Shock of the new in Venetian sanctuary

By Amei Wallach

The waves of Venice were a murky blue, their undersides the patina of ancient copper, frothing into white in the wakes of the gleaming wooden water taxis that ferried between St Mark’s Square and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore all weekend. The taxis carried cargos of cultural greats: from music and dance, Pierre Audi and Angélique Kidjo; from film, Walter Murch and Mira Nair; from visual art, Cindy Sherman and Sir Anish Kapoor; from architecture, Kazuyo Sejima and Daniel Libeskind.

These were among the guests gathered for the Rolex Arts Weekend, the grand finale of the 2012–2013 edition of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. On the island, guests disembarked at Palladio’s masterpiece, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, its legendary view from St Mark’s Square partially obscured all summer and fall by Breath, an 11-metre high inflatable lilac sculpture depicting a pregnant woman born without arms and with truncated legs, which was British artist Mark Quinn’s contribution to the still-in-progress Venice Biennale.

The shock of the new in dialogue with the culture and tradition of this magical city was an indelible theme of the remarkable Rolex Arts Weekend. For all the famous mentors and assorted luminaries milling the gardens and cloisters of the former Benedictine monastery, now the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and the weekend’s headquarters, the spotlight remained squarely on the seven young protégés. Already celebrated at home and on the cusp of international careers, they were performing for a once-in-a-lifetime audience of cognoscenti.

At the door of the long Palladian Refectory, the Brazilian dancer Eduardo Fukushima (his ancestry is Italian and Japanese) stood bare footed and bare chested, his arms behind him while the chatter subsided and the spotlight found him. Slowly, infinitesimally slowly he bent backwards, beginning the Crooked Man performance he had partially developed in the year he spent working with his mentor Lin Hwai-min in Taiwan.

Every movement of every appendage, limb, elbow, wrist, ankle was measured, every twitch and jerk controlled as what came to seem a broken body advanced in fits and starts between the gauntlet of illustrious onlookers towards the facsimile of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding of Cana, wounded, too, by Napoleon’s troops when they slashed the original off the wall and transported it to Paris.

In the 17th-century Longhena Library, British Literature protégé Naomi Alderman, wearing a super-sized red flower in her hair, announced, “I’m interested in the way that the monstrous enables us to think about things we might otherwise repress.” Victorians, she said, “were obsessed with death and couldn’t think about sex. We’re the opposite.” Hence her fascination with zombies, whom she managed convincingly to connect to Anne Frank and the Holocaust, before calling to the stage her mentor, the Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood.

Mentor and protégée were like a vaudeville act playing off one another and breaking each other up as they described The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, the novella they wrote together, each ending a chapter with a cliff-hanger from which the other had to write a way out for the digital publishing platform Wattpad. After which, Alderman implicated the ancient histories housed in the library itself in a staged reading of her Zombie Running smartphone exercise App.

Colombian artist and architect Mateo López and his mentor, the South African artist, William Kentridge, had collaborated, too, on an animated book in which each artist in his style depicted any vagrant idea that emerged from drawing himself walking. The inventive and sometimes hilarious animation, executed on the pages of an antique dictionary, was on view in the Sala Borges.

López also riffed on the name of that Sala – and the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges – and extended the theme of walking with an installation/experience/audio book. Downloaded to smartphones, the 21st-century soundtrack took viewers on a stroll through the monastery’s ancient labyrinth, now studded with found and formed sculptures by López, and up to the top of the Campanile tower from which you can see the most stunning views of Venice.

For López, though, the point was the change of perspective, from walking in the labyrinth to looking down upon it.

That change of perspective informed several of the 12-minute speed conversations that set the stage for each afternoon. The protégés had been encouraged to choose any of the weekend’s visitors from a different discipline than their own to engage in a Q&A that always seemed to end in groans from the audience as the lights went out, signalling time up, invariably in mid sentence. Evident all weekend had been how much both protégés and mentors had learned in their close encounters with each other’s often dramatically different cultures.

In conversation with Eduardo Fukushima, India-born cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha noted that “the cultural seepage” from one culture to the other, is the space that interests him. “The unpredictability of predictable situations always fascinated me.”

“Do you have advice to a young artist, to me?” asked the dancer, waving his arms as if they were legs.

“I have no advice,” responded Bhabha. “Artists have brought me to a place I would never have come to on my own. A great work of art is impossible to forget because it is difficult to remember. That’s the immanence of art. You can see the work in your head, but every time you have to begin again. It lives and dies, lives and dies. It’s that unfathomable.”

Afterwards, everyone trod walkways and allés to sample Polish theater protégé Michał Borczuch’s rehearsal, or Italian film editor protégée Sara Fgaier’s screening, or the installation in the swimming pool of clips from Chinese architecture protégé Yang Zhao’s work on a community centre for those who lost their homes in the tsunami.

But the weekend had one more treat in store, a performance by the Egyptian singer and composer, protégée Dina El Wedidi, in Salone Degli Arazzi. Surrounded by 16th-century Flemish tapestries, which gently showed their age, El Wedidi and her band let loose with a percussive romp, followed by an evocation and reinterpretation of Arabic sounds and songs. And then she invited to the stage the Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and “the best mentor in the world,” her mentor, the great Brazilian singer, songwriter and guitarist Gilberto Gil.

Together, they all raised the roof beams, and brought the audience to their feet in an electrifying moment that would have been impossible without this weekend and this event.

Middle Eastern rhythms “are too complex for us Occidentals,” said Gil, introducing the encore. “We reduce everything to simple. I think it’s about time that Western civilizations pay attention. We have so much to learn.”

It was the Rolex Arts Weekend’s artistic programmer, Emma Gladstone, artistic director and chief executive of Dance Umbrella, who had the apt final word on the programme’s core vision of carrying the world’s cultural heritage into the next generation. She quoted Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”