First as tragedy then as farse. In Art Basel’s ‘Statements’ Section, Argentine artist Gabriel Chaile presented ‘Aguas Calientes’ (‘Warm Waters’), an ‘instalative sculpture’ composed of a series of aluminium-made ‘ollas populares’ (‘common cooking pots’) which have been carefully arranged on three shelves like Minimalist sculptures. Since the 1980s, ‘ollas populares’have been an outstanding examples of how Latinamerican women have led the effort to collectivize reproductive labour, both as a means to economize the cost of reproduction and to protect each other from poverty, state violence and the violence of individual men. Forty years ago when due to stiff inflation, they could no longer afford to shop alone, women from Chile, Peru and Argentina started ‘commoning’ the material means of reproduction as a form of strengthening their collective interests and mutual bonds against the type of atomisation provoked by the neoliberal global market which has been epitomised in Art Basel.
Chaile comes from Tucuman, a poor province from Northwestern Argentina. After graduating in Fine Arts there, the artist moved to Buenos Aires to participate at the Programa de Artistas de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tellacreated by Ines Katzenstein, currently curator of Latin American art at MoMA. The Di Tella programme has from the very beginning specialised in what could be considered as ‘affective post-conceptualism’ where ready made items are rearranged so as to create alternative experiences which artists and critics usually filled with allegorical meaning. While some (including myself) have understood this trend as derivative from the already exhausted work of artists such as Jorge Macchi and Gabriel Orozco, to give two examples, others saw it as a post modern opportunity to pursue an ongoing dialogue with the modernist tradition while, at the same time, addressing the political and social issues traditionally ignored by modernism. Chaile follows this path but in Basel goes farther. His intermedial installation should also be considered as a performance where the artist (which is of mixed indigenous descent) tempts the passerby with a beverage called mate cocido, an infusion traditionally drunk by Argentine lower classes.
The problematic nature of the decision to transform the ollas populares, symbols of the anti-patriarchal resistance against the global market and the neoliberal state into commodities sold to rich international private collectors for 15,000 euros a set has been acknowledged by Federico Curutchet, the curator of the space on behalf of Barro Gallery which represents Chaile. In his own words: ‘What we have done here is very austere and simple, hence its power. (…) We wanted to address the history of those who were the victims of the colonisation process. The artist himself is of indigenous origins and has grown up in poverty. Chaile understands how problematic it is to bring these objects to the fair for personal profit and that is why the gallery and the artist have decided to donate a percentage to three communities with which he has worked’. And he adds: ‘Chaile’s work is closer to social criticism than to political ideology. His is a diagnosis of his own time’. Chaile made it clear that he is interested in ‘porno misery’: ‘I am a nostalgic. If I get close to these places is because I’ve been a consumer there (sic)’ (in Spanish: ‘yo los consumí’). ‘There is a lot of thought in need and a clarity that usually goes unnoticed. This is not anthropology but a close up to existing forms of subsistence which when transferred to the art world become a form of vindication’.
Argentine curator Laura Batkis agrees with this vindication of the poor. In a text posted on her Facebook profile she sees Chaile’s work as a serious attempt to raise awareness on the precarious conditions of those who have fed from those very pots. She begins her text by saying that she trusts the artist’s good will (which means that according to her, Chaile is not manipulating his social background in order to become an exotic spectacle for rich white cosmopolitan collectors) and she congratulates him for agreeing to donate part of the earnings. Then, Batkis interestingly inserts Chaile in a genealogy of Argentine social realism which she traces to Reynaldo Giudici’s Sopa de pobres(‘Working Class Soup’) (1893) , Ernesto De la Carcova’s Sin pan y sin trabajo (1894) (‘The jobless without any bread’), Antonio Berni’s Manifestación (1934) (‘Manifestation’) and Pablo Suarez’s Sopa de pobres (‘Working Class Soup’) (2003).
