By KATY DIAMOND HAMER, APR 2016
A quote from the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, “If you build it he will come," could have been the inspiration for business tycoon Charles Bluhdorn the man behind Altos de Chavón, in La Romana, Dominican Republic. A nearly mythical town, Altos de Chavón, pulls architectural influence from an Italian village, the imagination of architect Roberto Copa. The project commenced in 1979 and was completed in the early 1980s. The Davidoff Cigar company recently opened a cigar boutique in the small town, also home to the Davidoff Arts Initiative, an artist residency now in it's 2nd year. Attracting a diverse group of international artists, the residency is on the property of the Altos de Chavón School of Design, which has the privilege of being the only, art school in the Dominican Republic. A two year, accredited school which has partnered with Parsons School of Design in New York, the college is located in a remote, yet idyllic setting. Focusing on traditional art practice and approach, Altos de Chavón provides students the opportunity to work in various creative industries such as fine arts, graphic design, fashion design and communication design. Currently, they are in the process of separating the design majors from those focusing on fine arts and have reconstructed a building in Santo Domingo, where students have already started taking classes. Shrouded by a canopy of trees, the Altos de Chavón campus in La Romana, offers the perfect setting for an art residency, being both surreal yet vibrant.
Selected by an international curatorial committee, the Davidoff residents for 2016 included Paolo Chiasera (1978, Berlin/Bologna), Jimmy Roberts (1975, Guadalupe/Bucharest), Oscar Santillan (1980, Ecuador/Amsterdam), and Louis Henderson (1986, London/Paris) in collaboration with Ana Vaz. The artists spent close to three months living and working at Altos de Chavon, coexisting with students and faculty that live on campus. As an exchange of sorts, the Davidoff committee also selects artists from the Dominican Republic to go abroad to locations such as Residency Unlimited in New York, FLORA ars+natura in Bogotá, Colombia, Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany, Red Gate Gallery Residency in Beijing, China, and Atelier Mondial in Basel, Switzerland in collaboration with the Institute of Art at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design. It can only be imagined that the program will continue to grow with additional collaborations in the coming years.
Now, one might cock his or her head to the side, wondering, what would be the interest of a company like Davidoff starting a residency in the Dominican Republic? The answer is simple, Davidoff has plantations in the Dominican Republic where tobacco is grown for use in many of their cigars. The climate in the Dominican Republic is quite desirable and a perfect location for artists who want to get away and have time to not only contemplate their practice, but also make work. Beyond this basic response to what could be a much
deeper rooted inquiry, the Davidoff Arts Initiative also gives Dominican artists the opportunities to live and work abroad, not something that is easily accessible for most. The residency opens a larger dialogue around the globalism of contemporary art. While artists are able to interact through social media, Instagram, Facebook and the like, there is nothing that beats a face to face meeting whether with another person or even with a particular environment. How else would it be known what a place smells like, sounds like, tastes like?
If there is any way a company can contribute something that warrants personal and professional growth that ensures semiotic conversation, it is in the process of nourishing artists. Art has a way of pollinating a place. The collaborative relationship between the cigar company and Altos de Chavón School of Design couldn't be more appropriate as students are hungry for continuous dialogue and inspiration whereas a residency and the people it attracts –artists, curators, journalists– can only assist in sparking the match of thought.
Studios designed by resident architect Adolfo Despradel, Director of Planning and Design, Costasur Dominicana SA, who is also an alumni that worked in London before returning to his home country, function as both refuge and think tank. The walls can be opened fully revealing both the internal and external giving those on the outside access to the inside and visa versa. Imagine working in a studio whereas green grass grew up to the space where the floor began. Something very poignant can be said about nature and closeness there of, being an inspirational catalyst to the creative process. The best part of working in a tropical Caribbean atmosphere is the negation or necessity of walls. At the final open studio event, artist Paolo Chiasera, revealed his project, a magazine titled Ambush, site-specific and somewhat didactic in nature. Digitally printed, the text was hidden unless flaps in the canvas were lifted. The external page-less, flat, landscape follows the architectural plan of the Orsanmichele in Florence and functions as both a rug, a destination, and painting. The painted surface speaks to the concept and culture of cigars which has been a sustainable industry of the island. The artist chose to utilize one of his favorite Davidoff cigars as a wall-paper inspired “cigar” theme. All at once obvious in initial delivery, the body of the text presents an engaging dialogue opening the conversation around art criticality and the contemporary state of art venues. In Psychoinstitutions, author and curator Lorenzo Benedetti delves into the conceptual (and actual) organization of exhibitions in contrast with curatorial freedom and dynamic voice. While initially appearing somewhat visually “simplistic" (superficial) the project instead unexpectedly reveals more if the visitor is willing to participate, choosing his or her own particular level of engagement.
Each of the artists contributed something relative to their experience in the Dominican Republic. Jimmy Roberts chose to answer the self-imposed question, "What does it mean to bring your [own or] one's body somewhere else?” At the time of application, Roberts was teaching in Berlin and proposed he bring ten of his students to Altos de Chavón as a performative gesture, allowing them to interact with ten of the students from the Dominican Republic. The piece that resulted, only documented in a digital slideshow of images, involved this cross-section of students walking in silence in the nearby “Rome-inspired” colosseum, also on the property. His goal was to create a position whereas they would become more aware of their own bodies in space and in relationship to others. His inspiration came mostly from, “Games for Actors and Non-Actors” (Routledge; 2nd edition, 2002) by Augusto Boal, Founder of Theatre of the Oppressed. The documentation was left something to desire, and wasn’t as strong as it could have been (i.e., video). However, there is something to be said about performance and the need or lack there of to document it. From the artist’s description, the work was very palpable, opening lines of communication between the college students without linguistic need.
Taking yet another approach to art and island living, Ecuadorian artist Oscar Santillan, who is based in London, made an ephemeral sculpture of salt. Titled, “Baneque" (2016), he looked at the historic presence of Christopher Columbus on the island. Santillan, sought out the island of “Baneque” an imaginary island where Columbus sought gold and we now know never existed. It was at this exact location that he took samples from the sea and working with a local marine biologist, was able to dehydrate the water, resulting in a salted crystal; giving plausible form to fictional space.
Louis Henderson and Ana Vaz applied to the residency as an artist duo. She was unable to finish due to unforeseen circumstances (and another residency opportunity in New York) but each artist contributed an individual video on the same subject. Henderson’s titled, “The Sea is History” (2016) and Vaz’ “Amerika” (2016) both document and comment on Lago Enriquillo, the largest lake in the Dominican Republic. Similar to the work of Chiasera, the two videos were more than meets the eye. The lake is hyper-salinated and therefore, very specific concerning the type of wildlife (both plants and animals) that can survive. Over hundreds of years, animals have evolved to be best suited to withstand this high level of salt content, adding magnitude to the history of the location. Both video pieces are brought together in an untitled work that is considering the situation of the lake, the transformation of levels, animals that have adapted and the proposition of time, stripped of it's historical context. At times they were projected simultaneously and it was during these moments of duality when the project was most effective. When they didn’t run in the same breath, some of the momentum was removed from the gesture.
The Davidoff Arts Initiative is just that, an initiative by those who have access giving opportunities to those who may not. The brand is known for promoting an elegant pastime and status symbol but has become a much larger, more important resource within the realm of cultural production. Just a reminder, it’s a cigar and not a cigarette, so puff slowly and do not inhale. WM
Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently contributing to Flash Art International, Sleek, NY Magazine, Whitehot Magazine and others. For more of her writing visit: http://www.eyes-towards-the-dove.com
Photograph by Takis Spyropoulos, 2012
view all articles from this author