Review trip Buenos Aires April 2012
20 April 2012
Comparing to the booming Brazilian art market not so much seems to be going on in Argentina’s art world. Artists suffer from a, although developing, still undeveloped artistic infrastructure and a lack of serious collectors –between ten to fifteen is the estimate. This however does not mean that no good artists can be identified. Despite Argentina’s economical considerably weaker position compared to its northern neighbor, the country knows plenty of interesting artists and some promising and already successful initiatives that aim to stimulate the Argentinean art world.
One of the most important pillars in the context of the latter is Programa de artistas from the Di Tella University. The program offers visual artists a year of education and further artistic development. The concept is easy. A variety of experienced artists such as Diego Bianchi (1969, Buenos Aires), Mónica Giron (1959, Bariloche), Alberto Goldenstein (1951, Buenos Aires) and Eduardo Navarro (1979, Buenos Aires) a.o. teach the youngest generation. Another well respected institute is CIA (Centro de Investagaciones Artísticas) that provides courses, seminars, presentations, workshops and residencies to both national and international visual artists as well as musicians, architects, poets, philosophers and actors. It functions as a meeting point and centre for research and debate.
Important in a more commercial way is the art fair ArteBa, that had its 21st edition last May. This year 98 galleries from the Americas and Europe participated in the fair, that in recent years developed itself to one of the main art fairs in the region. Several big sponsors, such as Petrobras, Mercedes Benz, Chandon and even McDonalds and contests with corresponding substantial prizes give this art fair the power to boost the Argentinean art world, even if just for a moment. Another commercial initiative is the so called Gallery Nights, organized regularly in a different neighborhood every time. It does not differ much from what happens in other cities, except for the fact that galleries open until late and that free transport and drinks are offered (the events are sponsored by Chandon).
In the field of art criticism Ramona is probably the most relevant magazine. Their extensive database of articles, reviews and even an artist database, Bola de nieve (snow ball), is useful for many people. Especially considering the fact that unlike for example Peru, Mexico and Colombia, Argentina does not have many bloggers reviewing the artistic developments of their country. Just like CIA Ramona is part of Fundación Start. A second art magazine is Arte Al Dia.
During the trip I visited the studios of several young to middle aged artists working in Buenos Aires. One of them was Leticia El Halli Obeid (1975, Córdoba). You may remember her work from last year’s Venice Biennial where she presented Dictations (2009). A film in which the artist manually copies the Jamaica Letter, a text written by liberator Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) in 1815, while she travels in a train from train station Retiro located in the centre of Buenos Aires to the outskirts of the city. Seeing the urban and social economical landscape changing from ‘prosperous and white’ to ‘poor and colored’ El Halli Obeid contemplates, together with the spectator, Bolívar’s ideals of an United America. An America in which the colonies should become republics and in which a more equal society should be achieved. Bolívar wrote Jamaica letter while he was in the midst of his fight for freedom. He was, as El Halli Obeid explains, acting and thinking at the same time. In Dictations the train symbolizes the process of action while copying the letter serves to think over his ideas. By manually copying a text a more profound understanding of it will be obtained, the artist argues. Although it is nothing new, it is ironic to see that even after two centuries some of the ideals of Bolívar can still be pursued. (A fact that Hugo Chávez has gratefully used in his campaign rhetoric – Chávez likes to identify himself with Bolívar a lot.) Dictations contains a variety of meanings of ‘translation’. Symbolically, from past to present, from thought to action (back then), from thought to interpretation (in the present), literally, from the written medium to the filmic medium, from artwork to spectator, etc. The work of El Halli Obeid often relates to themes like translation, communication and language. References to post-colonial influences are almost always present too but usually relate to the work on a second level. Nevertheless, she does see the act of translation as a ‘cultural battle’, as an alibi for dominance or a way in which someone can impose something on another person. These ideas are elaborated in a future project concentrated on the so called ‘neutral language’, or Mexican-Spanish. Translation from memories, from hers or others, are another recurring aspect in the oeuvre of El Halli Obeid. Her fascination for 19th and early 20th century literature lead into a project in which she drew a series of one specific scene of the film Orlando (based on the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf) for which she relied on the memories she had of it. By doing this she translated memories she had kept in her head for years into drawn images. In the same series also appear drawings she made after seeing the film again. These ones clearly differ from the first ‘rough versions’. In another project, Relatos (Stories), she asks people to describe an artwork they once saw. This way the artist investigates the transformation – or again translation- from an image via the visual memory to language, colored by personal interpretations and the time that has passed.
