Pittsburgh Visit

Back briefly for the first time in a year and a half early this June, I was able to snap a few photos of my hometown. Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, spread across steep slopes and punctuated by three rivers and countless gulleys, Pittsburgh is a geographically striking city, unlike any other place I’ve known. A better photographer could convey this in pictures; I’ll have to ask you to take my word for it as I show you a few images from the four-mile walk between my brother’s apartment in Victorian Friendship and Pittsburgh’s downtown:

The View from My Roof, Take Two

I’ve just moved from a small apartment in posh Plaza San Martín to a gorgeous, sprawling house at the intersection of San Cristóbal, Parque Patricios, and Constitución, three working-class neighborhoods in the south of the city home to some spectacular turn-of-the-century architecture. The reactions this news elicits from the porteños I’ve told say quite a bit about the area, and about Buenos Aires as a whole. The young and hip uniformly congratulate me on a great find in an affordable, tight-knit community, while denizens of the capital’s rich northern stretches usually let slip a pointed “Really?!” or a “Why?!”, mouths sometimes literally agape.

Those who know me can guess which of these two sentiments better approximates my own. I’m falling hard and fast for this century-old house, and for my new neighborhood in general. Very soon I’ll post some pictures of the former; for the moment, here are some views of Buenos Aires’ southern stretches from the I-need-to-pinch-myself-is-this-real? 200-square-meter, Wi-Fi-equipped terrace (!) that doubles as my roof (pictured at the top of this post).

First, the next block over, with some great street art at the corner:In the center of the block, just behind the house, is a stretch of industrial buildings that Charles Sheeler would have loved.A few blocks away, the massive Torres de Matheu stand unchanged since 1967, dwarfing the nearby apartment towers of San Cristóbal, below.The terraza’s bordered by wonderful concrete ventilation tubes that run the length of the house. The first one below points up toward a downtown skyscraper, less than 30 minutes from the house by public transit. The last one is home to a big bees’ nest that yields fresh honey.The plant-encircled stairs to the living room, where I’m currently typing away. More pictures soon to follow…

Cristina Likes Us! (Maybe)

Passing the Casa Rosada on my way to the Subte this past Thursday, I came upon an exhibition of photos by Victor Hugo Bugge, Argentina’s official presidential photographer since 1978 (when military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla held the office). I wasn’t in any particular rush, so I figured I’d pop in for a quick shot of fuzzy Kirchnerista fondness. I made my way down the first row of photographs, taking in the carefully chosen images of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner doing what politicians have done since long before Videla — hugging babies, posing beside imposing neoclassical statues:

And doing some excellent things that past presidents didn’t do so often, like standing together with HIJOS, newborns taken from their disappeared parents by Videla and friends, then given away as spoils of war to families favored by the regime:

None of these photos surprised me much — until, that is, I noticed some familiar characters:

Wow, a lot of yanquis here. (And look, it’s Pittsburgh!) Then again, Argentines don’t hate Obama, and his relationship with Cristina seems to be on the mend right now.  And next to Bush, Clinton must have glimmered like a mirage in the Kirchners’ rearview mirror. Maybe, I began to reason, it wasn’t actually so strange to see these two icons of Northern imperialism guarding la presidenta‘s front door.

But HIM?

And again! (This one wasn’t very well received by the photo-viewing public, it seems.)

And strangest of all:

What’s going on here? Is Cristina trying to show a friendlier face to the US? Or to underscore Argentina’s importance on the global stage? And why is Bush in so many photos? Especially that dopey-faced one with Condoleezza Rice — the only photo, I believe, in which neither Cristina nor Néstor made an appearance. They must be messing with us, right?

Casa Rosadology’s a tricky game.

La Vida Carlotense

I spent last weekend at my roommate’s family reunion in La Carlota, a pampas town of some 12,000 people in the south of Córdoba province, about six and a half hours by car from Buenos Aires. It was a welcome reminder that porteños alone do not a country make. Grassy fields stretching past the horizon, small-scale farms where carlotenses still raise crops and cattle, giant but close-knit families, even a gleaming new swimming pool — I couldn’t have asked for a better end to a January I won’t soon forget.

