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The Power Of Love: Myriam Ullens And Jérôme Sans In Conversation With Ocula

By Stephanie Bailey  |  London, 16 October 2013

During Frieze Week, a special auction will be held at Sotheby’s, in support of The Mimi Foundation and its mission to provide care and assistance for those living through the challenges of severe cancer treatment.  The Mimi Foundation installs and manages wellness centres within hospital wards that provide mental and physical therapies to patients as they undergo treatment as a way in which to reinstate a sense of emotional strength during treatment and recovery. 

Prior to a day sale on the 18th October, the auctioned works, united in an exhibition titled The Power of Love, are on preview from 11th-17th October. They have been presented in an intimately-designed setting curated by Jérôme Sans, with the colours of the exhibition walls painted in bright shades that include fuschia, deep forest green and turquoise – all colours found on the logo of The Mimi Foundation, represented by a rainbow kite. 38 leading artists from all over the world, have donated works, many created especially for the occasion, including Maarten Baas, Lionel Esteve, Mustafa Horasan, Thomas Houseago, Liu Wei, Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch, Eko Nugroho, Jagannath Panda, Ugo Rondinone, Thukral & Tagra, Entang Wiharso, Liu Xiaodong and Zheng Guogu. In this interview, Myriam Ullens, also co-founder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, discusses, along with curator Jérôme Sans, the The Power of Love exhibition and auction and how this reflects on the mission of The Mimi Foundation.

O: How does this particular exhibition, The Power of Love, reflect on the evolution of The Mimi Foundation since its establishment in 2004?

MU: I started the foundation some ten years ago after my own experience with cancer. This show reflects the love that got me through this difficult period of my life. We started the exhibition with a Tracey Emin neon piece, which I think is a good starting point in general for the whole show – it is the first work you see and it is a heart with a kiss. Then we also have the artist Farhad Moshiri, who produced a specific work for this auction as well, titled Tenderness…

O: …which is made from 400 knives pierced into the wall and which spells out ‘Tenderness’ in floral script…

MU: Yes. Then we have the Pistoletto diptych; black and silver mirror wood framed with golden classical frames, Vortice – Dittico (2012) which is really a reflection of life and this idea that, sometimes, you need a mirror to see what you have done in the past, and what you would like to do in the future. That is the function of the mirror sometimes, no?

O: How did the selection process begin in terms of asking artists to participate?

JS: Everything happened naturally. It started first by meeting with the artists. Myriam Ullens has had a long relationship with Sui Jianguo, as she has known him for a very long time. He is one of the leading Chinese artists from the 80s.  She also helped his wife from the moment when she was diagnosed with cancer many years ago. So, Sui Jianguo  was the first person we approached, as we knew he would share our devotion to the Foundation’s mission - and he immediately reacted very positively. So from there on, we received fantastic support from so many other artists who of course wanted to help because so many people and their loved ones, unfortunately, have this concern as cancer has touched so many of us,  we are all surrounded by this reality. In France, Cancer is the first cause of mortality.

MU: Yes, I was pleasantly surprised when we immediately received such positive and generous responses.

JS: And yes, as you can see, this exhibition is a gathering of the international scenes’ great artists, and their contributions are for the most part quite substantial, which makes this auction such an incredibly major event. Many artists created special pieces for Mimi Foundation.

O: And of course there is the Yan Pei-Ming portrait of Prince Charles.

JS: Yan Pei-Ming painted the portrait of the Prince for this project. And this portrait was officially approved by the prince himself.  One of the first times that this has happened, I may add.  Of course, Yan Pei-Ming is major artist known for his unique portraits – in the last decade he has produced large portraits of iconic figures (political and cultural). And this one is an especially touching and beautiful portrait!

MU: Sterling Ruby produced an amazing painting especially for the Mimi Foundation as well.  We loved it immediately when we saw the painting.  Marc Quinn also proposed the beautiful project to make an iris portrait of the winning bidder. Liu Wei made a fantastic book sculpture which looks like an archeological extract of a city and Thukral and Tagra produced a dream painting in the air with flying houses that gave the possibility to escape.

JS: Of course! That is because it fits with the theme of this exhibition, which talks about how life is often a boomerang so it is very current and it relates completely to what life is all about.

O: Which also relates to how the ideas of love and reciprocity frame the exhibition and the auction as a whole.

JS: Scientifically it has been proven that if you are psychologically well and have no fear, things are smoother.  This is why we wanted to have The Power of Love as a title. Love makes us different, stronger. This is why, the walls of the exhibition are painted with the rainbow colours of the Mimi Foundation logo – love is something that vibrates in all of the centres that Myriam has created in different hospitals, because those centres are designed  to feel like a home within the hospital. This is the first priority. Then there are of course all the artist pieces that were given generously to support the Foundation.  There are many works that deal with of the concept of love, here. Look at Moshiri’s work for example: Tenderness written with knives – that is a strong statement. 

MU: And I feel the Mimi Foundation is all about that; to give people love during their treatment, during their chemotherapy – that care.  Love makes everything better.

O: So in thinking about how you worked to bring this auction together over the past two years, this exhibition really is a testament to personal relationships that have been built through your work not only through the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in China but also through The Mimi Foundation…

MU: If many of the artists in this project are Chinese that is because of our long and close relationship with them. This is just the tip of our iceberg – that we are continuing to follow and collect intensively with the new generation. But as you can see here, the selection brings together international artists from many different continents: Africa, India, Iran, Europe, UK, USA, which shows our field of interest. A collection is like a living breathing body.  It evolves in an organic manner… and this is why we have united some of our old friends together with some new ones with who, we are starting a relationship.  Some joined us through personal relationships while others came from our long relationships with other gallerists. I would like to thank as well all the galleries that have helped us with their generous support for this project.

O: So this is the result of both old and new relationships together.

MU: Tracey Emin was an artist that I always looked at and loved. She is a unique woman artist who represents power and fragility, commitment and determination.  Her neon phrases – I would say short poems – illuminate memory, emotions, and feelings. While lit they emanate beautiful messages, full of true poetry and love.  A common friend introduced us and then it was just a matter of a phone call to explain our mission with the foundation to her and what our objectives are.  She immediately supported our cause and I told her how touched I was and how important this was for me personally. A day later she said she was ready to give me a piece and asked me which one I wanted.  I cannot express how much it touched me and cannot wait to see her again. It meant a lot to me.

O: Do you see relationships developing after this, after having worked with so many leading artists and considering they donated such key works?

JS: In fact it is exactly the way the Ullens approach their lives everyday – producing and developing new connections and discovering new people and new artists all the time. It is a constant and dedicated rhythm. There is this vitality and this idea of the collector as a living body who never stops and is never fixed but always evaluates their vision and their different ideas. It is always like that.

O: Yes, and it is interesting in this sense how this particular auction is such a mix of artists from all over the world.

MU: Absolutely, it is a bridge. And we like to cross it.

O: Thinking about this, my final question is – how you see The Mimi Foundation’s vision expanding. This auction is geared towards branching out into wider Europe, so I wonder; where in Europe would you like The Mimi Foundation to be, and beyond that, do you have ideas for establishing wellness centres in hospitals outside of Europe?

MU: That is the dream. We would love to expand beyond the three countries; Switzerland, Belgium, France, where we already have Mimi Foundation centres. We treated 15,000 people in 2012 alone, and I hope this will go up to 20,000 next year. It will take a little time, but London would be our next target. After that, who knows – our cause is universal.

Myrium Ullens and Jérôme Sans were in conversations with Ocula correspondent, Stephanie Bailey

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