ALIVE Art | Marcello Dantas
By Andrea Macdonald
February 21 2022
Neil Koenig, ex BBC producer and current ideaXme board advisor and guest interviewer, interviews curator Marcello Dantas.
ALIVE Art | Making Art Relevant To Wide Audiences
Are humans the only creatures who can appreciate art? Perhaps not, says Marcello Dantas. His latest project aims to create “art that’s meaningful to other species”, such as birds, bees, or bats. Mr Dantas, a curator who has worked with many internationally known artists, is no stranger to innovative ventures.
ALIVE Art | SFER IK, Tulum Mexico
In 2021, he was appointed curator of the SFER IK Museion, located in the jungle near Tulum, Mexico – and this might be his most unusual undertaking so far. SFER IK, described as “an interdisciplinary arts centre”, is an unusual structure built largely from natural materials. It’s the creation of the architect and social entrepreneur Roth, who’s also the founder of the nearby Azulik hotel. Although construction was complete by late 2019, the pandemic meant activity had to be paused.
SFER IK | Makoto Azuma
The museum is now due to relaunch in March 2022, with a show by Japanese artist Makoto Azuma, known for pioneering work with plants and flowers. The centrepiece will be a 15m high “artificial tree, made of plants” explains Mr Dantas, which will have “a common nutrient body that will feed this amazing biodiversity that will exist inside the museum.” A key goal will be to try to create what he calls “bio-agreeable” art – work in tune with its location, in this case, in the middle of a jungle in which humans are a distinct minority. It’s also one example of the kind of work that Marcello Dantas finds particularly exciting: pieces that are integrated with their setting. Another is an exhibit which will appear soon at SFER IK, by Mexican artist Hector Zamora. This will involve the use of thousands of balls, moving around inside the gallery: “it will be like you are inside of a giant pinball machine’ explains Mr Dantas. “Think about what’s the most prohibited thing in a museum, apart from setting it on fire – playing football perhaps? But what if the museum plays football with you?”
The Exciting Future of Art
For Marcello Dantas, works like these point towards an exciting future for art, and away from the current approach of the modern art world, which he finds a little dispiriting: “you see a painting hanging on a white wall in Hong Kong, and then you see the same painting on a white wall in New York”. For him this model is sterile: “we want to go from sterility to fertility”. In this ideaXme interview, Marcello Dantas talks to producer, journalist and ideaXme board adviser Neil Koenig, about his career in the world of art, his plans for the SFER IK museum, and how he sees the future of art developing.
Marcello Dantas Art Curator and Owner MAG+
Marcello Dantas is an award-winning curator and artistic director specialising in interdisciplinary practices both in and outside Brazil. He was the name behind the conception of distinct museums and cultural institutions across South America, such as the Museum of Portuguese Language; Japan House Sao Paulo and the Museum of Nature in Brazil; Museo del Caribe and Museo del Carnaval in Colombia; and the Telecommunications Museum in Argentina. In 2021, he was appointed curator of the SFER IK Museion in Tulum, Mexico.
Marcello Dantas Curates Shows Of Top Artists Including Anish Kapoor
He has also curated some of the most popular solo shows of the last decade, including Ai Weiwei’s Raiz, the largest exhibition ever staged by the artist in Brazil in 2018. Marcello Dantas has also curated several solo exhibitions with some of the most influential contemporary artists of today, including Anish Kapoor, Laurie Anderson, Erwin Wurm, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jenny Holzer, Rebecca Horn, Bill Viola and many more. Since 2014, he has become part of the curatorial board at the Vancouver Biennale, and in 2020, he was appointed curator of the 13th Biennial Mercosul that will take place in Brazil in 2022.
The ideaXme interview with Marcello Dantas
Neil Koenig: [00:00:00] We’re here to “idea” everyone. To fire up your curiosity and connect you with the people and ideas that shape our world. Watch, listen, understand, connect, create. Let’s move the human story forward together.
Neil Koenig: [00:00:19] Welcome to ideaXme. I’m Neil Koenig.
Neil Koenig: [00:00:23] Hidden in the jungle near the city of Tulum in southern Mexico stands an extraordinary exhibition space known as SFER IK. It’s the antithesis of the familiar white cube art gallery, being built from natural materials and designed with curves instead of straight lines. The museum’s director, who has spent much of his career working on innovative projects, is Marcello Dantas.
