Known for taking over unique architectural spaces for their exhibitions, MASA is a nomadic art and design collective co-founded in Mexico City by Age Salajõe, Hector Esrawe, and Brian Thoreen in 2018. It has since evolved into a collaborative creative platform, each year presenting stellar exhibitions in different locations throughout Mexico City, as well as Oaxaca and an upcoming show in New York City. Its itinerant nature allows MASA to play with space and architecture, form and function, and to cleverly present art in unique locations away from the confines of the traditional white-cube gallery space. MASA collaborates with artists, architects, and designers by challenging them to create functional works that blur the line between art and design. What ties together the young and established artists at MASA’s exhibitions is a deeply-felt sense of Mexicanness: multi-faceted and complex, constantly changing but never unmoored from its vibrant history. Their exhibitions are related to the history of the site and are often meditations on time and memory, and how the spaces we inhabit serve as vessels for both.
This curatorial line was evident in MASA’s exhibition presented last year, titled The Last Tenant, in a house in Mexico City’s Lomas neighborhood, a lush residential enclave north of Chapultepec park. Beyond an ivy-covered gate, a modernist house with clean, angular lines and panoramic windows was perched at the end of a sloping driveway. The exhibition within was an exploration of how physical spaces can bear the marks of our presence long after we are gone. Curator and artist Mario Garcia Torres centered the show around the previous tenant, whose identity he reconstructed through random found objects left behind in an envelope in a kitchen drawer. Taking cues from this personal trove—remnants of a past life—Garcia Torres recreated the last tenant’s essence, echoing the history of the house and that of its former inhabitant and drawing a line from the past to the present through forgotten ephemera.
Inspired by an image of a submarine in the envelope, he approached Ruben Ortiz Torres, who had previously fabricated a functional submarine as part of an experiment for the University of California in San Diego, where he teaches. Garcia Torres further extended the narrative through a selection of thoughtfully curated design pieces, like the colossal copper works by Ana Pellicer, surrealist gravity-defying furniture by Jose Davila, marble and onyx works by EWE Studio inspired by geological formations, and monolithic copper sculptures by Brian Thoreen.
For their most recent exhibition, which opened parallel to the ZonaMACO art fair, MASA took over an entire floor in a nondescript corporate building overlooking the Plaza de las Cibeles in Roma Norte. Titled MASA INC., the exhibition is a playful ‘corporate takeover’ that challenges our conceptions of space and function, particularly in work environments. Its timing is especially apt as people reevaluate the necessity of office space in its current formulations. As the elevator opens up to the seventh floor, one enters an open space, illuminated on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows. Placed throughout the space are works by Mario Garcia Torres, ROOMS Studio, Brian Thoreen, and EWE Studio. The arrangement of the pieces is precise without being rigid, imparting a circuitous flow to one’s progression through the space. As in The Last Tenant, the tactility and materiality of the pieces themselves are the focal points, with carved stone, hammered metal, blown glass and folded rubber all complementing each other against the backdrop of the uniform ‘office’ space.
“Seedscape (2021)” by Adeline de Monseignat at MASA INC. (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
“The Simbolo Series (2021)” by EWE Studio at MASA INC. (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
Anfisa Vrubel (Art Observed): What is the origin story behind MASA?
Age Salajõe: MASA was founded in 2018 with the desire to promote collectible design in Mexico. It is a collaborative project, a creation of dear friends Hector Esrawe, Brian Thoreen, Roberto Diaz, Isaac Bissu, and myself. Our backgrounds in art, design, and architecture are reflected in MASA’s presentation of design. We love to do things differently, outside of the standard gallery space.
Brian Thoreen: The idea came from Hector, Age, and me as a solution to the lack of outlets for collectible design in Mexico. We just really wanted to show our work and the work of our friends and colleagues in a new way.
Héctor Esrawe: When we met, we found a shared philosophy on how design could be expressed. We shared an understanding that there was a lack of platforms that could express collectible design as we saw it. The most relevant thing was that we saw the moment: a moment where the interest in Mexico, its artistic expression, its culinary expression, even its political moment, all collided into what can be expressed as a renaissance.
