In April of 2004, I traveled to Buenos Aires to visit a friend who was starting an art-book publishing venture. I thought my experience in the American art world might allow me to help his project. But I also had doubts. Could I help him navigate the scene south of the equator? To prepare, I interviewed two friends who hail from Argentina, who gave me the names of their friends, and read up on current Argentinian events.
Research showed clearly that the most significant event in Argentina’s recent history was the nearly total collapse of the economy in 2001, which included the largest-ever default of sovereign debt in history, combined with the cycling of three presidents and two acting ones in about a month. During that time, massive riots and demonstrations wracked the country. The current president, Nestor Kirchner, appears to be holding steady, guiding the ship of state towards calmer waters.
Surely this society-wide breakdown must have made dramatic changes in the minds of Argentines. As the Economist put it:
“Argentina is thus not a ‘developing country.’ Uniquely, it achieved development and then lost it again. That is a haunting condition: it may help to explain why psychoanalysis and the nostalgia-ridden tango are so popular in Argentina. It is reflected, mockingly, in the fading Belle Epoque splendour of Buenos Aires.”
But how has this affected the arts? Were the Argentines using the arts‚ - in all their forms‚ - to formulate a new vision‚ - an independent hope; one that did not look towards the United States or Europe for a pegged peso or a parental cultural identity? This must be occurring, I thought to myself. There have always been great outpourings of creative work during and following societal crises. Look at the United States during the Great Depression or the Weimar Republic in Germany during their economic depression of the 1920’s. The invention of noir film in Hollywood during World War II helped Americans both escape and embrace the darkness growing around them. If this were so, if this was a fundamental human response to societal crises, in what ways were the Argentines reinventing themselves? What fictions were they creating in order to tell the truth about their future?
ON THE WAY TO THE BATHROOM, A DEMONSTRATION
Perhaps the most direct forms of art are the ones found outside of the galleries and theatres. On my first day in Buenos Aires, I was in need of some pesos. So we walked over to the neighborhood Citibank branch, only to discover that it had recently been the victim of drive-through vandalism. It looked as if someone had driven a car through the plate glass façade and into the lobby, knocking over a kiosk. They were still sweeping up the broken glass when we arrived, so whatever had happened must have occurred only minutes before. It wasn’t clear if it had been an intentional attack on the bank, or a simple car accident, but a splattering of anti-US spray-painted stencils hinted that it had been the former.
A week later, I was taking photos near one of the governmental centers downtown. Having unwisely begun my little journey with a cortado (a shot of espresso, or literally, a “cut”), I was quickly in urgent need of a bathroom. The most likely prospect seemed to be an imposing stone building with people streaming in and out of its great stair-cased, gaping doorways. Stepping into the cool interior, I was immediately stopped by an armed policeman who informed me that no cameras were allowed. I of course complied, stepping back out into the stifling heat of the day, walking around the corner, and entering through a side door unchallenged. Inside I found a warren of narrow corridors and well-worn concave stone steps. Wandering around looking for anything that looked like un banyo, I became lost in what I came to understand was the Federal Court Building. Before I was able to find some place to relieve myself, I heard a strange noise - as if from an unruly crowd. Why would these sounds be inside such a formal, state institution? Turning a corner, I walked right into a demonstration of about one hundred people: marching, banging drums, blowing horns, tossing leaflets that demanded the courts to intervene in some matter, and generally making a horrendous racket.
Always happy to join a little anarchy, I joined in the march and took out my camera. This time the cops standing nearby didn’t even seem to notice. The whole thing gave me a strange sensation. I had never been in a demonstration inside a government building before. Or inside any building, come to think of it. It began to take on a more dangerous tone when someone decided to throw a couple of bricks of firecrackers my way. As I was busy with my camera, I did not notice them until they started to go off literally at my feet, and I thought someone next to me was firing an automatic weapon. At this point I skittered down the hall away from the smoke and noise only to run into the vicinity of an exploding M-80. You may know what an M-80 sounds like, but do you know what one sounds like inside a stone corridor? Fucking loud. Everyone scattered, the cops started to get a little jumpy, and I could see that they were now putting their hands on their guns, just in case. I decided it was time to return to my original quest.
