I recently ran into some old high school acquaintances of mine from upstate New York. Many years had passed since we’d seen each other and I was curious to hear what they’d been doing with their lives. “I started a cattle farm,” said one. “I’m a milk-maid,” replied the other. In recent years, a lot of my friends have joined the “return-to-nature” movement in similar fashions—which I concede is thoroughly applaudable in light of the environmental catastrophes that we face today. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about Marie Antoinette and her play-farm, Le Hameau de la Reine, in the Versailles gardens. There, she and her coterie would collect eggs from chicken coups which had been pre-cleaned by servants, and tend to sanitized lambs, indulging in what she believed to be the picturesque life of the peasant who lives close to nature.
In any case, this movement has prompted a greater diversity of responses today, one that isn’t reserved exclusively for the haves over the have-nots . One of the most dramatic examples I’ve experienced is housed at the luxury resort Azulik, in Tulum. Set in an oceanfront jungle, Azulik floats like a giant tree house atop thousands of stilts. At night, the guestrooms are lit exclusively by candles and the lullaby of the waves is ever present. Rustic bungalows and open-air restaurants (and a club) are connected by walkways made of branches, and the floors of the ground-level spaces are paved with undulating vines that were set in place with the same technique used to shape boats.
It’s an exceptional locale. Azulik was envisioned by its founder, a self-taught Argentinian architect known as Roth, as an interdisciplinary space—the hotel is touted as an “eco-sensitive, architectural destination,” committed to “developing unusual initiatives.” Translation: an exclusive luxury hotel with good intentions and a robust exhibition component for nature-centric art. There is also a gift shop that stocks a remarkable amount of Christian Dior merchandise.
The exhibition space comprises two locations: SFER IK Museion, a stand-alone structure 20 kilometers away in Uh May (Roth lives in a similarly-designed house on the property), and its sprawling sister space on the resort. The architecture of these buildings follow a Gaudi-esque, biomorphic layout: curved flooring that follows the natural inclines and dips of the forest floor, sloping walls made of smooth, buffed cement, thatched roof paneling, and enormous circular glass doors that spin open from an axis in the center. None of the trees on the location were cut down to erect the buildings: holes are instead cut into the flooring to accommodate their trunks and limbs.
Earlier this month, SFER IK launched their new permanent program dedicated to performance mediums, Sceno by SFER IK. As part of the inaugural programming, LA-based group Data Garden presented a series of events based on their previous work creating “plant music,” a process which uses technology to translate plant biorhythms into audio frequencies. These sounds (which bore a remarkable resemblance to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports) were fed through speakers that echoed the melodic tunes throughout the exhibition space.
We arrived at Azulik on a Thursday evening to cover the events of the weekend and speak with exhibition curator Claudia Paetzold, and Data Garden artists Joe Patitucci and Jon Shapiro. Over dinner, our conversation drifted from subject to subject: plants to dogs, the illusion of time to near-death experiences, before finally landing on ayahuasca, which Roth has purportedly taken over a hundred times.
On our second day, I was seated at a low table on the beach, alongside Claudia, Natasha Stagg, and Kaitlin Phillips. We were soon joined by the amicable and extremely chill performance artist/dancer Cecilia Bengolea. It became difficult to hear Claudia’s voice over the wind, so we moved our cell phones closer to the German curator, practically flanking her plate of fish in order to better record her voice.
“Art projects us to a more sublime version of ourselves, and artists use matter in cosmic ways,” she said. “When an artist inscribes himself into matter, the matter comes alive. The molecules in an artwork are animated, as in Leibniz’s idea of monads, which is an image of the world where everything is composed of little units that have a soul.” A few receptors in my brain lit up—I’ve heard of Leibniz, sure. She’s discussing the rapport between alchemy and art, a theme that is central to the performance that would conclude the programming (“Midnight Alchemic Dance Soiree”), but the wind blew particularly hard at that moment, and her voice was lost.