The Isleño Within

The trip to the Paraná Delta starts rough — an hour on your feet, packed into a cramped, jolty, far-too-hot train; another hour gathering up the food and bug spray you can’t leave the mainland without; then the hunt, giant jugs of water in hand, for a little lancha to carry you into the Delta. But here’s just one of the many magical things about a lavishly long summer weekend spent on an island where the Paraná meets the Rio de la Plata: You get off the boat, and none of it ever happened. Because you’re on another planet. One where rivers have taken the place of roads and boats cars, where your nearest neighbor is just beyond shouting distance, where at times it’s hard to hear over the birdsong. Nothing could connect this place to the sweltering megalopolis you’ve finally managed to escape. You’ve got no steps to retrace — and you’ve never entertained a happier thought. Click play above, check out the pictures below. You’ll see what I mean.

Subterranean Time-Warp Blues

It’s been a hectic montaña rusa of a month and by far the longest stretch I’ve gone yet without posting to the blog. To ease myself back into the game, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share for a while now: an underground tunnel direct to the past, just a few blocks from my home. Galería Obelisco Norte is a subterranean shopping strip buried beneath gargantuan Avenida 9 de Julio and adjacent to one of the city’s main subway transfer stations. Long past its prime and worlds away from the nearby galeries parisiennes that share the first part of its name, this galería is a curio cabinet straight out of the ’50s. The tenants occupying its six-foot-shallow stalls sell everything from custom shoes and model trains to the sort of art that Motel 6 buys in bulk. There’s even a barber shop and a restaurant, The Paty King.

I come imitating Walter Benjamin, who’d wander Paris’ arcades in search of those traces of the past no historian would have thought to record. For it’s in this neglected corridor, among all the places I go in Buenos Aires, that I feel closest to the (imagined) city that used to sit atop it. Have a look for yourself:

Tilt-Shifting in the Sierras of Córdoba

Last week I traveled to Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest city, for a fantastic conference about memory at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba‘s Centro de Estudios Avanzados. Córdoba’s a fun place to be; a center of learning and commerce when Buenos Aires was still a colonial backwater, it’s home to some of the country’s best-preserved seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture, and its five major universities give the city a vibrancy to rival the capital. Even better, it’s situated just a few kilometers from the Central Sierras, a beautiful mountain range somewhere between the Appalachians and the Rockies in height and terrain. After five days in the city, I went south, first to Villa General Belgrano, a little slice of Germany that’s home to six microbreweries and some of the best strudel this side of the Atlantic, and then to La Cumbrecita, a tiny, car-free, Alpine-style town situated alongside one the highest ridges in the Sierras.

I’ll post more about these places soon, but for the moment I’d like to share the results of some early experimentation with tilt-shift photography, taken from the hills of central Córdoba. Tilt-shift (or, to be more accurate, its digital post-processing simulacrum) is one of the coolest things my camera can do; and the height differentials that come with trekking through the mountains practically begged me to give it a try. Below are three image pairs: a standard shot followed by a tilt-shift simulation. The result is an over-saturation of color and something approaching a miniaturization of the subject.

Here’s a bit of Villa General Belgrano from an adjacent mountain:

Now, here’s a similar shot, taken using my camera’s tilt-shift approximation:

Here’s “downtown” Villa General Belgrano:

Finally, a mountain stream just beyond La Cumbrecita:

More from Córdoba coming soon!

Nahuel Vecino and Guido Pierri at Cobra

This past Thursday evening I won the Buenos Aires art-opening lottery: I hit one amazing show, and stumbled into another one that may not have impressed me much on the art front but was more of a party than an ‘inauguration,’ with a DJ and–a first!–individual bottles of Stella Artois. I’ve already written about the former (as has Juanele’s Gabi Schevach–check it out); now it’s time, as I explained on Juanele’s blog, to set aside serious thoughts and enjoy the party half:

It wouldn’t be hard to find something serious to say about the dozens of disembodied young boys’ heads that Nahuel Vecino has hanging around the subterranean Cobra gallery. Nor would it be a stretch to spin elaborate theories about the science-experiment-meets-occult-practice-meets-teenage-basement-bedroom-decorations that Guido Pierri contributed to the space. Both of these tasks would be even easier in light of the two-artist show’s title, Incesante mutacion del río noche (“Incessant Mutation of Night River”) — strange but serious-sounding and oh-so-mysterious, it practically begs for some blog-based bloviating.

But I won’t attempt any of these things. Not because the show isn’t ‘good’ art (who am I to say?), but because Vecino’s paintings and Pierri’s objects — inspired, the artist says, by nine months near the Arctic Circle in Sweden — just didn’t hook me. Though his mass of bloody heads, some with eyes open and looking right at me, didn’t break through, there was one work by Vecino I did enjoy: a chalky reclining nude, surrounded by a marinescape of conch shells and sexualized plants and set bizarrely against a desolate plain straight out of Chaco or West Texas. It managed to strikes notes naive, lush, barren, and a little bit twisted, all at the same time.

