Global Observer

Underground art goes upscale in Buenos Aires

Posting in Design

BUENOS AIRES -- A new arts space in a remodeled grain mill brings big exhibition budgets, along with a bit of rebellion, to the art scene in Argentina's capital.

BUENOS AIRES -- You have to give it to Alan Faena: he's not afraid of attracting attention. As a property developer, he's been the driving force behind the birth of the upscale barrio of Puerto Madero, where he's created the so-called Faena Art District on what were docklands and landfill on the Buenos Aires waterfront. Then there's his humbly named luxury lodge, the Faena Hotel + Universe. And as a fashion icon, well, let's just say that he is so dedicated to all-white outfits that he makes Tom Wolfe look like a toucan.

Now, Faena is celebrating the first anniversary of his Faena Arts Center. Housed inside a renovated wheat mill, the center has 13,000 square feet of exhibition space spread over two floors and cost a cool $14 million. Over the first year, the center housed gigantic, site specific pieces by hot conceptual artists such as Los Carpinteros and Ernesto Neto. Today, the center is marking its anniversary with "Walking South," a huge mural by Franz Ackermann in the main upstairs gallery, and the first Laboratory of Artistic Experimentation artist residency program and show of younger artists, in the secondary space downstairs.

"This building comes from a time when Argentina was a world power," Faena says. It certainly looks like it. A bright, cavernous space with 32-foot high ceilings, huge windows, white walls and white veined marble floors, the main exhibit area feels like a gallery space on steroids, or a design magazine's take on heaven.

For the current exhibit, Franz Ackermann has created one of his "mental map" murals -- a site-specific collage of painting, drawing and photography that conveys the combined physical, mental and emotional representation of Buenos Aires that the German artist gathered from walking its streets. It is his largest work ever, at 2,800 square feet.

"It's a big painting but it's only a detail, a fragment of the city’s situation," Ackermann says. "Of course, this mural can't be installed in many places in the world, so perhaps we'll have to wait for a new airport."

But despite Ackermann's jokes about the piece's size, it does not overwhelm the huge room. Indeed, the Brobdingnagian size of the space seems to inspire artists to create and exhibit extra large; during the Los Carpinteros exhibit, their Avión (Airplane) piece -- an actual Piper Camanche aircraft -- seemed almost miniature.

It is this scale that, in part, make the Faena Arts Center such a rarity in the art world. It has the sheer square footage of a warehouse that might be taken over for a big one-off show, but it has a serious budget and the high production values of a museum or swank gallery. And with no permanent collection and a mission to have artists create site-specific pieces for their exhibits, the building itself plays a starring role in its own shows.

To better understand what makes the place tick, we caught up with the center's executive director, Ximena Caminos.

What's the center's point?

We believe that in the world in general, and in Buenos Aires specifically, there is a need for spaces of great freedom. I come from the art world and I've worked there almost my entire life, and in general when you work in a museum, you’re very constrained. We created this space to break free of all of that.

What kind of artists do you want?

In the main space, we want the great artist, the visionary, who’s not yet the super-top but will be. And downstairs we have the youth, the rebels. And then the public who come to see these known artists upstairs, a public that would never normally go to see the young artists, goes downstairs and sees them here.

What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create?

We want to create spaces that inspire the artists. To create investigation and collaboration, like the laboratory downstairs (right), where artists can work without economic pressure, without social pressure, without gallery pressure, without market pressure. It’s sort of “playful”. We have the luxury of giving ourselves that. The spirit of this center -- which may have a good budget and may show everything up to international standards -- is that it could be a basement in Buenos Aires. It’s underground. We’re not trying to legitimize our name, as one does through art. That’s what everybody does. No. We get a little wild and make a bit of a mess. We made a place that breaks with the rules and offers space to rebels.

Are there other art spaces that remind you of the center?

There's a place in England I love, in a windmill in the north. That's similar, but I forget it's name. This is also like PS1 in New York. But it's only two rooms and not as “trash”, though it has the same spirit.

Are the exhibits always going to be site specific?

The idea is yes. Up until now we have been lucky with that. Site specific is much more interesting. It’s not the same as ‘bring me ten paintings’ and I hang them and boom there you are. To be site specific makes it much more expensive, and requires much more work, but it enriches the exposition a lot.

You've just announced the fourth Faena Prize for the Arts. What's the aim of the prize?

It’s a way of supporting people who have a lot of talent. The truth is that today I see artists who were geniuses 15 or 20 years ago who, because they didn't get support and had to work at something else, are frustrated today. Of 20, three succeeded. There were three or four more who were incredible but now are not. Our mission is to catch them and foster them.

The Ackermann exhibit closes December 16.

Photos courtesy of Faena Arts Center.

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Ian Mount

Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

Ian Mount is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Slate, Monocle, the Telegraph (UK) and Food & Wine. He has also produced pieces for public radio shows such as The World and Marketplace, and is the author of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec (W.W. Norton, 2012). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure