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Art & Crisis in Argentina
by Joris Escher

Argentina is economically and politically bankrupt. Visual artists react with a previously unknown hyperactivity. Never before have there been so many exhibitions so well visited in Buenos Aires. Shortage of money and anger against recent politics are the main reasons for a new solidarity and a growing social involvement by artists. Finally, after 35 years, the truth can be told: and it seems that the artists feel liberated.

In December of last year in Argentina the so-called Peso crisis began. Since then the country has had five presidents and the government has practically confiscated private savings. The peso has suffered a devaluation of 400%. Consequently many companies have gone bankrupt and unemployment is increasing. Those who can, emigrate. ‘I have seen many street riots and looting , but today’s atmosphere can be described best as apathic, although this can change in a week’, says Dutch artist Matthijs de Bruijne. He lives in Argentina and works with the ‘cartoneros’, penniless people (sometimes entire families) that gather paper during night time to earn some money.

The Argentines are enraged for many reasons. They are angry because the political elite have secured their own savings; because the country produces cereals and meat to feed 300 million people, while many Argentines are close to starving; because of the rumour that the rioters in December were paid by the Peronist Party; because the police still torture, without any control. There’s no end to the list. The complaints are not new, nor the anger. The Argentines are famous for their woeful complaining and their habit of putting the blame on others. But the difference with the times of the military junta or the nineties is that nobody has anything more to lose. Everybody has to do something in order not to die from hunger, despair or depression. Argentina has to start over again. This feeling is getting stronger, among artists as with the general public. Everybody is beginning again. Everything is possible.

Only three years ago, a little elite determined what was good’ and what was ‘unimportant’ in art. One museum, one alternative exhibition space and one gallery called the shots. This hierarchy is now dissolved in the turbulence of new initiatives and exhibition spaces. Shows are being made in new ‘white cube’ galleries, but also in alternative galleries, graphic design studios, empty offices or in the houses of artists. Public discussions attract great audiences and many new publications are brought to light.

‘No te metas’
‘A new creative energy that was suppressed before is coming out now’, says Dino Bruzzone (1965), architect and artist that represented his country on the ’99 Venice Biennial. ‘This is still a repercussion of the times of the military dictatorship. The survival strategy of most of the Argentines during that period is summarised in the words ‘no te metas’ (don’t interfere, look away). To talk about political, economical or cultural affairs could cause a direct risk to the ones around you. We grew up in an era in which all spontaneity was suppressed.’
Bruzzone made a photo series that reflects the schizophrenia of those times well: The subject is the ‘Italpark’. A day out to this amusement park was the most wonderful childhood experience of Buenos Aires inhabitants. It was an ideal world of dodgem cars, merry-go-rounds and lollypops. Based on his memories and existing documentation he made models of the attractions like ‘Twister’, ‘Pulpo’ and ‘Dumbo’. He made life-sized photographs of the models and succeeded in giving them the appearance of a perfect world. But every Argentine that has ever walked through the park will also feel the world of repression while looking at these photos. The park ceased to exist. It was closed and pulled down after a fatal accident.

The art of the nineties: ‘arte light’
Bruzzone distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by the self-interrogation his work evokes. This aspect lacks almost entirely in the work of the Argentine artists of the nineties. The evading attitude of the ‘no te metas’ is still present in their art. They remain in their own bubble and withdraw from reality. Their work, the so called ‘arte light’, has an aesthetic character. ‘As an artist I can’t look any further than one metre around me’ said Marcelo Pombo at the beginning of the nineties. He makes beautiful, embroidered works, much in demand. Artists that wanted to succeed in museums and art market made decorative works, easy to take away and hang up. Most artists that had traces of social involvement in their work were forced to go underground or move abroad.

