Hauser & Wirth Menorca: go for the art, stay for the experience
Hauser and Wirth has unveiled its latest gallery outpost on the historic Isla del Rey, Menorca. Writer Blaire Dessent explores how a fusion of art, history and sustainability will put this new art destination on the map
‘We hope that the intimacy and magic of this place are transported to the people who visit,’ says Iwan Wirth about the latest Hauser & Wirth outpost in Menorca, which officially opened to the public on 19 July 2021. The art centre – comprising gallery, education lab, restaurant, gardens and boutique – is located on Isla del Rey (Island of the Kings), a small island in the Mahón harbour that is the site of a grand but crumbling former naval hospital, built in the 18th century by the English.
The property also includes outlying buildings and the archaeological remains of a 6th-century basilica. Visitors arrive at this unique setting by boat (five euros for a return ticket), and are greeted by a candy-pink oblong Franz West sculpture – a cheeky statement that sets the mood for this exciting new art destination.
Heritage, preservation and experimentation
For years now, Hauser & Wirth has been dedicated to renovating old architectural gems, beginning with their revitalisation of the Löwenbräu brewery building in Zurich in 1996 and cemented with the Somerset art centre in 2014. But in terms of its location and heritage, the Menorca project takes this passion to the next level. ‘We could not have picked a more complicated place to build an art gallery’, says Wirth. ‘It is highly protected, covered with rocks, there was no electricity, let alone the logistics of being on its own island.’
Menorca and the Isla del Rey are protected UNESCO Biosphere sites, and the naval hospital, which is across the way from the gallery, is currently undergoing its own renovations thanks to a team of volunteers who began their passion project in 2004 to repair parts of the building and record its fascinating history.
Where local traditions meet global curiosity
‘We have a curiosity or an appetite for unusual sites. We are constantly searching for places and spaces, but particularly for places which can be inspiring for the artists we work with, because an urban gallery/white cube can be quite limiting. We have to keep it exciting for them and for us.’
For the design, renovation and landscaping, the gallery turned to architect Luis Laplace and landscape designer Piet Oudolf, both of whom worked together on Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset outpost. It is a fruitful collaboration in all senses. Laplace sought to ‘enhance Menorca’ in his designs, to bring the island and its heritage into its own by using as much local, traditional and recycled material along with the island’s strong craft traditions.
Take for example the use of the local mares stone with its soft pinky-beige tones, local and recycled wood, and the handwoven straw lamps that decorate the outdoor space that is both for dining and relaxing. ‘The lamps were actually woven by a teenage boy from the island,’ recounts Laplace, who happened to see one of them in the back of a local shop. ‘When I asked the owner about the lamps, he said it was his son who made them for fun, a tradition taught to him by his uncle, and they were in fact traps to catch lobster and fish,’ he recounts. But Laplace saw their potential and commissioned the boy to make a series of lamps.
Nautical-inspired details such as blue cording wrapped on the gallery doors, red metal exterior lamps, metal hardware and sinks in the bathroom, and sailing flags that decorate the interior of Cantina, the onsite restaurant, remind visitors of the history of the island and the legacy of the naval hospital.
Laplace intuitively designed the gallery spaces so the entrance is slightly down an exterior walkway and through an open patio, rather than at the beginning of the building, allowing visitors to soak in the landscape en route. It is a subtle yet specific reflection of an experience that is about the outdoors as much as about the art. Louise Bourgeois’ Spider (1994) is installed in the corner of the entry patio and is part of a series of outdoor sculptures placed across the property including Joan Miró’s Pere Ubu and sculptures by Eduardo Chillida, whose solo show is currently on view at the gallery’s Somerset location.
Artist Mark Bradford explores uncharted territory
For Hauser & Wirth Menorca’s inaugural exhibition, titled ‘Masses and Movements’, Los Angeles-based artist, Mark Bradford has created a poignant body of work that consists of a suite of richly layered, abstract canvases, globe sculptures and wall pieces (see W*267). Bradford took inspiration from maps and cartography, particularly the Waldseemüller map from 1507, the first known map to include the name America, and a series of installations about migration and movement made on site with a group of young art students from Menorca.
The artist arrived a month before the scheduled opening in part to launch Hauser & Wirth’s Education Lab, a central part of the new art centre that will serve both as a space for gallery artists to create and collaborate with local artists and schools, but also be available throughout the year for educational workshops and events.
Mar Rescalvo, the director of Hauser & Wirth Menorca, states that they are already in collaboration with over 15 local organisations, including preservation foundations, the Museum of Menorca and schools. Bradford, not having any idea what to expect when he arrived, says he was amazed by the dedication of the students, who came in every day and all day to work with him. He says, ‘the girls owned the space and challenged me.’
Hauser & Wirth Menorca: a utopian idea made real
As with community engagement, sustainability has become a core mission of Hauser & Wirth, having recently appointed their first sustainably director for the whole business. In Menorca, sustainable initiatives include the collection of rainwater, energy-efficient climate control, the landscaping by Oudolf, who worked with local plant experts to create a native flora garden that will renew and thrive all year long, and an exciting project to bring a small fleet of solar-powered boats to transport visitors – the first of its kind in the Balearics. In addition, Cantina is run by a local restaurant and vineyard, Binifadet and will focus on local and sustainable food that highlights the island’s culinary strengths.
In many ways, Hauser & Wirth Menorca feels like a utopian idea about how art can be experiential and engaged with its place, the food, nature, community, and Wirth himself has said as much about this project. It is hard not to fall for the magic and be excited by its potential. Come for the art, stay for the experience. §