Sunday, May 29, 2011

Javier Bassi

The upstairs gallery at the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales is as spacious as a ballroom, and its high-gloss hardwood floor seems to extend an invitation to dance. It might be fun, but waltzing would be inappropriate here, as  I am reminded by both the presence of a surly security guard and the imposing series of paintings by Javier Bassi - sombre, large, black rectangles that march along the walls like a funeral procession.  At first glance this looks like an exhibition of  formal, minimalist abstract canvases (i.e. serious stuff.)

Installation view of "In/visibilidad" exhibition
The labels reveal that Bassi's work is not pure abstraction, but a combination of collage and painting.  The artist uses black toner (the same carbon chemical used in photocopiers and printer cartridges) applied over a layer of classified ads that have been pasted to the canvas.  The off-white streaks that read as brush marks are actually areas where the underlying newsprint is exposed.

Detail, with classified ads barely visible under the toner
In some of the paintings Bassi allows his technique to be deciphered, revealing fragments of the printed page, while in other works, the toner completely covers  the ads.  The viewer has to question the presence and function of the submerged, invisible content.  What significance does a totally obscured image have?

Classified ads are published to meet the needs of those who wish to buy, sell, trade or hire.  "Want ads" they are called, and indeed the classified section manages to address just about every human desire: transportation, clothing, shelter, furniture, food, tools, collectibles, pets, education, employment, even personal relationships are offered.   The ads form an enticing grid of possibilities for gratification.

"Mi linea como trampa" 200 x 480 cm

I am a fan of haiku, and enjoy the sense of surprise and simple insights that these succinct verses offer.   I read the following haiku in The Heron's Nest magazine and said "Aha!" as the Bassi series came to mind.

migrating geese-
the things we thought we needed
darken the garage

- Chad Lee Robinson

"Ice Cream Memory" 100 x 130 cm

Bassi's paintings, like the dark, overloaded garage, represent weighty accumulations rather than voids. All the things listed in the ads are stored under layered shadows that effectively cancel any initial attraction.   Both visual artist and haiku poet are making statements that mock materialism and the human weakness for possessions.
Instead of being encumbered with a lot of things, wouldn't it be nice to be airborne, like the migrating birds?  And wouldn't it be nice to just go ahead and dance, when you have the urge?

"In/visibilidad" by Javier Bassi continues at the MNAV until July 10, 2011.  The exhibition catalogue, with images, artist's biography and curatorial essays, is available online.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice

If you seek monuments in Montevideo, look around Parque Rodo.  This green oasis in the middle of the city is named after Jose Enrique Rodo, one of Uruguay's most influential writers and educators.

Rodo's essay "Ariel" written in 1900, has become a classic treatise for philosophical thinking in Latin America.  Composed in the style of a lecture given by professor Prospero to his students before they venture out into the world,  "Ariel" advocates humanistic rather than materialistic values. Rodo asserts that "The civilization of a country acquires its grandeur, not by its manifestations of material prosperity and predominance, but by the higher order of thinking or of feeling this makes possible."

Ariel is depicted emerging from the stone over the head of Rodo

Monument to Rodo, created by sculptor Jose Belloni in 1947

Rodo's essay also expresses a definite anti-American sentiment.   Although the 29 year-old author had never actually visited the U.S., he condemns North American culture as utilitarian, narrow, insensitive and greedy.  "Titanic in its enormous concentration of human will-power, in its unprecedented triumph in all spheres of material aggrandizement, its civilization yet produces as a whole a singular impression of insufficiency, of emptiness."  He warns against "nordomania" (fascination with North America), denounces the Puritan work ethic, and stresses the importance of developing a distinctly South American identity based on European values, particularly those of England, France and Spain.  The term "arielismo" still used today, refers to a sense of Latin American moral and spiritual superiority, steeped in idealism and marked with disdain for menial work driven by economic incentive.  

La despedidas de Giorgias
The bronze figures portrayed on either side of the monument represent scenes from two other works written by Rodo - Giorgia's Farewell and The Six Pilgrims.

Los seis peregrinos

The other side of the Rodo monument has a reflecting pool

The map of  Parque Rodo lists a total of 28 monuments spread over the landscaped grounds.   Here are some of the highlights among the eclectic mix of people represented.

Confucius, looking out to the river

"Monumento Cosmico" 1939  by Joaquin Torres-Garcia is pink granite engraved with  Pre-Columbian symbols 

Artigas monument, dedicated to "Las Instrucciones de 1813"

Curved wall of the monument serves as temporary shelter 

Albert Einstein (although it's hard to tell)


Venus and Cupid
Venus, overlooking her pool
Fountain of the Athletes

William Tell
Parque Rodo has other attractions, including spaces for cultural events, a library, an art gallery, tennis courts, an amusement park, a photo gallery and an open air theatre.  Even Jose Enrique Rodo would approve of this park's contribution to the improvement of mind and body.

