Beaver plague in fashion

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

This summer in Paris, Le Bon Marché—considered the first department store, it opened in 1876 in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel—had an exhibition and section devoted to young fashion designers from Buenos Aires. Among the labels included was Juana de Arco, founded and directed by the Argentine designer Mariana Cortés. On exhibition were items of her newest Winter line (seasons are reversed in the Southern Cone). The theme, Skiing. I attended the fashion show that was part of BAF in February. The walk was tackled as performance: models slipped as if walking on ice, tripped as stumbling on snow, interrupting the gait as display and breaking the characteristic cool of these shows. The clothing design and fabric patterns were also playful. In a continuation of her research in regional history, its culture and ecology, Mariana’s was inspired by her research into Peruvian, Bolivian and Argentine traditional wear. The line is not stuck in the past, though.

Mariana Cortés designs and produces her own fabrics for Juana de Arco, whether these are knitted wools she makes or cottons she prints. While inspired by indiginous South America, the fabric patterns of her Winter line have a digital-kick, something that could be drawn from 1980 video games, what is considered today low-tech. (Not surprisingly, there is a cult-like following of Juana de Arco’s fashion in Japan.) But taking in mind that the loom is considered the first computer, this is not too far apart. Jackets are saturated with Bolivian wool-string pom poms. Peruvian inspired sweaters are here dresses or pants. Other clothing items are made with beavers here and here silk-screened in the fabric. Oh, yes, and that makes reference to the ecology of Argentina. “What?” I asked, perplexed, knowing beavers are not native to South America let alone to her homeland! Mariana had an explanation, a story really, as there is for every clothing item she makes: During the Peron era, a couple dozen Canadian beavers were imported to Argentina in hopes the industry there would cultivate them to use their furs for high-end fashion items and accessories. That industry never really flourished, and, as you can imagine, the animal was never attended. Now, there are about 200,000 beavers there—what can be technically called a beaver plague.

Red Cloud Approaching Manhattan

Friday, August 29th, 2008

The sketch above is an artwork in progress by Argentine visual artist Magdalena Jitrik, who is known for her mostly-abstract paintings on canvas and her collective work as part of the Taller Popular de Serigrafía (a.k.a. TPS). This new work combines Magdalena’s interest in social and political history, explored through her paintings, and in the medium of propaganda that was actively taken up by TPS—which, in turn, is part of a longer history intertwining political activism and graphic arts in Latin America (TPS’s name is taken from the early twentieth century Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico).

To make this new work, Magdalena used as source image a group portrait of Native American Indians headed by Red Cloud. It was a photograph taken around 1860-1880. Red Cloud was a leader of the Oglala Sioux in Lakota (including then regions of Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas in the USA), and known to be a major warrior, negotiator and peace-keeper. He was also a critical voice against the expansion of “white man” in North America. In his famous last speech, Red Cloud says, “Before the white man came to our country, the Lakotas were a free people. They made their own laws and governed themselves as it seemed good to them. The priests and ministers tell us that we lived wickedly when we lived before the white man came among us. Whose fault was this? We lived right as we were taught it was right. Shall we be punished for this? I am not sure that what these people tell me is true.”

Magdalena is one of four artists that I’ve selected for “Convergence Center,” an event-based, week-long exhibition that is part of the larger project Democracy in America: The National Campaign organized by Creative Time in New York. Her new work about Red Cloud, sketched above, will be a painting on canvas (118 x 117 inches), which will be hung as a banner between the entrance columns of the Armory Regiment Building in New York. This is where “Convergence Center” will take place from September 21-27, 2008. Aside from Magdalena, the three other artists in Foreign Correspondents, the international component of “Convergence Center,” are Erick Beltran (Mexico City/Barcelona), Luca Frei (Malmo) and Chu Yun (Beijing). I will also introduce their work here shortly.

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.

(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)



The Imperative to Communicate

Friday, February 29th, 2008

After lunch, we took a walk at a busy street in Barrio Palermo. It took us about five blocks to get to New York. The year was circa 1966, and Eduardo Costa had taken me to me moment he proposed the editor of Vogue to incorporate his newest conceptual artwork in that magazine. Soon after, Fashion Fictions was published there and in a couple other magazines. I had met Eduardo in New York about six years ago, while he was still living there. But shortly after he had moved back to his hometown Buenos Aires and I hadn’t seen him since. Eduardo had been an integral part of the 1960s avant garde art scene in Argentina, and a conceptualist at heart. Now, forty years later and with much longer and shinier silver hair, his attention to detail and the sophistication of his thought process were even sharper. We discussed his move back to Buenos Aires and life thereafter, his recent body of work, a series of volumetric paintings, and the revival he had experienced in I Am Not a Flopper or… (2007) by artist Mario Garcia Torres.

