The Spanish Main

Dawn Chan at the 35th ARCO fair in Madrid

Left: 35th Anniversary curators Aaron Moulton and Catalina Lozano. Right: ARCO director Carlos Urroz. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

IT RAINED IN MADRID over the weekend as ARCO—the world’s best-attended art fair—revved its gears for the thirty-fifth time. Further down corridors of the sprawling Feria del Madrid, staid suits gathered for “an annual meeting for insurance sector experts.” But we—less risk-averse, or more aesthetically minded—headed for the convention center’s Pavilions 7 and 9. There, framed by the patchwork pillows and unfinished wood of a rustic VIP lounge, the fair’s director, Carlos Urroz, spoke to reporters. “This ARCO is special,” he said. “Normally we have an invited country; this year we don’t. We’ve selected thirty-five galleries that are important to us.”

A painter put finishing touches on Audemars Piguet’s promotional booth. Boxes of sushi were realigned at a food court. Over in the exhibitors’ section, fair founder and grande dame Juana de Aizpuru stood at her booth, mobbed by flash cameras and the paparazzi bearing them, her electric-red hair like a beacon of what’s right and good with the art world in a little sea of what’s gone wrong with it.

The fair brought collectors like Norman and Elena Foster, curators like Manuel Segade and Marc-Olivier Wahler, local superstars like Marta Rincon, and art-world folk heroes Nicolas Bourriaud and Lorenzo Benedetti, who, despite bureaucratic interference, keep doing their thing.

People seemed pleased by what they saw. Aaron Moulton, cocurator of the anniversary section along with Catalina Lozano and Maria de Corral, commented, “It’s nice to actually see good art at an art fair instead of a lukewarm soup of sameness.” Elsewhere, Kiasma curator Marja Sakari praised the quality of work. “The legacy of Conceptual art is very well represented.” (There was certainly more than your usual photos of Marina Abramović with that scorpion on her schnoz.)

“Group exhibitions can be violent for artists. And dual exhibitions even more so,” said artist Christoph Keller. But this was different. He and Daniel Steegman Mangrané showed work in Esther Schipper’s booth in the “35 Anniversary” section. The two had developed the concept together, “so it was rather a collaboration,” he said.

Left: Artist Rosa Barba and Fundación Botín artistic director Benjamin Weil. Right: Dealer Juana De Aizpuru.

I was learning things about Madrid. Learning that when it rains, the city, with its trees in planters, and plants spilling from window boxes, gets that fragrant smell of leaves and dirt. I learned also about acorn-fed ham. People told me the cabdrivers would take me on circuitous routes to get a little more money, and then the cabdrivers told me there were too many of them and they couldn’t get any work, except on weekends like ARCO.

By all accounts, the country has yet to emerge from its economic crisis. “People in Spain are still suffering,” said artist Jeronimo Elespe, noting that 50 percent of those under twenty-five in Madrid can’t find work. A dealer said that international collectors were buying. But Spanish collectors? Not yet.

“But there’s more hope,” Lucia Munoz, who was helping one gallery at the fair, said later. “Spain has a great group of young people. They’re hungry because they’ve been pushed off their horse. There are start-ups; art projects."

This year Americans imported their own form of anxiety—political anxiety, to be precise. Amid the vertiginous Anthropocene, are we on the brink of electing fools? At an agreeable dinner hosted at Opazo by Esther Schipper and Mehdi Chouakri, Moulton discussed the conspiracy theory that Trump was running a fake campaign, “that he’ll win the party nomination and on live TV announce that this was a hoax, do a mike drop, and the GOP implodes.”

Left: Dealers Alex Nogueras and Rebeca Blanchard. Right: Dealer Ana Paula Zamacona and curator Abaseh Mirvali.

“We’re living in reality TV 3.0,” he added.

“I’m telling you, we’re going to be the first to get voted off the island,” responded curator Abaseh Mirvali. She nodded at the rest of us hyphenated Americans at the table. (Mirvali said she was traveling home to vote—no risky absentee ballot for her.)

Spirits lightened as a group made its way to Bar Cock, a dark, high-ceilinged place where apparently every ARCO party ends up and then the real party begins. One woman gave advice to her friend about a dinner the following day:

“Watch out for the shrimp there,” she said.

“Is that a metaphor?” her friend responded.