Neil Koenig: [00:00:52] Marcello, thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in the world of creativity.
Marcello Dantas: [00:01:05] Well, the world of creativity has been around me ever since I was a child. I’ve always been a very creative kid in sort of inventing things and stuff. But I came into the curatorial world from a weird position. I studied first diplomacy to be a diplomat, and at a certain point I realized that I didn’t want to work for governments. And I went to study art history in Italy, in Florence, and then I realized that the art history that I was interested in was not in Florence. Then I moved to New York, and that’s where I graduated in film and television. And then at the time, I also studied a special field. That was what what’s called new media, what was called new media then, which was the connection between arts, technology, science in many layers. And I began in the curatorial world by doing documentaries on artists. I started doing films about artists, films about Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Zbigniew Rybczynski and John Sanborn, many, many different artists. And then this led me almost naturally. I worked at The Kitchen in New York in the beginning, the cultural center that was created by Woody and Steina Vasulka. And that was a good formation together with NYU and all of that.
Marcello Dantas: [00:02:39] And then I started doing curatorial work for exhibitions. I started developing concepts of exhibitions. This was a time in which the field that I was researching a lot, which was art technology and science together and how these fields could connect was still in its infancy. People didn’t do so much cross-disciplinary work there. I’m talking about the very early 90s, and this led me to develop unique projects. Naturally, this also developed into developed into making the new grammar of exhibition style that allowed me to develop museums, historical and scientific museums in Brazil, in Argentina and China. And then later this developed into making cultural centers and spaces and developing programming. So, it’s been 30 something years, over 250 exhibitions, 15 museums in different countries, and we’re now preparing another three museums at this point. So, there are many things in the pipeline. The pandemic really caused a shake-up, I would say, especially in our ability to travel in our ability to connect into different territories. But my interest has always been into creating multidisciplinary experiences whereby people would be able to learn, engage in and at the same time, appreciate other forms of arts that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.
Neil Koenig: [00:04:33] The fact that you’ve worked in a number of different fields, ranging from art to museums to opera, I think. Does that imply that the specific message of the project, or the work is more important than the particular form you’re dealing with?
Marcello Dantas: [00:04:57] Let’s put this into perspective. I am a storyteller. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a researcher. I’m a storyteller. I’m willing to make things happen to people. So, I’m very comfortable in working with historians and working with scientists and working with artists into developing ways to make their messages come across and making it happen. So, I work in a very collaborative form with different talents. I understand curatorial work very differently from how most people understand curatorial work. I understand curatorial work to foster the existence of something that doesn’t exist much more than selecting from the past. So, I’m always looking ahead. I mean, is this an idea of an artist, or is this a problem of a scientist, or is this a problem of the natural world, or is this friction that has not yet occurred? What can we do to make this happen? What can we creatively engage into developing this? And for this, I need to connect talents. I need to connect people – engineers, sometimes with historians, sometimes with artists, sometimes with the anthropologists, archaeologists. They all work together into trying to make this story make sense. For you to make a story makes sense. You need to create some sort of creative research or find a way to turn evidence into experience. So, you have a document and then you must transform the message of that document into a message that people will absorb. And this is a curatorial problem. How can we turn that into something that people will enjoy, appreciate, and be connected to?
Neil Koenig: [00:06:56] So does this mean that the view of the museum as an institution is changing today from how it was 50, 100 years ago?
Marcello Dantas: [00:07:10] It’s been changing dramatically. Museums were once very important. And museums spent quite some time operating as storage space for old artifacts. And in the past few decades, and through the works of many people that are rethinking the museum, the museum has gained another level of protagonism in the world. Its museums are places now where you discover new things, where possibilities can arise. So, it’s no longer a receptacle, or a storage space, but it’s the initiator of grabbing new information, new knowledge and putting it together and making it happen. For people, it is no longer just trying to understand the past. Sometimes the museum is the place for you to understand the present and the future. The museum is the place where, in many ways it is the moment in which we consolidate different fields into one place, so that we can understand what’s going on in several fields. I don’t think museums can any longer be seen as passive receptacles of the past I think museums are active engagers, initiators of new experiences and new knowledge. And it has changed dramatically, and the role of the curator too. The curator comes from an idea of the conservator, you know, the person that conserves, so that that future generations will learn. I understand that museums today have a completely different role. They are here to make sure that there will be a new generation.
