“Palais de Glace,” the sign read, a little too loudly in an otherwise reticent street. Or perhaps it was fitting: another name brand in the street right behind Buenos Aires’ 5th Avenue, Av. Alvear, situated in the city’s version of yuppie Upper East Side, the barrio Recoleta. It was a strange setting for an exhibition all about street art, more commonly called “graffiti.”
Outside the building, twenty- and thirty-somethings clad in everything from business suits to worn-in hoodies hung out, smoking cigarettes and chatting frivolously. Already I felt slightly out of place in my layered, casual chic outfit, balancing—now I felt rather oddly—between dressed up and dressed down. Always the gringa, I thought, and entered the building as nonchalantly as I could, only half ready to meet and greet (in Spanish!) with some of the city’s finest grafiteros.
The first floor was strangely placid. And devoid of graffiti. The crowd was mostly women in their 40s and 50s, champagne glasses in hand. (Where could I get one of those?) Trying to get a sense of the place, I walked around the exhibit, which discussed, in somewhat Futurist manifesto language, the ways in which our society has confused art with life, and passageways (roads and avenues) with meeting spots. It was interesting, although not what I had expected.
Finally, I realized that I was at the wrong exhibit, and upon ascending the staircase, I saw: people. Lots of them. Of every type and age and socioeconomic class. The exhibition was swarming with people—much more than any other gallery opening I had ever been to, and with a much more diverse population. The Recoleta crowd had come after work to check out the museum’s new offerings. Other exchange students and tourists tried to take in a vivid part of BsAs’ culture. MCs from Mar del Plata, another Argentine city, came to get a taste of this hip hop culture.
Also present were live DJs and the grafiteros themselves, who rejoiced over the impressive turnout and greeted their friends with Argentine single-cheek kisses. By my estimate, none were a day older than 35, and some probably approached my own age.
The exhibit was comprised of two concentric circles. The inner ring housed the actual installations: huge, wall-like canvases surrounding the “pedestrians” as they walked around, confronted with the artistic and political realities presented on the surfaces. Tags thrown up in styles reminiscent of the 1980s New York City Wild Style days. A young boy, nude with ribs protruding, holds a colorful sign over his genitals: “My hunger is your style”—and in smaller letters beneath that, “In the streets is where reality is.” Then an oxymoron of images: a brooding girl painted in happy colors, with the words “love kills” (in English) over her head. Another sign, in the style of a campaign poster: “Vote (for) power, corruption, lies: more hunger, more poverty, more death, more sickness, more ignorance, more illiteracy, more drugs… Vote PCM (poder corrupción mentiras): more real.” A collaboration of six graphic designers to create the word gratis (free), a nod to the fact that all their arte callejero is for the public’s consumption, free of charge. A collage map of the provinces of Argentina, which, upon closer inspection, was made from prostitution ads.
The outer circle contained the bar—which, unfortunately enough, ran out of goods before I arrived—as well as the biographies of the almost fifty artists exhibiting. It also contained a door to a separate, pretty sizable space, where visitors could try their own hands at the art form: the walls were adorned with the amateurish scribblings of people before me, color-coded based on the hue of the marker hanging next to each wall panel. Timidly, I added my own–“En inglés: bsasgraffiti.wordpress.com”– and left.
Before I knew it, it was two hours later, and the ushers were trying to herd the crowd out the door. But as I exited the main exhibition area, I noticed many people collecting near the staircase or directly outside to continue their conversations. Hungry and craving my bed, I decided to leave solo, after quickly saying my goodbyes and thank yous to the two showcasing artists who had tipped me off about the opening. But as I crossed the street, ascending back to the Argentine 5th Avenue, across the more middle-tier shopping avenue of Santa Fe, and back to my humble abode, I thought again of how American I felt: always in a rush to get somewhere, understanding “we’re closing” as a statement of fact rather than a negotiable offer.
Note to self: tranquila