More than the art, though, it was the unexpected spectacle of the night that made my visit memorable. I had never been to Cobra before, and although the gallery’s entrance was all but hidden (it’s an unmarked rectangle cut into a wooden facade), it was easy to spot, given the club-sized crowd smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk out front.

Through the door and down a flight of stairs, I found myself in a cavernous, multilevel basement space much larger than I had imagined. Beside the stairs was an alcove bar dispensing individual glass bottles of Stella along with the usual red wine. The soaring main gallery itself was one of the more unusual art spaces I’ve seen. Its concrete floor was inset with elongated off-white lights, and the rounded edges of its recessed ceilings and the glass edging of its DJ-occupied mezzanine produced an effect somewhere between late ’60s university library and mid-2000s European dance club. The blaring electropop went better with the beer in my hand than the bleeding heads on the walls, but no matter — this was a party, and I wasn’t about to ruin it by thinking too hard.

Camilo Guinot at Ro

I was surprised to fall completely in love with a sculpture this past Thursday evening, especially one made entirely of matches. From Juanele’s blog:

From the moment I stepped past the dog perched oddly on the threshold of Ro Galería de Arte yesterday evening, I knew I was glad I had come. Directly in front of me, in the very center of the room, was one of the most attention-grabbing sculptures I’ve seen in a long time, a flower/vortex/very private place made entirely of matches. True to form for a cone made half out of phosphorous, it sucked up all the oxygen in the room—and I couldn’t turn away.

Object of my fascination, this untitled match sculpture was also the incontestable centerpiece of Camilo Guinot’s show, móvil recurrente (“recurring mobile”), which opened at Ro last night with plans to run through November 14. It’s a layered, conical zig-zag of Dos Patos-brand matches arranged in pointy rows, their tips painted in a lipstick-like rainbow of reds and pinks. And it was assembled painstakingly by hand, a breathtaking work of craftsmanship built “less from matches than from infinite patience,” as Verónica Gómez’s uncommonly helpful wall text explains. Lost in its ridges, drawn to its point of convergence (equal parts sensual and grotesque), I imagined Georgia O’Keeffe, nearly a century after Red Canna, here in Ro, the faintest of smiles on her face.

Nearly as impressive as the match-flower itself was the show’s total coherence. Sketches, photographs, a notebook filled with tiny clumps of the fuzz that collects in your belly button, and video lined the wall. Among these works, one image—a photograph of dozens of red, waxen planes converging on an oven—stood out from a distance, bold and surreal. Sensibly for a show labeled recurrente, this untitled photograph made reference—in ways both subtle and superficial—to the works surrounding it. The red of its wax planes and their convergence on one central point hearkened to the sculpture just feed away. Wax surfaced again in another of the photographs against the back wall, this one depicting a smooth red triangle melting against a concrete curb. A third showed a belly-button-fuzz-like mass caught among power lines. The whole show had all been arranged as carefully as the matches themselves.

It was easier to leave Ro than to enter; by the time I was ready to go, the dog and its owner were long-gone. It was later than I had planned; I had lost myself in a bloom of matches.

MARDER Festival

A sign of just how busy I’ve been lately–I went to an awesome young artists’ festival at Centro Cultural San Martín nearly three weeks ago, I blogged about it for Juanele, and I still haven’t linked to it on the blog. It was certainly unique enough to merit a mention. Here’s what I wrote, along with some teaser photographs by Juanele photographer Andy Donohue (there are a bunch more on Juanele and on his very good blog):

Saturday’s MARDER festival at Centro Cultural San Martín was a chaotic mix of young artists painting on giant canvases, young musicians improvising in ad hoc groups, young visitors drawing on paper at shared tables — it was, in other words, a lot of young people making art, and a lot of fun. The “first art festival in real time,” the event was the largest-scale production yet by MARDER, a group of artists and musicians that formed to coordinate “artistic experiences” in  Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole “art festival in real time” claim, but the event’s uncynical enthusiasm quickly won me over. With members of a bunch of different bands jamming together in rotating sets and hip-looking 20-somethings making impromptu art all over the place as a giant countdown clock counted away MARDER’s remaining minutes, the festival seethed with raw energy, and the crowd was loving it. That a big group of young people can get a grant and fill a major cultural center to bursting with collaborative, public, almost anarchic art — it’s just another reason why Buenos Aires is such a cool place to be.