Castle which houses a children's library

Patio Andaluz, with tiled benches and central fountain


Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales

Evening performance of the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra
Outdoor photo exhibition
Market in the park every Sunday

Green space for morning exercises

 "I am convinced that he who has learned to distinguish the delicate from the common, the ugly from the beautiful, has gone half the way to knowing the evil from the good."   - Jose Enrique Rodo

The Latin phrase "Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice" means "If you seek a monument, look around you." This is the inscription on the grave of architect Christopher Wren who is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, the church which he designed.   It is also the inscription on my great-grandfather's tombstone in Nishatganj (Trans-Gogra) Lucknow, India.  Matthew Ridley was the Superintendent of Government Parks and Gardens in Lucknow from 1875 until his death in 1904.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Old Stones and Cellulose

With the height of the tourist season now finished and the fall weather still sunny and pleasant, we decide to take a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento, located 177 kilometers northwest of Montevideo   The bus ride takes two and a half hours, following a route that passes through a factory zone in the industrial east end of the city and gradually becomes scenic as green hills dotted with dairy farms replace billowing smokestacks.

Porton de Campo, the gate to the old town, built in 1745

At noon we arrive in Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest city in Uruguay, settled in 1680 by the Portugese governor of Rio de Janeiro, Manuel Lobo. For the early inhabitants, this area represented a strategic bit of coastline on the Rio de la Plata, located near the mouth of the Parana River and directly opposite the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.  Prosperous Colonia, an active port and center of contraband trading, changed hands many times in the course of history, in military disputes between the Portugese and Spanish. The Spanish eventually succeeding in making claim to the area following a siege in 1777.

Today, the Barrio Historico is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Once you cross the wooden drawbridge and go through the massive stone Porton de Campo, the rough cobblestone streets lead to a central plaza surrounded by a living architectural museum that's often compared to old Lisbon.

Cobblestone street next to the ramparts lead to the waterfront

Early Portugese colonial house on Calle de los Suspiros

Patina on a stucco wall
Ruins of the 17th c. convent of San Francisco, and the lighthouse, completed in 1857

View of Rio de la Plata from Colonia

Fishing on the rocky shore

We visit several museums in Colonia - the Portugese Museum, the Tile Museum, the Indigenous Museum - all within walking distance of the Plaza Mayor.  The collections are small with precious groupings of ceramics, weaponry, furniture and maps displayed in buildings that were once private houses.   Wandering around the old town, we find a sharp contrast between Montevideo streets (dirty, noisy, full of traffic and graffiti) and those in Colonia del Sacramento (clean, quiet, well-maintained, pedestrian-friendly.)  

At the top of De Portugal, the Basilica de Sanctisimo  Sacramento, 1808
The church interior - stark white, undecorated

Virgen de Treinte y Tres displayed inside the church
Just opposite the old church, we stop at a restaurant  that has tables set out on the sidewalk.  With roasted chicken and green salad, we enjoy a glass of G Sauvignon Gris, a wine from Casa Filgueira bodega.  

Uruguayan Sauvignon Gris - a crisp patio wine 
Waiter at the Viejo Barrio restaurant
Ceramics in an antique shop

1717 Fine Arts Cafe features black and white photography

The beautiful terrace and courtyard at 1717 provide a relaxing spot for ...

espresso coffee!
Typical streetscape in Colonia, with stone construction
 On the way back to Montevideo, we notice that almost every farm in the area surrounding Colonia is marked with a "For Sale" sign.   A friend who owns a small apple farm offers an explanation as to what is happening in rural communities.   The government approval of a cellulose plant, a project funded by a conglomerate of Chilean, Finnish and Swedish companies operating as Montes del Plata de Uruguay, has caused the sudden glut of farms offered for sale.  At 1.9 billion U.S. dollars, this is the largest foreign investment that the country has ever seen. The plant and industrial port will be located at Punta Pereira near Conchillas, within a free trade zone on the bank of Rio de la Plata, just north of Colonia del Sacramento.  To provide enough trees for continuous production of pulp and paper, Montes del Plata is intent on acquiring property for planting forests - in fact, they already own 250,000 hectares of land in Uruguay!  And they're not alone: UPM-Kymmene from Finland owns 225,000 hectares, and the U.S. company Weyerhauser owns 140,000 hectares.    The large-scale foreign ownership of prime land will mean that smaller food producers are squeezed out of operation, just like our apple orchard friend, who is seriously considering a forestry company's attractive offer to purchase.  Goodbye to his annual harvest of Granny Smith, hello to fast-growing eucalyptus and pine.

Ad running in the national newspaper, "El Pais"

One hopes that the heritage sites in Uruguay will be preserved, with each stone intact for future generations to appreciate.  One hopes that industrial growth will not destroy the sustainable, small-scale farms that feed the population. One hopes that the environment will remain pristine, that water resources will be protected, that soil quality will be maintained, that the air will stay clean.  One hopes that Uruguay, with its rich human history and natural resources, will remain distinctly Uruguayan.