Archive for March, 2008

Religions. Surrealisms. Always unfamiliar territories.

Monday, March 31st, 2008

As if weren’t enough, right after the travel adventure in Oaxaca, I headed on a road trip to central Mexico. The trip was to and through the Sierra Gorda in the state of Queretaro, the natural habitat of over 400 different butterflies, among many other species. The first Franciscan missions directed by Father Junipero Serra took place in this region. During a period of eight years during the late eighteenth century, Father Serra founded five missions, today considered by Unesco a World Heritage Site. From here he headed to Alta California (what is known today as the states of Baja California in Mexico and California in the USA). There he directed the creation of various missions, including those of San Diego, Carmel and San Francisco among others. Having grown in Baja California, Mexico and having traveled extensively throughout my life to its border state of California, USA, the visit and architectural tours in the Sierra Gorda became a cultural journey to far and somewhat unfamiliar territories.

For its cultural history, but certainly more for its flora and fauna, the Sierra Gorda is a magical place. There is meeting of culture and nature that is unique to the region. This meeting place is constructed even as a dream: just north of Queretaro, is the site of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where the artist, art collector and patron Edward James (1907-1984) built his home and the surrealist garden known as Las Pozas, a construction begun in the 1940s and today open to the public. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press published Surreal Eden, a beautiful and informative book about Edward James and Las Pozas, and, today, the New York Times’ T Magazine published Dream Works, an article about the acquisition and future of this garden. The video link, above, is a documentary by BBC about Las Pozas, and one in a series of videos about extraordinary gardens worldwide.

At the Pace of a Turtle

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Grasshopper antennas, their translucent wings and even a couple of the little insects’ hairy legs were all stuck in-between my teeth. My gums itched, and the sensation in my tongue was so disgusting and vivid that it woke me up in a sweat. Thankfully, it was only a dream, a nightmare, really. That evening, our dinner appetizer was tacos de chapulines made with grasshoppers cooked in limejuice, a local delicacy in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent a week with my partner, Tom Cruz. With our itinerary inspired in part by Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal, a wonderful work about ferns and a literary piece that can well be a travel book, and in part by my sisters’ expeditions there, our journey was an adventure in every way. In the city, we visited colonial churches and cultural centers, drank with fresh-squeezed fruit juices and licuados (shakes) at the Mercado Benito Juarez and livened-up our evenings with a variety of local mescals accompanied by orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano (crushed dried worms combined with chili powder and salt). We also traveled in the Valley of Oaxaca and to its beaches.

To my surprise, one of the highlights of our city tourism was a guided-tour to the city’s ethno-botanical garden. With plants endemic to the state of Oaxaca, including dozens of cacti species, the garden was created ten years ago in an area that is flanked by the colonial sixteenth-century Templo de Santo Domingo, the Museo Regional de Oaxaca and the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, which are housed in what was the temple’s convent, and an armory building that was built and occupied by the military from the late nineteenth century until 1993 and that is now a public library. The garden’s landscape design is inspired by the cacti fence and the greca engravings of Mitla, one of the three archeological sites in the Valley of Oaxaca that we visited.

Located some 40km northeast of the City of Oaxaca is the archeological zone of Mitla. Unlike Monte Alban, which is a lone site over a hill away from colonial or modern buildings, in Mitla a church stands over a pyramid ruin and homes of locals are in its immediate surroundings. It is said that Mitla’s beautiful decorative frisos on the building’s facades were created about 700 years ago by the Mixtec community.

The once fortified city of Yagul emerged circa 500 BC by the Zapotecs, and was apparently abandoned some centuries later only to be taken-up again by the Mixtecs along the rise of Mitla. Yagul’s ball court (second largest in Mesoamerica) is better known then its labyrinth-like palace of rooms, tombs and plazas. On our way there, we made a couple of stops. One at a mescal factory to learn the way this local liquor is made—from the farming of magueys and the slow-cooking underground cooking of their penachos to the fermentation and distillation processes. The other stop was to check out the monumental Arbol de Tule, a 2,000-year old tree; some say the world’s largest.

At just a 20-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca sits the grandiose site of Monte Alban, founded by Zapotecs circa 500 BC. The main archeological excavations and findings in Monte Alban were directed by Alfonso Caso Andrade in 1931 and 1939, but other excavations happened earlier and have taken place ever since. It was here, in Caso Andrade’s expedition in 1932, that the largest group of gold artifacts has been found to date in Mesoamerica. These were part of the funeral offerings, including more than 400 rich artifacts and jewelry made of gold, silver, jade and other precious materials found in Tumba 7 in Monte Alban.