Neil Koenig: [00:09:03] You’ve worked with some very well-known artists, people like Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei. What’s it like working with people like that who may have a very strong vision about what they want to achieve? And yet you’re talking about the fact that the spaces where their work is going to be shown are now much more collaborative and in more inclusive settings than perhaps, they were in the past so? So how do you sort of navigate that challenge?
Marcello Dantas: [00:09:38] I think the beauty is that artists and people like myself love problems. Give them problems, give them equations, give them something they don’t know, and they get excited again. Most artists I admire are not interested in just presenting what they’ve done in the past again and again and again. You know, they just like they do something. They like to turn the page and see what they can do next. I am always interested in what’s next. What doesn’t exist. Most curators fear that because they come from institutional structures that are very rigid, hierarchical structures. So, if you take risks, as a curator in certain institutions, you’re really risking your job. Well, I have always been very independent, so that I was able to take risks. And I talk to artists on the same level saying, I mean, I’m excited about this possibility. Look at this context. Look at the problems we have here. Can we artistically create a new opportunity, a new way of doing things and new artwork? And this is what really moves me, and I think moves them as well. That’s why I’ve worked with so many high-profile artists because people that are willing, they’re, you know, it’s easier to find people that are willing to take risks in these higher positions, you know, because they’ve arrived there because they have taken many risks and they are willing to find out what are these possibilities.
[00:11:14] So working with Antony Gormley, with Anish Kapoor, with AI Weiwei, Rebecca Horne, Erwin Wurm, Laurie Anderson, Bill Viola many, many, many different artists, about 130 of them and many lesser-known artists from different countries in the world, from China, from Japan – Makoto Azuma. And then I present to them. I say this is your new context. This is your completely different audience. This is the new site, your possibilities of articulating the sites. We can engage into public art, we also can engage in indoor art. We usually like to do both things, so we play more not only in the white cube kind of space museum and institutions, but also out in the streets. So, I did projects with Robert Morris, Andy Goldsworthy, Brian Eno, you know, all in places that they would never normally do. So, it is usually the curatorial proposal to the artists that seduces them to engage into making these things. And that’s what I’m really a specialist, in creating contexts.
Neil Koenig : [00:12:26] It sounds like a little bit from what you were saying that the push is coming more from the curatorial side than from the artist side. Or do you meet in the middle somehow?
Marcello Dantas :[00:12:37] I think this comes from both directions. I think the appetite is on both sides. You know, there are people in the world and it’s not only me. I recognize many curator friends in the world that also are looking for these new kinds of problems, new challenges. The advantage that I have having come from Brazil is that Brazil is not a place with extremely rigid institutions. So, the institutions are relatively young, and they are still building this system, so it allows for new ventures to emerge. Although we have huge audiences, we have record breaking exhibitions. In the art newspapers you will see that for the past 10 years, exhibitions that I have curated have been in the top 10, sometimes number 1. We have a large audience; we are a big country with a huge population. At the same time, we are a country that has the flexibility of daring to build more audience, especially because it’s a young country. So, the level of tradition, the level of conservative ness is relatively smaller than the level of daring people that are willing to do new things. This has changed somehow in the past few years because of politics, but still, it allows us to do many things, but I did. I did it also in many other countries I’m doing in Mexico, I did in Argentina, Chile, Peru, China, Japan, and Germany.
Neil Koenig: [00:14:19] If we look back at some of the things you’ve done over the course of your career. There’s a great deal of activity and excitement in South America. How does that compare to other parts of the world?
Marcello Dantas: [00:14:31] I would say it compares, you know, it’s not more and it’s not definitely less. It’s just it just compares because it has an energy. Part of the energy is its ability to be novel, to be new, to offer something different. But it does. It does have an energy. I mean, in audience numbers, Brazil is up there. I mean, there is a big audience. That’s something very important to compare. Now, when you take a place like France, France has fantastic museum, audiences and in England as well, in New York also. These are very important museum audiences. But when you take the tourism component out of these capital cities of these countries, you could have tested it during the COVID pandemic, you see that the numbers fall dramatically. The Metropolitan in New York, I think, fell by 90 percent.
