OUpon entering, it’s hard to tell where the jungle ends and the building begins. Thick green tendrils twine from above, filtering light on tendon paths bejuco vine. Trees are everywhere: pushing through the ground, bending the polished concrete surfaces to their will, and soaring up to the roof. The air is humid and bears a vegetal musk. It’s less like being in a gallery than a vast grove, with faint Star Wars forest moon vibes. You wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find an Ewok hanging in the canopy above.
As art spaces, SFER IK Uh May is certainly unusual – and not just because it’s located in the forests of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in what feels very much like the middle of nowhere. Opened in 2018 and then closed by the pandemic, the 10-acre complex aspires to be a new kind of museum, in tune with its surroundings and open to the kinds of art that would never make it to MoMA or the Tate.
In a shaded corner of the gallery – I was asked to take off my shoes – a team of technicians are perched on scaffolding installing a work of the Japanese “botanical sculptor” Azuma Makoto: a large, staggering room assembled using native plants from all over Mexico. As the cacti, bright pink bougainvillea, and snakes are set up on a wooden frame, Makoto politely supervises, cutting off a leaf or two, or asking for a wreath to be moved a few inches to the left.
As the growth cycle does its job, the coin, called “Mexx”, will change beyond recognition, he explains. “It’s living,” he says. “Some parts will bloom, other plants will die. In six months it will be completely unrecognizable. What about after that? “We take it apart and give it to the community.
In recent years, sustainability has become the hottest topic in the art world – and it should, given that this most globalized industry is produces approximately 70 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year, more than some European countries. But in this corner of Mexico, self-taught Argentinian architect, hotelier, entrepreneur and (now) museum founder Eduardo Neira is trying a unique experiment: seeing if nature itself can be a kind of sustainable work of art. .
Sitting in the equally extraordinary residence which he designed for himself next door, Neira (who goes by the name Roth, for somewhat enigmatic reasons) confirms that, yes, they are real trees inside the gallery, in fact almost 200 of them – left untouched where they grew while the museum was erected around them. “It’s not decoration,” he said. “It’s a profound effort to recognize that we are part of nature.”
Built by a large team of local craftsmen over a year, SFER IK is comprised of a wide dome, punctuated by log bridges that lead into the trees beyond, and surrounded by a flower garden where you can relax and soak up the jungle views. . From a certain distance, it looks more like a rock formation coming out of the forest. I keep thinking of tropical Victorian houses like the ones in Kew Gardens – but of course it’s actually in the tropics where a lot of these plants come from.
Rather than being another identikit white cube-style art space, the architecture aims to be “biophile,” Roth says: embracing the jungle rather than rejecting it. “We live in boxes. We play in squares. We work in squares. We study in squares. Our mind is a square. How did they decide on the shape of the building? It was largely improvised on the spot, he replies. “No plan, not even a measure.”
Whatever the exact truth of this, there are no right angles in sight, with undulating groundscapes and curvilinear windows overlooking greenery. Back inside, I ask the new director of SFER IK, the Brazilian curator Marcello Dantas, if it isn’t a nightmare to set up exhibitions there. He nods enthusiastically: that’s the point. “The approach here is perceptive. Our approach is to ask artists to create something original, site-specific, organically constructed.
Unlike most museums, SFER IK does not have a collection and cannot offer the strict environmental conditions required to exhibit many works (it seems unlikely that someone would lend a Rothko or a Gentileschi if they risked be covered in mold). Indeed, it would be difficult to simply obtain sculptures or paintings along the dirt road leading from the nearest village, says Dantas.
But they try to use this as a stimulus for the interdisciplinary imagination. “Of course, the vegetation inside means that the humidity changes, which means that oil painting will find that environment difficult. But oil painting did not invent art. Just use another type of painting!
Instead, adds Dantas, they are inspired by the original meaning of the word “museum”, which comes from Greek mouseionmeaning “temple of the muses”. “A temple of the muses is a place where one comes to seek inspiration. And that is exactly what it is about.
Funding comes mainly from the Azulik eco-friendly hotel complex in Roth, along the coast of Tulum, which has become extremely fashionable in recent years and now claims to be the most Instagrammed hotel in the world). Like the seaside resort, which depends on an incessant flow of foreign visitors arriving at the Cancun airport – among them, of course, me – the museum’s ecological credentials seem a bit questionable. Despite the use of local materials, the building also employs concrete and fiberglass, there are air conditioning units hidden among the vegetation and, on a peninsula whose delicate ecosystem is threatened by overdevelopment and water pollutionelectricity and water are drawn from the municipality.
But Roth insists that SFER IK’s overall carbon impact is low, and that’s as much a symbol as anything else. “The only thing that makes sense to me is to do everything I can to reconnect people with nature.”
The last 30 years have seen a revolution in our understanding of what museums are and where they can be located. Part of the new museum world materialized in struggling post-industrial cities such as Bilbao (Guggenheim), Gateshead (Baltic) and Lens (Louvre-Lens), which attempted to revitalize local economies and attract art lovers to places few would have visited before. Another attempted to explore the relationship between collections and landscape: thinking about Chichu Art Museum designed by Tadao Andodug deep into the Japanese island of Naoshima so that the Monets on its walls blend seamlessly into views of the sea, or The Planta project in Spaincreated inside a dusty industrial area not far from Barcelona.
Other institutions seek to rewire what museology actually does – among them that of Zagreb Museum of Broken Relationships, opened in 2010, which invites everyone to send in artifacts commemorating loves gone wrong. Dantas himself directed the interactive Portuguese Language Museum in São Paulo and the Carnival Museum in Colombia.
“Here, we try to push the definition of what the museum can be,” he says. “Who says floors have to be flat? Who said we couldn’t have fire inside the museum, who said we couldn’t have water? They are fundamental materials of life.
Another context for the project is the art world‘s increasingly sinful attempts to live up to its ecological aspirations and reduce its heavy impact on the planet. In recent years, museums such as the Tate, Sweden’s Moderna Museet, the Courtauld and the Natural History Museum have declared a climate “emergency”, committing to reducing energy consumption, reducing the transport of works by air, recycling exhibition materials, etc. Under the aegis of the Climate Coalition Gallery (founded in 2020), even small commercial spaces have pledged to end their reliance on long-haul flights.
In a globalized and hyper-connected art world, in which curators, gallery owners and collectors have become accustomed to moving from the Middle East art fair to the European biennial to the opening North American, it’s a challenge, Dantas admits: when we speak, he’s right next to the plane from SXSW in Texas, and will soon be returning to Brazil.
“But I see it as two levels,” he says. “The burden of carrying ideas and the burden of carrying things. If we stop exchanging ideas and people, we will enter a dark age. But when I see a work traveling from art fair to art fair, then to a warehouse, to another storage unit and never reaching the public, then I see a huge waste.
Isn’t he worried about the impact of art tourism, especially on this fragile corner of the planet? “Everything has an imprint. The challenge is to make it sustainable.
We return to Makoto’s sculpture, which slowly acquires color as the flowering plants are put into place. A river of thick leaves cascades down a wooden leg. At the top, a technician maneuvers a small palm tree, which rises casually like a banana.
Dantas stops beside a tree, placing his hand against the bark. It would delight him if jungle creatures trotted around or flew inside and responded to the art, he said with a wink. “Just as architecture should respect trees, artists should respect trees; they will have to find a way to live together.
He makes gestures. “Wouldn’t that be a good watchword for all of us, species, as we face the future?”