Relatively quickly, I found my ceramic destiny; and at this time, I realized that the unwritten rules here were a bit different than in my homeland. I had happened upon the anger and violence that boils just below the surface - an anger that is so pervasive that the authorities have determined that the best strategy is simply to let people roam the Halls of Justice flinging fireworks, rather than clamp down. I might do well to be a little more careful as I proceeded in this country.
MUSIC AND A BEAR TRAP AT ZAVALETA LAB
Later, my friend Carina took us on a tour of downtown galleries. Apparently, the week that I arrived three new contemporary art galleries had opened for business. Carina had been so good as to even clip a newspaper article about the openings out for me. The only one that was in the article that we made it to was the Zavaleta Lab; a commercial gallery located in one of the tonier parts of town, run by the excitable thirty-six year old Señor Hernán María Mangione Zavaleta. At this time, Zavaleta was showing two artists; Silvia Gurfein and Sigismond de Vajay. The combination was an interesting choice for a first show in the new gallery, in that Sigismond appeared to be working in a conceptual mode, while Sylvia made color field paintings.
Sigismond’s gigantic chrome bear trap, placed in the center of the rather small room, dominated the top floor of the gallery. Its glossy chrome finish and size suggested that it was a human trap, limning our consumerist desire for all that is gilded. We are attracted to it for its beautiful lines and simple shininess, but perhaps its real purpose it to remind us of the how much we are in thrall to our objects.
Going down the spiral stair, we were greeted by the meditations in color by Sylvia, who cites music as her inspiration. Working in a time honored tradition of pattern, color, and pure formalism, she managed to avoid being bogged down by the heavy history of abstraction. Her series of paintings was fresh and vibrant. Translating music, a time-based medium, into paint has never been easy, but in a few of her pieces, Sylvia broke through the clichés to produce authentic tone paintings.
I asked around for the proprietor, and was immediately introduced to Hernan. My Spanish is poor, so we attempted to communicate through our friends. I mentioned that I was thinking of writing an article about my observations here in Buenos Aires, and I was curious what he had to say about the current scene. I think something may have gotten lost in translation somewhere, because he immediately got very excited, and told me to meet him tomorrow at 8:00 for dinner, so that we could discuss these questions in more depth. I think he may have thought I was a real journalist.
HERNAN AND SYLVIA EXPLAIN THE ARGENTINIAN IDENTITY CRISIS
The next evening, at a hip joint called Bar Seis, we talked about Hernan’s ambitions over drinks, accompanied by Sylvia who was there to assist with language difficulties:
Jeff: What is the plan for the Zavaleta Lab?
Hernan: The idea is to insert young artists working in contemporary themes and bring them to the attention of Argentina and the world. The gallery wants to show only contemporary work…[It] is a commercial project, but that is not the only province of the gallery. We want to maintain the spirit of the artists’ vision, so it is not the only…
Jeff: You have only been open for a week, but do you find that the collectors of modern art…
Sylvia: He has much experience before, you know…
Hernan: Because I work for eight years in Ruth Benzacar, one of the most important galleries here in Buenos Aires in the 1980’s.
Sylvia: And before that, he worked in a very important foundation in the University.
Jeff: I see. Sylvia and I were discussing earlier that this is a very interesting time in the history of Argentina, following the crisis of 2001.
Hernan: It is not a political result.
Jeff: It’s not a political result? What do you mean?
Hernan: Argentina now is sane, but before it was a very stupid decade. With Menem [the previous President] for ten years we had a very… stupid is not the word, but you know…
Jeff: Like in the United States it is stupid now.
Sylvia: [Laughing] Yes, of course, we know, we know.
Jeff: So, do you think the political changes are related to the work of the artists? There seems to be an increase in production in the arts, or at least many changes are occurring. To me, it seems that this is most likely related to the crisis of 2001, and what Argentineans are doing in response to that. And art is one of the things that Argentineans are doing to help figure out… To me, it seems, as an outsider, the big question must be, “Who are we as Argentineans? What is it that Argentina is about?”
