Going public: Three Argentine artists on the risks and rewards of showing art in unexpected places

Sarah P. Hanson

Marie Orensanz, Luna Paiva, and Mariana Telleria discuss their installations in a city park for the Semana del Arte in Buenos Aires

‘When you think of public art in Buenos Aires, your mind immediately goes to the beautiful monuments that punctuate the city,’ observes curator Cecilia Alemani, who invited a decidedly of-the-moment group of artists to plant their flags in the city as part of the unconventional pop-up exhibition ‘Hopscotch (Rayuela)’ last year. ‘Still, there is space for expanding a more contemporary notion of public art.’

It is with a similar aim to weave contemporary creative statements into the urban fabric that the Government of the City of Buenos Aires has organized the Semana del Arte (April 8–14). Alongside museum visits and guided tours, films, and talks, five Argentine artists have been invited to present contemporary works in a central public square, the Plaza Intendente Francisco Seeber in Palermo. They include Margarita Paksa, a pioneer of 1960s conceptualism whose investigations of media and transmission are wowing a new generation; Carlos Huffmann, who imagines a hallucinatory, post-human future; Marie Orensanz, whose poetic sculptures crack open a world of potential readings; Luna Paiva, who recasts humble objects as shimmering bronze monuments; and Mariana Telleria, whose anti-establishment deconstructions will represent Argentina at the Venice biennale, opening next month.

Below, three of the participating artists offer insights on how and why they create artworks to exploit the uniquely charged conditions of the public sphere.

Left: Carlos Huffmann, Hito de frontera, 2019, in polyester resin, pigment, automobile, cement, and bricks. Photograph by Art Basel. Right: Luna Paiva's bronze Totem, 2109. Photograph courtesy of BA Cultura. Both works are currently on view at Plaza Seeber in Palermo, Buenos Aires, as part of the city-organized Semana del Arte, April 8–14.
Left: Carlos Huffmann, Hito de frontera, 2019, in polyester resin, pigment, automobile, cement, and bricks. Photograph by Art Basel. Right: Luna Paiva's bronze Totem, 2109. Photograph courtesy of BA Cultura. Both works are currently on view at Plaza Seeber in Palermo, Buenos Aires, as part of the city-organized Semana del Arte, April 8–14.
Can you describe the work that will be presented during the Semana del Arte: What form does it take? What was the original inspiration?

Luna Paiva: Monoblock Chairs (2018) is a tower of stackable chairs based on the classic plastic model, which I consider the most basic, accessible, and democratic symbol in the history of contemporary design. These 20 chairs will be bronze and piled high, like a totem of mass consumption. I’m very interested in simple objects, particularly the ones that we dismiss or disdain. These objects may appear soulless in their original state, but something is revealed or unleashed when we change their medium. Totem (2018) is made of cast-bronze ‘stones’ to create a different symbolic sculpture that speaks across culture and time. I think that it’s powerful for viewers to recognize the elements they use every day, and to see them revalued through a material change, a new arrangement, or a certain staging.

Marie Orensanz: Beyond Time is an installation composed of 12 stainless-steel needles planted in the ground, each with a distinct size and shape. A viewer is able to wander through the sculptures, or move freely around the whole group. The title is engraved on different needles, one for each word: ‘Más’... ‘allá’... ‘del’... ‘tiempo’ (Beyond Time), but the order can be transformed by the viewer’s movement – some read 'time from beyond,' so my indications are not irrevocably determined. By applying the words, thought is rendered capable of trespassing matter, and of being read through it.

Mariana Telleria: I tend to work with those ideas I cannot avoid: ideas which emanate from a project or invitation, and which begin to follow me, like stray dogs in the street. In this case, I suppose, I do conjure a form which is already present in other forms, in nuce. It’s like a narrative, a story hidden in already existing things. God Is an Immigrant is a truck, cut in four pieces and reassembled by its external corners, so that the axis forms a cross. It’s a procedure I have applied to several other objects: beds, wood or brass picture frames, tables, even ready-made crosses and religious images. Its ‘political implications,’ if you will, riff on a previous sculpture I made from cross-shaped ship masts at the Museo de la Inmigración that was also named God Is an Immigrant.  
How does the meaning of your work shift when it is installed in a public park?

