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:

San Telmo Thursday

After a long hiatus–prompted by overlapping visits by three college friends and the first real academic deadline of my master’s program–I’m finally ready to start posting again. Here’s a note I just stuck on Juanele’s blog, about a pair of gallery openings I was able to check out last Thursday in the now-thoroughly gentrified San Telmo section of the city:

Buenos Aires doesn’t have anything like Chelsea, the New York art district where you’ll never visit just one opening in a night. In this city, if you want to see most of what’s happening on a given evening, you’ll likely be booking it across barrios. So I was excited this past Thursday to find two gallery openings just a few San Telmo blocks away from each other. Some decent contemporary art — aided, I’ll admit, by some excellent glasses of wine — made for a very pleasant start to my night.

I went first to Zavaleta Lab, where two shows featuring works by Rosario Zorraquin and Hans Wendel were on offer. Truthfully, I wasn’t much interested in either. The massive, smudgy canvases in Zorraquin’s “Madame Dioz” looked better in miniature in the brochure than as centerpieces, and Wendel’s much more modest paintings on paper were too flat to draw me in. But the gallery — crisp and white and perfectly illuminated — oozed artsy cool, and the strength of the wine selections alone was enough to justify the visit.

The art took a markedly positive turn at 713 Arte Contemporáneo. The gallery was also opening a pair of concurrent shows, Julia Masvernat’s Una acumulación que se transforma en imagen and Leila Tschopp’s Modelos ideales. They’re both lots of fun. Masvernat’s paper assemblages are a masterful embodiment of paper craft — it’s nice to know that someone cares this much about using scissors well — and it’s easy to get lost in a cloudwatching-like search for meaning among its forms. (“Is that a dinosaur?” one of my friends asked me, pointing to one particularly paleolithic blob.)

Tschopp’s galleries were equally enjoyable, less for the individual, Sheeler-light paintings themselves than for the artist’s expert use of multi-dimensional space. The canvases were placed in the center of each of Tschopp’s two rooms, layered strategically and angled against walls painted to compliment the works. It’s one of the better-installed shows I’ve seen here lately, and a highlight of my San Telmo Thursday.

Street Artists Remake a Downtown Bank

A few weeks ago, a crew of some of BA’s top local street artists turned one of the Centro’s blandest bank branches into a colorful fantasyscape, the opening event in a city-wide urban art competition. For a gallery of much better photos by Andy Donohoe, check out my original post on Juanele’s blog.

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Scaffolding and supplies had arrived late, so Buenos Aires street artists Poeta, Corona, Gone, and Roma acutely felt the pressure to finish before Tuesday afternoon’s press opening. Told they’d be given two full days to complete the giant collaborative mural for Fundación Itaú’s unremarkable bank branch at the corner of Bartolomé Mitre and Suipacha, the team found they would have closer to half that time.

When 5 PM rolled around, three of the four — Corona, Gone, and Roma — were still at work. Only Poeta had finished his part. As artists frantically sprayed and shaded the façade, inside the bank officials from sponsor Fundación Itaú, a new street art NGO called Estilo Libre (Free Style), and Buenos Aires City celebrated the results of their still-unfolding efforts.

More than a face lift for a building in need, this project was Estilo Libre’s introduction to the city, and a high-profile way for it to announce its first major project: an Itaú-sponsored competition that will assign prime city wall space to 70 aspiring painters, with big cash awards for the murals judged to be best. The group, a collaboration between eleven artists and a bunch of professional types, has high hopes for strengthening urban artistic expression in Buenos Aires, with plans to host a local Meeting of Styles event in October and dreams of an eventual BA street academy.

It’s not hard to understand why Itaú chose this particular branch to make over — prior to Tuesday, it was a giant, bland white cube, unadorned except for the orange-and-blue Itaú signage on both street-facing facades–a terribly unimpressive companion to the delightful, mosaic-laced Iglesia de San Miguel just across Bartolomé Mitre. Now, thanks to Corona, Gone, Poeta, and Roma, it’s the liveliest building on the block. The four street artists made excellent work of the few hours they were given.

Poeta’s jazzy tropicalia monster, visible along Suipacha, is undoubtedly one of his coolest creations. (“I’m a person that likes time pressure,” he told me, and I believe him.) At its edge, Poeta’s cool palate welcomes the orange and brown accents of Corona’s multicolored vertical village, a departure from the artist’s usual twisty, interlocking forms and long-faced figures. On Bartolomé Mitre, Gone’s grey lizard faces down a bionic explosion of geometric patterns and scaly tentacles a la Roma. Overall, the mural is surprisingly coherent without feeling forced or homogenized. Its common palate of colors and a shared fluidity of forms suggest four distinct hands working in something close to one rhythm.

Unlike some of the city’s more tenuous street art, this mural has an air of permanence. Its colors seem almost richer for it, though that’s probably just in my head. Either way, the project is the best thing to happen to Suipacha since peatonalización.

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.