During the 15 or so happy years they spent teaching at Black Mountain College from 1933, Anni and Josef Albers made many trips to Mexico. Josef hated flying, so they would always drive. Travelling from North Carolina to Mexico City could take more than a week, but they enjoyed the journey. Once there, Anni loved to look at Meso-American weavings, which she regarded as telegrams from a civilization with no written language. Josef took hundreds of photographs as they roamed around pre-Columbian archaeological sites, relishing the stark geometries of monumental staircases and ruined temples. The couple’s Latin American travels, the subject of a beautiful recent exhibition at Mudec in Milan, had an immediate and indelible effect on their work. As they wrote to the Kandinskys: ‘Mexico is truly the promised land for abstract art, for here it has existed for thousands of years.’
One of the Albers’ favourite places to explore was Oaxaca, a long day’s drive south-east of Mexico City. Founded in the early 16th century, this pretty colonial-era city is today a popular tourist destination and has, in recent decades, been shaped to an unusual degree by artists. It is home to the late painter Rufino Tamayo’s jewel-box-like collection of ancient figurines and artefacts, as well as to a photography centre established by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who died in 2002 at the age of 100, following a career spanning some eight decades. The artist Francisco Toledo, known locally as El Maestro and now in his mid-70s, has done perhaps more than anyone to build and support the city’s arts and crafts institutions. His quiet influence can be detected everywhere, from the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca to a leafy graphic-arts institute of more than 30,000 prints and books built around Toledo’s personal trove. His children, the artists Dr Lakra and Laureana Toledo, are also active local presences.
One of the most compelling museums in Oaxaca takes the form of a garden. Founded in the mid-1990s, after a good deal of lobbying by Toledo and other artists, the Ethnobotanical Gardens are located in the grounds of a Dominican monastery and are designed to illustrate the co-evolution of plants and people. Spread across five sun-baked acres, the gardens have a zig-zagging, step-fret layout intended to evoke the ancient Zapotec settlements – Mitla, Monte Albán, Yagul – which captivated the Albers half a century earlier. The gardens are planted according to ecological and cultural categories suggested by the site itself, with, for example, the discovery of centuries-old kilns prompting a section about how plants are used in the arts. There, you can find cacti that host the cochineal insect, from which we get the deep-red dye that was once more valuable than gold. Oaxaca is said to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, while recent archaeological digs have unearthed the earliest-known evidence of domesticated squash and corn. The gardens narrate the story of our fractious relationship with the natural world by way of towering cacti, agave, subtly perfumed ‘rosita de cacao’ and Cretaceous-era ferns. A greenhouse-cum-safehouse protects some of the world’s rarest plants from biopirates.
When I visited in December, I was shown around by the gardens’ founding director, Dr Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg, a botanist and anthropologist – as well as curator of the nearby textile museum – with a poet’s turn of phrase. (Explaining that one tree was covered with ferocious spikes to ward off long-extinct megafauna, I heard him murmur: ‘It’s protecting itself from ghosts.’) De Ávila Blomberg wanted to show me the gardens’ newest addition, some 12 years in the making: a sleek greenhouse that looks like a hybrid of Renzo Piano’s glass pavilions and Archigram’s 1960s proposals for walking cities. Designed pro bono by Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, this is the Chicago-based architect’s first building in his native Mexico. The pavilion is defined, more than anything, by light and lightness. The small amount of energy it needs is provided by solar panels, while modular units mean that the structure can be extended, dismantled or moved entirely. The pavilion’s architect calls it a ‘machine for growing orchids’.
It is also something of a blueprint for the museum of the future. How can you combine environmental sustainability with structural flexibility? How to balance usability and aesthetics? How to modulate light levels, humidity and temperature while, at the same time, planning for a future that cannot be known? Set within this museum-like garden, Gonzalez-Pulido’s light-footed pavilion offers several propositions to the questions that the next generation of museum planners will have to answer. A garden in the high valleys of Mexico may seem an unlikely place for such provocative thinking but, as Ian Hamilton Finlay once remarked: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer.
First published in Issue 178