Popping In (Again)

The website for Juanele AR, the bilingual online arts magazine to which I contributed a bunch of stuff last year, went down yesterday afternoon. I worried it was gone forever — and not unreasonably; the project’s been bankrupt for months. But my fears were premature; as of this morning, it’s back.

I’ve already cross-posted most of what I wrote for Juanele on my blog, with one notable exception: a 3500-word narrative feature about a multi-day open-studio-cum-intervention in an abandoned mansion in Las Cañitas that I wanted to call “Popping In” (Juanele called it “The Energy of Open Art”). It’s long, and I already posted the opening paragraphs more than a year ago. But Juanele’s day off was an unexpectedly sharp reminder that online doesn’t mean forever, especially when it refers to the vast stretches of the interwebs beyond my control. So I hope you’ll indulge my posting the whole thing here, punctuated by a few of Andy Donohoe’s pitch-perfect photos.


[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

Popping In
A Weekend with Poeta and the Red Bull Crew

The original idea was to blow it all up. FInd a crumbling building, assemble a group of artists, give them 72 hours to transform it — and then, kaboom.

“I wanted to remove the idea of possession,” Christian Riffel explained to me, casting his explosive fantasy in a more intellectual hue. Yet the long-disused 1930s Las Cañitas mansion doubling as backdrop for our conversation — a space suddenly teeming with a dozen artists launching into three days of creation — wasn’t going to be detonating any time soon. It was going to become a boutique hotel.

Riffel — a Buenos Aires street artist better known as Poeta — had put his initial plan on hold to organize Pop Up Galleries, the first in a series of artistic “interventions” in “unconventional” spaces. It was to be, he told me, “something very new” in a “very old house.”

Bringing together young creatives from across the visual arts spectrum — street muralists, gallery painters, a photographer, a performance artist — Pop Up Galleries gave its participants a theme (“the passage of time”), three days to work, free supplies, and their own rooms. For two of those three days, Pop Up would invite the public in to watch it all unfold. And then, after one final afternoon of public viewing, it would close its doors, leaving the art to be preserved or destroyed according to the future hotelier’s whims.

Poeta and I were standing in what felt like an impromptu supply room — a gorgeous wood-paneled salon that had weathered its years of abandonment remarkably well, and that the Pop Up crew wasn’t allowed to touch. There, sharing space with paint-splattered tarps, brushes, and a full spectrum of spray paint cans, was a small army’s worth of Red Bull promotional products waiting not to be appropriated (as street artists are wont to do) but deployed. The company’s House of Art campaign — already responsible for a two-year-old artists’ residency in Sao Paulo — was going to make its Buenos Aires debut by bringing Poeta’s vision to life.

Red Bull had given Pop Up its wings. I had come to see if it could fly. Continue reading

Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Color of Broad Appeal

As I explain in a recent feature for Juanele, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen, period. It’ll be on view through March and if you come to BA you have no excuse not to check it out!

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

* * *

The challenge facing curator Mari Carmen Ramírez could hardly have been more daunting — present the life’s work of a formally inventive and dramatically undervalued artist in a way that does justice to both his conceptual heft and his public-spirited drive to engage and transform his viewers. As tens of thousands of visitors to Malba’s new single-artist retrospective,  Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space in Time), have discovered, Ramírez was up to the task, delivering a show that is as instructive as it is accessible, and an awful lot of fun.

A household name in his native Venezuela, Cruz-Diez is far from unknown in the broader art world. His works form part of many of the most celebrated permanent collections on the planet. But as Ramírez notes in her essay, “Lo que está en juego es el color” (The Issue at Stake is Color), Cruz-Diez has never before received a solo exhibition in Latin America, the US, or Europe, and he’s been relegated to second-tier status in the critical literature. For an artist who has managed not only to pull color off the two-dimensional canvas but to bring it fully into the public sphere, Cruz-Diez has not received his due.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Perhaps this neglect can be attributed to Cruz-Diez’s insistence on swimming against the grain of contemporary art-critical expectations. Critics tend to call Cruz-Diez a “ kinetic artist,” a label which itself underscores the artist’s awkward relationship with the critical establishment. While it’s true that many of Cruz-Diez’s works rely on the viewer’s movement to make their point, the “kinetic” label suggests an artist who’s primarily interested in motion, when even five minutes with Cruz-Diez’s work makes it clear that interrogating movement is far from his top concern. At heart, Cruz-Diez is really a “color artist” — but for a generation of critics eager to move beyond the aesthetic transcendence-through-color of abstract expressionists like  Mark Rothko and  Morris Louis, an exhaustive exploration of color isn’t conceptually interesting, and a preoccupation with the viewer’s aesthetic experience probably seems passé. So Cruz-Diez is called “kinetic” — and by that standard, he isn’t very interesting at all.