Anfisa Vrubel How would you define the ethos behind MASA?
Age Salajõe: MASA’s ethos is to show quality work with integrity, to curate exhibitions, do things outside the norm, to collaborate and challenge ourselves, and to provoke conversation.
Héctor Esrawe: MASA is a platform that nurtures art and design, that opens a dialogue that didn’t exist before in Mexico, and that creates a connection between creativity, culture, and context.
Jorge Yazpik at The Last Tenant (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
Anfisa Vrubel: How does each exhibition come together?
Age Salajõe: It usually starts with a narrative or a place. If the curatorial concept comes first, we go hunting for the perfect space to fit that exhibition in. If we find a place first, then we curate a show around that location and find a narrative. It usually comes together naturally and organically.
Héctor Esrawe: Every process starts with a narrative. That narrative always involves a common understanding and agreement of what can change or how we can break the paradigms of traditional exhibitions.
Anfisa Vrubel: How has being nomadic shaped the core of MASA’s character?
Brian Thoreen: The reason we are nomadic is to give us the freedom to do what we want, when we want it. We work with a lot of amazing galleries, like Galerie Lelong in New York, who works with Ana Mendieta’s estate. We are not competing with other galleries in the traditional sense, so we have a lot of collaboration. That to me feels wonderful and unique. It’s not the norm. There are good things coming.
Brian Thoreen with his hammered copper sculptures at The Last Tenant (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
Anfisa Vrubel: Hector mentioned that there is a sort of renaissance happening in Mexico. How has that played out in the design coming out of Mexico today?
Age Salajõe: There was a time in Mexican history when designers were looking for inspiration outside of Mexico. Art has always flourished here but in design specifically, the inspiration came from elsewhere–looking to America and to Europe instead of looking at what was happening in Mexico. In recent years a lot of inspiration has come from Mexico and its history, and from the pride of living and working here. Mexicanness is important to us. The pieces by EWE Studio, for example, usually take subjects from Mexican history or from pre-Hispanic times and go into the traditions around them. The materials and shapes we use are inspired by that. We are fascinated by ceremonies and sacrifices, and have done extensive research on death and burial. And there’s so much. Every region of Mexico has its own traditions and there are so many indigenous lineages.
“Altar Tables” by EWE Studio at The Last Tenant (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
Anfisa Vrubel: The pieces displayed in MASA’s exhibitions tend to highlight a range of materials. There’s an aspect that’s tactile and raw, showcasing matter in its different manifestations.
Age Salajõe: We are fascinated with mixing raw materials with pristine surfaces, always leaving a side that is more raw. A lot of our processes are accidental discoveries. If we find a stone with a shape and expression that we like, we keep it natural. When you break a stone, you see what happens to the shape. All of the stone is sourced from Mexico, except for one that comes from Guatemala. The green marble is from the south of Mexico, near Chiapas. It’s something that is really hard to find.
Anfisa Vrubel: I love how a piece might be carved on one side while the other side is left raw, as it might be found in its natural environment.
Age Salajõe: Exactly. That’s the inspiration. The process and its accidents are the most fascinating parts for us. When you break a stone instead of forming it. Every stone has its unique cracks inside, so it breaks differently every time.
“Altar #7″ by EWE Studio at The Last Tenant (Photography by Aleph Molinari)
Anfisa Vrubel: You capitalize on the accident. The neo-Platonics and the Renaissance artists had a similar theory. They would get a massive slab of stone and they would try to find the shape inside, whatever the stone spoke to them.
Age Salajõe: Totally. The stone speaks to you, always.
Anfisa Vrubel: What is a dream space that you would love to take over?
Age Salajõe: An iconic museum in Paris.
Brian Thoreen: The Vatican.
Héctor Esrawe: Palacio de Carlos V in Spain.
Anfisa Vrubel: What’s next for MASA?
Age Salajõe: MASA is currently preparing for our New York exhibition taking place at the old USPS post office at the Rockefeller Center, opening this coming May.
“Acapulco Chair” by Mario Garcia Torres at The Last Tenant (Photography by Aleph Molinari).
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