After some days exploring the city and valley of Oaxaca, we headed further west and spent a couple of days in San Agustinillo, one in a series of relatively virgin beeches including Mazunte and Zipolite, located between the more tourist-filled Oaxaca beaches of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. The main site of the now illegal turtle industry, San Agustinillo primarily receives foreign travelers interested in bio-diverse landscapes and eco-tourism. Of course, there are other types of travelers that end there–and never leave.

Class Action in Modern Painters

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

During my visit to Brazil last October, I had the opportunity of attending the second of two international symposiums that were organized in conjunction to the 6a Bienal do Mercosul (6th Mercosur Biennale) in the city of Porto Alegre. Titled, “Art for Education, Education for Art,” the symposium brought together artists, critics and other types of cultural producers to discuss their (creative) practice in relationship to pedagogy. The conference key note speech was given by curator Bruce Ferguson, who is known, among many things, for co-editing the fantastic anthology Thinking About Exhibitions (1996) and for his tenure as dean of the school of arts at Columbia University in New York City from the late 1990s and until recently. Symposium participants included Roberta Scatolini, a researcher at the Paulo Freire institute in Brazil, artist Harrell Fletcher, who was a participating artist of the 6a Bienal do Mercosul, and Alfredo Oliveira co-founder of Radio La Colifata, among several others. The discussions were all interesting, yet there was one particularly moving. It was the one by Oliveira. He talked about the development of a radio program that is aired from Hospital Interdisciplinario Psicoasistencial Dr. José T. Borda, Buenos Aires. More commonly referred simply as “El Borda,” it is the largest psychiatric institution in Argentina and home of hundreds of people diagnosed with mental illnesses. With the assistance of Oliveira and a small staff and volunteers, the radio program is produced by and with El Borda’s patients. Recently, participants also include former patients who have been re-incorporated to “normal” lives outside of an institution.

Inspired in part by how Oliveira talked about his experience with La Colifata during the conference, I wrote a text about the 6a Bienal do Mercosul curatorial framework in general, and its pedagogical program in specific. The article is published in the current issue of Modern Painters (March 2008). It was with much curiosity and great pleasure that, a couple of weeks ago, while I was in Buenos Aires, I made my way to La Colifata. It was a Saturday afternoon when I went to Barrio Barracas to check out the colifatos’ live radio emission at El Borda. (In Argentina, “colifato/a” is colloquial for crazy or loony.) I wasn’t alone. The attendance was of about thirty people, two thirds of them El Borda patients who had “scheduled” (and prior to this, practiced) their live performance or who were there to listen; the rest were family members of patients and two or three visitors like me who were there to learn. Whether it was to give a recipe for a pescado a la mostaza, to sing the lyrics to a piece they had written (choir included) or to send a message, the Borda’s patients where pretty aware about what it meant to have a microphone on hand: they would be heard.

Some ‘casas’ in Mexico City

Monday, March 10th, 2008

I flew direct from Buenos Aires to Mexico City on Friday, and spent a busy weekend attending family commitments and social events. Of course, there were other activities, too: on Saturday, visits to Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky and La Casa Azul of Frida Khalo, both house-museums in Coyoacan. On Sunday, the afternoon was devoted to exhibitions. At the Museo Rufino Tamayo, most of the museum was dedicated to a solo exhibition of Wolfgang Tilmans, guest-curated and organized by Domenic Molon and Douglas Fogle. There was also an exhibition of a new installation of Thomas Hirschhorn; one of the museum curators, Tatiana Cuevas, organized this project. I was also tempted to visit the formerly-sleepy Museum of Modern Art (MAM), across the street from the Tamayo, as it is now directed by Osvaldo Sanchez, former artistic director of inSITE. There were numerous exhibitions at the MAM, two particularly memorable. One of them was a small but beautiful exhibition of Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963). Varo emigrated to Mexico in 1941 as a political exile and lived there for most of her life. Her exhibition included a series of beautifully illustrated drawings and paintings, filled with ghosts, doubles and other fantasmagorical references of the otherworldly. The works were collected by Varo’s late husband, Walter Gruen, who donated them to MAM. The other excellent exhibition was of the MAM’s collection guest-curated by the art historian James Oles. His curatorial address privileged “realism,” and the selection of works emphasized the cultural concern and ultimately paradigm of shaping modern Mexico, with the protagonist many times representing a community, the worker, and the common man and woman. While it was a collection exhibition, it was complemented by artworks on loan from other collections.

