Creativity
Peggy Guggenheim’s Great-Grandson Created an Otherworldly Gallery in Tulum
Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

IK LAB, a new contemporary art gallery set to open in Tulum, Mexico, is a fitting addition to the wellness-and-spirituality-loving beachside town. Set within the grounds of the eco-friendly Azulik resort, the space boasts a truly unique character: its walls are curved, its floors undulate, and its massive glass windows and doors are circular, like new moons. Every surface is covered with saplings and vines, sourced sustainably from local jungles, or swaths of smooth faux-concrete whose texture recalls the interior of a shell; living trees and plant life sprout from walls, the ceiling, and the floor. The experience demands mindfulness—you must be barefoot inside, and if you’re not careful, you could lose balance, or worse, trip over a work of art. This unconventional approach to a gallery space is all by design, however.
The gallery is the brainchild of Azulik founder Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel, who is also a self-taught architect, and gallerist-slash-art advisor Santiago Rumney Guggenheim (great-grandson to Peggy). IK LAB opens today with a show titled “Alignments,” with works by , , and —and its debut proves just how unlike other contemporary art galleries the space aims to be.
“We want to trigger the creative minds of artists to create for a completely different environment,” Rumney told me as we sat within the ovoid-shaped office space within the gallery. “We are challenging the artists to make work for a space that doesn’t have straight walls or floors—we don’t even have walls really, it’s more like shapes coming out of the floor. And the floor is hardly a floor.”
IK LAB’s program (which also extends to a domed structure on the grounds of Azulik, a few minutes walk from the main gallery), will foreground inspiration and creativity, inviting artists to respond to the eco-friendly venue and tap into Tulum more broadly, while accepting the daunting challenge of creating work that sings in such an idiosyncratic space.
Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Neira Sterkel designed the art space over the past few years, after opening Azulik 13 years ago. His unconventional approach to architecture involves no drawings or blueprints, but rather imagining his spaces on the fly; he goes to the land where the structure will be, traces the shape with wire, develops a vision for it, and then shares that with architects and the skilled indigenous Mayan builders he hires to realize it.
The architecture of the gallery is challenging, but that’s exactly what motivated the young Rumney Guggenheim to pursue the venture. He recalls the first experience of walking into the gallery (at that point there were no immediate plans for the art space) as “mind-blowing.” The curved walls, he said, reminded him of his great-grandmother’s legendary Art of This Century gallery, the 57th Street space where she gave many painters, including , their first solo shows.
This all happened in the beginning of 2018, at the tail end of Rumney’s annual trip to Tulum—a place he says he’s had a strong connection to ever since his father first brought him many years ago. Rumney quickly wrote up a proposal for a gallery program and sent it to Neira Sterkel, telling him he could stay in Tulum and continue to develop it. Just an hour before his flight home to New York, he recalls, he got a text from Neira Sterkel: “Okay, let’s do it.” Rumney cancelled his return trip and got to work.
Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

As a former artist himself, Neira Sterkel is an ideal collaborator on the project. IK LAB is merely “the tip,” he explained, of a much larger project that includes developing an art school for local youths and an interdisciplinary artist residency. Those initiatives will eventually unfold on a wide swath of land in the jungle, around 20 kilometers from the resort.
The future art center plans to host 14 artists working in various creative mediums, from painting and sculpture to fashion, music, and culinary arts. “Through these artist residencies, we consider ourselves a lab, in the sense that we want to integrate various disciplines of the arts,” Rumney explained. The first residents will be housed at Azulik, creating work for IK LAB from a two-level structure that resembles a bird’s nest, connected to the upper end of the gallery’s ramp by a tree-flanked footbridge.
The organic, rippling form of the main space, Neira Sterkel explained, is meant to evoke a womb-like shape, and to keep people quite literally on their toes. “The uneven floor destabilizes them, it makes them warm and open to the art,” he explained. The no-shoes policy is crucial to the experience as well. “The idea is to make people aware, with all of their senses,” he said. “If you walk barefoot in the sand or grass, you have a special connection with nature—the same is true here.” And while it’s not the easiest place to show art, let alone hang and install it, the architect wagers that this is ultimately a fruitful opportunity for artists.
Russian artist Margo Trushina, who has several sculptures, neon works, and a video (many of which were conceived or created during her trips to Tulum in recent years) in the inaugural show, curated by Rumney Guggenheim, said that as she first looked at photographs and the floorplan, she was bemused. “It does not look like a gallery space, like a white cube,” she said with a laugh. “It looks more like you’re inside of a whale.” She likened the experience to actively collaborating with the space.
Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Interior view of IK Lab. Courtesy of IK Lab.

Brazilian artist Artur Lescher, who had never been to Tulum before, was similarly exhilarated by the challenge of the space. “It’s like a game,” he said. “It’s like putting an artwork inside of an artwork.” His sleek, minimalist forms—including a metallic pillar suspended from the ceiling—are a stark contrast to the gallery’s flowing vines and faux-concrete. His work resonates with the show’s most impressive piece: Tatiana Trouvé’s 250 Points Towards Infinity (2015), which is comprised of 250 small pendulums suspended from the ceiling of the gallery’s domed space.
Running a gallery in Tulum isn’t always easy, Rumney admitted. It can be hard to source materials—there isn’t a nearby hardware store, for example—but he’s still excited about IK LAB’s potential. “You can do anything in this space,” he enthused. “The ceiling height, the trees growing through it, the shapes, these are all things we can use; we can combine this piece of art with other pieces of art.”
The unusual nature of the gallery raises an obvious question: Is Rumney Guggenheim looking to build upon his family’s impressive legacy? “They set the bar very high and I can’t compare what I’m doing to what they’ve achieved,” he said. “But, I do want to do things differently, and maybe unconsciously that’s what has led me to do this. Really, I’m just following my instincts.”
Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.