This wider conceptual turn in art criticism has yielded many insights and encouraged plenty of interesting work, but if it can’t make room for an artist as provocative and broadly engaging as Cruz-Diez, it’s gone too far. To center art on conceptual concerns while deriding interest in aesthetic elevation is to deny all but the best-read and most historically aware viewers a way into the artistic experience and a reason to engage it beyond a superficial glance. It’s a choice, in other words, that leaves a lot of potential viewers behind, reinforcing the (largely but not always) unspoken conviction that the best contemporary art does not and should not have mass appeal.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Cruz-Diez, Ramírez’s retrospective reveals, made a very different choice. As the artist himself explains in one of the show’s excellent wall texts, color isn’t just something that spices up our world; it’s elemental to the way we experience it. Color happens — it makes other things happen — and Cruz-Diez wants to use his art as a prompt to make us all think about it. If this tangible, aesthetically-centered, far-from-elite project explains why El color en el espacio y en el tiempo is Cruz-Diez’s first real retrospective, it also explains why more than 56,000 people have seen the show in its first month, why so many of them linger on Malba’s top floor, and — most remarkably of all — why such a high percentage of the chatter one overhears up there is actually about the art.

Of course, Ramírez deserves a hunk of the credit as well. Ramírez heads the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Cruz-Diez retrospective was on display for the first half of the year. Her accompanying text is a pleasure to read, but her curatorial skills are perhaps even more evident when she is at her most invisible. The top floor of the show features a largely chronological organization, beginning with Cruz-Diez’s early works before moving on to his fisicromías (“physichromies”), the reflective, additive, and subtractive works for which the artist is best known, and which command a large majority of the exhibition’s wall space. Smaller galleries at the far end of the top floor and downstairs highlight the artist’s public works and reproduce two of his immersive chromographic “environments.” And with the exception of an introductory note and a few isolated curatorial observations, the wall text accompanying the exhibition comes directly from the artist himself.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Allowing Cruz-Diez to speak for himself works well because his pieces are so engaging on their own terms. His first fisicromías are simple assemblages of horizontal wooden slats painted red, green, black, and white, some protruding from father than others to form shapes. Visitors following the exhibition watch the materials, shapes, colors, and effects slowly change, as wood is replaced by PVC, mirrors, and silkscreened aluminum. The immersive environments — one with three sub-rooms, each filled with a different color of filtered light, the other with overlapping, moving bands of color projected onto white walls — are testaments to the power of color to shape our perceptions of space and place. And the public art projects presented downstairs, shown only after the viewer has seen color projected, reflected, and transformed up close in dozens of ways, point to the vastness of Cruz-Diez’s ambition: to revalue color as a central dimension not only of the artistic experience, but of human perception, writ large.

Cruz-Diez’s works aren’t themselves ideal candidates for lengthy prose description. They’re better experienced than recounted; the top floor of Malba awaits. Sure, Cruz-Diez’s vision may not be as philosophically intricate as some of his contemporaries’, but what it lacks in esoteric complexity it more than makes up for in breadth and interactivity. Oh, and — did I mention? — in color.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Salon Article on Argentina’s Recent Elections

My first piece for Salon, about the skewed coverage of Argentina’s recent election in the U.S. media. Here’s the lede:

When Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was reelected two weeks ago by the largest margin of any leader since the return of democracy in 1983, even her bitterest opponents had to admit that she’d done something right. Clarín, Buenos Aires’ highest-circulation daily and a strong contender for the title of Kirchner’s enemy No. 1, acknowledged that the president had earned her victory by creating jobs and prosperity. Mauricio Macri, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, congratulated Fernández and told reporters, “If things go well for the president, things go well for us.”