In the evening, I attended Anselm Franke’s program for unitednationsplaza, “an exhibition as school” that originated in Berlin and is sited for a month at Casa Refugio in Mexico City. unitednationsplaza is created by Anton Vidokle, and this new, month-long iteration of the project in Mexico is organized by the Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo (PAC). (Concurrently, Night School, a year-long version of unitednationsplaza, is taking place at the New Museum in New York.) Franke’s seminar was titled From Animism to Animation: Moving Image in Modern Culture, and focused on the work of Sergie Eisenstein. The evening was briefly introduced by Franke, followed by a lecture by Oksana Bulgakowa. As part of her presentation, Bulgakowa screened excerpts of a biopic on Eisenstein that she co-directed with Dietmar Hochmuth. The documentary was informative and provided much biographical depth on Eisenstein, from his family background to his incursions in theatre and eventually cinema. Sadly, the DVD jammed during the run and little did we get to learn about the makings of Eisenstein’s unfinished film Qué Viva Mexico!

Esentstein’s Qué Viva Mexico! has been the subject of numerous research-based works in Mexico. So much that even at James Oles’ exhibition, La colección: el peso del realismo at MAM, for example, an excerpt of the Eisenstein’s footage was included in the exhibition. Mexico City-based curator Olivier Debroise wrote and directed Un banquete en Tetlapayac (2000). A kind of film reenactment to address historical aspects of the original, Olivier’s film was staged at Tetlapayac, the hacienda that served as location of Eisenstein’s film. (Art historian James Oles was an actor in Debrois’ film, as were curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, and artists Andrea Fraser and Silvia Gruner, among others active in the art field today.)

(A)live from DiTella

Friday, March 7th, 2008

On my last night in Buenos Aires, I attended the inauguration of the group exhibition Fantasmas (Ghosts) at the Universidad Torcuato DiTella in Buenos Aires—a place most commonly associated to 1960s avant garde art in Argentina, through the most times controversial Centro de Artes Visuales directed by Jorge Romero Brest. Curated by Guillermo Faivovich and Javier Villa, Fanstasmas included artworks and projects created in a relatively abandoned part of the university. Each of the participating artists (made and) had a designated exhibition space, which ranged from a small free-standing building to large hanger-like rooms, all located in the perimeters of a wide outdoor plaza. Artist Daniel Hoglar’s installation included the rearrangement of found furniture in the storage-turned gallery space where he exhibited. The installation included a hill-like stack of a couple hundred unused school desks, along with a series of dimly lit, suspended ceiling lamps that were aligned forming a circle.

It was Thursday, March 6th, a damp evening, and a night with what seemed to be a new moon. This atmospheric condition emphasized that the lack of outdoor lighting was smartly dealt by dimmed illumination design (by Matías Sendón) of Fantasmas. With this atmosphere in the raw architectural context that was the venue, it was unavoidable to experience a playful sense of intrusion while walking in and out of the artist’s installations. Barely seeing, the public attending the opening walked cautiously and slowly throughout the space. A marvelous effect, it suggests a call for a playful, thoughtful, and certainly multi-sensory experience of what may well be associated to future of art practices in DiTella. See, Fantastmas is first in a series of projects celebrating DiTella’s fiftieth anniversary. More pertinently, the newly launched art department of the university organizes it.

Directed by Argentine curator and art critic Inés Katzenstein, the main goal of this new department will be to create an art school at DiTella. In the meantime that Katzentein and her team develops the program, projects like Fantasmas will be organized to engage artists, curators and the pubic to explore and activate the university grounds. The program is planned to take the form of a curricula-based advanced art school for artists, as well as a training program for emerging curators and critics. While the program will most likely involve studio-based classes, it will also offer intensive art history courses (about local art and international production) as well as critical theory seminars. At first, the program will not grant academic degrees, but this is one of the goals of the university.

The new DiTella art program emerges at a time when clinicas—artist-initiated and led studio-based workshops—have proliferated and possibly reached its peek activity in Argentina. (The literal translation of a clinica in English is clinic.) Through clinicas, artists offer technique theme-based course to a group of younger artists. Clinicas vary from technical and practical courses to seminar-based discussions to the more common studio crit’ moderated or led entirely by the teaching artist. They are commonly held at the studio of the artist who has designed and leads it, but they are sometimes hosted at institutions, allowing for wider outreach. Operating pretty much like unregulated markets, clinicas emerged as a response to the need and lack of advanced or critical arts training and art schools in Argentina. Today, there seems to be a decrease in granting support of clinicas, e.g. becas (grants) awarding artists grants to partake in the clinicas. The most popular grant was awarded by Fundacion Antorchas, whose primary granting activity to artists was during the 1990s. (There was also the well-known Beca Kuitca run by artist Guillermo Kuitca; this offered a dozen or so artists a studio space for a year or so, during which time Kuitca did studio crits.) While professionalization of the artist may seem to be a question of values when formalizing a degree-granting arts program, it is clear that artist-initiated endeavors, such as clinicas, are the best indicator to measure the needs of artists and the communicative desires their work bears. A dedicated institution can certainly consolidate these efforts and create a new communities and thus cultures.

