Full Cycle

Left: Artist James Turrell and composer Philip Glass. Right: The Hacienda Ochil amphitheater. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THIS WAS ALWAYS supposed to be a big year. The ancient Mayans pegged it as the last gasp of “Baktun 13,” a 144,000-day planetary cycle that will reach its pinnacle on December 21, the winter solstice. Interpreters of Nostradamus, who studied the Mayan calendar, predict that date will bring the end of the world. Don’t hold your breath.

In the Yucatán peninsula, where December 21 means a fresh start, Baktun 13 is also shorthand for the Fund for the Conservation of the Cultural Heritage of Mayan Villages. Founded by preservationist Claudia Madrazo de Hernández to restore Mayan culture and provide education grants to citizens of the Yucatecan villages where one and a half million descendants still live. Most travel long distances in overcrowded vans to work in Mérida, one of the few capital cities that has yet to mount a major art fair or biennial to boost its depressed fortunes.

Nonetheless, contemporary art is still an attraction, especially in remote regions. So, to draw attention to her project, Madraza arranged a benefit concert by Philip Glass, who performed November 14 in an amphitheater designed by James Turrell, long a favorite of the patron. About five hundred people invited to buy $400 tickets showed up for the event, which had an art-fair style VIP program around it. They were fans of Glass, followers of Turrell, and friends of the Hernandez family, which is enormous. Guests came from Mexico City, Europe, India, Brazil, and Korea. A few live in Mérida, about an hour’s drive from Hacienda Ochil, where the concert took place.

Left: DJ Donna D’Cruz. Right: Marylou Bosoms, Roberto Hernandez, Casilda Madrazo, Marylou Fernandez, and Claudia Madrazo de Hernández.

Over the past sixteen years, Madrazo and her billionaire husband, Roberto Hernández, have been buying and revitalizing such haciendas, the centuries-old plantations that were the backbone of the Yucatán economy until synthetics wiped out the global market for hemp and sent the Mayan villages surrounding them into steep decline. In her introduction to the concert, Madrazo recalled Turrell’s first visit to the hacienda’s quarrylike cenote, or sinkhole, some seven years ago. There are many such caverns across the peninsula, which has no lakes or rivers. For the Maya, the underground streams in the cenotes were a primary source of fresh water, which otherwise has to come from the sky in the rainy season. They’re sacred places. “Tonight we celebrate the wonders of the past and the challenges of the present,” Madrazo said. “There is so much to do to keep it alive. And don’t worry,” she added. “The world is not going to end.” Recounting how Turrell took one look at the cenote and saw an amphitheater, she said, “He drew it on a napkin—and this is what came out.”

The stage was on a man-made island over the mouth of the underground cave. The pool around it was saturated in Turrellian light. Turrell also designed the lighting for the show, which was as beautiful as one might expect from an artist whose career has been all about deepening auras. A pine tree native to the area, its roots exposed, arced behind Glass’s grand piano, and throughout the concert, the color of the lights on both pool and tree slowly dissolved into nearly every color of the spectrum. The amphitheater itself was surrounded by trees; at moments, the musicians had to compete with crickets and cicadas. Most glorious were the theater’s acoustics. Despite the space’s being open to the sky, they were crystal.

James Turrell and Philip Glass's Concert + Intervention. (Photo: Lake Verea)

Glass performed his unplugged program with two collaborators: Foday Musa Suso, a composer and musician from Gambia, and the American percussionist Adam Rudolph. Most of the songs were gentle, melodic, and sweet, carried by West African rhythms that Glass seamlessly merged with his own accumulating structures. But the highlight of the show was a solo he performed on the piano—the only time that the emotional tenor of the music reached a dramatic peak.

After the 10 PM finale, the audience raced to a dance party on the hacienda’s plaza. Now ravenous, people searched in vain for food. It was scarce. But the drinks were plentiful and DJ Donna D’Cruz, imported from New York, stood atop a pyramid of steps bathed in red light, spinning her mash-ups and swinging in a fringed dress of silver lamé. For all intents and purposes, she was the queen of the night.

But first the concertgoers surrounded the musicians and Turrell, who now strongly resembles Saint Nicholas. I asked about the onstage tree. “It’s always been there,” he said. “Best performer in the show!” (Glass was out of earshot.)

Left: Artist Jorge Pardo and dealer Jose Kuri. Right: Dealer Almine Rech and collector Bernard Ruiz-Picasso.

Among Turrell’s supporters was a trio of his far-flung dealers: from Aspen, Richard Edwards; from Munich, Wolfgang Häusler; and from Paris, Almine Rech, accompanied by her husband Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. Turrell was the first artist Rech showed when she opened her gallery and they’ve worked together ever since. Dealer Jose Kuri was there too, but he and Monica Manzutto have a vacation home near Mérida, where expat artists Jorge Pardo, Vija Celmins, and James Brown have also put down roots. (Brown and his wife, Alexandra, were my hosts for the week.) Otherwise, art people were outnumbered by Hernández family members and conservationists.

Next day, Brown welcomed fifty guests from Mexico City to his warehouse-size studio in Mérida, invited by British-born banker Damian Fraser and his wife, Paloma Poraz, curator of the Museo de San Ildefonso. After a scrumptious Yucatecan lunch at the Brown family home nearby, I headed off for Hacienda Tecoh, a ninety-minute drive away and five miles up a winding, unpaved road. Tecoh is another Hernández property on the ruins of a seventeenth-century hacienda turned into a modernist palace by Pardo. Though it functions as a guesthouse, it is really a total artwork, a showcase for everything that Pardo knows how to do: architecture, lamps, furnishings, cabinets, tilework. It’s all here in one gleaming package.

Left: Hacienda Tecoh. Right: John Powell, Museo de San Ildefonso curator Paloma Poraz, and artist James Brown.

“It was a cattle ranch and then a sisal plantation,” said Madrazo. Her foundation, she hopes, will help the Mayan villagers become more self-sustaining. “For me,” she said, “the most wonderful thing about the Maya is the way they represent reality. It’s not horizontal, or up or down. It’s cosmic. They’re obsessed with cycles. They perform rituals but they have lost touch with their meaning and history. We are all losing a sense of who we are as humans. With overdevelopment, we are destroying our own destiny.”

There are still pyramids in the villages, she said. There are sixteenth-century churches and ancient cenotes. The traditional domestic architecture—oval stone houses with deeply thatched palm roofs—is five thousand years old. It’s all worth conservation.

Despite her relationship to Turrell and Pardo, Madrazo does not buy art. “I made a decision not to collect,” she said. “Just to build these site-specific projects. There’s so much to do. But I have a motto: If you think you’re there, you took the wrong turn.”

Left: Patricia Hernandez and Roberto Hernandez. Right: Saba Corzo and preservationist Miguel Angel Corzo.

Left: Collectors Carlos Martinez and Suzanne Deal Booth. Right: Writer David Vincent, architect Manolo Mestre, and Peggy Guinness.

Left: Financier Damian Fraser and dealer Richard Edwards. Right: Film editor Haines Hall, interior designer Pamela Shamshiri, producer Lisa Margolies, and landscape designer Matthew Brown.