But on the pages of America’s leading newspapers, the tone was strikingly less conciliatory….

The full article: http://news.salon.com/2011/11/07/argentinas_president_irks_u_s_pundits/

Political Complicity Article Goes Live

In case you’re burning with curiosity about the behavior of Argentina’s major Jewish political group during the country’s last dictatorship or craving a reflection on the ways in which the work of German philosopher Karl Jaspers could point us toward a more nuanced approach to the fine gradations of responsibility that define totalitarian social transformation — the final refereed version of the article I’ve spent much of the past two years working on has finally gone up on the International Journal of Transitional Justice’s website. For those wonky, nerdy, or bored enough to be interested, a full HTML version of the article can be found at this address and a pdf can be downloaded from this one. If you do give it a go, let me know what you think!

Full Text:
http://ijtj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/ijr021?ijkey=PCy3iKilBnvSJls&keytype=ref

PDF:

http://ijtj.oxfordjournals.
org/cgi/reprint/ijr021?ijkey=PCy3iKilBnvSJls&keytype=ref

Horacio Zabala at 11×7

At the recent opening of Horacio Zabala’s excellent show, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), I learned that I am, in fact, still a wimp–at least when it comes to approaching famous artists I’ve long wanted to interview. Here’s what I wrote about it for Juanele:

I’m a cartophile. I can lose myself for hours on Google Maps, and my bedroom walls are papered with schematics of some of the places I love most. Maybe Horacio Zabala’s are, too. At the very least, the pieces featured in 11×7’s exhibit of his work, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), make it clear that Zabala has both something to say and the tools to say it cartographically.

The opening itself was a cultural experience, its onda quite a departure from the typical vibe at the edgier, less-establishment galleries where I most often find myself. That much I could have concluded from the neighborhood alone. Half a block from Patio Bullrich (where one can spend 100 pesos on two coffees and an apple bar, as I discovered firsthand one pecuniarily painful afternoon), 11×7’s located smack at the epicenter of porteño Old Money.

Marta amid the maps

Sure enough, past the tuxedoed waiter with a tray of wineglasses balanced on one palm, the gallery was packed nearly wall-to-wall with the exquisitely dressed and the important-looking. Even Marta Minujín was there, her Andy-Warhol-blond hair and giant sunglasses all-but-impossible to ignore. (I desperately wanted to talk to her, but, seeing no break in her conversation, I wimped out.)

With the gallery so crowded—and the majority of the patrons deep in conversation right in front of the art—it took some maneuvering to see the works themselves. When I did manage to squeeze my way to the front, though, I was like a kid in a candy shop; the very sight of such well-crafted and well-conceived cartography had me smiling broadly.

No doubt, Zabala’s works could be read on a political level; it’s hard not to hear political overtones in a series of Argentine maps, layered one atop the other, each with a larger hole burned into its center than the one below—especially one like Seis imagenes del fragmento 30, created as the country was tearing itself apart in 1973.Visually devouring the works, however, I was struck most not by Zabala’s message but by his precision, by the mastery of geographic form evident in his simultaneously fanciful and plausible Deformaciones y hundamientos I-IV, and by the studied irreverence of Aparaciones/desaparaciones (a) – (f), carefully plotted on sturdy, lined pages torn from a student’s notebook. Zabala might have been building his own world, but he was willing to do so within the constraints of cartographic practice. And I was more than happy to indulge.

Jim Campbell at Fundación Telefónica

A feature on U.S. electronic artist Jim Campbell’s 20-year restrospective currently showing at Fundación Tefefónica, published today at Juanele:

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We live in a high-definition world, as anyone who’s bought a camera or turned on a TV lately knows. US-based artist Jim Campbell knows it, too. And despite his degree in electronics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his self-proclaimed nerdiness, he’s not overly impressed.

“One loses something in high definition,” Campbell told the crowd that had gathered at Fundación Telefónica to hear him discuss Tiempo estático (Static Time), a retrospective encompassing two decades of his electronic art. “I wouldn’t even say that HD is more correct,” he concluded.