Left: Dealer José Kuri with Wilfredo Prieto. Right: Artist Tatiana Blass and dealer Johannes Vogt.

On Wednesday and Thursday, galleries launched their best shows. Rosa Barba unveiled smart work at Parra & Romero. A tight group exhibition at Travesia Cuatro, with work by Amalia Pica and Mateo López, masterfully combined every art-show trope under the sun—doppelgängers, polarity, mirrors, displacement, and memory—and yet felt fresh. Galleries like Max Estrella and Maisterravalbuena kicked off shows too. A multisite project, spread out across the city and organized by curatorial whiz (and Artforum contributor) Javier Hontoria included work by Khalil Rabah and Johanna Calle.

Just two weeks ago, one American dealer had grumbled about ARCO, “Only Spanish dealers make any money.” Maybe she was referring to another era. Little of that putative regionalism was in sight at the fair. Galleries from around the world reported sales. An Asturias–based foundation (which left its forest-green plaques around work it had purchased, like an animal marking territory) acquired from Joan Prats a series of photos by Hannah Collins, inspired by Noah Purifoy and Walker Evans.

And then: Mobbed by pro paparazzi, girls in lace with selfie-sticks, and a rotating cast of dignitaries, the King of Spain paid a visit—and made a stop at Team Gallery. There, awaiting his royal gaze, were playful, post-Pantone-if-not-post-Internet abstractions by Cory Arcangel and Stanley Whitney.

At NF Galería, visitors pored over the medical X-ray light boxes accompanying Mateo Maté’s conceptual artwork: the sale of rights to various body parts after his death. Dealer Nerea Fernandez, standing nearby, said her mother had started their gallery nearly four decades ago. “I’ve been working in the art world since I was born, in a way,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself doing something else. So it’s not that I’ll stop working if I win the lottery. If I win the lottery, I’ll do bigger shows.”

Left: Dealer Pedro Mendes with collector Frances Reynolds and Frieze Art Fairs artistic director Jo Stella-Sawicka. Right: Dealer Nerea Fernandez.

Each long day flowed into a late dinner, and I knew I was in Spain when, like swords of Damocles, giant hams dangled over a bartender’s head. That was at a dinner by Kaj Forsblom that drew Katelijne De Backer and artist Jiri Georg Dokoupil, among others. The next day, on the fifth floor of a local manse, Mendes Wood and Travesía Cuatro joined forces to host their own fete. “The waiters can no longer serve alcohol because it’s too crowded,” someone said. Across town, in the opulent digs of a deceased interior decorator, five galleries—Crèvecoeur, Jocelyn Wolff, Nogueras Blanchard, Maisterravalbuena, and Mor Charpentier—supplied collectors and artists with ceviche and croquetas. People appeared fresh from various parties staged by embassies.

“I’ll always remember the first time we did ARCO,” Alex Nogueras had told me. “There was a terrorist attack by Basque separatists. It was shards of broken glass that were in a car parked outside.”

His partner, Rebeca Blanchard, said, “I was on the fair's committee for four years and...one of the first things Carlos Urroz did as director was to make it smaller.” She added, “Under the last director we almost decided not to come back. [The fair] didn’t have direction, and that coincided with the financial situation.”

Left: Artist Stefan Bruggerman and dealer Guillermo Romero. Right: Art NY director Katelijne De Backer.

But things were recovering. At their booth, which featured work by Perejaume and a stable of younger artists, Nogueras and Blanchard had sold to two FRACs in France. He said collectors were also “faster this year in making decisions.”

“Before they were more like ‘I have to think about it, send me a PDF.’ This year is more like, here, now.”

In the dim light of their joint party, Axel Dibie of Crèvecoeur turned from a conversation with French collectors Sébastien and Celine Peyret. “I do this job because of the autobiography by Man Ray, Self Portrait. After reading it, I wanted to live with art and artists—to live the adventure of art.”

There we were. Living the adventure of art, I suppose. And like that, ARCO was done, and the Armory Show was upon us.

Left: Accion Cultural Espanola's Marta Rincón, Kunsthaus Basselland director Ines Goldbach, and Centre Pompidou's Alison Knock. Right: Curator Francesco Stocchi.

Left: Curator Miguel Amado and Javier Hontoria. Right: Curators Nicolas Bourriaud and Marc-Olivier Wahler.