“Can we expand the definition of what art can be?”: Marcello Dantas on His Vision at the Helm of SFER IK in the Mayan Jungle

SFER IK Uh May – Spaces. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
Marcello Dantas © Juliette Bayen.
SFER IK Uh May – Architecture. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
SFER IK Uh May – Drone. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
SFER IK Uh May. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
SFER IK Uh May – Architecture. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

Ahead of its relaunch in November, CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui spoke with SFER IK Museum Director Marcello Dantas about what it means to helm a museum deep in the Mayan jungle of Mexico with no right angles, where humans, birds and iguanas alike are all welcome.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of SFER IK

 

SFER IK Uh May – Spaces. Image courtesy of AZULIK.

 

“I think there are moments in life when you find something that you don’t know the answer to, and every time I find something like that, it challenges and attracts me, because it’s not an easy solution, and it’s not an easy equation,” says Marcello Dantas of his recent appointment as Museum Director of SFER IK.

Situated in the Mayan jungle, outside of Tulum, a town on the coastline of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, SFER IK is so far beyond the typical definition of a museum, and expectation of what it should look like, it is simply astounding to comprehend at first. It’s no white cube. In fact, as Dantas tells me over Zoom, there is not even a single right angle within the sprawling 1100 square-metre biomorphic space because the curvature of its walls is made to fit around the trees of its external surroundings. Flooded with sunlight, SFER IK features an interior fireplace, living trees, native vines and a natural water source within its exhibition space. “It is very important to say that this architecture was not designed before it was built,” explains Dantas. “It was designed as it was being built, which is something of a challenge of itself.”

The visionary brainchild of architect, environmentalist and entrepreneur Roth (Eduardo Neira), and built by architectural firm Roth Architecture, SFER IK opened in 2019 but will soon relaunch this November under the artistic leadership of Dantas. “The new model [away from the white cube] is not to have a model. It has to be something that adapts to its context,” says Dantas. “I want to make art with artists that can really open up new gateways for themselves, and for art, new possibilities.”

 

Marcello Dantas © Juliette Bayen.
SFER IK Uh May – Architecture. Image courtesy of AZULIK.

 

“One of our ethos is that we think with locality, with whatever knowledge we have from the place where we are, but we understand the impact of our decisions in the global context,” he says.

An ephemeral existence for art is a thread that weaves through Dantas’ creative vision for SFER IK which seeks to extend the very definition of art itself. Funded by the commercial ventures of its parent company, Roth’s AZULIK group, including the AZULIK hotel situated by the coastline some 30km away, the museum lives by a mandate of having no collection, and no shipping of artworks from overseas. A sustainable financial model is key; one that doesn’t involve burning money, Dantas tells me. And Dantas would certainly know a thing or two about the costs—and carbon footprint—of parading artworks around the world. Through a career spanning three decades, Dantas has curated major international art festivals and solo exhibitions working with high-profile artists including Anish Kapoor and Erwin Wurm among countless others. So you can forget about trying to lend your latest Picasso purchase to the museum. Instead, SFER IK will host artists for six-month residencies, during which the artists will develop and produce work, culminating in two monographic exhibitions a year—in May and November. The exhibitions are complemented throughout the year by a suite of programmes, workshops and events welcoming other forms of creative expression from music and dance to gastronomy and more.

Ecological sustainability and community welfare are vital considerations in the decision-making processes of the museum. “We approach it with humility, with respect, and with understanding of what of [nature] can give to us and how we can respond back without destroying what we find,” says Dantas. “A key thing is that you can make art with many things as long as they do not have to remain there forever. It is a great burden for the environment to have things that are not biodegradable.”

Wherever possible, he explains, the art will be made with locally sourced materials, and working with local artisans, particularly those in AZULIK UH MAY (“The City of Arts”), the 10-acre creative complex within which SFER IK is situated. One of the last port cities built and inhabited by the Maya, which was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries, Tulum is now a thriving coastal tourist location, just some 90 minutes south of Cancún by car. Tulum is a place of ancestral knowledge and history, Dantas tells me, that really has not even been discovered, explored or interpreted yet, and he hopes the artists that come through SFER IK, the projects they make, will not only “produce a friction of possibilities” for creative expression but foster learning and interaction among visitors regarding the ancestral history and values of the place.

 

SFER IK Uh May – Drone. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
SFER IK Uh May. Image courtesy of AZULIK.
SFER IK Uh May – Architecture. Image courtesy of AZULIK.

 

The pillar of it all though, is the very landscape upon which SFER IK and AZULIK UH MAY lives. The Mesoamerican Reef, running through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, of which Tulum is its northern tip, is the second largest in the world at 1000 kilometres long, and is regarded as the life support system of the region. So the necessity of conserving its marine biodiversity and health is without question. Heading inland, the Mayan jungle is home to up to 400 species of birds, and is one of the few places anywhere on the planet where five large cat species live. The jungle also possesses the geological and biological phenomenon of cenotes—deep natural sinkholes resulting from collapsing limestone exposing groundwater—which is home to many endemic life forms.

Dantas, who has spent most of his life travelling and visited some 60 countries around the world, fills with apparent joy as he describes encountering cenotes, swimming in lagoons, and discovering mushrooms growing on the fibreglass roof of SFER IK. “There are things that I have seen in the last year in that place that I have not imagined,” he muses. With delight and humour, he tells me experiences of witnessing birds flying into the museum and looking at art, of scorpions, iguanas and snakes all enjoying a little daytime stroll. “The animals don’t do harm to you because they are not in danger. They don’t feel stressed so they don’t attack. They just do their thing,” he says. “Humans are not a majority here.” With a chuckle, Dantas tells me he welcomes their feedback on the art.

“I’m a process curator. I want to get from no knowledge to the full experience of something. This is my thing,” explains Dantas with humbleness and a twinkle of excitement. “I want to make things happen. I want to see ideas that do not exist become real.” Through all its uniqueness and unconventional conceptualisation, SFER IK presents a real curatorial and creative challenge for all involved. It becomes apparent as we conclude our conversation, to lead SFER IK is not just a new venture for Dantas, but it is one that has sparked within him—maybe even reignited—a fire of passion for art, for nature, for civilisation’s history. Pondering Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposition for New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim that art will evolve with the museum, Dantas seeks to ask the same question of SFER IK. “Can we expand the definition of what art can be? I don’t know if I’m going to get there, because it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on many things. But at least I put that as my mission.”

 

 

 

 

 

 
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