The natural port of Mahón has four islands. In one of them Alfonso III of Aragon landed in his conquest of Menorca in the 13th century, for which it received the name of the Isla del Rey. The English built a military hospital there in the 18th century that later fell into oblivion until a decade and a half ago a group of volunteer Menorcan drew attention to its abandonment and began to regenerate the island. The Swiss gallery owners Manuela and Iwan Wirth took notice of it and today this privileged enclave has been converted into a haven for contemporary art that opens to the public starting next Monday with the striking abstract work of the African-American Mark Bradford as its first flag.
This peculiar gallery born of public-private collaboration can only be reached by boat, which can be visited for free. The ex-military Luis Alejandre, president of the Illa del Rei Hospital Foundation, which brings together volunteers, this morning showed his “satisfaction” for having successfully carried out a complex project due to its administrative difficulty and the outbreak of the pandemic, which has been a year behind.
The City Council, owner of the 41,000 square meters of the island, gave its use to the foundation and this, in turn, to Hauser & Wirth, a member of the royalty of international contemporary art galleries, for 15 years, with the possibility of an extension of five. A formula agreed upon at the request of the gallery to streamline procedures. The City Council must give its approval to any operation. The Swiss firm, currently responsible for Chillida Leku in Spain, has invested nearly four million to restore the old facilities attached to the hospital, which once housed an operating room, and reconvert them into splendid stone and wood rooms, with views of the sea and the Mediterranean garden, offering 1,500 square meters of exhibition space.
The mayor of Mahón (30,000 inhabitants), the socialist Héctor Pons, who governs in coalition with Ara Maó (the former mayor Conxa Juanola was also in the act), influenced “the balance of the proposal, by preserving the natural environment, recovering the cultural heritage and turn Mahón into an art destination by diversifying its offer ”. The doubts that the project might initially generate were dispelled when the gallery organized a visit to its English sanctuary in Somerset, a former residential farm where art coexists with agriculture and animals.
The main value of Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, is that it has managed to conserve its way of life, preserving its nature (and its prized coves), insisted all the participants in the presentation of Hauser & Wirth Menorca this Thursday, in a trip organized and paid for by the gallery with the presence of Spanish and international journalists.
The Menorcan Mar Rescalvo, director of the space, highlighted the importance of the integration of the project in the community of Mahón. A process in which she has played a key role, according to Iwan Wirth himself. The gallery owner explained that they are looking for “inspiring places” to expand their offer. “The white cube as a gallery space is very limited. This is much more exciting. We are a commercial gallery, but we are interested in a much broader work ”, he pointed out. His wife, Manuela Houser, underlined the importance of the educational project, valued “the collaboration with the schools of Menorca”, as can be seen in a third of the Bradford exhibition in which they have worked. The couple usually live in Somerset, a county in the southwest of England, but have a house on the Balearic island.
“The white cube as a gallery space is very limited. This is much more exciting, ”said Swiss gallery owner Iwan Wirth.
The Argentine architect Luis Laplace, responsible for the restoration, emphasized respect for the environment and the “incredible value of Menorca”, of its stone, its wood, its popular architecture. “The most important thing is to adapt, accept and understand the tone and the building,” he added. He defined his role as that of a “silent architect”, who has worked in collaboration with the landscaper Piet Oudolf, who has enhanced the Mediterranean nature of the environment with olive trees and native flora.
In addition to the showrooms, the new facilities include a canteen and a shop. All of them will be closed to the public on October 31, when the exhibition concludes. The island and the sculpture garden, with works by Eduardo Chillida or Louise Bourgeois, will remain open all year, as will the visitable part of the hospital, which is undergoing rehabilitation (“there are about four years left,” Alejandre suggested). The claim is to open again in May next year. During this summer, a boat will leave every hour from a central pier in the port of Mahón to arrive at the recovered Isla del Rey, located between the island of Pinto (for naval use) and those of Lazareto and Quarantine, which sheltered sick lepers and infectious.
There is already a waiting list to see the exhibition of Bradford (Los Angeles, 60 years old), a highly sought-after artist from the gallery’s catalog. The works, produced in his Los Angeles studio, are already practically sold to collectors and institutions. So the rooms function as showroom or exhibition space. The paintings inspired by an ancient 16th century world map, perhaps the first in which the name of America was inscribed, stand out, as well as the murals and its globes.
It is the first major monographic exhibition dedicated to Bradford in Spain, showing the various layers that make up his paintings, a diversity that extends to their interpretation. However, his interest in the relationship between Africa and the United States, in immigration, and in both physical “and memory” topography is evident. The artist produced the works in recent years in his studio in Los Angeles, thinking that they would be part of the first temporary exhibition of Hauser & Wirth Menorca.