(Photo: Archivo de Prensa de DiTella)

Buenos Dias, Argentina

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

The wake of artist-run spaces and independent cultural initiatives in Argentina is telling of the state of cultural policy of a country, as well as the institutional work, or lack thereof, of established venues. But it is also telling of something else—of a need and a desire to develop communities. To be in touch, exchange with others. While the Other has discursively been assigned to those in so-called disadvantaged geo-political and socio-economic margins of society, it seems that in Argentina the other is just the foreigner in oneself in conversation with someone from elsewhere. It is not peculiar then but rather symptomatic that the spaces and initiatives that have emerged in the last couple of years here are dedicated to hosting artist residency programs. I visited a couple and met with their founders: El Basilisco in Avellaneda, just in the outskirts of Buenos Aires; Residencia Internacional de Artistas en Argentina (RIAA), organized from Buenos Aires but taking place in a nearby beech town called Ostende; El Levante, a residency and art school of sorts in the city of Rosario, Argentina; and Residencia de Un Solo Artista (RUSA), which also takes place in Rosario, but this one at the home of its founding artist.

El Basilisco was initiated by artists Tamara Stuby and Esteban Alvarez, and is the most established residency program in town. Former and current artists in residence seem to praise the communication imperative at El Basilisco—participating artists, who stay for approximately eight weeks, are introduced to the art scene immediately, to a new public, and are also passed on invitations and tips by Tamara and Esteban to attend a number of events in town. Alejandro, an artist who lives full-time at the house (literally) of El Basilisco, also takes the artists around and keeps the house in order. Tamara and Esteban live very nearby. And the residency has turned the local bar into its residency lounge, adopting (or having been assigned) the name “Bar Silisco” with a neon artwork by Esteban hung from its window. But El Basilisco is not only a local affair. But El Basilisco’s presence locally, nationally and internationally is felt in other ways. The program offers three residencies happening at once, with an Argentine artist from the “interior” taking a spot, and, most times, with two others from abroad. Its attention to hosting artists from Latin America has made its program stronger and certainly more unique. It is assumed that artists from Latin America are one and the same, but the disparity between cultures and the experience of cultural exchange between countries of the Americas is relatively low. The current artists in residence are: Narda Fabiola Alvarado (La Paz, Bolivia), Luis Guerra (Santiago, Chile) and Jorge Tirner (Resistencia, Argentina). El Basilisco’s internationalism is possible thanks to their efforts in participating in the demanding and time consuming world of grant making, as well as in initiating and sustaining fruitful relations with others in the field. An example of this is their institutional residency exchange program with Helmut Batista’s CAPACETE in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as at Hangar in Barcelona, Spain.

Begun in 2006 by Diana Aisenberg, Melina Berkenwald, Graciela (Gachi) Hasper, Roberto Jacoby, the Residencia Internacional de Artistas en Argentina is locally referred to simply as RIAA (in Spanish, pronounced: ree-ah). The residency brings together about ten artists from Argentina and ten others from abroad for a period of two weeks. The selection process is based on nominations. Artists all meet in Buenos Aires for a two-day period or so, where they each give a 30-minute artist’s talk to present their work. Afterwards, the artists head to Ostende, a beech town about 2 hours away from Buenos Aires. The group takes over the Viejo Hotel Ostende (in operations since 1913) settling there for the rest of the residency period. Curators and critics are invited to visit, and the site is open to the general public for an afternoon on the last weekend. RIAA takes place only once a year. I attended the last RIAA artists’ talks in Buenos Aires, which was a marathon-like public program held at the Centro Cultural de España in Buenos Aires. The quality of the work as well as the presentations varied significantly. Yet, having managed a residency program for more than four years, I can confidently attest that the “spirit,” necessary for a productive and creative residency, was certainly there. I’ve also heard from artists that have participated that they praise the program for that very reason, too. Most times, it is in that free and open and far away space that new ideas and communities surface. The RIAA website is complete with information of artist’s who have been in their in the last three versions (2006-2008), and with memories and statements in different prose by most of the participants.

