“It’s an awful thing, I’m against it entirely,” remarked an older woman, holding her nose at the 20th edition of the ArteBA fair in Buenos Aires. She was referring to the work of Carlos Herrera, winner of this year’s Petrobras prize for an Argentine artist under 35 (chosen from a shortlist of artists selected by curator Sonia Becce and critic and curator Claudio Iglesias). At ArteBA Herrera displayed a new work, Autorretrato sobre mi muerte (Self-Portrait about my Death), comprising two leather shoes sticking out from a plastic bag. Inside each shoe were two raw squids which had, over the course of four days, developed an offensive smell.
The lofty 484,000-square-foot La Rural convention center in downtown Buenos Aires was set up like a typical art fair. The bulk of the space was dedicated to established South American galleries; over half of the 71 exhibitors came from Argentina. The fair’s perimeter, called Barrio Joven, featured a sizable section of emerging South American galleries. Here, the environment was freewheeling, complete with a house of colored glass made by the champagne sponsor Chandon, who doled out glasses of bubbly. Among the works in this section were bedazzled swords by the Argentine collective Conchetinas, which sparkled on the walls of Buenos Aires gallery Miau Miau, or a booth-size arboretum of cactuses at Big Sur Gallery, also from B.A.
This year, ArteBA moved slightly beyond its regional scope, inaugurating a new section within the fair’s main space called U-Turn Project Rooms, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz and curated by Abaseh Mirvali, the former director of Mexico City’s Jumex Collection. Essentially curating a special exhibition within the fair (works here were also on sale), Mirvali invited 11 galleries from Europe and South America and provided each with a small booth. These were organized in U-shaped area in the fair’s gridded floor plan. Mirvali chose work by one or two artists represented by each of the galleries.
Three hanging PVC sculptures by Argentine artist Tomas Saraceno at Andersens Contemporary (Berlin/Copenhagen) were a highlight. Sao Paolo gallery Mendes Wood showed two vastly different bodies of work by the young Spanish artist Daniel Steegman: a large-scale sculpture made up of steel rods with a sand-colored felt island floating inside, and unframed watercolors that fluttered in the gentle indoor breeze of the convention center. At A Gentil Carioca (a Rio de Janeiro gallery co-founded by artist Ernesto Neto), Rodrigo Torres showed a series of delicate sculptural reliefs consisting of out-of-circulation foreign currency. The Museum of Fine Art Houston bought three of Torres’s larger pieces, and his work nearly sold out.
Felipe Dmab, co-director of Mendes Wood (São Paulo), admits that he probably wouldn’t have participated in ArteBA if it weren’t for Mirvali’s invitation. (The gallery took part in SP-Arte in Brazil earlier this month, and had a booth at ArtHK.) While sales were less than brisk, Dmab said that his “idea with this fair was to begin a relationship with big collectors in Argentina,” noting real estate developer and philanthropist Eduardo Constantini, who founded MALBA.
Networking with collectors seemed to be the main goal among the U-Turn galleries, who tended to show work that was less familiar and more edgy than most fair-goers were used to. Meanwhile, galleries in the main fair saw strong sales. Debbie Frydman of GTres (a booth shared by dealers Frydman, Luisa Ugarte and Gonzalo Vidal, all from Argentina) explained that “the economic situation in Argentina is good this year, so Argentines are buying, plus ArteBA is reasonable [compared to other fairs].”
Many South American collectors came down to ArteBA to strike a deal. A medium-scale painting by art world darling Eduardo Stupía was priced at a surprising $28,000 USD by the prominent Buenos Aires gallery Jorge Mara – La Ruche (one of a few Argentine galleries that participates in the art-fair circuit). Otherwise, it was rare to find works over $10,000.
The main part of the fair offered an overview of what’s happening in the Argentine art market. A few key Argentine artists were not represented, namely Guillermo Kuitca and Marcelo Bonevardi (though Bonevardi’s son, American artist Gustavo Bonevardi, had a series of drawings for sale at GTres). However, works by Argentine modern masters dotted the convention center, including Antonio Berni, León Ferrari, Raul Lozza, Xul Solar, Luís Felipe Noé, Margarita Paksa and Leandro Katz. At Venezuelan gallery Faría + Fábregas, a 1979 photo by Leandro Katz of a typewriter whose keys are labeled with lunar faces instead of letters, was for sale. On the booth’s opposite wall was a seminal work from Margarita Paksa’s “Secret Writing” series, showing small marbles that looked to be ordered randomly, but, as one stepped back, spelled out the phrase “Es Tarde” (“It’s too late”).
On Saturday and Sunday, thousands of local visitors queued up along the main drag leading to the convention center. “The people who run ArteBA do it for the community,” says the fair’s retired founder (and current advisory president) Jacobo Fiterman, a spry older gentlemen who walked the fair with A.i.A, pausing to speak warmly about some of his favorite artists, Stupía and the late Sarah Grilo among them. (Jorge Mara said that New York’s MoMA had two of Grilo’s works on reserve, priced between $10,000 to $25,000.) As Fiterman approached a Raul Lozza work, examples of which were sprinkled throughout the fair, he commented that “geometric abstraction is now back in this country like an explosion,” turning to admire the work of Tomás Maldonado, whose pieces, says Fiterman, have gained value ten-fold, with recent interest from an international market.