Is this woman the next Philip Glass? And why is she wearing a loudspeaker?

Rolex is paying a fortune to pair young artists up with stars like David Adjaye, Joan Jonas and Alfonso Cuarón. Is there a catch? We join their big Berlin jamboree

The crowd wandering through Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie may look like any other bunch of gallery-goers keeping out of the snow on a Saturday afternoon. Seasoned culture vultures, however, would recognise that the lanky, shaven-headed man in an Adidas jacket is choreographer Wayne McGregor; that the Irishman in an overcoat is novelist Colm Tóibín; and that the energetic, white-haired woman in glasses is Joan Jonas, who this spring will show five decades’ worth of groundbreaking work in her first Tate Modern retrospective in London.

Also in town are the likes of architect David Adjaye, cultural theorist Homi K Bhabha, theatre director Selina Cartmell, as well as the artist and opera director William Kentridge. Why are they all here? Well, most of them are currently looking at work by Thao-Nguyen Phan, a 30-year-old Vietnamese artist few, if any, will have previously heard of.

Phan’s exhibition is the first of a weekend of events organised by Rolex, as part of its Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Every two years, after scouring the world for talent, the company pairs an established artist with an up-and-coming one, usually from a different country. An idea that would have been familiar to the old masters, the hope is that the younger artist can learn from – and perhaps collaborate with – the elder over the course of a couple of years.

Vietnam’s Thao-Nguyen Phan shows her work to mentor Joan Jonas.
Vietnam’s Thao-Nguyen Phan shows her work to mentor Joan Jonas. Photograph: Reto Albertalli/Rolex

As well as those mentioned above, the current crop of mentors include Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón, composer Philip Glass, Mozambican writer Mia Couto, theatre director Robert Lepage, architect David Chipperfield and choreographer Ohad Naharin. Rolex’s only stipulation is that the artists spend a minimum of six weeks together. The firm gives 100,000 Swiss francs (£76,650) to each mentor and 40,000 to the proteges. It also funds travel and expenses, which all adds up to a hefty sum, given the global nature of the enterprise.

“It’s very open,” says Kentridge, who mentored the Colombian artist Mateo López in 2012. “If we’d said, ‘Actually we want to spend three weeks in the Antarctic on a cruise’, Rolex would have done that.” Kentridge, like the 100 or so other mentors and proteges who have participated in the scheme so far, gets invited back every couple of years for weekends like the one I am attending in Berlin. Here, mentors introduce work they and their proteges have made, or discuss how the process worked if there’s nothing that can be shown.

The event concludes with a lavish dinner ceremony as the proteges are sent off into the world. Many have gone on to achieve considerable success. Ben Frost, mentored by Brian Eno in 2010, has taken his particular brand of extreme noise terror everywhere from Netflix’s Dark to an opera adaptation of The Wasp Factory. Naomi Alderman, mentored by Margaret Atwood in 2012, won the Baileys prize five years later.

The previous arts weekend was in Mexico City, while 2012’s took place in Venice. Given that everyone is flown in from around the world and put up at a five-star hotel, it’s easy to see the appeal of returning. But there are also opportunities to meet old friends and strike up new collaborations – with the incentive that Rolex will stump up another 30,000 for a follow-up project.

Architect David Adjaye with Mariam Kamara of Niger.
Architect David Adjaye with Mariam Kamara of Niger. Photograph: Tina Ruisinger/Rolex

Stephen Frears mentored the Peruvian film-maker Josué Méndez in 2006. “It’s a safe environment,” says Méndez. “There’s time, which is the most precious thing. They’re building this community. It’s a really nice family.” Though he has lost touch with Frears, Méndez is developing a TV script with the Colombian writer Antonio García Ángel, a protege who was mentored by the Peruvian Nobel-winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

There’s no way of applying for the scheme: instead, experts amass a list of two dozen or so likely candidates in each genre, whittle this to three, then present the final trio to the relevant mentor, who spends time with them before reaching a decision. Cuarón stipulated that he wanted “a woman from the third world” to mentor, though he ended up with a man, the Indian film-maker Chaitanya Tamhane.

Cuarón realised Tamhane was a better fit for his forthcoming film Roma, an arthouse black-and-white work that contains plenty of Cuarón’s famed technical aplomb. “One film-maker was doing stuff in Super 8. Her stuff is fantastic – it’s just her arrival to a set, with all the toys and tools I’m working with, was going to be a bit irrelevant for her process.”