Sometimes I wonder if the goals of artspeak and the goals of basic linguistic communication are incompatible: artspeak emotes impressions more than it elucidates ideas. The key to interpretation, I decided, was to hone in on specific words and phrases. The talking points surrounding the “activation” (ie., performance) of “plants making music” (ie., hooking a plant up to a polygraph) were ultimately intriguing enough.
“An artwork is kind of like a prayer, a communication with the universal. An attempt at going very deep inside to reach that which connects us all,” Claudia continued, as a nude, and rather pudgy man walked by our table (Azulik is clothing-optional).
Later that afternoon we attended a “plant music workshop,” presented by Joe.
“What is your relationship with plants like?” he asked the group.
A buxom woman from Ibiza, a self-proclaimed naturalist, started the discussion. I promptly forgot everything she said; while sincere, her response read like a string of the same keywords we’d heard all weekend (“cosmic,” “healing,” “plant power”). The journalists were also called upon to describe the contours of their personal rapports with plants (we were caught thoroughly off-guard by this). The first thing that came to my mind was a flower from my childhood called a Bleeding Heart that, when dissected, formed the silhouette of two pink rabbits. My neighbor recalled being warned against touching the brittle skin of a cactus, and her neighbor spoke of the cultivation of crops and selling corn by the side of a road. Claudia spoke about growing up near the Black Forest in Germany, where the Brothers Grimm were born in a monastery, a fact that she had related to us the previous night as we discussed the bliss of having a dog.
I realized that these off-the-cuff tales felt more honest and to the point than the abstract discussions about humanity’s “cosmic” relationship to the natural world. The most profound responses came from a group seated at the back of the space, half concealed by shadow. One young man wore a floppy hat made of tech material, and he sat beside a woman with a buzz-cut, chunky black spectacles,and biker shorts. Her name was Ana. Of the group, her English was the most proficient so she translated what her friends said before responding to Joe’s query herself.
Part of Roth’s vision of functioning like a “tribe” included the manufacture of certain products on-site, and one of these was macrame, a textile made of natural fibers and produced through a knotting technique. In that moment, it dawned on me that this was the most effective implementation of Roth’s sustainability mission. The young men and women who created the macrame products (everything from jewelry to extraordinary door hangings) are touted on the website as “talented local artisans,” and indeed they were. The young man with the hat, Cesar, had been making macrame since he was a child, and his friend, a lanky youth with jet black hair and kind eyeshad worked at it for fifteen years. Despite the fact that they all made enough money to live in the city of Tulum, they had chosen to live nearby so as to be closer to the jungle, to nature. The slow practice of knotting fibers, the closeness of their lives to the flora of the jungle, and the organic material that they worked with daily, were deeply intriguing and meaningful in context of the plant-themed programming. Ana, Cesar, and their colleagues weren’t well-known, experimental musicians-cum-artists who’d had installations at major American museums, but there was a quality to their art that was inspiring, grounded, and perhaps even radical.
There were certainly laudable aspects of Data Garden’s project, foremost of which was the emphasis they placed on something our society has largely forgotten how to do: listen. It is also indeed true that plants respond to us in ways that are truly miraculous, and I suspect that we have much to learn from them. The acoustics were excellent, and the experience of sitting in a space that literally featured no 90 degree angles produced an effect on one’s mood that felt like an expansion of consciousness. The cynic in me was ultimately won over by the effort that went into creating such a different kind of spatial experience.
The macrame artisans brought into focus a question about contemporary art that I often consider: why does it need so much verbal context in order to be considered worthy of our attention and deserving of an exhibition? Why do we feel the need to explain art so much, describe it’s every contour, illustrate in no uncertain terms the reason for its existence? What differentiates the work of people like Ana and Cesar, and the work of Joe and Jon?
I was pleased when Roth made special note of them in his opening remarks at the culmination of the programming later that night (an “Interspecies Concert”). He talked about the importance of the work of Data Garden, and the other performative artists who participated in the event, but his recognition of Ana, Cesar, and their friends was tender in its appreciation. The singer Pascale Caristo closed the evening with a hypnotic vocal performance that had a pleasantly soporific effect on all present.