Marcello Dantas: [00:15:27] So the basic formation of this audience in these cities, you know, Tate Modern of the Metropolitan, MoMA their audience numbers are heavily comprised of tourism. What happens in Brazil is the other way around. We have relatively small, a low level of tourism. So, what it means is that the audience that we built is local audience, not tourism audience, which has a completely different impact when you understand how you build a community around art. Tourism is not necessarily a community around arts, it’s just casual crossing in that city. That person may take another 10 years to come back to the museum, or just go there once. As is the case with the Louvre. Many just go there once in their lives. What we are seeing here is that we are building relationships whereby the same person is coming to the same museum two, three times a year. So, you’re really building a connection, a communication you’re building a culture of how these exhibitions are done and you’re doing it through a language, through a locality. So those two elements they articulate completely differently, when you try to understand the impact of the art world into society. If you close the Louvre in Paris, without tourism the Parisians will not even notice. It’s true.
Neil Koenig: [00:17:05] So if you’re building this kind of excitement in domestic audiences, in Brazil and presumably in other places in South America, do you think, do you hope that that might feed through into more people engaged in producing art?
Marcello Dantas: [00:17:26] I think so. I think there are more people engaged in producing art. I’m now the curator of the Mercosur Biennial, which is the biennial that unites the countries of South America.
Marcello Dantas: [00:17:36] I have been noticing a very strong change in the attitudes of artists towards the possibilities of what art can do. There are more people trying to investigate new frontiers and new possibilities of how and what art can be created. And that goes beyond understanding the classic means of painting and sculpture. And it’s going into some other fields like social projects, collective engagement, social experiences, technology, science, biology, integration of biology and arts. All these things are very fresh. They are energetic. You feel that there is a true appetite for working with these new forms. That’s exactly what I saw at SFER IK I said, this is a problem I can’t solve by just looking at it, I must experience it. It’s a weird model. When you go into this place you realize that if you have a photographer with a bunch of photographs, there’s nothing you can do with it. The photographer must rethink of photography. If you have a sculpture and you realize that there is not a single flat floor, so no sculpture will stand still in straight. And then what does it allow you to do? Maybe there is something that we must learn from our bodies because we can stand in curved floors? Why can’t our sculptures do the same?
Neil Koenig: [00:19:24] Let’s talk about SFER IK. It this new project that’s taking place in Mexico, not far from the city of Tulum, Mexico. Tell us about this. What is the project and how did you become involved?
Marcello Dantas: [00:19:40] During the pandemic, one of the only countries that was open in the world was Mexico. So, I decided to spend the New Year holiday in Mexico. Whilst I was there, a friend of mine said: You must come and visit this place. This is a unique place. I am sure that you would like to see it. And I went there, and I visited it, and I was completely struck by it. It’s not a small place. It is a very, very substantial structure, but in the middle of the jungle. In a place with a relatively small audience. Tulum is a small town. But people from all over the world visit the area. It has a very strong hub of people, a lot of creative people, interesting people in the world go there for some reason because it has its unique energy. I realized this is a “problem” for which art doesn’t have an answer. I wrote an article about it for a magazine for which I write regularly. I wrote it on the plane. I also sent it to Roth, the owner and founder of SFER IK.
Marcello Dantas: [00:21:08] And then some weeks after that, he called me and said: This is the best article somebody has ever written about this. I said, thank you. He said do you want to come and talk to me about it? And I said: Sure, I can do it in April. Then I went there. The result was, he invited me to direct the place.
Marcello Dantas: [00:21:30] Whenever I am faced with a problem of a certain magnitude that I can’t solve, I feel that I have the duty to engage myself creatively into doing this. The art world is a very unsustainable place if you put it in perspective. The model is based on collectors, who evaluate things and put a lot of money into them. And then the money is spent in a messy way. People cross the world to go from white cube to white cube to white cube. It is ridiculous. You see the same painting hanging in a white wall in Hong Kong, and then it goes to New York and is hung on a white wall. We are just spending energy in repeating ourselves.
Marcello Dantas: [00:22:18] Let’s create experiences that are unique. You know, can we really engage and say: Yes, I’m going to cross the world to go to Tulum because I’m going to see something that I can only see there and that will only take place there.
