during my thirty day adventure in Argentina, three things seemed constant: great wine, incredible meals, and wonderful moments of laughter. another recurring feature was the artist Nicola Costantino.
I first heard that name on my second day there, when I asked about local artists. her website, which features an animated conveyor belt with a baby pig moving from one end to another, was shown to me. at that point it was somewhat difficult for me to understand what her work was about, because of my rusty castellano and some navigational issues on her site.
a few days later, I was taken to the San Telmo district in Buenos Aires for my first gallery opening at 713 Arte Contemporáneo, which featured the works by Cinthia de Levie, Juan Pablo Garcia and Andrea Vasquez. this historic neighborhood has beautiful colonial architecture; this gallery was situated on two floors of a three story row building. the second floor was the main exhibition space, where the wine was served and the majority of the gallery goers found themselves. it was there that de Levie's exhibition La Cosa (my translation "the thing"), a series of dark waxy objects arranged in clutters along with ink wash drawings (the main exhibition for the evening), was shown. that same floor also presented a small sample of Garcia's and Vasquez' works in a projects room. these works were extremely elegant and beautifully installed, but possessed a rather international detached quality that I did not find remarkable.
upstairs the third floor, more storage than display space, held works by artists this gallery represents in three large rooms (some works hung on the walls salon style, others stacked along the walls on in piles). towards the back of the house, on what probably used to be a balcony (now enclosed with a roof and walls) was their video projection room. this narrow and darkened room featured a projection that consumed an entire wall (perpendicular to the entrance). here three videos by the young artist Milton Kalbermatter were projected on a loop, under the umbrella title of Gestos al azar (my translation "chance gestures"). these consisted of short performative works featuring the artist himself (whom later I met in the gallery) of an uncomfortable nature - reminiscent of Vito Acconci's Three Adaptation Studies (1970)- simultaneously enigmatic but rather specific (in one he holds a smile for three minutes while staring at the camera). each vignette was shown unedited, whole, with no title or credits given. they were simple and yet captivating, providing an intimacy (the space was small, the figure large) and ease without being too coy. I noticed that many people stayed in the room for more than one loop. I returned to it a few times that same evening.
when the opening reception ended, I found myself going with about a very large group of people to a pizza place around the corner, which included the gallery director, some of the staff and many artists it represented (along with their friends). it was during this dinner that Nicola Costantino resurfaced, though it was only on my second to last day that I put together her name with the baby pig. a few of the artist were critically talking about her, in a manner I found peculiar. again my castellano was not up to par, but I noticed that the tone of the conversation was mixed. one particular artist was describing how she had plastic surgery and was artificially inseminated to get pregnant, and her opinion (and facial expressions) were obviously negative. another person (I am not sure if she was an artist or not), who had brought up Nicola as a conversation topic, pulled out brochures of her most recent exhibition, and passed it around.
it was explained to me that Nicola had a sculpture background, but after dating a photographer she began making photographic self portraits. the brochure was exquisite, a great balance of images and text, and the print quality was amazing. in it there were photographic reproductions, of what I assumed were these "photographs" she made with the then boyfriend. they seemed to be titled Nicola y su doble ("Nicola and her double," my translation). the artist appeared in a variety of environments with a dummy that looked almost exactly like herself, to scale. only by observing carefully one could tell which one was which (usually by looking at the joints, where the articulation was visible). these images also seemed to refer to photographs of historical importance, such as Henry Peach Robinson's Fading Away (1858) and Horst P. Horst's Bathers (1930). one photograph showed Nicola holding a baby, which I assumed was the IVF one.
I got the feeling that part of the criticism had to do with her using herself in the work, and being somewhat concerned with beauty or vanity. this conversation was somewhat strange to me because I am in support of both plastic surgery and in vitro fertilization if that is what one wants for their lives (I am also a bit Orlan fan). it also felt odd because on the table behind us was an artist (Milton), who uses himself in his work - so why is it okay for one, and not okay for another? is this a gender thing? or does it have to do with the fact that one was present and the other absent? I thought it would have been more interesting to talk about the art itself, rather than talk about the artist. but perhaps when friends get together they can let their guards down, and not edit what they say in public.
the following week there was another event in Buenos Aires I was invited to go to, a series of openings at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, one of the best known cultural destinations in that city (because of its location and the many activities in the arts - visual and performance- they hold). on our way there we made a detour to the Fundación YPF, located in the posh and futuristic district of Puerto Madero (which really looked like Second Life). this organization, a cultural foundation run by a (once state-owned) petroleum company, runs a program called Arte en la Torre (art in the tower). the lobby of this building was circular in shape and reminiscent of London's Barbican Art Gallery (though YPF was only half used and left oriented, as opposed to the full loop starting at the right at Barbican).
the YPF featured the works of Nicola Costantino, and I found out that the brochure I had seen was from this exhibition as well. titled Trailer, the installation featured six small mobile home trailers arranged around the semi circle shape of the space; in front of each one a movie poster/marquee of Nicola and her double (the same images from the brochure) were displayed. each trailer had a different arrangement, and one could look into it from windows and openings on their side; one appeared to be a workshop, another a baby's room, a bedroom, and so forth. the second to the last trailer had a side door opened and inside a video monitor was installed, with seating arranged for less than 10 people. a sign outside explained that a 3 minute piece with an interval in between, would be played on a continuous loop. the monitor displayed the preview/trailer for a movie that featured the exploration of the creation of this double and her pregnancy. the images were beautifully lit, a la film noir, with dramatic music and no speech (the occasion text was interspersed). this trailer ends with Nicola pushing her dummy double, sat on a wheelchair, down the top of a stairway in a park, which I believe to be a reference to Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925). after watching this trailer, inside a trailer, I was mesmerized.