Given the mass of blurry images surrounding him, Campbell’s words seemed about right. The works included in Tiempo estático are about as far from high definition as possible. Using LCD lights to pixelate highway accidents and fistfights, Campbell strips his subjects of most of their identifying characteristics — only their movement remains. These low-resolution works invert our traditional understanding of clarity. Because they become easier to read as each pixel becomes less visually distinct, these pieces are actually “clearer” from a distance, or when obscured by frosted screens.

To exemplify his point, Campbell approached a work depicting the rhythmic advance of ocean waves which was covered by an opaque panel. The artist ripped the screen from the piece, and sure enough it went from a meditation on repetitive movement to something much closer to random noise. Campbell then placed the screen over another work, a none-too-obvious one in which a physically disabled person walks with the aid of a cane. (I asked Campbell about his choice of subject for this latter work; he explained that, devoid of other distinguishing characteristics, the person depicted in the work is defined by her disability as she would often be in society at large.) Screen in place, the subject immediately became more legible. “More is seen,” Campbell said as he slipped the screen back off and returned it to its original place. “But I’m not sure more needs to be seen.”

In his commentary, Campbell repeatedly emphasized the distinction between seeing something — visually registering its characteristics — and feeling it. It is the latter, he maintained, that carries us to the essence of an image, conveyed in these works by nothing more than varying tones of light and rhythms of movement. This is particularly evident in the series of works based around a single process: the artist chose a location (the New York Public Library, for example, or Grand Central Terminal), took simultaneous long-exposure photos and video, and pixelated the video across an LCD array under a print of the corresponding still image. The effect that these works produce — rich, monumental spaces traversed by spectral, vaguely human figures — is both elegant and uncomfortable, its complexity worlds away from HD’s simple promise: see more.

In the back corner of the main gallery, “Exploded View” — one of the finest works in the show — takes this same two-dimensional concept and stretches it into three. The work began, Campbell noted, as “an experiment I thought would fail.” Instead, it became the prototype for a much larger work in New York’s Madison Square Park, which used incandescent light bulbs in place of LEDs. When seen from the side, or up close, “Exploded View” is a field of tiny twinkling stars. But when viewed straight on and from a distance, it becomes a series of pixilated human forms (more Grand Central commuters, it turns out) on crisscrossing paths across what looks to be a flat plane. Although it is beautiful from all angles, the work is only coherent from one — the one at which the pixels line up so each of them occupies a single spot on a two-dimensional plane. Movement recorded in a two-dimensions, “Exploded View” reminds us, cannot be recreated in three; simply by committing something to film or video, then, entails a sort of sacrifice, no matter the definition of the resulting image.

One of the two installations in the show, “Frames of Reference,” speaks directly to the limits of our obsession with HD details. In the work, a camera attached to one end of a small, rotating block of wood is trained on a nail sunk into the other end of the block. (At the beginning, Campbell volunteered, a watch had been attached to the nail. But then the watch fell off, liberating the work from cliché.) Always aligned with the nail, the camera captures the tiny metal implement in perfect detail, while everything else in the room appears as a blur. This background is murky, yes, and poorly defined—but it’s also vivid, engrossing, constantly in flux. The nail, in contrast — well, it’s just a nail.

Without taking his eye off the technologies of data accumulation, Campbell turns in his series of “memory works” to the phenomenon of computer memory and its impact on human remembering. The works, on display in a smaller gallery downstairs, consist of various transmitters — clocks, photographs, night-lights — attached to standard sized, succinctly labeled metal boxes. To make “I Have Never Read the Bible,” for instance, Campbell recorded himself saying all 26 letters of the alphabet individually, then used a program to play them in the exact sequence of the words of the Bible. “Cyclical Meter Base” and “Cyclical Counter Base” feature two clocks whose hands move according to the rate of what the attached metal boxes call “her blinking” and “her breath,” both recorded over an hour in 1996. Each of these works, Campbell explained, represents a “contrived representation” of human experience in the form of “computer memory,” and a reminder that it is not raw data, but rather its emotional, human context that structures our engagement with the world, past and present.

Technological advances enable us to gather, record, and display data about the universe we inhabit with unprecedented ease and ever-increasing precision. It’s all too easy to forget that this is a descriptive statement, not a moral one. Our frames of reference, Campbell reminds us, are what really count.

