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:

The Amazing Stop Motion Animation of Blu

Blu, an Argentine-born street artist based in Italy and active across the world, is one of the best-known and most inventive artists to emerge from this country’s thriving street scene. (Hell, he even has his own in-depth Wikipedia page.) He’s done lots of cool stuff, but to my mind, none of it is more impressive than his stop motion animation. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Muto, a gargantuan effort undertaken here in Buenos Aires in 2008-09. (If you like it, you’ll find much more to love on the video page of his website.)

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.

Juan Pablo Ferlat at La Ira de Dios

Last Friday evening I headed over to Villa Crespo to check out Juan Pablo Ferlat’s excellent new show at La Ira de Dios. Here’s a recent post about it from Juanele’s blog:

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It’s dark. It’s raw. It’s Juan Pablo Ferlat’s well-concieved, engaging show Crudo (Crude), on view through October 21 at La Ira de Dios in Villa Crespo.

As I stepped inside the door during last Friday evening’s opening, I was immediately intrigued, the gallery — crowded with hip, artsy types — was half-dark, the lighting so low that I could hardly make out the types of cookies being offered to me by a kind, older gentleman.Around me, on walls painted standard-gallery-white and jet black, was a collection of hand-crafted paper and gigantic shots of human faces glistening in the color of oil. Beside the entrance, a sculpture of a tiny, petroleum-black head spun in quick, clockwise circles. It was a fascinating scene to take in.

I made my way around the gallery, impressed beyond expectation by the improbable beauty of all I saw, most notably the paper works in the “Herida” (or “Injury”) series. I’m often taken by works that evidence the sheer mastery of a craft, and these thick, fibrous sheets — fashioned from San Pedro cactus — were no exception. Ferlat conceived them as part of a larger project in which he explores the physical resources of the Argentine North and the symbolic ones of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as an alternative to the petroleum-dependent methods of industrial production.

I found myself lost in the textures of these works, in the shiny slickness and scabby flatness of Herida #5, in the almost edible stickiness of Herida #7, in the scarred and burned lunar expanse of Herida #2. Under the unyielding stares of the Crudo-series photographs, and accompanied by a helpful explanatory text, these remarkable works may not point to a petroleum-free utopia, but they serve as a poignant reminder that pre-industrial craftwork can play as vital a role in art today as it did in the time before “crude oil” became shorthand for Western economic growth.

Bagels in Buenos Aires?

Sure enough! Although the bagel craze is a North American phenomenon, there are still a few places to get a half-decent bagel in Buenos Aires, as I learned firsthand when I joined some visiting college friends on a bagel hunt through middle class, Jewish Villa Crespo last week. (I also learned that the only way to get a bagel in this city is to ask for it with lox and cream cheese–not a disaster given my willingness to eat fish here and the general deliciousness of the combination, but still a little bit limiting, don’t you think?)

We went first to Café Crespin, which had been recommended to my friend Greg by a local contact who was clearly not a bagel devotee. Although the service at Café Crespin was friendly, the sides of potatoes exceptionally flavorful, and the vegetable sandwich we ordered surprisingly well done for a meatless main, the place looked way too trendy to have a great bagel–and sure enough, the roll itself was tiny and tough and overly dense.  Everything else was solid enough, though, that I’d be happy to return one Sunday for the brunch that the cafe hypes as its main event.

Café Crespin can’t hold a candle to our second stop, La Crespo, a newly opened bakery/restaurant six blocks to the west. All of the pastries I had at this tiny place–the potato knish, the bourekas stuffed with eggplant and greens, the tartin–were flaky, buttery and indulgent. My friends had hot pastrami; it went over very well. Stuffed, we made enough room to share a last bagel, and we’re all glad we did–it was light and crunchy and perfectly toasted, without a doubt the best I’ve had yet in BA. And the elderly Jewish couple that runs the place is adorable, overflowing with pride in the food they serve. When I complimented the kindly male half on our meal, he responded, “Yes, we make very good bagels, and we make very good hot pastrami.” It would have been hard to disagree.

BA’s Little Bolivia

The big news in my life lately, beyond visits from three friends: I have a new camera! It’s a Canon Powershot SX130, and it hovers on the line between point-and-shoot and D-SLR, with full manual functionality and 12x optical zoom. Given that my last camera was literally a decade old and barely worked–if I balanced it on my knee, I could usually get a half-focused shot–the improvement is hard to describe. As you might imagine, I’m ecstatic.

Yesterday I brought along my new camera as my friend Dan (visiting from the U.S., by way of Mexico City) and I trekked over to a highly under-appreciated corner of Buenos Aires: the city’s informal Bolivian market in the liminal barrio of Liniers, just about the farthest point in the city from where I live. To get there, we took Buenos Aires’ new Metrobus, the city’s first bus rapid transit line, which opened a few months ago. It was indeed quite fast, carrying us the 12 or so km from Palermo in about 40 minutes. The end of the line, Liniers’ bus terminal, is right on the city’s border with Buenos Aires province, and it’s about as far removed from the onda of Retiro as a neighborhood can be. It’s also home, almost inexplicably, to one of BA’s main Jewish cemeteries.

Dan and I spent an excellent afternoon exploring, buying dried goods, and eating (Dan had a chorizo sausage cooked on a shopping cart!). Here are some photos from our afternoon in BA’s Little Bolivia: