Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Patagonian Beasts in Bas-Relief

Some two decades ago, Argentina toyed with the idea of moving its capital from Buenos Aires to the city of Viedma, in its northern Patagonian province of Río Negro. In the end, Porteño politicians preferred the occasional Patagonia vacation to permanent residence there, but Buenos Aires still offers reminders of the far south – one of my own favorites in the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Pictured below, the natural sciences museum occupies a huge building in the little touristed barrio of Caballito, which is readily reachable by Subte, the capital’s underground rail system.
Its entrance flanked by sculptures of owls, the museum’s collections are outstanding – perhaps not quite so diverse as the landmark Museo de La Plata about an hour outside Buenos Aires - but I especially like the building itself (dating from 1925). It’s most noteworthy for the bas-reliefs that decorate the exterior walls; depicted by a variety of artists, most of the animals are native to Patagonia itself (though some range more widely).
The most distinctive, undoubtedly, is the Glyptodon (pictured above) sculpted by Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro (1898-1951). Patagonia-bound travelers are not going to see this extinct giant armadillo, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, but a fossil Charles Darwin found was the ancestor of a species that spread from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Its smaller descendants are a common sight throughout the region.
Traveling across the Patagonian steppe, travelers are likelier to see troops of grazing guanacos (pictured above), wild relatives of the domestic llama and alpaca that graze the highlands of Argentina and other Andean countries. Occasionally raised in captivity, guanacos sometimes even appear on restaurant menus, but they are common throughout the Argentine Pampas and even seen in Uruguay. Those depicted here are the work of (Luis Carlos Rovatti, 1895-1986).
Many people associate flamingos with the tropics, but they are abundant in shallow lakes and marshes in the Andean highlands and in the high latitudes in parts of Patagonia. This bas-relief is the work of Alfredo Bigatti, (1888-1964). Condors (as depicted by Donato Antonio Proletto, 1896-1962) are also found in the Andes and on the Patagonia steppe, where they often scavenge the remains of sheep. Pumas (the work of Emilio Sarniguet, 1887-1943, but not shown here) prey on guanacos and sheep, and have even attacked humans (rarely) in Patagonia. They are not a common sight, though – in repeated trips over 30 years, I have only seen one.

Argentina has a lengthy Atlantic coastline, but the only work that acknowledges it here is the representation of southern sea lions – the bulls notable for their impressive manes – by Oliva Navarro (see link above). They are frequently seen in coastal locations, even in Buenos Aires province and Uruguay, but keep your distance – they are large and powerful, surprisingly quick on land, and can be aggressive.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Art Against Repression: Re-creating the Ex-ESMA

In the week-plus that I’ve been in Buenos Aires, I’ve been largely laid up with a sore leg and some flu-like symptoms but, last Sunday, my nephew Manuel Massolo dropped by and drove me to the former Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), the notorious torture center of Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship that cost his mother her life. Manuel was barely a month old then, but he’s now a well-adjusted adult, with a fine sense of humor; on this visit, his goal was to help complete a memorial mural (pictured above) at the site.
I had previously toured the current Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Space) – not an experience for the faint-hearted – but the new mural (on which Manuel, above, was working) will be part of the reception area for the DNA information facility organized by the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) to identify the remains of the dictatorship’s victims and their living descendants (some of whom were “adopted” by the families of the killers).
I was invited to participate in painting the mural, which a mostly volunteer group finished late that afternoon, but declined because my artistic skill is inversely proportional to my respect for what they were doing; I can also offer the excuse that my leg prevented me from standing up for any length of time. I was pleased to see Claudia Bernardi (pictured above, center), a Buenos Aires native and frequent dinner guest at our house who teaches at the California College of Arts. She contributes to community art projects in many places that have suffered from state terrorism and human rights violations, including El Salvador; on this occasion, she was helping coordinate what was a collaborative project, and her suggestions to the crew kept things moving.
I also spoke with Martín Sanllorenti, Manuel’s mother’s brother (pictured above), whom I had not seen for many years (he remembered me before I did him). When the group broke for lunch, I took a cab home, but Manuel informs me that they did indeed finish the project - which treats the topic as something of a jigsaw puzzle - that afternoon. Now, for the time being, he can go back to his own work – while his day job is occupational therapy, he also paints works such as the canvas below, based on the floor plan of the Congreso apartment that he (and other family members, including myself and my wife) have occupied at various times in Buenos Aires. That painting hangs on the wall of our Palermo living room.