AMIA’s Memoria Ilustrada: Comics to Combat Forgetting

This past Monday saw the 17th anniversary of the 1994 bombing attack on the headquarters of Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, which claimed 85 lives and remains the country’s deadliest act of terrorism. Here’s a feature I wrote for Juanele, a reflection on an exhibition of comics AMIA assembled to mark 17 years of impunity:

At least since the Old Testament declared active memory an ethical obligation, remembering has been a political act — a means to preserve identity and to combat the injustice of a wrong ignored. The advent of modern technologies to register and transmit details of the past might appear to make first-hand memory less important. Yet even as new approaches deepen our collective base of information about prior events, they make our relationship to these events more passive and less immediate. In an age of data overload, it may be getting easier to record and harder to actively remember.

It’s a danger that the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, or the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association) knows all too well. A little over 17 years ago, on July 18, 1994,  a car bomb destroyed the group’s Once headquarters, claiming 85 lives in what remains Argentina’s deadliest single act of terrorism. Coming just two years after a  similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in Retiro killed 29, the bombing further strained an already traumatized community. Subsequent police investigations have been marred by scandal, cover-ups, and gross incompetence. Néstor Kirchner called them a “national disgrace.” To this day, no one has been successfully prosecuted for the crime.

In the absence of judicial remedies, memory represents a crucial political tool. To combat complacency with a massive failure of justice and remind the broader Argentine population of its still-gaping wound, AMIA initiated the Memoria ilustrada (“Illustrated Memory”) series of art exhibitions in 2006. Every year since, AMIA has organized a group show around a changing theme related to the attack. This year’s production, on view in Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) through July 31, centers on graphic art. Called “Historietas para no olvidar” (roughly, “Comics to Combat Forgetting”), the show features 28 comics chosen from among the submissions of more than 200 graphic design students at the University of Buenos Aires.

Each of the chosen comics, which line the CCR’s main ground-floor hallway, explores a particular aspect of the attack and its aftermath. The shock of the event itself and the continuing pain stemming from the state’s failure to punish its perpetrators represent by far the most common themes. Because so many of the works address such similar subjects and evoke variations on the same emotions — anger, loss, isolation, and abandonment — it can be exhausting to view all 28 at once. Yet, perhaps owing to the inherent accessibility and digestibility of the comic form, many of the people present at last Thursday evening’s opening seemed committed to taking in as many of the works as possible.

The comics included in the show represent a range of different styles. Some are text-heavy, while others feature few words. Many are action-driven — unsurprising when the central act is itself so dramatic — but others are reflective, hardly moving. A number employ dark and depressing palettes; others are bright and colorful. Several stand out for their engrossing storylines and technical expertise, yet most read as the work of young artists still finding their voices and training their hands.

Several of the most interesting works focus on the disparate reactions of the Jewish community and the Argentine public at large. It’s a dimension of the attack that has yet to be fully explored, although divergent interpretations of the event have been in competition since the day of the bombing itself, when one radio station responded to unfolding events with a news update: While most of the victims were Jews, the station reported, some “were innocent.”

Some of the comics that broach this topic most effectively do so by explicitly comparing popular distress over Argentina’s early July elimination from the  1994 World Cup with its incommensurate response to an act of terrorism that left 85 dead just two weeks later. In the well-named “Tragedia mundial,” for instance, a young man turns away from the TV to answer a call from a friend distraught over the recent tragedy. “Yeah, it’s a disgrace, what happened at the AMIA,” the man agrees. “The AMIA?” his friend responds. “I still can’t believe we were eliminated from the World Cup!”

As I stepped out of Memorial ilustrada, still reflecting on “Tragedia mundial,” CCR presented me with an unexpected analytical aid hanging in an adjacent gallery —  Martin Buber para principantes, an illustrated exploration of the life and thought of the Jewish philosopher drawn by Adrián Malvo with text by Fernando Calvi. (Unfortunately, the series was only on view through July 17.) One of the leading liberal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Buber wrote about the nature of interpersonal relationships, and of the power of such bonds to promote understanding and acceptance of opposing perspectives, even in conflicts as seemingly intractable as Israel-Palestine. (He supported a bi-national state.) By recognizing the “other” as an equal subject — not just an object — in a relationship between “I” and “you,” Buber argued, individuals can build nonviolent communities of “alterity” in which opposite perceptions of reality can peacefully coexist. Building such solidarity, however, requires an active affirmation of the shared subjecthood of all individuals — something history has proven exceedingly difficult.

