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.


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