He’s recently sold a couple similar works to a friend of ours in San Francisco. I’ve never asked him about but it seems, at least superficially, that Manuel takes some inspiration from Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Self-Medicating with Malbec

A few days before flying to Buenos Aires, I suffered what, according to the Gospel of Spinal Tap, might be considered a “bizarre gardening accident.” In the morning, while squatting to fill the compost bin, I felt a brief twinge in my right quadriceps and, though I brushed it off at the time, by mid-afternoon it had become sore and, when I finally looked, it had swollen to the point where it appeared inflated.

Alarmed, I phoned the Kaiser advice nurse and arranged an appointment with my GP for the following morning. He speculated a torn muscle or tendon, but said he had never seen anything quite like it and referred to the orthopedics department, where x-rays and even an MRI didn’t tell us much more – the orthopedist told me she hadn’t seen anything exactly like it either, but suggested that it should heal with time and cleared me to travel.

In the weeks since I arrived in Argentina, I’ve gotten out and about far less than I would like – while the swelling and pain decrease at night, both continue to return the following day, though I think the swelling has diminished gradually every day. I have bruises from the ankle to the groin.
Nevertheless, I did manage to get out of the neighborhood on Wednesday evening for the annual Vinos de Lujo tasting at the Alvear PalaceHotel. After a quick stop at a Recoleta cueva, where I changed dollars for pesos at a 13:1 rate, I made a slightly longer stop at Casa SaltShaker and then hit the hotel for what I can only describe as a wine-tasting free-for-all.

In reality, Vinos de Lujo is not a sip-and-spit operation with sophisticated sommeliers, but rather an overwhelming assemblage of at least 50 wineries, mostly Argentine but a few Chilean, offering unlimited samples for the price of 500 pesos (US$59 at the official rate, but only US$38 on the informal exchange market). I, however, got a discount ticket for 350 pesos (U$27 at the informal rate) through the non-profit autism research organization Panaacea.
Vinos de Lujo drew a few fashionable people but most of us were, despite the elite venue, informally dressed. It was so crowded, though, that moving from one stand to another presented problems, and it was to get close to some wineries. Arriving early, I took the approach of trying the whites first, then gradually moving to the reds, but at times it was elbow-to-elbow. Given my sore leg, simply standing up for the three hours I was there was an effort, but I can’t deny that it’s good value. I took a taxi home.

Surprising, Vinos de Lujo has no dedicated website, though there’s a fairly good general description (in Spanish) at Espacio Vino. That description, though, focuses primarily on the major wineries, not the smaller boutique operations that were abundant at the event. Still, there were representatives from all of Argentina’s major wine regions, including the Andean Northwest (Cafayate and vicinity), Cuyo (primarily Mendoza) and northern Patagonia (primarily Neuquén’s Chañar district). The handful of snacks consisted of rather small samples of cold cuts, cheeses and chocolates.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

LAX-LIM-EZE: Twenty Hours in the Air(Ports)

After spending 20 hours in airports and on airplanes, I finally arrived at a cool, soggy Buenos Aires Monday evening. It was mostly uneventful – even given that I traveled with a badly bruised and swollen leg from a freak injury, I slept well on my LAN flight from Los Angeles via Lima. LAN’s coach seats still offer enough room to recline and stretch unless you’re an NBA frontliner (who wouldn’t be traveling this far south at this time of the year because the professional basketball season is starting).
That said, I was a bit disappointed in the food this time (though I never expect much from airplane food nor eat much on-board, LAN’s selection is usually better than most airlines). I was pleasantly surprised, though, with their in-flight entertainment selection, which included unconventional independent films like the Paraguayan Siete Cajas (Seven Boxes, see trailer above), set in Asunción’s Mercado Cuatro (also featured in a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown seriesto which I made a small contribution).

Siete Cajas is not for the squeamish, and that’s not because of sanitation problems at the market – rather, it’s social realism bordering on naturalism, though not without some dark humor (none of the protagonists really seems to know what’s going on). Suffice it to say that it’s also a thriller and, at times, it feels like one long (if highly inventive) chase scene.

