge, known for his animated films and observations of social injustice.

Photo: Miguel Littin
Lopez spoke to Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, who, after studying in the US, returned to Jordan to work, saying it was a privilege to study film in NYC and speak English, which now that made it possible for her to provide jobs for others.

Jacir said that as a Palestinian, she knows there is always another side of the story that people are not being told. "You are rendered invisible. I always look for the other side of the story. What is being presented in the mainstream... you know there is more to the story. I am very anti-border."

After the Speed Talks, which always ended with an "aw" of disappointment from the audience as each speaker was cut off mid-sentence, American film editor Walter Murch and his protégé, Italian Sara Fgaier (the only person who used an interpreter), took the stage. Murch said he chose Fgaier because "she has the magic touch." We watched some of her exquisite skills displayed in The Train to Moscow.

Sara observes while Walter edits Particle Fever Photo: ©Rolex / Bart Michiels
Walter Murch seems to have edited or done sound design for every iconic American film I can remember -- The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now (Academy Award for sound design), The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc. He said that after Lumière brothers discovered film, 13 years went by before filmmakers figured out that you could edit film and make the story more interesting.

Murch had recently edited Particle Fever directed by Mark Levinson about the search for the Higgs boson, "The God Particle," and Fgaier was with him during much of the process (click to read the rave review from Variety). He played a clip of the documentary for us. I found myself moved to tears at the moment the experiment was deemed a success, and thought how incredibly fortunate I was to be watching such a film surrounded by so many brilliant minds on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. 

Next we were free until a concert at 7:15, so I went up the campanile of the Church of San Giorgio to observe the Borges maze while listening to a soundscape on a mini i-Something-or-other, part of Mateo Lopez's art installation. (While I was up there, one of the enormous cruise ships passed by, and I am pleased to report that I had the great pleasure of looking down on the MSC Fantasia, which, although looming over most of the buildings in Venice, is not taller than the campanile:)

After I came down from the tower, it had started to rain. Luckily, I had brought an umbrella so I could wander around the Cini Foundation with pleasure. By the time I got to the maze itself, Lopez's art project had been washed away, but I did have the opportunity to challenge the maze alone, accompanied by a divine fireworks display of thunder and lightning.

Late theatre mentor, Patrice Chéreau and protege Michał Borczuch Photo: ©Rolex/Mario Del Curto
Sadly, Patrice Chéreau, the theatre mentor, died less than two weeks before the Rolex Arts Weekend, on October 7th, of lung cancer. His protégé, Michal Borczuch, one of Poland's fascinating new voices, allowed us to peek inside his rehearsal process in the Padiglione delle Capriate. From Wikipedia:

Patrice Chéreau 2 November 1944 – 7 October 2013) was a French opera and theatre director, filmmaker, actor and producer. In France he is best known for his work for the theatre, internationally for his films La Reine Margot and Intimacy, and for his staging of the Jahrhundertring, the centenary Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976. In 2003 Chéreau served as president of the jury at Cannes.

Music mentor Gilberto Gil and protege Dina El Wedidi Photo: Rolex / Bart Michiels
The concert was inside the Salone degli Arazzi, otherwise known as the Tapestry Room. Dina El Wedidi is from Egypt, and she blew everyone's mind with her voice and compositions, backed by her band. When her mentor, 5-time platinum album Grammy award-winning Brazilian Gilberto Gil, joined her on stage, the audience went wild. It was truly a memorable experience to hear the Egyptian music combined with the Brazilian. The man is 71-years-old and he has the energy of a teenager! Gil remarked how much the Egyptians had to teach us. From Wikipedia:

Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira (born June 26, 1942), better known as Gilberto Gil, is a Brazilian singer, guitarist, and songwriter, known for both his musical innovation and political commitment. From 2003 to 2008, he served as Brazil's Minister of Culture in the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Gil's musical style incorporates an eclectic range of influences, including Rock music, Brazilian genres including samba, African music, and reggae.

Photo: ©Rolex / Bart Michiels
After that we "ate our way to dinner" as one fellow put it. Plate after plate of Venetian appetizers swept past us as we sipped prosecco or a spritz, and strolled to Cenacolo Palladiano, Palladio's Refectory, for dinner. The inside was spectacular, rows of round tables that seated ten people with white-rose centerpieces, the facsimile of Veronese's magnificent Wedding at Cana towering in the background -- which I have written about before:

Palladio’s Refectory - Unveiling of the Restoration

I only knew one other person at the weekend, and I could not find him, so I decided to pick a table at random and see who I ended up seated with at dinner, a game I like to play. I was one of the first people inside, so I chose a table close to the back, occupied only by an elderly couple, and lined myself up with a good view of the Wedding at Cana. I decided to get some food from the buffet before it got too crowded, and left my purse and bag at the table to hold my place. I found myself on line next to Walter Murch, and I told him that his film made me cry. When I got back to the table, I discovered that someone had moved me three seats to the right, so I could no longer see the Wedding at Cana. I scolded the fellow, and he went away; I realized much later that it was the theatre director, Peter Sellars(!).

Pietro Marcello
I sat down and began to eat, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier were seated at the same table. A blond woman arrived with a plate of food and sat down next to me, and I realized it was Cindy Sherman. We ended up having a great time, chatting about our exes and other girlie stuff. I adored her! She has the great ability to retain her innocence and humanity while confronting extreme subjects, and that is not easy to do.

Sara's partner, the director Pietro Marcello, was seated next to Cindy, and he informed us that he used to be the guardian of the island of San Clemente here in Venice before they restored it and turned it into a hotel.

Now, everybody in Venice knows that island -- which used to be for the mentally disturbed -- is haunted, so you can imagine how wacky Pietro is to live out there for a year. And Cindy Sherman is definitely not normal, THANK GOD.

Walter passed around a basket of Editorial Fortune Cookies. Mine read:

Bach said, when his organ-playing was admired by a pupil: "It's just a matter of striking the right notes at exactly the right moment. The organ does the rest."

Cindy exclaimed,"but Bach wrote the music!"

Of course he did. I love Bach, and believe he was divinely inspired. Yet man did create the organ, and Bach did write down the music. No matter how loudly heaven plays the song, we humans still need props to hear it.

It felt so good to be around kindred spirits after being starved for conversation for such a long time. Pietro said that Venice is suffocating, and he is absolutely right. If it weren't for the Giorgio Cini Foundation and La Biennale opening up the windows and bringing in enlightened creatures like these on a regular basis, the balance of the entire planet would be more lopsided than it already is.

Thank you, Rolex!

Click to go to the Rolex Mentors & Protégés Journal.

Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. If Rolex ran the world, how much more pleasant life would be. It was a great honor and privilege to attend the second day of the ROLEX ARTS WEEKEND at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on Sunday, featuring mentors and their protégés. To give you an idea of the quality of artists in attendance, by serendipity, later that evening I would find myself at the same dinner table as Academy Award winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch and his protégé Sara Fgaier, seated right next to Cindy Sherman, one of the world's most renowned contemporary artists.

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