What made Jonas choose Phan? “I thought her paintings were really beautiful and interesting,” she says, adding that she was also “very happy to give a woman the opportunity to show her work outside of Vietnam, to be exposed. I know from experience that young artists who are men have a slightly easier time than women.”

Oscar entrant … Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, a former protege, on location in Jordan.
Oscar entrant … Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, a former protege, on location in Jordan. Photograph: Rolex

Rebecca Irvin, Rolex’s head of philanthropy, says the project’s diversity is largely due to the mentors and the international nature of the programme (artists have come from 34 countries to date). “Certain mentors will say, ‘I want to help young film-makers from Asia and Africa.’ We don’t have quotas, we’re not following some kind of political agenda, it’s happening organically.”

Not everyone gets the memo, however: there are grumbles about the all-white, middle-aged and male panel led by Chipperfield to discuss urban planning, especially when at the end a woman in the audience gets up to ask a question and it’s decided that there isn’t time to squeeze it in.

There’s also the question of what Rolex gets out of it. Palestinian film-maker Annemarie Jacir was mentored by Zhang Yimou in 2010 as he made The Flowers of War, which required trips to China and a translator, all provided by the firm. Nonetheless, Jacir says that – even after further support for her film Wajib, Palestine’s entry for best foreign-language film at this year’s Oscars – Rolex’s money comes without strings attached. “With other companies that do this kind of thing,” she says, “it’s all about putting their name out there, about branding. I have not had that feeling with Rolex.”

So the lead character didn’t have to wear a big Rolex? “Exactly!” says Jacir. “They don’t ask that I wear one everywhere. When they supported my film, they didn’t have any conditions. I put a thank you in the credits, but they didn’t ask. That is very unusual. Everybody else – you get $1,000 and you have to have their logo.”

Other projects shown over the Berlin weekend include a four-screen reinvention of Macbeth by Argentine theatre director Matías Umpierrez, starring his mentor Lepage; and a discussion between Mia Couto and his protege, the Brazilian Julián Fuks. The talks and performances conclude with the Peruvian musician Pauchi Sasaki, who emerges into the auditorium of the Deutches Theater wearing a dress covered in speakers, after an introduction by Philip Glass.

What did the minimalist musical pioneer advise her about? “The practicalities of the music world, how to navigate the business part – how do you make a living?” Glass said he wanted a protege as he himself had once been in such a role, when as a young man he assisted sitar player and composer Ravi Shankar on a film score in the 60s: “He was very important to me.”

Empire, a Macbeth-inspired work by Matías Umpierrez, starring his mentor Robert Lepage.
Empire, a Macbeth-inspired work by Matías Umpierrez, starring his mentor Robert Lepage. Photograph: Reto Albertalli/Rolex

With former mentors including Martin Scorsese and David Hockney, and Adjaye, Tóibín, Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and choreographer Crystal Pite signed up for the next cycle, it’s no wonder that Umpierrez and Tamhane had for years hoped to get on to the scheme.

Yet it’s not just the prestige and generous budgets that appeal to the mentors – or, indeed, the watch Irvin says they may be given as a gift “if they do a good job”. It’s the opportunity to engage with a younger generation. As Cuarón says, to remain relevant as an artist, “you have to connect with the young masters who teach you the new lessons of cinema”. Otherwise, he adds, you end up being like Billy Wilder, a once-transgressive film-maker who “could not jump into the revolution of the 60s, and the last few of his films were kind of irrelevant. He was completely out of touch.”

The older artists also produce work during the process: Jonas made a video while travelling with Phan in Vietnam, which will form part of an installation in her Tate show. Phan is 50 years younger than Jonas, though the Vietnamese artist says: “I think she has more energy and more creativity than me.” The two will continue to collaborate after the scheme: Phan is in a collective of Vietnamese artists, and Jonas will make a work with them to show in Pittsburgh this year.

Sitting with Umpierrez, Lepage says the scheme provides a “fountain of youth” for older artists who have inevitably lost the bullishness of their hungry years. “We’re all full of doubt,” he says. “The more you know, the less you’re sure of. At a younger age, you know less but you’re more confident, and that’s very uplifting. That’s why you hang on to younger people who say, ‘Go all the way.’”


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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