Sylvia: Ah, identity.
Hernan: Argentines have always had a problem with identity. We are not nationalist.
Jeff: That is good, actually, isn’t it?
Hernan: Not in this case.
Sylvia: We don’t ever feel that we ever belong. We are without roots.
Jeff: Not Spanish, not Italian, not European, not South American even?
Jeff: I think all of America is like that. From Canada to Tierra del Fuego. Our history is so short.
Hernan: The rest of Latin American countries, like Peru, or Bolivia, or Columbia, except for Brazil, have more unity. But here, no.
Sylvia: There are circumstances here that make the story here different from the typical Latin American story; with the natives, and the conquest by the Spanish. But here, we increased this with the immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century. Very important, with Italian immigration, and French, and Spanish, and Polish. We are mixed. Very strange here in Argentina. There is no equivalent in other places in Latin America. So, this makes, I think results in this feeling [of dislocation] we have.
Jeff:Yes, it is difficult, I imagine. Argentina has traditionally been a cultural center, a very powerful cultural force for all of South America, right?
Sylvia: [to Hernan]: Argentina was a cultural leader for South America…
Hernan: Not now.
Jeff: No longer? Not so much any more, huh?
Hernan: Nothing is forever.
Jeff: Americans, people in the United States need to remember that.
Jeff: So, for me, art is very, very important. It is the way a society evolves. The way it sees into the future, what it wants to be.
Hernan: This is a very exquisite notion, but not in the minds of the middle people.
Jeff: I think everybody looks to art whether they realize it or not, to help them imagine their future. Whether it is a soap opera, or an installation, or a painting, or literature…
Sylvia: That is the difficulty of the contemporary artist, the people don’t realize until twenty years after, right?
Jeff: Much later do they start to understand. The majority of people. For example, today most people understand Picasso, but at the time, many people didn’t, right? So, I am curious how you see your work fitting in to the overall culture and society in Argentina? Like, what role do you see Zavaleta Lab playing in the cultural life of Argentina?
Hernan: Well, it has only been 48 hours since we opened. Maybe you could ask me tomorrow?
Sylvia: He always said, one of the roles he wants to play is to make the collectors, to make education. To insert the contemporary artist into the collectors’ world. This is one of the most important missions.
Jeff: OK. So, do you think most collectors in Argentina do not understand contemporary art? They are mostly interested in purchasing art from previous generations?
Hernan: The Argentinean collectors are very insecure. They are not spirited in my eyes.
Jeff: They are not sure what they want?
Sylvia: Exactly. They move with the fashion.
Jeff: So, you think it is getting better?
Hernan: Yes, I hope.
Jeff: You wouldn’t have started this if you didn’t have the faith.
Hernan: Yes. The mission of the gallery is not only to make money.
Sylvia: So, if you go to the web site for the Zavaleta Lab show, my first introduction of my work. A paragraph, I write. It says, something I don’t how to translate, but it says something like this: “For me paint is, to put me in the situation of the intersection between the fastness of my musical mind and the slow of the ancestral oil technique. I work always with the intersection between two…”
Jeff: Entiendo. Well, that is where the interesting things happen, no? I have always noticed that in biology, life congregates at intersections. The shore, the ocean, or the beach. Where the air meets the water, the land meets the water, the land meets the air. This is where life is, right? So, art meets at these intersections as well.
A FACTORY AND A GALLERY INTERSECT
One of my San Francisco friends had given me an introduction to a journalist by the name of Laura Llansó. Laura showed me one of the most interesting developments in the cultural world of Buenos Aires. She was writing an article at the time about the phenomenon of cultural centers being developed within factories in and around Buenos Aires.