Marcello Dantas: [00:22:34] Can we challenge our system of doing things, so that we engage the community and engage multiple practices together in the process? It’s the artists interaction with society, with the community that will produce things. Can we produce experiences that are unforgettable, that you will feel the heat, that you will feel the smell?
Marcello Dantas: [00:23:04] The biggest of all challenges that I have set myself is to ask: Can we produce art that is meaningful to other species? And I felt that if we can do that, we can do something special. Can we create architecture that will interact with the bee’s architecture? Can we create an exhibition space in which birds can come in and can observe and change their relationship with the space because of the art that is in there? Can we create art in which bats can come at night and look at things that we cannot see with our eyes? And we can create something that they will sense, and they will respond to us in another sense. And if this means other species and this also means people from all walks of the world mean, from all regions of the world. So, I must communicate without using language as a structure. I must communicate using nature, form colour, shapes – everything that is universal in that sense.
Marcello Dantas: [00:24:25] I don’t know anywhere else in the world where people are putting these questions in the table. If there are people doing this, I would love to meet them because that’s what we are attempting. And the beauty of what Roth has built there is that he built the museum, but around the museum, he put in all these workshops so you can make glass, you can make ceramics, you can make metal, you can make virtual reality, you can make augmented reality, you can make sounds, you can make textiles, fibers. So, artists can come there and create many things. There’s are about a hundred artisans working there trying to develop things.
Marcello Dantas: [00:25:09] So this becomes not only an exhibition space, but it becomes a creative space, which is a unique opportunity. You’re sitting on six thousand years of the Mayan culture. Europe is a baby next to the Mayan culture. We are sitting on ruins. We’re sitting on language. We’re sitting on so many things of what Mayans must teach us. I mean, calendars, agriculture, the use of water, spiritual relations, mushrooms. I mean, how much did these guys know that we have forgotten and therefore neglected for so long, so we can also offer that layer of anthropological knowledge to artists. So, if what I have said to you doesn’t exactly excite an artist, then maybe nothing will!
Neil Koenig: [00:26:03] So the SFER IK gallery is in southern Mexico, and it’s the brainchild of the social entrepreneur and architect called Roth. And it’s on a large site, a part of a network really of projects that Roth has started in that area, including a hotel resort. And the gallery is a rather extraordinary building, isn’t it? Can you describe it?
Marcello Dantas: [00:26:37] It has a very organic form. So, it’s a building that it took me quite some time to understand the scope because it has many galleries. It has a big dome room with a ramp that goes around and then nature grows inside of it. So, there are trees. It has open pathways so that birds can fly through it. We meet sometimes scorpions and iguanas in the museum. It is made of basically three materials: a vine called bejuco, which is a local vine, concrete and fibers many different, from fibreglass with many different fibers that you weave through. So, it’s a completely different kind of architecture. It doesn’t have any flat floors. It doesn’t have any straight walls. It doesn’t have any flat ceilings. Everything is completely curved. It is indoors, sometimes outdoors, and you are surrounded by a pond of water and then you are surrounded by a jungle. You are really in the middle of a jungle. You are the minority. You are the smallest minority in the jungle. Humans are not a majority in that context. We are just a small group of people living in a wide area where there is a bunch of other creatures living. So, this is the bigger challenge. It’s not in the street where you walk by. You must go to this place.
Marcello Dantas: [00:28:10] You must want to go there. You have a restaurant inside, a very good restaurant and then you have these workshops surrounding it. So, it’s an experience. You at least spend half a day, but you could possibly spend the whole day in the museum, in the city of arts, we call it. It’s a catered experience. You take off your shoes. It’s not overcrowded. You walk in the museum without your shoes. At the top it is very hot. In the bottom it’s cool, fresh. You feel the impact of the weather and the climate in the place, which is very important. So, it’s good for the plants that it has the heat and humidity. Other spaces are less so. It’s not a place where you’re going to hang an oil painting, or a photograph, or paperwork. It is also a place that artists must really create a dialogue. Roth created an architecture, but he also allowed nature to build around it. So, there are trees growing from inside the museum to the outside. It’s a unique place. Not only that, but Tulum is also a place that is a place for discovery. It’s one of these sites in the world that you don’t it’s not like, you know, if you go to Cancún, for instance, which is a strip of hotels near the beach, you have the beach and then you have the lagoon and you have the hotels in the middle and restaurants and that’s it.