During the 1960s, Eduardo was part of “Arte de los Medios,” doing collaborative works with artists Raúl Escari and Roberto Jacoby that emphasized tactical communication in conceptualism. Earlier that week, I had also met with Roberto. Unlike Costa, Roberto had stayed in Argentina. His conceptualism turned more political in its motivations and forms as the 1960s ended and the decade of the 1970s arrived. But later, during the eighties, he distanced himself from art making, yet his work remained creative: from creating the identity of an Argentine rock band and writing its musical lyrics to consulting on identity and promotional strategies of various industries. Roberto never left the idea of communication as a means and end in his work, and this in addition to organizing and mobilizing artists have been at the heart of his practice. Roberto is the mastermind or instigator or supporter or something along those lines in almost every artistic venture that emerges in Buenos Aires. Among these ventures are: Fundacion Start, a platform from where a number of events happen and projects emerge; Proyecto Venus, a working currency and social network that he launched at the turn of the twenty-first century and that peeked during Argentina’s crisis in 2002 (the project concluded last year); Bola de Nieve (Snowball), an online archive of portfolios by local artists; Ramona, a magazine he co-founded in 2000 with the art collector Gustavo Bruzzone. With almost 80 issues published to date, Ramona has become a key source for contemporary art there and elsewhere, many times including the first and only Spanish translations of key theoretical and art historical texts originally published abroad, as well as new art historical and theoretical essays about Latin American art.

Gustavo Bruzzone is also a key figure in Argentina’s art scene. Aside from his connection to Ramona, he is more commonly associated with the art scene of the “Rojas” generation or “Arte Light.” I visited his apartment on a Friday evening. What I thought would be a simple guided visit to his art collection turned out to be an intense art history seminar. Gustavo began collecting art during the early 1990s, most times as support gesture or money advances to a group of then-emerging artists that he had become acquainted through a painting class. But Gustavo is not an artist; he is a lawyer and a respected judge in Argentina. He is a great storyteller, too. His memory of the 1990s art scene is as fresh as his narrative. He told me of the times when artist Jorge Gumier Maier was curator of the art gallery of the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas in Buenos Aires. His exhibition program was said to be representative of an aesthetic pursuit giving precedence to the search for beauty that was far from the over intellectualization of neoconceptual art and instrumentalization of high art. Critics condemned this, called the works exhibited there arte light, gay and so on. Today, however, many revere that moment. Gustavo’s collection has early works of every artist of that art scene, including works by Gumier Maier, Marcelo Pombo, Sebastian Gordini, among many others. The works are installed in salon style throughout the house—hanging from every wall space from floor to ceiling, and sitting on any type of flat surface available. The collection is also complemented with a series of documents and ephemera of the time—newspaper clippings, exhibition invitations, posters, even early gallery checklists with price lists. It’s an admirable collection, and it’s formed wholeheartedly by a unique eye and empiricist soul.

Autopsy of the Invisible

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Autopsia de lo invisible MALBA

I’ve been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a bit more than two weeks. The purpose of my stay is the exhibition Autopsia de lo invisible (Autopsy of the Invisible), which I curated for the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires – Fundación Costantini. (The museum is most commonly known as MALBA.) Autopsia de lo invisible is one in a series of contemporary art exhibitions that are part of MALBA’s program Contemporáneo, a series of rotating exhibitions featuring work by local, national and international artists through in-house and guest-curated exhibitions. Begun in 2002, MALBA’s Contemporáneo typically presents four exhibitions a year, one of which is organized by an international curator, as in the case of Autopsia de lo invisible.

Autopsia de lo invisible is a group exhibition including artworks by Juan Manuel Echavarría (Colombia), Regina José Galindo (Guatemala), Mario García Torres (México), Ignacio Lang (Puerto Rico) and Teresa Margolles (México). This exhibition explores the idea of artistic research as an autopsy that involves dissecting a topic or social body of sorts in order to reconstruct historical deeds or contemporary events. Beyond the aseptic, clinical format of a scientific laboratory or the white cube of modern and contemporary galleries, the exhibition design of Autopsy of the Invisible proposes to go backstage, so to say, behind a curtain. The exhibition’s title plays with the early and the contemporary and most common definition of autopsy. “An eye-witnessing” is a definition of autopsy that emerges during the mid-seventeenth century, which derives from the combination of the Greek “autos” (self) and “opsis” (a sight). The most common meaning of this term today refers to the dissection and inspection of a corpse to determine cause of death.

There are two other strong influences in this exhibition. One comes from the history of conceptual art, from the movement’s beginnings during the 1960s in particular, when the articulation of ideas came before objects’ materialization, where the assumption was that viewers would put into practice a sort of faith in something unseen, something without a physical presence. The second influence comes from contemporary cultural and socio-political events based on some kind of ambiguous presence—events that at times seem not to exist, events presented as phantom deeds, whose concrete definition is hard to discern and whereby any determined impact that these have on collective memory is similarly elusive.

Autopsy of the Invisible presents a group of artists who work with pseudo-scientific methodologies—physical or social autopsies—in creating their work. Their practice involves collecting and presenting fragments of existing narratives or objects, which in their reconfiguration make use of extended object labels or accompanying text to explain the work’s context or materials. In this sense, you could say that these works depend on a diagnosis in order to be comprehensively understood and experienced. With the works presented in this exhibition, these artists delve into disappearances, kidnappings, deaths gone unnoticed and deformations and interruptions in reality.

While the English section of MALBA’s website does not have a description of this exhibition (nor of others in the Contemporáneo program), a brief description is included in the Spanish section, which you can read here. In the following days, I’ll include some exhibition installation shots, as well as details of the artworks.

Finally, I should add that aside from working on the exhibition –which opened last Thursday, and closes in mid-April– I’ve been visiting numerous artist’s studios and exhibitions in town, as well as attending other cultural events and parties. Meeting people here, all creative, bright and beautiful, has been one of treats of my stay. I’ll write about this next.