Buber, I realized, could help to illuminate some of the AMIA bombing’s continued pain. No doubt, the lack of justice nearly two decades out compounds the sensation of loss. But perhaps even more than this, it is the failure of solidarity that hurts. To many members of the Jewish community — target of the two deadliest terrorist attacks in Argentina’s history — it seems like the country never fully sought to understand their reality or to comprehend why the bombing and its aftermath might make them feel less than fully a part of the national community. Every year that passes without judicial remedy — and with a diminishing sense of national outrage over this gross failure of justice — only deepens this sense of isolation.

Active, shared memory may be the most effective means to channel this pain and frustration into the sort of productive “alterity” of Buber’s thinking. Whatever their technical or compositional merit, the comics that Memoria ilustrada has brought to the CCR remind their viewers that a major trauma has shaped the perspectives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, and that 17 years out, it remains largely unaddressed. Active memory won’t undo the bombing’s damage or bring its perpetrators to justice, but it may help to diminish complacency in the face of injustice and build social solidarity. Biblical imperative or not, that’s a very good thing.

DAIA Research Article Preprint

I know this isn’t really typical blog fare, but I figured I’d mention that I’ve just uploaded a preprint of one of the academic articles I’ve been working on these past few years, which will finally be published in this fall’s issue of the International Journal of Transitional Justice. In case you’re curious, the full thing is available here on the blog, footnotes and all. The abstract’s below, in case you’d like the story in under 160 words:

A New ‘Normal’: Political Complicity, Exclusionary Violence and the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas During the Argentine Dirty War

Abstract: The military regime that controlled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sought to radically depoliticize Argentine society through a violent campaign of social exclusion. Although this campaign required the active participation of the country’s major civil institutions, scholars of Argentina’s dictatorship and subsequent democratic transition have largely neglected the behavior of these key groups. This paper examines the conduct of one such institution, the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA, or the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations), the Jewish community’s official political representative. DAIA’s drive for normalcy in the face of disorienting violence led the group—like many civil institutions—to cooperate with an abhorrent regime. DAIA’s cooperation entailed no obvious crimes, but it did contribute markedly to the climate of fear and isolation central to the military’s repressive social project. Rather than continue to ignore the critical role played by groups like DAIA, transitional justice mechanisms must be developed to account for this ‘political’ sort of complicity.

WordPress won’t allow me to upload a doc file, but if you’d like a digital copy, just let me know–I’d be more than happy to pass one along!

Installation Art at the Salón Nacional

I’m a big fan of installation art; beyond whatever else you might say about its social or artistic value, it tends to be fun. As I explained in a Juanele feature published this morning, the installation art component of Argentina’s Salón Nacional–the country’s major annual juried exhibition–may not be the most inventive group of installations I’ve seen, but it made me smile. (Check out the image gallery at the bottom for some highlights, taken with my fast-fading camera.)


Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania doesn’t exactly place one at the center of the contemporary art world. Or so I thought until, as an awkward high school freshman in search of art and identity, I stumbled upon the Mattress Factory. The giant industrial building on the city’s often-overlooked North Side may be unknown to most Pittsburghers, but its high-ceilinged rooms — done up by the likes of  James Turrell and  Yayoi Kusama — held the answer to my prayers. My $25 membership card was a ticket not just to some excellent high-concept art, but also to instant credibility with my school’s artsy hipster set. Thanks to the Mattress Factory, I found a social group and fell hard for installation.

I had the Mattress Factory on my mind last week as I stepped into the Salón Nacional’s annual juried Nuevos soportes e instalaciones (“New Installations”) exhibition, on view through July 31 at Recoleta’s Palais de Glace. I came with high hopes. At the hands of its most technically adroit and intellectually unorthodox practitioners, installation art can turn viewers into participants and the gallery into an alternate-reality playground. The forum, too, was promising — the Salón Nacional’s juried yearly exhibits consistently stand among the best of mainstream Argentine art.

