There aren't many things that you can count on being the same in every country in the world, but one such universal fact is the art fair, which migrates intact wherever it re-emerges. Such was the case at ArteBA 2010, the 19th annual art show in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that opened Thursday night. The event consisted of the type of fanfare cozily familiar for art professionals, although typically north of the equator. Over 80 galleries participated in the event, hailing from locations almost exclusively in Latin America, with the exception of a few galleries from Europe and the United States, like Fernando Pradilla from Madrid and Miami's Dot FiftyOne.
The official language of the event was Spanish, but wandering among the fair on Thursday evening, I felt as if I had teleported to New York, to the first evening of the Armory on a chilly winter evening. Outside, the air was brisk; inside, the brightly lit stalls proceeded in endless rows. Dealers met with collectors in lounges set up inside of their temporary white boxes, and artists lingered near their works, happy to speak to anyone who happened to recognize them. Air kisses, like World Cup hysteria, are both culturally specific and deeply communicable.
A primary difference between ArteBA and better known art fairs on the international circuit is most certainly the prices. The highest sale on Wednesday, during a collector preview, belonged to Eduardo Stupia, an Argentinian artist. His painting, part of a series entitled "Reflejos" (2010), was bought by Citibank and donated to the Museo Nacional del Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires. The work consists of small charcoal drawings and bold black brushstrokes that flood the canvas, creating a landscape constructed out of both dense and empty spaces that is reminiscent of Song Dynasty literati ink drawings. It sold for the tantalizing fee of $25,000, a high price to fetch in an Argentinian market not accustomed to spending large fees on contemporary art. As Valeria Fiterman, the director of the Fundacion Federico Jorge Klemm, a non-profit exhibitor at ArteBA explained to me, "In Buenos Aires, there is a limit to how much we have grown up. Argentina is far away from the rest of the world, and the collectors here are conservative. They don't want to spend a lot of money on contemporary art."
There was a lot of good, but as at any art fair, there were a lot of works that failed to catch my eye. The most prominent booths displayed paintings, small sculptures and photographs, wares that were conservative in theme and failed to push the envelope in terms of medium. At Alberto Sendrós, a gallery based in Buenos Aires, Mariana Telleria, an artist from Rufino, Argentina, filled a stall with a display of vessels made out of soccer balls, and a wall of crosses. It was appropriate enough in a country where even the coach of the national team, Diego Maradona, is better described as a performance artist than as an athlete.
Large-scale photographs of the Argentinian artist Nicola Constantino, sold at a number of booths, made me pause each time I ran by them. Constantino's film Trailer (2010), the three-minute video from which the large-scale photographs derived, was itself screened exclusively at Galeria Sicart, based in Barcelona. The video re-enacts a dream in which Constantino is compelled to create a life-size, silicon double of herself after she finds out that she is pregnant. In three minutes, during the cycle of the pregnancy and birth, the statue changes from being a loving mirror of the artist into an increasingly autonomous and eerie creature that meets its demise in a wheelchair pushed down a dark stairwell. The film, informed as it is by noir and the modern day myth of Frankenstein, never quite answers the question of what is at stake by appropriating such themes. Yet, it was refreshing to see something besides abstract paintings and pieces that made overt references to "craft art" among the stalls of sale-able works.
At the back of the room was the Barrio Joven, a space cordoned off specifically for emerging galleries from around Latin America. Organized around a central lounge that featured pop-up ads for Chandon, a sponsor of the event, a group of young gallerists made the best of the small stalls that they were given. At Cobra, a gallery based in Buenos Aires, the stall was arranged like a shop at a flea market, with cartons of books lining the floor and a panoply of photographs, drawings and embroidered pieces crowded together on the wall. A few lots down, Brummel de México, from Mexico City, featured a compelling collection of work by a Mexican artist named Horacio Cadzco. His sketches and photographs, which include an untitled self-portrait where he sports a guerilla beard and lays on piles of garbage, were mounted in a hybrid of inspiration board and fashion spread. Magazines that featured interviews with the artist were splayed on the floor, as if to prove the validity of his existence in the form of media presence, a tactic not unfamiliar to comparable artists north of the border.
When I spoke to Valeria Finerman the day after the opening, she explained why Buenos Aires might be the next city to be seduced into Biennial culture. "Argentina is always looking outside, but not to Bolivia or Peru," she explained. "Rather, artists here are looking to Paris, to London, to New York. Their work isn't Latin American. It's contemporary. The Latin American art market has expanded, but the concept doesn't exist."