In the city of Rosario, located about 200km northwest from Buenos Aires, is the art and cultural space called El Levante. Its name is drawn from a nineteenth century brothel that originally housed the building this arts organization now occupies. El Levante’s space is great—no, it’s majestic. A bar greets you (functions seldom, primarily during events); a mirrored wall room on the right with serves as a milonga dance room; a wide open plaza at the heart of the building covered with a glass-like rooftop drenches with light what becomes a multi-purpose room, flanked by a lounge area with seats, tables and chairs. This central area is what is constantly transformed for closed workshops and public presentations. Upstairs, three bedrooms and a common room with kitchen and bath hosts the artist residency program. The many spaces are telling for the diversity of things that happen there. El Levante was initiated, first, as a “taller de análisis y confrontación de obra” (workshop for the analysis and questioning of artwork and artistic practice) by the artist Mauro Machado and the artist Graciela Carnevale. (Graciela’s work was featured in Documenta 12 in 2007, and is commonly associated with her involvement and archive of the artist’s collective and activities denominated Tucuman Arde.) A couple of other artists have become involved since: Lorena Cardona, Luján Castellani and María Spinelli (in 2005). The space soon evolved into something different, including 2-year program of art workshops were artists could register, a kind of post-BA art program, and a 2- to 3-month residency program hosting artists from abroad who would participate, if only temporarily, in the workshops. El Levante also hosts a number of other programs, evening events and milongas, which are organized with the building owners, who share the building with them.

The Residencia de Un Solo Artista (RUSA) that Rosario-born artist Claudia del Rio initiated in her hometown (and at her home!) is not exactly institutional, but telling of the type of artistic endeavors spurring here and elsewhere. RUSA was begun this year, and is a genuine effort to offer a space and time for thought to someone else. This is a personal and self-funded endeavor, by an artist who makes a living at teaching art (in Argentina and most of Latin America, not exactly a lucrative career): she covers roundtrip bus fare to Rosario, room and board in hopes that the resident artist can use this brief period to think and work. I was surprised at meeting Claudia. Her generosity was in everything she did and said. Her thoughts moderated by intellectual humbleness, a sense of humor softened her directness. To select RUSA’s first artist, Claudia made an open call, and selected one person after reviewing a number of applications—this time, the first, was a poet who stayed for two weeks. In the website of Club del Dibujo, another artist-initiative that Claudia runs together with Mario Gemin and others, a statement by the first resident artist, Eloísa Oliva, is therein posted. This is an excerpt:

La generosidad de esta casa hace que sienta un desfasaje: ¡yo no lo merezco! Sin embargo fui elegida para estar acá, y entonces, trato de cumplir honestamente con mi parte, lo cual, por otro lado, es un privilegio: extraerme de mi rutina doméstica, urbana y laboral, para regalarme esta “pequeña vacación literaria”.

This house’s generosity make me feel a lag: I do not deserve this! But I was selected to be here, and thus, I will honestly try to fulfill my part, which is, on the other hand, a privilege itself: to remove myself of a domestic routine, an urban and work environment, to give myself this “small literary vacation.”*

* An excerpt of Eloísa Oliva’s statement, published online, followed by my translation of this from Spanish to English.

Report on Autopsy

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008


Less than a week after its opening, the group exhibition Autopsia de lo invisible (Autopsy of the Invisible) at MALBA has received critical acclaim in Argentina: art critic Fabián Lebenglik writes an extensive article for the newspaper Página 12; so does Mariana Rolandi for the newspaper Clarín; Ana Martínez Quijano for Ambito Financiero, and; Mercedes Urquiza for Perfíl, who makes fun of me by referring to the exhibition as a “show” (a colloquial and telling word in itself). A video walkthrough of the exhibition was produced by the website of the newspaper La Nación, and another one was produced by Cultura al Dia, which was aired on television on Sunday, March 2, 2008. (It aired by METRO in Argentina on Channel 13 of Multicanal and Channel 13 of Cablevisión.) The independents Beatriz Montenegro de Antico and Alejandro Zuy, who are interested in researching contemporary curatorial practices, interviewed me for their arts and culture website,

Addendum. Two more reviews were published: Judith Savloff writes one for Diario Crítica and Alicia de Arteaga for La Nación. Also, Carmen Boullosa includes a note on the exhibition for a column on Art of the Americas published in El País of Madrid, Spain. (March 17, 2008)