Art Info: The Fall and Rise of Buenos Aires
When the going gets tough, the artists get going. A cliché? Perhaps when uttered by a curator or gallery owner who, falling back on the old hackneyed theory that creative juices flourish on an empty belly, uses it as an excuse not to pay their artists. Although the image of the starving artist in the garret may be a romantic one, in my experience the only thing you can think about when hungry is food. But it does seem that artists in general are better prepared than most to deal with life when an economic bubble bursts and the walls come tumbling down.
Artists are used to poverty, to a hand-to-mouth existence, to getting by on the scraps tossed to them by a largely uncaring and money-obsessed society. To survive as any kind of artist, you need the full power of your wits. The creative minds of this world often find themselves living in poorer, run-down parts of town, only to find that their mere presence suddenly makes the area fashionable; prices shoot up, and the artists scurry off along with their poverty-stricken neighbors like rats fleeing the screeching white lights of designer juice bars, in search of a quiet corner to pursue their dreams of a better, or at least more imaginative, world.
Yet when the house of cards that constitutes “normal” society comes tumbling down, and the job and the pension and the holidays in the sun become mirages of a new reality, it’s as if society takes a half step sideways into the world of the artist. While stock market analysts line up to jump from window ledges, artists occupy newly abandoned buildings, creating spaces for studios, performances, poetry readings, galleries, and venues where anything can happen in the next half hour. Art comes to life when it is not a slave to the market.
Having lived in London, New York, Dublin, and Barcelona and seen the effect skyrocketing property values and “booming” economies have had on artists and the art scenes in these cities, it is interesting to be living now in Buenos Aires, where a peso is still only worth a third of what it was before 2001’s economic collapse.
Sitting in the gallery Appetite in the city’s culturally pulsating San Telmo neighborhood, I can’t help but think that a major plunge in the Dow Jones might not be a bad thing. Housed in a huge abandoned slaughterhouse still bearing the chill of frozen carcasses thanks to a lack of heating, the gallery occupies a 4,300-square-foot space that would be hard to come by in the expensive aforementioned cities. The art it shows can best be described as exhilarating and rejuvenating.Marcelo Galindo, a young video and installation artist whose work the gallery has exhibited, explains that after the crash in 2001, “there was an explosion of art, of people innovating with whatever was at hand, and as a result we have the diversity and creativity that we see among young artists today.” He adds, “People were left with nothing, and so artists turned to whatever materials they could find on the street, plastic, old bits of cloth.” There were, and still exist today, groups that publish literature and poetry on paper and cardboard gathered up from the street by the carteneros (people who live by collecting recyclable garbage). Marcelo says he switched from oils to paints that “would normally be put on walls.”
When I ask him if he thinks art became more politicized as a result of the crash, Marcelo says, “not so much political, but more passionate, personal, physical almost, immediate,” as if the very real experience of hunger had produced an appetite, a desire for the real and the visceral.
Appetite was a concept artist Daniela Luna had considered for years before she opened the gallery. She envisioned “a liberated space where artists can express their passion and desires outside of the demands of the market.” You feel surrounded by a creative hunger in the gallery, which is alive, eager, and passionate, showing work that is seditious, irreverent, sexual (though not pornographic or even sexy—just honestly and powerfully sexual), and sometimes so absurd that viewers actually burst out laughing.
I’m curious, though, about how the gallery and the artists manage to survive, as there is practically nothing available in the way of grants or subsidies from the government, and it’s hard to imagine much of the work on display selling. Marcelo says he keeps the wolf from the door by, among other things, giving guitar lessons (it’s always a good idea for an artist to have more than one string in their bow), and for Daniela, it’s a labor of collaborational love involving the gallery, the artist, and often a collector with a specialist interest. When I ask her if she is able to make a living from the gallery, it seems for a moment she is about to hit me. Any money goes back into the gallery. She can live on nothing. I am not about to argue. This is a woman who is passionate about her art. And passion can equally inflame desire. Appetite seems to have done just that, for as well as receiving a rapturous reception at ArteBa, the city’s international art fair, Luna is preparing to open another space around the corner, one devoted specifically to the themes of “desire” and “obsession,” and also intends to move further afield. In November she plans to open a gallery in Brooklyn, and she has her sights on Berlin as well.
At the mention of New York, I ask if she sees much difference between North and South American art; she doesn’t hesitate to say that in her opinion, much of the work produced in the States is for the market, and that in the North, as opposed to Latin America, more often than not style wins out over content. When I politely inquire about the market in Buenos Aires, both Daniela and Marcelo burst out laughing. Market? What market?
The Ups of a Downturn
“Since devaluation,” she says in a tone as passionate as Daniela’s, “art has boomed, at least in that the influx of tourists has provided a whole new customer who can afford to buy original works of art at affordable prices. This means that many emerging artists have been able to sell their work and gain some recognition and a certain income.”
Mercedes displays both her own work and temporary shows of other artists, and while the work is generally more conventional than what Appetite shows, it is of strikingly good quality. According to Mercedes, on the whole, it is not collectors or the wealthy elite who purchase from her, though, but ordinary people who see something they like and are thrilled by the idea of having an original artwork on their wall. Whether the work is by a “sellable” name does not concern these visitors to the city, who she estimates account for 85 percent of her sales.
While Mercedes’ and Daniela’s galleries may differ, the work they show shares certain themes: It is intensely personal and deals with the body, in movement, almost picking itself apart, in a constant search for growth, development, and communication. It’s as if the experience of the collapse has in many ways been an invigorating one for artists, one prompting an internal journey, a stripping away of excess baggage and a reaching into some elemental core of being.
So is there in fact some truth to the old cliché? Should we be hanging notices on studio doors saying, “Starving artist inside, please do not feed”? I still believe that hunger is a distraction rather than an aid to the creative spirit. But the current situation in Buenos Aires does demonstrate that this spirit is enduring and resilient. The need, the desire, the hunger to create is as fundamentally human as the urge to procreate, and it will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the direst situations.