as I walked out of the structure, moving towards the last mobile trailer in the exhibition, I told my companions "I want to see this movie" and they looked at me and said "there is no movie, only a trailer." the last trailer in the space had a metal staircase that one had to walk up and look down into it via a glass window on its top. inside it one could see the shattered double arranged within the space (which, in the movie, was subtitled as "the inevitable").
this art experience was very profound to me. in addition to loving her play of words (the multiple meanings of the word trailer), the display of a fragile and obsessive relationship with the represented self felt honest and clever to me. language barrier aside, I understood that this artist was making as much a statement about the mystique of artists in art, as a critique to her critics (which from my dinner experience, was that of her being a narcissistic artist). while in the popular or colloquial sense of narcissism has to do with one being obsessed with their own appearance or image (hence the comments on plastic surgery and independent baby production), psychologically speaking this has more to do with the inability to separate self from an object condition. in art this could manifest via a constant examination of a represented self. I imagine the irritation and intimidation others have of this type of (art) practice has got to do with the direct confrontation one has with private concerns (as anyone arguably spends a considerable time editing what images of themselves they post on Facebook, for example, or looking at themselves in the mirror every morning). it is an artist's job, at times, to put their audience in this uncomfortable place - hopefully beyond the initial repulsion some self-reflexivity will occur. with this interpretation I found Nicola Costantino's art to be touching and giving, and I left YPF very moved. whether we admit to ourselves (or even realize) or not, we all long to find/create/own that perfect but separate self; some of us spend our entire lives looking for it on someone else, or attempting to make that other into our own image.
her approach to representing her self with spatial and time-based media was directly oppositional but relatable to another artist I met in Argentina, Hernan Khourian. utilizing an experimental but documentary approach, Hernan creates extensive, and often nonverbal video sequences that delineate but not narrate a particular topic or series of concepts. throughout his pieces there is an implication of the self, via a reflected image on a mirror-like surface, the rapid and repetitive movement of a handheld camera, and sometimes indexical vestiges in audio (walking, breathing, et cetera). his works have a great similarity to early Bill Viola's pieces, such as Sweet Light (1977), I do not know what it is I am like (1986), and to some extent The Reflecting Pool (1977-79). Like Nicola's work, a lot of what takes place is left out of the video space, in the editing suite. what we are presented with are fragments of larger and unknown narratives; it is our job to connect the dots, to imagine what happened in between scenes, and why the artist decided to (re) present these to us. Unlike Nicola's video, Hernan's are quite lengthy; both artists left me wanting more. to find out more about his works, please read his own words on E-TERVIEW.
Nicola's name came up one last time during another dinner conversation with a local artist. this time I was able to ask more questions and understand more of the issues so many peers had with her work (though not necessarily agree with them). I finally understood that the plastic surgery, lipo suction, was done for an art piece called Savon de Corps (2004), which were a series of soap bars made with her own fat that sold for US$1,000 each. this sort of surprised me because I felt that it was somewhat unoriginal, or obvious (as a young artist I thought of doing that myself after watching the movie "Fight Club" with Brad Pitt). the same went for her construction of her double to scale; I thought Charles Ray's self orgy was way more poignant[Oh! Charley Charley Charley (1992)]. but speaking of parts or elements never do justice to an entire picture; Nicola's effectiveness is in the combination of bodily concerns with language, the construction/construing of meaning alongside the making of bodies.
when comparing the video works of these two Argentine artists, Hernan Khourian and Nicola Costantino, I encountered two ways of understanding self and artist. one leaves the self out of the picture (but I gather a better understanding of whom he is and how he experiences the world), while the other centers the work on herself, but manages to elude me and confound others.
my last encounter with Nicola was a few days before my departure, on another field trip to Buenos Aires, at arteBA '10, an international art fair, which featured hundreds of Argentine galleries and some from Latin America, the US and Europe. like most similar events around the world, it was held in a convention center, where each gallery had a mock space or booth with a selection from their roster. these events are also quite extensive and tiresome, similar to a trip to a mall where, for some reason, you fell compelled to go into every single store. we spent about four hours at arteBA, and saw a mix of old and new artists, again with that same international taste I had found at 713 [though I have to say that their booth in particular had some incredible work, most notably a computer animation by Estanislao Florido based on Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (1915-1923) - for which I do not have the title unfortunately]. I imagine we also walked a million miles. there was so much to see that it is hard to narrow it down to any highlight or best in show, or" the good the bad and the ugly." as we were about to leave, I noticed in passing a familiar face. in a small room, arranged near other pieces, were large photographic prints of Nicola's images for the movie posters in the exhibition (sans text and display apparatus). while those pieces had the red dot of sale, they seemed lost and undermined in that setting. out of the installation context, they looked sad and flat; center stage is where they shine. I wonder how these will look in someone's house, and what people will talk about (or refrain from saying) upon encountering Nicola, her double, and their representations.
the final version of this entry omitted one important and relevant strategy for self editing, which, after some careful consideration, I've decided to add as a brief post script.
please visit the link below to watch the international exhibition titled [self]~imaging, which was curated by Wilfried Agricola de Cologne for VideoChannelCologne. the breadth of the video works, varied in length, approach, depth, et cetera expand what one may consider a portrait to be - collectively they provide a snapshot of what can potentially be seen as an international yearning, or a complex collective unconscious for self expression and understanding.