Apt celebrations for vintage year

By Amei Wallach

Venice, 22 October
: The gold-embossed curtain rose on the gold-framed stage of Venice’s La Fenice opera house last night to the strains of Respighi’s Roman Triptych overture.

Gian Riccardo Marini, CEO of Rolex, declared that an “icon of Italian and world cinema” was also present to help open the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative gala presentation in Venice: Sophia Loren, glorious in black, pronounced herself “delighted to take part in the first Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative gala to take place in Italy”. Sophia Loren spoke of the importance of the “personal transmission of artistic knowledge” from one generation to another. “It’s one year that can inspire a lifetime,” she proclaimed.

That set the evening’s tone. The ceremony, like the programme, was not a competition for top prizes. It was a celebration of generosity of spirit on the part of the mentors, all internationally acclaimed in at least one of the programme’s seven disciplines – architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theatre and visual arts. And the event honoured the courage and curiosity of the protégés who commit themselves to a relationship that will, in the words of 2012-2013 visual arts protégé Mateo López, take them out of their “comfort zone”.

Mentor after mentor – both from this year and from the programme’s past decade – paid tribute to the young artists they had taken into their working lives. They spoke of how the experience had also changed them.

“What is it like to mentor a younger artist and why do we do it?” asked Robert Wilson, a giant of theatre in his native U.S. and beyond – and Rolex mentor in the programme’s first cycle in 2002–2003. “We have a responsibility to pass on our experience to the next generation, but we get as much out of it as the protégés. They give us hope for the future of creative expression and of artists.”

Video montages introduced each discipline’s presentation with scenes of past and present mentors and protégés at work together. One of the most moving began with shots of the after-effects of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. A man in the video explained that his wife had been killed in the disaster. “We need a new dream,” he said.

Japanese architecture mentor Kazuyo Sejima guided her Chinese protégé, Yang Zhao, in building a community centre for Tohoku. On stage, Yang Zhao explained that until recently there was no independent architecture in China, “no tradition I could follow. I worked all alone, until last year I was contacted by Rolex. It feels like being contacted by an angel.” Sejima, he said, “doesn’t take the lead”. She “watches”, and when necessary counsels him not to simply “take the low-hanging fruit”, but to push on. Now, “because of the inspiration and energy I received this year, I feel connected to the great tradition of architecture in which I’m never alone.”

“What is it like to be a protégée to the greatest artists in the world?” asked the Canadian mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, whose mentor in 2004–2005, Jessye Norman, is one of opera’s icons. “This priceless gift has changed our lives”, Platts said, of herself and her mentor.

Actresses Charlotte Rampling and Marthe Keller (both of whom have served on the Rolex Advisory Board) paid tribute to distinguished theatre, film and opera director Patrice Chéreau, who died on 7 October. Chéreau, theatre mentor for 2012-2013, wrote, in his last weeks, remarks he had hoped to speak last night – but were read from the stage by Marthe Keller in his place: “I didn’t want either of us to be inhibited by admiration,” he said of his protégé, avant-garde Polish theatre director Michał Borczuch. “I wanted resistance from him. Now things are in his hands.”

Another feature of the evening was the announcement of the mentors for 2014–2015, who will shortly begin the process of choosing their protégés. The new mentoring pairs will face a challenge as they endeavour to match the success of this remarkable past year in which all the pairings were highly fruitful. Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy at Rolex, closed the ceremony. “We would all agree this was an exceptional year,” she had said earlier in the day. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a year in which mentors and protégés spent so much time together and accomplished so much.”

With the gala ceremony completed, the audience boarded water taxis for a moonlight ride to dinner at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Under Murano glass chandeliers set with real burning candles, at tables where overblown white roses glowed in the candlelight of glass candelabra, an extraordinary guest list dined on chestnut polenta and filet of John Dory.

Present as guests was a star-studded cast of major names with links to the Rolex Arts Initiative: from film and theatre, were Mira Nair, Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson, new film mentor Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and new theatre mentor Jennifer Tipton; from visual arts, William Kentridge, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, Do Ho Suh, Rebecca Horn; from dance, Lin Hwai-min, Mark Morris, and; from architecture, Kazuyo Sejima, Daniel Libeskind, Ryue Nishizawa and new architecture mentor Peter Zumthor; musicians Gilberto Gil, Zakir Hussain and Sonya Yoncheva; and actors Charlotte Rampling, Marthe Keller and Geraldine James; authors Margaret Atwood, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri.

“It’s become clearer with this weekend that there’s an astonishing sideways programme,” South African visual artist (and 2012–2013 mentor) William Kentridge said earlier, in which the mentors themselves get to meet colleagues in their own and other fields. He had never previously met Anish Kapoor or Rebecca Horn. Now he could pepper the legendary film editor Walter Murch (film mentor for 2012–2013) with questions of music and editing for his own animations and films. “That this programme has been repeated for so many years is an enormous blessing,” Kentridge said.

“In this age of calculations, Rolex’s support of the arts makes all the difference,” Anish Kapoor (visual arts mentor in 2010–2011) had commented from the gala stage. “It provides the gift of creativity.”