Argentina might be geographically peripheral to the artistic reference points of Europe and the US, but it certainly makes up distance in its relentless innovation.
Without the markets or funding bodies conducive to establishing cultural paradigms, nor the finely carved tradition of its counterparts, art in Buenos Aires has been largely the story of crisis, pragmatism and reinvention.
Whether its the muñesquismo graffiti that has transformed the city streets into an ever-evolving urban collage, or the up-and-coming conceptual masters showcased at Ruth Benzacar’s iconic gallery, experimentation is the name of the day.
This week’s Top 5 delivers a handful of the sought-after, scintillating names in the art world who have been collectively instrumental in catapulting Argentina onto an international stage. Whilst they have all spent considerable periods of time abroad, their work remains intrinsically Argentine – impulsive, hybrid, self-reflexive and, at base, optimistic – in its content and conception.
Blessed with the conviction of being “the best artist in the world,” Marta Minujín’s art is as incandescent as her sublimely egotistical, public persona.
Taking up where the New York happenings left off, her genre of spectacle has redefined the parameters of Argentine art over the past half century.
From pan dulce obelisks to Carlos Gardel on fire and Fellini-inspired helicopter bombardments, the ever-provocative Minujilandia relentlessly dismantles our most sacrosanct of icons, refracting their historical significance.
Her performance-based installations are driven by a desire to relegate art as static museum display and transform it into something dynamic, radical and, ultimately, destructive. As such, Minujín’s work undergoes a pyrotechnic ritual every few years. Phoenix-like, out of the ashes new creations emerge, unburdened by anything as status quo as cultural legacy.
With her platinum wig, dark glasses and psychedelic pop canvases, she’s frequently referred to as the Argentine Andy Warhol. A commonplace likening that is not without its backstory.
The duo first collaborated on a controversial staging of the Latin American debt crisis in 1985 in which Minujín pays her debt to the US artist in corn, the “Latin American gold..”
For decades, Minujín’s work drew international crowds, but remained largely unrepresented back home. That was until her MALBA retrospective last year which effectively dispelled the myth that her reputation was nothing more than the sum of her eccentric persona. With her Tower of Babel last winter, Minujín is showing no signs of either slackening her output, or taming her Borgesian imaginative flights.
Trained as an engineer, it wasn’t until a trip to Italy in his mid-thirties that León Ferraridecided to turn his hand to fine art. He quickly shot to fame with ‘Cuadros escritos’ in 1964, a series of calligraphic canvases which explore the regnant cultural premise that language is the paradigm of thought.
Ferrari’s iconic ‘Civilización occidental y cristiana’ was produced a year later. The sculpture, which figures an image of Christ superimposed upon a US plane plummeting to the ground, was the first in a controversial serious of work that set out to debunk religious iconography.
His political art work came under scrutiny during the last dictatorship, forcing him into exile in Brazil. It was during this period that he produced his esoteric metallic sculptures which include the mesmerising, prismatic ‘Planeta’.
From abstract watercolours to nudes and religious kitsch, Ferrari insistently foregrounds the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. His political critiques of the systematic use of torture and state repression have earned him a reputation – and an Asucena Villaflor de Devincenti award – as an outspoken defender of human rights.
A key influence for a generation of young artists, he has been awarded a number of international prizes including the Leone d’Oro (The Golden Lion) at Venice Biennale in 2007 and the ARCO Centre for Visual Art’s prize in 2010 for the best international artist.
With his architectural blueprints and topographic cityscapes, Guillermo Kuitca is often held up as a textbook example of Latin American abstraction. But while his paintings remain in constant dialogue with abstract and cubist painting, his work radically reconfigures that legacy.
Privately trained since the age of nine, he began dabbling with expressionism before moving towards a more conceptual style.
Sensual and unnerving, the molten blood-red tableau ‘El mar dulce’ (1985) is the apogee of his work from the period. Influenced by the German choreographer Pina Bausch, it stages the bedroom as a paradigm for psychological and physical conflicts.
In 1986 Kuitca stopped exhibiting his work in Buenos Aires providing a seventeen year period in which to “experiment with the idea of exile”. Abroad his focus expanded, as in a cinematic zoom out, from the bedroom to an apartment within the city, to a city within a global map, navigating the complex grounds of communal and private space.
‘Stage Fright’ (2007), was the product of a ten-year long study of opera houses around the globe in which a hallucinatory, synesthetic series of prints direct the performance away from the stage to centre on the audience. More recently, he has turned a hyperrealist eye to baggage carousels, the ultimate image of displaced identity within a global, interconnected world.
Leandro Erlich first made a name for himself with his trompe l’oeil swimming poolat the 2001 Venice Biennale. An extraordinary, visually confounding installation, it allows visitors to enter a pool without getting wet while recreating the same scintillating visual sensation of water.
Optical illusions have remained the hallmark of his work. Taking his queue from the French author Georges Perec’s idea of
‘L’infraordinarire’, Erlich sets out to defamiliarize our everyday routine. Automatised practices and the privacy entrenched in urban living come under his interrogative gaze, challenging the viewer’s habitual acts of perception.
Voyeuristic peep holes, inverted mirrors and cross-sections of self-contained apartments are the lenses through which we experience an Erlich installation. By turns ludic and satirical in their approach, they lightly poke fun of the functionality at the heart of bourgeois living.
In ‘Turismo’, designed for the Havana Biennal 2000, he superimposes your average Cuban into a middle-class holiday photo shoot. In
the absence of the all-smiling western subject favoured by advertising campaigns, the images appear strikingly incongruous. As always in Erlich’s work, humour proffers its own critique of the totalising vision implicit in the logic of capitalism and colonialism alike.
With ‘Le Regard’, the latest of Erlich’s works to be exhibited at the Pompidou Centre, his satirical gaze comes into play again. The installation features a French colonial-style apartment, with two windows, one which opens onto a scene of Paris; the other onto a imaginary, coloured view of the streets of Delhi.
Footprints which explode like fireworks, wall paintings which yield to the law of gravity and textless newspaper headlines are the signature of Jorge Macchi’s visually compelling works.
In his Lewis Carroll-esque creations, the world as we know it is temporarily suspended and given over to a parallel, experiential logic. His work filters the dimensions of time and space through the way we experience them, rather than as abstract formulae, so that seemingly innocuous objects become echo-chambers of memories and associations.
Maps are central to Macchi’s creative output. Whether it’s his ‘Buenos Aires Tour’ (2004), an alternative guide book to the city, or the collage ‘Lilliput’ (2007), in which the position of countries are subject to the logic of chance, his itineraries depend on the provisional and the contingent.
Bridging the expressive, psychologically-charged content of painting with the objective, non-narrative gaze of the conceptual artist, Macchi uncovers the mysterious connections which lie concealed beneath a surface banality.
Rather than staging a scenario, his installations work by subtly disrupting relations between objects, challenging the viewer to uncover latent patterns and associations.
Many of Macchi’s installations rely on synchronized music and light, with a crisscrossed visual projection of cut-out words. Shifting background noise to the foreground and focusing on the tension between intention and interpretation, he plays with the media’s monopoly on our hierarchy of events, proffering his own, more idiosyncratic sequence.
Tightly plotted, yet open-ended, like the deceptively simple ‘Horizonte’ (2002), the emotional resonance of Macchi’s work always exceeds the sum of its parts.