During the middle of the twentieth century Buenos Aires grew and expanded rapidly. Industrial, outlying areas were enveloped by residential architecture to accommodate the booming immigrant populations. The result of this is that the core of the city is surrounded by a vast sprawling mixture of industrial and residential buildings. Quite often, factories will be situated right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Such was the case of the factory that Laura led me to: IMPA (Industria Metalúrgica Plástica Argentina), and its associated cultural center, La Fabrica, or “The Factory”. This place is a working aluminum fabrication plant by day, and a diverse, vibrant cultural center by night.
The concrete building was vast and dark, and though it was filled with giant lathes, presses, and massive pneumatic wonders, no one seemed to be around. We padded over a thick black, sticky ooze, and the air smelled of machine oil. A face appeared out of the loamy darkness. It was Pedro‚ÄîLaura’s contact. Unfortunately, he did not speak any English, so I merely followed as he and Laura led me through the cavernous building. It turned out that the building was rather quiet that week. The only thing happening was a photo and sculpture exhibit installed in the upstairs gallery. However, the array of artistic projects endeavored here is diverse. Music, theatre, dance, cinema, literary readings and the visual arts are all performed or shown here.
We were led upstairs to the visual arts gallery where a group of sculptures by Rafael Ceciaga Cortazar had been installed. The exhibit was called Mundos minimos, Buenos Aires en botella (Tiny worlds, Buenos Aires in a bottle) and consisted of elaborate scenes representing various places and neighborhoods of old Buenos Aires. At first these objects came off as sentimental and cute, but a closer look revealed a macabre sort of nostalgia for the past. These bottled memories were not quaint, but rather morose visions of a resplendent and rapidly shrinking past frozen and distorted through the lens of turned glass. It is as if Cortazar needed to put away these memories of a past version of Buenos Aires, to gather them up and bottle them neatly so that new ideas could take shape. To miniaturize and bottle these old visions is not to mythologize and aggrandize the past, but seems to be an effort to contain and diminish, while still cherishing them as memories.
The history of how IMPA/La Fabrica came to be what it is now is an interesting one. In 1997, the factory was about to go bankrupt, and the owner wanted to shut it down and sell off the building and machinery. This would have left the workers jobless in a tough market labor market, so they managed to acquire a collective mortgage in order to purchase the factory and its assets as a cooperative. Inspired by their efforts, neighbors, artists and professionals approached the collective with ideas of ways to use the space in the evenings when the factory was dormant. At first it was a play. Then, as the workers warmed to the idea, more activities followed and today, La Fabrica hosts an incredible array of artistic endeavors, putting on over thirty workshops every week in topics ranging from modern dance to documentary filmmaking.
Laura, in her own report on La Fabrica and places like it, quotes Guillermo Robledo, the general manager of IMPA, “Hardly would we be here without the support of the Cultural Center. Thanks to them, the National Bank is willing to continue the mortgage on the factory because here many things take place: not only is aluminum shaped here, but so is art.”
What is most interesting is that the success of this proletarian/artistic hybrid has inspired others to follow suit, and a whole movement seems to have been born out of this. Since 2001, over 150 factories, representing over 12,000 workers throughout Argentina, have followed their example including the factories of Grissinopoli, Crometal, Chilavert, Baskonia, Brukman, Zanon and the Junín Clinic.
I was inspired and my soul was warmed by such an ingenious collaboration‚Äîbringing culture and life to the heart of industry while also maximizing the utility of a building that would be otherwise empty after hours. Despite the beauty of this idealism, I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of the factory was silent, even during the middle of the day when we were visiting. Whole floors were filled with unused machinery. It seemed as if the place were operating at one sixth of its total capacity. As I walked through the dark and empty floors of the factory, I wondered how long they would be able to hold on.
It occurred to me that my pre-travel hypothesis had been partially correct. A society’s response to crisis was to create, to invent new ways of envisioning a future. But here was evidence that culture and industry were in fact doing this together, forging a new alloy dream. By inhabiting the spaces of industrial production, these cultural movements are evolving along with the economic revival of Argentina, creating stronger integrated communities of artists and workers.
Photographs of artwork by Sigismond de Vajay and Sylvia Gurfein courtesy of Zavaleta Lab. All other photos by Jeff Fohl.