Graphic artist and poet Ral Veroni is an example of an artist whose work was not often found in the sacred exhibition spaces of his native city. Since the mid-eighties he has worked outside the white cubes. An early project, called ‘The Nomad Exhibition’ involved the printing of little silk-screens ‘figuritas’, swap cards portraying cartoon-inspired figures which focused on socio-political influences in contemporary Argentina. The stickers had names like ‘Ideological Juggling’ or ‘Authoritarian Rat’. The cards, original little pieces of art, were handed out to the youth of his neighbourhood and soon become the new ‘soccer cards’ of that part of Buenos Aires; and the youth were the new art-collectors. The artist and his friends placed many stickers in public buses, elevators, museum toilets, etc. These spaces became transformed into Veroni’s personal ‘galleries’. The next project, named ‘Welcome to the Circus’, involved the printing of stickers with horns and teeth. He used these to intervene effectively on the political campaign posters; sticking them onto the faces of politicians of all parties. His most recent work is a digital photo series in which he mounts figures with names like Time, Destiny, Absurdity and Insanity. ‘About the bad Relationship between Time and Destiny’ is the title of one of these photos. The ominous figures fight their battle on top of two grey flats in Buenos Aires. Since 1999 Ral Veroni has lived in Glasgow, after working in graphic studios in North America and England.

Today’s art
The developments in the Argentine art world are still to young and diffuse to denominate clearly, but the increased activity outside the established spaces and the growing social involvement indicate a rupture from the art of the nineties. A good example of one of the many characters that make the art world go round is Pablo Ziccarello. He is an artist and curator. Ziccarello has a hand in many official and alternative exhibitions and publications. He is a co-operator of the project TRAMA, which is a publication and discussion platform for visual artists. His latest series consists of multiple exposure photos of the night-lights of Buenos Aires. The artist calls them ‘residues of light’ of a certain urban trajectory cruised through during night time and captured on one surface. Not long ago the city was still famous for its 24-hour nightlife. Coming out of a restaurant and going to a bar at one o’clock at night, it was not strange to dive into a bookshop. Now nobody has money left to go out. Even the most famous streets are deserted at night. A new feeling of insecurity comes over the night-reveller. But the streetlights are still there in all their splendour.

A new openness and solidarity
‘In Argentina the good things come from abroad’ you can often hear older people say. It is a country of immigrants and a fostered nostalgia for Europe is probably the main cause for this collective self-denial. ‘The quality of the work of an artist was, and sometimes still is, measured by the time he has stayed abroad’ says painter and video-artist Patricio Larrambebere (1969). He only accessed a good exhibition space (the MAMBA) after spending two years at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. ‘You have to get out to get in’ he says, ‘but hardly anybody has money to go abroad or to buy foreign products. The Argentines are now thrown back towards themselves. That is one of the reasons that an artist initiative as Belleza y Felicidad meets with such a wide response.’ This initiative is an example of a new kind of openness and solidarity among artists in Buenos Aires. A considerable group of artists seek the warmth of each other’s company at Belleza y Felicidad (beauty and happiness). It is a bookshop for poetry and an art gallery at the same time. The movement was founded in 1999 by poet Cecilia Pavón and visual artist/poet Fernanda Laguna (1972). In the ‘shop’ the visitor can buy relatively cheap little works of art by a big group of artists. You can find documentation on the artist and photos of their other works. Besides this Belleza y Felicidad organise happenings and small concerts by alternative rock bands. Fernanda Laguna receives art buyers with her natural charm in her punk clothes. There, the buyers are not attended by the fifth assistant of the gallery-owner; the prices are not in dollars, but in pesos and the program is not made for an (imaginary) international public, but for an Argentine public. Belleza and Felicidad has been a source of inspiration for many other artist initiatives.

There still remains the question of how good these Argentine artists really are. Until the 7th of December Canvas International Art presents the exhibition ‘Buenos Aires Mon Amour’ with the works and websites of Belleza y Felicidad, Dino Bruzzone, Ral Veroni en Pablo Ziccarello. The interested viewer can form their opinion from this.

Joris Escher

Joris Escher is one of the founders of Canvas International Art. Since 1995 he regularly investigates the developments of visual artists in Buenos Aires.

 
 
 

 


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