Inspired by Cuba and the history of the sugar trade, Alchemy of the Soul is a multimedia and multisensory installation that is a collaboration by Neil Leonard and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who have been married for nearly 30 years.
In her widely exhibited work, Campos-Pons addresses issues of history, race, gender, memory and the formation of identity, in an aesthetically lyrical and sensual way. Her husband, a composer, saxophonist and interdisciplinary artist, is the artistic director of Berklee College of Music’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute and a research affiliate at MIT’s program in Art, Culture and Technology. They have collaborated on performance, film and video installations that have been featured at the Havana Biennial, the 49th and 55th Venice Biennales and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The couple spent many hours at PEM during the exhibition installation. The following is an edited conversation that took place while Magda was here in Salem and Neil phoned in from his teaching job.
For Alchemy of the Soul, Neil, you made extensive recordings of traditional Cuban musicians and original compositions that echo the feel of Magda’s blown-glass sculptures. How would you both say your work influences and complements each other?
Magda: From the very first project, he responded in an almost magical way. It was like he could read something that I didn’t need to say. That was very beautiful and still very beautiful. When I hear the music he composed for this piece, I have the same reaction I did 30 years ago. He understands my heart as an artist.
Neil: Working with Magda has given me a number of opportunities to find a way to bring my practice — which is really rooted in North American music, improvisation, jazz and electronic music — and build an artistic bridge with Magda who is coming from a somewhat different culture. We find threads that we have in common.
The language back and forth is amazing.
Magda: I’m a total romantic. Neil too. He has a side of him that is very tender and charming and a romantic side of him. Neil, I am hitting on you here.
Neil: Don’t stop.
Magda: When I say that, I really mean it. We are talking about this place that is the factory, the ruin, the ghost, the emptiness and all of this sound that doesn’t exist anymore. I described that to Neil and then he came back with something that had a hint of an operatic quality, but also accurate with the mood and exquisite beauty that is absolutely Cuban. But also it transcends that. He has done beautiful work for other visual artists, but I think there is something in the work we’ve done together that is magic, that we have another level of understanding.
Neil: Having worked together for about 28 years, we’ve worked in many contexts and the work is now at a long arc. Doing another piece together, like the one for PEM, is an opportunity to extend that arc a little bit further. The work can have a certain playfulness because as an artist I don’t have to prove myself to Magda. The long-term collaboration is one of the richest things I’ve done artistically.
How do you both balance your artistic endeavors with teaching, participating in countless art fairs and family life?
Neil: It takes a tremendous effort, but these are the things we want to do. My family is a family of teachers and Magda would say the people who gave us the courage to persevere through the complicated process of being artists were teachers.
Magda: Neil has been an extraordinary partner, helping me, freeing me, allowing me to be an artist. Traveling abroad and leaving a 2-year-old boy with a partner who is 100 percent there, that was a magnificent gift. That is something that I treasured and without that kind of support, I couldn’t do a lot of the work that I did.
Magda, you have said: “We were born the same year, yet worlds apart. He’s the son of Kennedy and I’m the daughter of Castro.” What did you mean by this?
Magda: I was in the first generation after Castro took power and that tainted everything. We are four months apart. We are the Cold War. We are everything that was tense. We were not supposed to meet. There were so little chances that our collaboration in life and art could take place. At the time that it happened, we were an anomaly. We didn’t have much company. We are pioneers. We were fighting against the embargo. We have a child that is a Cuban-American. We have a very rich narrative from which to build ideas and our story was in a time in which it was almost impossible to build that narrative … and we did. We were courageous, I think. I’m sure Neil took a risk and I took a risk. The risk was love. I still love him like it is 1988.