Marcello Dantas: [00:29:41] It’s quite the opposite. It’s totally hidden. The gems of Tulum are cenotes, which are hidden underwater rivers that connect caves with fresh water from place to place, or beaches that are difficult to access. But when you go into a lagoon and you can swim with stingrays and manta rays, or you can swim with the turtles.
Marcello Dantas: [00:30:11] It is very seductive because it’s all very exploratory. So, it’s for people that have that in their attitude. This I find very good. So, it singles people out from the people that like tourism. The tourist might want to go to a Sheraton hotel and be in their air conditioning all the time and may want to have their food predictable. This place is a challenging place for explorers, for people who are daring. And I would love to communicate with these people more than any other people in the world.
Neil Koenig: [00:30:45] What kind of artists are going to be involved in the project from now on? You’re about to relaunch it.
Marcello Dantas: [00:30:53] Let me tell you the story of how this happened. The place was built between 2018-2019. It opened in 2019, and then the pandemic came right after. So, it opened with one exhibition and then it was closed for the whole year of 2020. So as the pandemic is easing and tourism restarted, they thought that: We have to rethink the museum project. That’s where I came in. So, we’re relaunching the museum. It is open to the public now, so people can visit the space. For the first exhibition, I have invited a fantastic artists called Hector Zamora. Hector Zamora just did a beautiful commission at the Metropolitan in New York. He participated at the Venice Biennale. He did wonderful pieces in Art Basel. He’s from Mexico, although he lived in Portugal and lived in Brazil. He lived in different places and he’s just coming back to Mexico after more than a decade outside of Mexico. So, this will be his first exhibition in Mexico in a long time. His exhibitions usually comprise of creating situations. I did an exhibition previously with him, which was very nice. We did an orchestra of people. Moving and making things, and then you don’t realize what they are doing. They are all doing this together at the same time. It’s like forty-eight members and there is a conductor and everything.
Marcello Dantas: [00:32:30] All the sounds are “chicka chicka”. Wow! (Neil Koenig interjects). And then at the end they reveal what they were doing was making ice cream. And he has that, that kind of ability, you know, of twisting things around. He made these beautiful parachutes in Basel that flew over the space. In Venice Biennale, he put a zeppelin between two buildings. The zeppelin was totally stuck there. He also did a performance, which comprised typists, typing at the same time in rhythm.
Marcello Dantas: [00:33:23] So what are we going to do? We’re developing this system to make this museum to show the shapes and forms of the museum and making it alive through the balls. So, we’re going to have ten thousand balls permanently turning the museum like a pinball machine. So, the whole museum. Imagine that you are inside of a pinball machine, and the balls are flying around you all of them, but 10000 of them. Just by telling you this little sentence, you know that you have not seen this art before.
Marcello Dantas: [00:34:01] You know, you’ve never been inside of a pinball machine, which is a museum. I mean, think about what’s the most prohibited thing in a museum? It is playing football in the museum! Beyond that, it is maybe setting fire to the place. What if the museum plays football with you? What if the work of art is the football, or the balls, or the little spheres?
Marcello Dantas: [00:34:33] One very important ethical thing that I state is that art is not a commodity. Capitalism turned art into being a commodity. Art is a form of expression. So, art is a need of people. Art is not something has to be made in bronze, or oil painting for it to last, so that you protect its financial value over the years. This is a complete misunderstanding of the whole idea of art. Art can be just something you draw on a beach and the waves come and clean it. Art should be generous. Art shouldn’t be selfish. The sadness of the world is that most of the arts produced in the world that becomes commodity ends up in storage for all of its life, without anyone seeing it, without it serving any purpose. So, if we don’t make art an event, something that takes place that connects people, we’re really off the mission.
Neil Koenig: [00:35:38] So SFER IK is an example of a new kind of gallery, where there’s a much more intimate, intense relationship between the project that’s on show and the people visiting it. Is this a model that you know, might end up changing or displacing the kind of white cube model that we see out there?