The show I saw last week at the Palais de Glace may not have done much to challenge my understanding of installation as a practice or to push the form in new directions, but I didn’t care — Nuevos soportes e instalaciones is indeed a playground, and I was having fun. The exhibition, I quickly figured out, isn’t to be tackled from a respectable, academic distance. It wouldn’t best reward this sort of critical approach, and anyway, the show’s too colorful and dynamic to be held at arm’s length. It’s not revolutionary — but let yourself be taken in and you’ll smile at least once before you leave.

Stepping inside, I was immediately disarmed by the show’s odd ambient noise, a mix of otherworldly music, recorded interviews, and chirping and tweeting from Nidera, Martín Pérez’ video-and-birds-nests wall hanging. Surprisingly accordant, this hybrid soundtrack rendered the Palais as a quirky aural fantasyland. The feeling was amplified by the tense and irregular motion of Nicolás Bacal’s Sin titulo — a balloon suspended in a current of air, orbited by a small flying rock — located just beside the entrance. Leonardo Damonte’s yellow wheelbarrow explosion, Obrador, and Esteban Álvarez’ omnipresent red and orange Fuego de luces cast colorful shadows on the main hall, accentuating the varied visual textures of a trio of works at its center. [Photo above.]

The first of these textural works to draw my attention was Alejandra Bourda’s Umi no hi, an undulating crystallized seafoam-green glass disk. More abstract than most of the works, it was also one of the few to be accompanied by an explanatory wall label. The third Monday of July, Bourda explained, is Japan’s Marine Day. Reflecting on this holiday, and on recent events in Japan, the artist had been inspired to create a work both sleek and ominous, a place where “beauty and danger meet.” It’s true that the piece is spiky and, presumably, sharp to the touch, and its crystalline crust could be read as almost chemical, but at least from behind the white lines that keep visitors from coming too close, Umi no hi is too sumptuous and sparkly to frighten — a more compelling homage to Marine Day than to nuclear-tinged ocean disaster.

A few feet away, master of plastic Silvio Fischbein’s Fragmentos URBANOS succeeds at seeding joy with discomfort. A colorful collection of mass-produced plastic toys arranged in tight patterns and glued into place atop illuminated plastic trays, Fragmentos URBANOS’ bright colors and light allusions to childhood disarmed me before weirding me out. As I approached the texturally satisfying piece, I noticed that about a third of the bright little tchotchkes are human babies, their backs glued into place, their hands and feet still but searching in the air.

Softer and warmer both in texture and content, Mónica Inés Fierro’s Juntos is a calming counterpart to Fischein’s fragments. Fierro stripped several dozens of small paperback books of their covers, inverted their spines, and folded their pages in half to build a city of oil-filter-like cylinders in shades of brown and tan. The repeated forms and muted tones are soothing and regular; these books are to be appreciated not for their content or design, but for the extent of their decay.

These same earthy hues join with blue and grey to form the palate of Josefina Ferrer’s distinctive El arte de adaptarse. Like a children’s pop-up book on steroids, beautifully frayed rolls of paper unfurl from the wall to reveal a village of porcelain houses and boats, illuminated by warm flickering lights. Though the scene is still and unmoving, the choice of materials points to the village’s fragility and transience.

It may be this fragility that inspired Marcelo Lo Pinto’s nearby Miniflot, a “floating ark with internet connection” that captured one of the Salón’s two grand prizes. (The other went to Estanislao Florido’s print-and-digital-animation series, La ciudad perdida.) A retro-style travel trailer outfitted with satellite dish, solar panel, laptop, and a flotation device, Miniflot is offered up to consumers as nothing less than a guarantee of “happiness.” Conceptually, Miniflot isn’t the most interesting work in the show — by this stage, the hi-tech Noah’s-Ark trope feels a bit played out — but it’s well constructed and visually appealing enough that I was willing to pretend not to see the extension chord connecting the decked-out trailer to a decidedly un-portable wall socket.

Miniflot isn’t the Salón’s only foray into alternative housing. Tadeo Mulero’s much stranger but vastly less depressing multicolor gumdrop of a dwelling, La casita, looks to have come straight from the set of Willy Wonka — an option for those who prefer color over connectedness.