Luna Paiva: My bronze pieces are made to be outside, to be exposed to the sun and rain, transformed by time and hardship. Public spaces are the most challenging arenas in which to exhibit art – an ideal setting. It’s inspiring for me to move beyond the traditional museum or gallery and to be able to start a dialogue with passersby, people who aren’t necessarily interested in art. Without buying a ticket or waiting in line or ‘belonging’ to the artworld, an observer can see the work and interact with it – even by ignoring it.

Marie Orensanz: The place where the work is installed is important, even necessary, to produce its meaning. The public can intervene, and the reflection of their figures in the needles sparks an emotional and intellectual connection. By walking through the space and being conscious of time, we realize our own fungibility as well.

Mariana Telleria: In this context, I want to reintroduce the topic of the civic monument. Monuments are special devices, placed in key locations and designed to state a clear, unambiguous message in an aesthetic language anybody could understand. But public places by their nature invite ambiguities. God Is an Immigrant is an art installation that functions in Plaza Seeber – right next to the United States embassy – like a monument. The symbolic spectrum of the work widens, and the artistic intention goes disguised, anonymous, and unrecognizable. In this era there's no way to actually know whether any monument was erected and commissioned by the state or by a private institution, or maybe by a strategic hybrid between the two. That adds some political ambiguity to the public scenario.

I think that as long as we have platforms, spaces, and projects where the will of artists can manifest and disappear within the urban web, we can still make a viewer wonder: What exactly is this thing I’m looking at? Maybe our ability to work as artists depends on it. Now, I’m convinced, we should work towards the outside. We do not need to carry the urinal to the museum anymore; we need to place it in the park.

Four of the five artists chosen for the Semana del Arte’s public program are women, at a moment when the status of women in Argentina is very much in the news. What effect does this context have on your work?

Marie Orensanz: When I started out in the 1960s, art critics responded well and constructively, but I’ve felt gender inequality from the beginnings of my career. I think our current awakening is extremely positive. I’m reminded of a work I made back in 1974: a photograph of my face, with the word ‘limited’ written on my forehead, and arrows pointing in several directions around my head. Another of my works is titled Thinking Is a Revolutionary Fact. It addressed the victims of military repression, but it could also address the feminine condition.

Luna Paiva: I feel organically involved in this movement. The women who raised me and whom I admire are independent, self-supporting and free. In Argentina, we are accustomed to tough times and are obliged to be strong and resilient, no matter our gender. Creating difficult and challenging pieces of art helps me feel like I’m doing my part in the empowerment of women.

Mariana Telleria: I’ve always tried to keep my work safe from the limits of any gender-marking thought. But then again, I am a woman doing work, and this doing itself has always been involved with a sensitive body which acknowledges certain privileges. I recognize that there are other women with absolutely no chance to even decide over their own lives. On the other hand, we need to aim at social injustice and widespread economic and political violence broadly, and I’m hopeful our empowerment will also address these problems. But it’s a complex, difficult time to be a woman. Besides the obvious fact that we all need to work, and that we need our work as artists to be recognized, we ought to beware of certain institutions that, under the disguise of a ‘feminist turn,’ are still not only sexist, but overtly colonialist, even supremacist.

So can – or should – public art play a role in social movements?

Marie Orensanz: An artist is only a witness of their time. They could enact a transformation of thought – maybe not politically, but socially.

Luna Paiva: I think art is an incredible tool that can bring together both people and ideas. Inequality continues to be a major issue in Argentina, and as artists we have an opportunity to participate in social transformation. Currently, I’m working with on a project with Guaraní artisans in Paraguay. I have Guaraní blood and family in Paraguay. We all have individual causes that matter to us, and I am hopeful we can also find common cause.

Mariana Telleria: Obviously, art can play a role in social movements; art can do anything it wants to do. But – and no matter how often this cross is laid on the back of art – it will not prevent wars, it will not end poverty. Art will never be state policy, even. But art can still produce a placebo effect in those of us who acknowledge how rotten the world is, and still choose to live in it.

Unless otherwise noted, the artworks are on view at the Plaza Intendente Seeber in Palermo, April 8–14, 2019, from 11am to 10:30pm daily. For more information about the public program of the Semana del Arte and other events in Buenos Aires, please click here

Top image: Plaza Seeber by Roberto Fiadone, via Wikimedia Commons.