Marcello Dantas: [00:36:06] I don’t see that we will displace. I think we’re going to expand. I think we’re going to expand the interactions – what art can do, or what art can be. It’s about going beyond the white cube, going beyond the urban scene, and going into nature, going into ancestral connections, going into community engagement, going into other contexts and other cultures that can allow us to produce different iterations. And these are opportunities that have arisen from the fact that we are no longer wanting to concentrate everything into some spots just for the convenience of people’s mobility into this. I mean, this is not an argument that it’s good enough. Art should be made to serve something much greater. And I think artists with a mission will be truly engaged into experiencing other possibilities of what their creativity can be used and applied in these new contexts. This movement is not only in the art world, but in many worlds. People are realizing, through remote work, that they can have an office in the mountains, or they can work on a beach. The world is waking up to the fact that most of the problems we have are related to concentration. It can be concentration of wealth, concentration of knowledge. I have maybe another 20 or 30 years in life. I don’t know. But I want to make something relevant to this thinking. I want to engage into researching fields that people before me didn’t dare to research because they were locked into a system that was created just to serve money generation, that is capital and not serve artistic possibilities. I think capital will follow. This is the funny thing. I think the commercial world is looking for other opportunities. I’m not anti-capitalism. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be stupid. You know, there are so many possibilities for even for the finance/commercial world or wealthy individuals to invest in research and create new possibilities.
Neil Koenig: [00:38:19] So you’d like to see art expanded beyond the art market, the auction houses?
Marcello Dantas: [00:38:28] Yes, I would love to see art much, much further away from the auction houses. I don’t see any reason why it must be translated into this – a commodity, where it is about storage houses, auction houses and short shows in white cube galleries. This is a very narrow vision for something that can be as wide as making art for bats and listening for mushrooms and connecting with people from all different cultures through an experience and being able to talk to nature and hear back from nature creates architecture that doesn’t exist.
Marcello Dantas: [00:39:12] There’s one message that I felt when I first entered SFER IK, which is a very simple message that anyone can understand. Your body is designed as one of the most fantastic balanced machines. We can work with two legs. We don’t need four. We can work with two, which means we have a high center of gravity, so our body is able to adjust and adapt to different reliefs. Just like the Earth but architecture for some very stupid reason decided that everything had/has to be flat. So, what it’s doing, it’s impairing your body’s ability to negotiate your sustainability, your ability to sustain yourself standing, your standing ability, every movement. And this is a beautiful dance we have in our bodies and the architecture of the art world is taking that from us. And this is very important to art because art is about changing angles of perception, seeing things slightly differently, showing things in a different way. Well, one of the things one of the essential things about it, this a point of view. In point of view is like this, I mean, I could be having an interview with you like this (Marcello gets up from his chair, so his head is horizontal to the screen). My body can adjust. We don’t have to be flat. We don’t want to be flat in everything. We don’t want to flatten out the whole experience. We want to allow the curve, which is probably where the beauty of art is, is in the curve.
Neil Koenig: [00:40:56] Many years ago, I spent a morning with the Austrian artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. In his museum, in Vienna there were trees growing up inside the building. When he came to meet us, he offered us triangular shaped pieces of wood so that we could put them under our chairs, so we wouldn’t fall over. Hundertwasser was famous for hating the straight line. Is this ringing bells?
Marcello Dantas: [00:41:35] Yes, absolutely. I think what we’re doing in SFER IK has shared philosophy with Hundertwasser’s work. Not aesthetically, but philosophically. It doesn’t look exactly like Hundertwasser. He plays in different ways with colour and everything. And he has his own reasons, but I admire him a lot. But it has a lot of shared philosophy. I think this is this is very nice. I think Hundertwasser is completely a complete genius, who was not really understood to the level that it should have been. And basically, because he worked against, or not within the context of the existing system. But the world changes. From the time that Friedensreich Hundertwasser was creating this, we’ve had so many things that happen that changed our point of view of things. I think that Hundertwasser was so ahead of his time. And maybe what we’re doing now is much closer. I don’t feel like we’re now talking about the far future. I think the ethical questions that are on the table for the project that we are doing, are really on everybody’s table. Everybody’s rethinking their lives and rethinking their flat walls, and their white cubes and their possibilities, I’ve just had a meeting with a gallery, and they said: We’re closing all our white cube spaces and we’re getting fantastic houses by architects in faraway places to make our exhibitions there. So, everybody’s trying to think. The model is not producing anything anymore. It’s sterile. We want to go from sterility to fertility. Yes, Hundertwasser is a fantastic person to refer to. He is an inspiration, philosophically for this project.