A meter or so from La casita, Luis Berneri’s giant altarpiece is also awash in color — one color, at least. Seeing a pink man standing before a pink cross surrounded by pink, I was skeptical; what original idea, I wondered, could this possibly convey? I read off the title card, Gauchito pink, and my reservations instantly melted away. A hilarious reframing of  Gauchito Gil, the rural Argentine folk hero beatified at roadside shrines throughout the provinces, Gauchito pink couldn’t be more timely as nationwide gay marriage extends far beyond the big city, carrying new social ideas into the domain of the gaucho saint.

In a nearby gallery, Luján Funes’ Mundo taxi makes a more direct bid for the political. A quasi-sociological survey of Buenos Aires’ taxi drivers, Funes’ work includes videotaped excerpts from interviews with taxistas about insecurity and a large wall chart detailing their responses to questions about their personal experiences of crime and their opinions about how to solve it. Funes’ findings — that the cab drivers he interviewed tend to have frighteningly conservative takes on la inseguridad — will hardly surprise anyone who’s ever taken a taxi in this city. The whole project reminds me of Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Right America: Feeling Wronged, in which the young filmmaker uncovered firsthand evidence that some racists in conservative-leaning areas of the U.S. resent Barack Obama because (gasp!) he is black. But just as I watched all of Pelosi’s preachy film, I sat through a full round of Funes’ interview clips, and spent more than a few minutes studying his chart. After all, who doesn’t like to feel better about his own views at the expense of the ultra-conservative?

Running the gamut from the fanciful to the overtly political, the works of the Salón Nacional’s current exhibition share one common feature: their accessibility. These installations don’t confound or frustrate. They don’t demand that you come equipped with a long list of art-historical references or a trained critical eye. They don’t expect you to know James Turrell or Yayoi Kusama. They just want you to open yourself to them. And to smile.

Puma Comes to Town

(All photos by Andy Donohoe)

I’ve been quite busy these past few days, so I hadn’t had the chance to post a quick piece I wrote for Juanele about the Puma Urban Art Fest, a pretty-high-profile, Puma-sponsored festival held in Argentina’s most prestigious cultural space, the Centro Cultural Recoleta, the weekend before last. There was some decent art and a few good bands played, but the event, I think, was more marketing than substance. Anyway, here’s the post, a week late.

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It would have been hard not to be intimidated by the VIP factor of this past Friday’s Puma Urban Art Fest opening at Centro Cultural Recoleta. Though the conferences, roundtables, and screenings held Saturday and Sunday were all free and open to the public, Friday evening’s launch was pure veep. The press list was dominated by names like C5N and Pagina/12, the television cameras were rolling, and hell, even Charly Garcia dropped by.

Puma Urban Art Festival
Look, it’s me, looking!

I felt totally out of my league — that is, until I saw the art. Or more appropriately, until I found it. Because amid the cameras and the café tables, the bands and the $14 beers, it took some effort to get to the art itself. A few dozen works by local and international artists filled a gallery and a half at the rear of the giant cultural center. Some of these pieces — a photo of an office building all but exploded by Mark Dean Veca; a set of crisp, threatening geometric works by Joaquin Croxatto; and Clara Muslera’s tight Xul Solar-inspired sketches — were very good. But they took all of 10 minutes to see.

This isn’t to say that the festival failed to deliver on the cool front. In one of the galleries half-filled with art, DJs spun bass-heavy tunes as London-based D*Face painted live and skateboarders tried their luck on a custom-built ramp. On a nearby outdoor stage, more than 20 bands from Argentina and around the world kept Fest-goers entertained. Along the center’s main passageway, edgy magazines and spunky toy manufacturers manned display booths. Screenings of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and some D*Face shorts shared the Centro’s newly restored auditorium with the presenters of a six-part, two-day conference on urban art.

Puma Urban Art Festival

I liked a bunch of this stuff and I have nothing but respect for the artists involved. But the slickness of the whole affair made its content feel like an afterthought, a sideshow to the “ooh-that’s-cool-and-irreverent” style of brand promotion to which urban art has become a golden ticket.

There’s nothing surprising or particularly disappointing about this dynamic — I understand how these things work; I knew what I was getting before I walked through the door. Still, though, when Puma comes to a town with as rich a street art scene as Buenos Aires’, touting their headline-grabbing urban art festival, shouldn’t they bring along more than a gallery and a half of art?

I guess it depends on whether they can get Charly Garcia or not.