Barely two decades ago, Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was a dingy affair that resembled nothing so much as a grimy Greyhound station. Changing planes there, which I sometimes had to do en route to Buenos Aires or Santiago, was something to avoid if at all possible.

Over the last decade, though, it’s been utterly transformed into an efficient award-winning facility where I look forward to having enough layover time for a Peruvian pisco sour. It’s comfortable, with lounges and shops (including one specializing in pisco), and plenty of seating room. My flights from there have always been on time.

That said, it does have some shortcomings. It’s the only airport I know where, while changing planes, you have to pass through security again even though you never leave the international departure terminal. Since my last visit, they’ve also started requiring passengers to removes belts, shoes and jackets, which they were never fussy about before. Also, for those on a layover, the WiFi is almost non-existent – in my part of the busy terminal, I could not even detect a signal, let alone log in.
On the plane south to Buenos Aires, I sat next to a young Peruvian woman making her first visit to the Argentine capital, and she seemed a bit bewildered by the Argentine customs form that ask you specifically what cell phone(s) you are carrying (see image above). This has always struck me as bizarre although, in a country that does not permit commercial importation of iPhones because Apple declined to assemble them in Tierra del Fuego, it’s also unsurprising. That’s silly, of course, but plenty of things in Argentina are silly (many top government officials do carry iPhones purchased abroad).

For my part, I listed my iPhone 5 and not my other three phones (an older iPhone, an Argentine Samsung, and a Chilean Samsung, all of which I may have occasional to use). Still, I told her not to be concerned and, as it happened, Argentine customs didn’t even bother to collect my form, let alone inspect my belongings (including a MacBook and an iPad) except for cursory x-rays. I can’t say they will never do so, but on my many trips through Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (colloquially known as “Ezeiza,” they’ve never bothered to challenge me.

Monday, October 27, 2014

More Noir? Truth and Detective Fiction in Argentina

As I wrote a few years ago, Argentina is a country that lends itself to noir, but it’s been more effective on the screen than on the printed page. A handful of Argentine authors have managed to convey the dark side of life in Buenos Aires but foreigners, including most recently the North American Stuart Archer Cohen, have had a more difficult time of it.
Cohen’s novel 17 Stone Angels starts with a promising premise, at least from a noir point of view: a corrupt policeman draws the assignment of investigating a murder that he himself committed. The victim is a former US banker who’s now a novelist but has fallen on hard times and returns to Buenos Aires with the idea of producing a potboiler that will sell well enough to let him devote himself to serious literature (it’s hard to avoid speculating that the novel is at least partially autobiographical). The setting is, apparently, the anything-goes years of the 1990s, when the privatization of state enterprises created new opportunities for crony-capitalism corruption (originally published in 2004, in Britain, the novel has just now appeared in the US).

Despite political retrenchment since then, things have not changed that much. The protagonist of Cohen’s novel is one Comisario Miguel Fortunato, a crooked but curiously well-meaning member of the Buenos Aires province police, widely acknowledged as the country’s dirtiest force (Argentina’s capital city falls under the jurisdiction of federal police and its own metropolitan cops as well). A recent article in the English-language Buenos Aires Herald began with the following lede: “Forced disappearances are usually talked about in relation to the 1976-1983 dictatorship. But people have also disappeared during democracy. And several of the best-known cases have one thing in common: the Buenos Aires provincial police.”

In the novel, Fortunato walks a thin line while hosting a naïve US investigator whom he treats like the daughter he never had (his own wife has recently died), and his colleagues don’t help much. The problem is that a convoluted plot becomes even more opaque when much of the prose itself appears, oddly, to have been awkwardly translated from the Spanish. While the focus on Buenos Aires province makes sense, there are also geographical errors, and some of Cohen’s characters are too closely drawn on current events (crusading journalist Ricardo Berenski is obviously modeled on Horacio Verbitsky).

While I liked this novel's premise I was, at the end, disappointed with its execution (so to speak). Instead, I’m looking forward to my own departure for Buenos Aires next weekend, hoping to stay out of the way of the Bonaerense.
Custom Search