Neil Koenig: [00:43:34] Since we recorded the first part of this interview, the gallery’s schedule has changed, and the work by Hector Zamora, mentioned earlier will now appear later. Before that SFER IK will feature an exhibition by Makoto Azuma, Marcello Dantas told me more.
Marcello Dantas: [00:43:54] We have many upcoming shows. We have a new one opening in March, which is focused to our research: How can we create art that is relevant to other species? How can we create works, that somehow produce some level of symbiosis? So, we invited Japanese artist Makoto Azuma. Makoto Azuma is the man who has sent a bonsai into space, who has planted trees in both Poles. He has put botanical installations in the deepest points of the sea, or in the desert. He has created many sorts of completely radical interventions using plants, flowers, and trees to produce a new perception of context.
Marcello Dantas: [00:44:54] Considering that SFER IK is an organic structure created in the middle of the jungle. So, it’s a manmade, artificial but organically impenetrable structure that exists in the middle of a forest, of a jungle. He said: It’s time for us to do the following. I would like to create an artificial tree made up of all the biodiversity that exists around that area of Mexico, planted in this one tree. So, there will be a tree, that is not a tree, but it’s made of trees and made other plants. It will be a manmade designed with a common body, with a common nutrients body. As well that, it will feed this amazing biodiversity that will produce some sort of symbiosis between the creatures and the plants that will exist inside the museum. So, it is like a double conceptual thing. You have a jungle, in the jungle you put the museum, in the museum, you put the tree, and, in the tree, you put the diversity that is outside to live together.
Neil Koenig: [00:46:24] Is this exhibit going to be alive then in some sense?
Marcello Dantas: [00:46:27] It will be completely alive; it changes over time. We have no clear sense of how long and what will be the 100 percent the consequences of the initiative that we will produce, but something will be produced.
Neil Koenig: [00:46:43] And the audience, how will they experience it, will they be able to sort of go inside it?
Marcello Dantas: [00:46:47] They go inside. They can touch it. They can be around it. It’s going to be an existing creature inside because it’s very high. It’s 15 meters high. It has the canopies is going around. So, you see it in several levels. So, in some areas, its going flowers, in other areas it is vines. Other areas are just branches, but they’re all alive, living from the same nutrients.
Neil Koenig: [00:47:16] Was this a kind of response by the artist to the setting?
Marcello Dantas: [00:47:20] Yes, it is. It is a response of the artist to the setting. So, if we can create that, can we in a way provoke nature to respond with its biodiversity to that context. Yes, it is an artist’s response to the space.
Neil Koenig: [00:47:45] And is that how you see work at the gallery developing in the future?
Marcello Dantas: [00:47:52] We are in the process of having discussions with many artists, and we are very much interested in how we can play with the context of the environment and the diversity and the species around it to produce an experience that is unique. So yes, I believe that the human, the natural and the environmental surroundings will affect the contents of the exhibitions that are placed and that are developed there.
Neil Koenig: [00:48:26] And there are lessons, perhaps for other people operating in the art world here?
Marcello Dantas: [00:48:32] Yes. The question is: Can we go beyond the clinical white cube? Can we go beyond the neutrality of arts? For example, I think it would be fascinating if we could be open to understand the nature of decay.
Marcello Dantas: [00:49:00] Moreover, there is a phrase that I pointed out the other day, which is we don’t want to make biodegradable but “bio-agreeable art” “bio-pleasant art” – art that can deal with decay. I mean, let’s understand that things are not designed to last forever. That includes arts, life is not designed for eternity. So, if we put that into context, we can create things/art that will be transformative in their process. They will disappear or be transformed into something else. In doing so, we are taking out, omitting a lot of the commodity, financial speculation aspect that is prevalent in art and setting it free. So that art can realise its true power and not just exist to hold value.
Neil Koenig: [00:49:59] Marcello Dantas, thank you very much.
Marcello Dantas: [00:50:02] Thank you.
Interview credits: Neil Koenig, ex Senior BBC Producer.