In a different way the art works of Gabriel Baggio (1974, Buenos Aires) are also dedicated to the act of translation. In his case however language does not play a role. Baggio is interested in crafts instead, or to be more specific, in the transfer of skills and traditions and the preservation of them. He likes to learn, not by himself, but from a master or specialist instead. He is interested in techniques that were once practiced a lot but now seem to be vanishing. Marquetry for example. Who does that nowadays? Who will be doing that in the future? At least Baggio now knows the tricks of the trade. He documented them in a taped performance he did in museum M.A.M.B.A. in Buenos Aires in 2010. In another ‘learning process’, as he calls these lessons, he was taught by an old expert in making copper fries. Baggio is not interested in obtaining the exact same knowledge as his teachers though, neither is he striving for perfection in the objects he makes. Instead he is driven by the act of transferring skills and traditions, in the ‘translation’ of a skill from one person to another. Therefore, small ‘mistakes’ are welcome, as they indicate the learning process. One could say that his work has an anthropological nature, the way it documents traditions that may become extinct in a while. However his work did not originate from nostalgic sentiments, nor from a longing for the past. Although he does like to think of his work as a way to reach the deeper nature of a nation. Therefore he does not only work in Argentina, he also travels to Bolivia, and even to Germany, to learn. But it all started closer to home, with a fascination for the traditions of his family. It is here where his work starts to relate with the oeuvre of El Halli Obeid, where translation in combination with memory on a personal level becomes a theme. Baggio told me he had a memory of a piece of cloth he used to see in his grandmother’s house. He remembered the piece with a beautiful and brightly colored pattern. When he saw it again however, the colours disappointed him a bit. It was not as impressive anymore. But, with his memory still in his mind, he decided to remake the idealized pattern by modifying the colors until they evoked the same amazement as he had experienced as a child, as if he made a correction of his memory. An attractive yet conceptual series, that reminds of the work of the Dutch conceptual artist Daan van Golden, containing meticulously copied – or translated- handkerchiefs, sheets and tablecloths came to existence.
The work of Diego Bianchi (1969, Buenos Aires), finally, is of a complete different order. He builds his installation pieces of objects (sometimes also made of food) found on the spot he is working. These objects are usually nothing special, taken from everyday life; from the kitchen, the streets. It are objects that circulate around us, sometimes without us realizing it. When Bianchi recycles these materials. Placing them in another context combined with each other, the results are dizzying, often chaotic installation pieces consisting of sculptures alternated with rhythmically placed smaller objects, such as glue sticks or soda cans. The installations often function as a stage as well. Not only populated by almost voodoo-like figures or by the shapes that remind of totem poles, but also by the artist himself. Bianchi’s work closely approaches the act of performance and even dance (he used to study choreography) which was clearly shown in The Ultimate Realities on the 11th Biennale of Lyon in 2011 for example. Bianchi ‘hid’ himself between two thin walls in which he had made holes for his arms. Viewed from the side you could see an arm slowly moving, exploring its surroundings. Visitors were allowed to come near, to give him something or to touch his hands. They could also see him sitting between the two walls if they wanted. Bianchi did not even intend to remain undiscovered (“Some people offered me a glass of water”) which must have lead to some funny encounters and sniggering. It does not need to be himself, participating in the work. He also asks other people to figure on his décor, in the scene he created. Professional dancers or amateurs. The influence of dance, and the human body in general, on his work is noticeable in the sculptures as well. Even the shapes that are not directly referring to the body are often characterized by a sense of movement, a jump or a pirouette. Bianchi likes to create a dialogue between the sculptures and the audience and or between himself or another participating person and the audience. That is why people are allowed to walk through his work, even though he thereby risks damage of a sculpture. The artist prefers not to recycle any object for his work. He chooses to work with materials he finds on the location instead. He likes to see his art works as a time capsule that combines those objects that can be found on that specific spot at that time. The context therefore is incredibly important; it can reduce the end result of the work, while it keeps it lively and authentic at the same time. Bianchi creates his striking works intuitively, with a great interest in combining different kinds of materials and perhaps partly based on the inspiration he gains on the street. Once in a while he goes out with a camera to spot unusual shapes or situations caused by ordinary objects or human interventions. Certain objects or shapes seem to return in his work, like the egg, but as said, he explores a variety of other materials and objects at the same time. Whatever is near or there. Lately his installations seem to lose some of their chaos. Less objects are participating and a greater emphasize on the separate sculptures arose. The installations must still be seen as one work though, how strong the individual sculptures may seem, they form part of a bigger whole.
Bianchi’s work will be on show, with reservation, in March 2013 in Slow Burn, organized by Fundament Foundation.