The problem with Batkis’ analysis is the presumption that the relationship between society and art has since then suffered no variations. In fact, Giudici and De la Carcova emulated Gustave Courbet’s mid XIX century decision to raise awareness among the lower classes by including them into high profile work which they could eventually see as mirrors of their own unjust condition at the Paris Salon where viewers from all classes were admitted. This is definitely not the case in Art Basel where the poor are not only excluded but kept far away. By contrast, Berni’s Manifestation (1934) was painted in the precise moment where it was unsustainable for artists to keep appealing to a connoisseurial and aesthetic gaze. Berni takes a political stance and transforms that painting into a diagnosis of what the working class lacks. The poor in Manifestation do not look in one direction but seem lost. By painting their gazes pointing in different directions Berni highlighted their lack of ‘class consciousness’. Seventy years later and after the failure of both Socialdemocracy and Neoliberalism in post-dictatorial Argentina, Pablo Suarez’s Sopa de Pobres(2003) uses humour to represent the barbarous and ‘cannibalistic’ quality of a global economy that feeds itself from the death of those excluded. In other words, for Giudici and De la Carcova, the inclusion of the poor was an attempt to actualise the iconography of the High tradition of history painting, for Berni, it meant his rejection of the traditional place reserved for artists as providers of images to be consumed by a neutral (bourgeois) aesthetic gaze and for Suarez, it was a (humorous) transference of more responsability to a viewer who had brought President Carlos Menem’s Neoliberalism to Argentina in exchange of profiting from an increasingly unsustainable exchange rate (the dollarisation of the peso) which made it easy for the middle classes to travel abroad and purchase luxury goods which ended up making the foreign debt sore and brought about a type social of polarisation, poverty and violence unseen till then in Argentina.
If we follow Batkis and Federico Curutchet’s line of reasoning, Chaile’s performative mate-cocido-bar in Art Basel should be understood as a Situationist exercise aimed at shaking the perceptions of those rich collectors of what should and shouldn’t be considered as art while letting them know that there are poor in the Argentine villas miserias (slums) who must get together to afford to have a meal once in a while. Being aware of the situation, however, does not equate doing anything to change it. If we trust Batkis’ trust in Chaile’s good intentions and forget that he is there for commercial reasons or to put it differently, if we believe that Chaile’s main motive has been to sell those pieces in order to be able to convey his message of social awareness to the international art community gathered in Basel, Chaile’s message would be something like: ‘hey, people, this is the reality that you don’t want to see’. His motives would be awareness and the distribution of guilt. I think that the comparison with Suarez’s Sopa de Pobres might be productive at this point because while in Suarez the viewer was placed in the position of the one that is going to literally eat the poor (so the viewer is the guilty one), in Chaile the buyer is given a form of redemption through his or her credit card. In the same way than in Starbucks we are invited to ‘stop chid labour’ by donating 50p to the Starbucks Foundation or drinking a specific variety of Fair Trade coffee, in Chaile, social change is reduced to a purchase and guilt is thus easily redeemable. Chaile’s in situperformance is not a protest but a spectacle turned into commodity. The fact that he is donating part of his earnings to those ollas popularesallows us to see how narcissistic this whole exercise is for the buyer, the artist and the gallerist who are magically transformed into philantropists. ‘La Nación’, a traditional Argentine right wing newspaper rushed to publish the praises of art journalists Celina Chatruc, Alicia de Arteaga and Maria Paula Zacharias who focussed on the importance of the fair (‘the most prestigious art fair in the world’), the status of the collections (‘Important collections from Belgium, New York Singapur and Ireland’) and the names of those who bought Chaile’s pots (‘The Belgian Alain Servais, Irishman Shane Ryan and Estrellita Brodsky who is a philantropist, collector, advisors at MoMA and creator of the position of curator for Latin American art). It is as if, according to them, the true protagonist of the installation aren’t the poor women trying to feed their communities but the buyers understood as those who having excelled in achieving economic self-sufficiency have magnanimously decided purchased the work of those who have proved their incapacity to do the same. In contrast to Pablo Suarez’s Sopa de Pobres, Chaile’s buyers’ responsibility in creating a world which social polarisation makes it impossible for those excluded to be self-sufficient is not untouched but instead redeemed. The perversity of Chaile’s work is that it ends up celebrating neoliberal selfsufficiency (that of the ‘wonderful philanthropist’ buyers) transforming it into a moral ideal from which the rest of us are, of course, excluded. J A T