Something in the Air

An afterparty at ARCO. All photos unless noted: Javier Montes.

TO KISS OR NOT TO KISS: This was, at the beginning of the week of ARCOmadrid, more or less the tacit issue at hand, as the coronavirus had arrived in the capital just as the wings of the international art world were descending. But here in Spain, we are indiscriminately effusive with intimates and strangers alike, so as the fair—this year excellently led for the first time solo by Maribel López—took cruising speed, kisses and hugs and explosive laughs and close whispers in the ear won the war against demurer modes of interaction. For better or worse, each culture is born, develops itself, and self-destroys in its own particular way, and in the end us Spaniards will probably go among kisses and laughter—not the worst way to do it.

Among other forms of greeting, I knew that the week was gaining momentum when a few days ahead of the official opening, at one of the bright weekly lunches at the Center for Rural Approach, run by Amélie Aranguren and artist Fernando García-Dory, I was welcomed from the far end of the long table with slight bows by members of the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, curators of the next documenta, who happened to be visiting Spain.

From then on, the flow of diverse art-worlders only intensified: At the inauguration of the artist Teresa Solar’s exhibition at Travesía Cuatro, an absorbed Joan Jonas—with an admirable capacity for concentration that many post-millennials would envy—contemplated the works without yielding an inch to the niceties and frivolities of any given opening, in Madrid or anywhere in the planet. Jonas was the guest of honor the next day at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in whose basement TBA21, the foundation of Francesca Thyssen, opened her solo exhibition “Moving Off the Land II.” At the small dinner organized by the museum’s director, Carlos Urroz, I discussed with curators Chus Martínez and Sandra Antelo, and Matadero Madrid director Rosa Ferré, whether artists secretly aspire to become machines célibataires, free from temptations that prevent them from working. I said yes, but Chus and Rosa argued there was nothing worse than the genre of the “Thermomix artist,” who chops and boils and blends anything at hand according to preprogrammed recipes. Later, it was again Jonas who proved to be the fastest holster in town. Before I could photograph her, she drew out her cellphone and photographed me: Her flash overcame that unequal duel.

Joan Jonas, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Francesca Thyssen, and Isabela Mora at Jonas's opening at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Photo: Iván Hidalgo.

The next day, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo orchestrated the inauguration of Ian Cheng’s show in the courtyard and halls of the venerable Fundación Fernando de Castro. Isabela Mora, factotum and spin-doctor of many international art initiatives, acted as master of ceremonies, as always impeccable and almost as ubiquitous as Hans Ulrich Obrist himself, who was there to interview Cheng. True to William Blake’s dictum “Exuberance is beauty,” she had adorned the rooms with immense arrangements of cherry and plum blossoms. For lunch, cocido madrileño, a rich chickpea stew true to the city’s traditions.

Slightly more restrained at ARCO proper, curator Mason Leaver-Yap had adopted the elbow-bump as a default greeting. Together with Alejandro Cesarco, they discussed the mini-show they’d cocurated with works inspired by the spirit of Félix González-Torres, who served as the guiding totem and reference for the fair this year.

Now in its thirty-ninth edition, ARCO benefits today from the numerous Latin American collectors who have been snatching up real estate and installing their winter nests in Madrid. I sensed their satisfaction in the Teresa Sapey–designed VIP room, where the last coffees and croissants of the inaugural breakfast were already commingling with the first cavas and jamón. Helga de Alvear, dean of Spanish gallerists, spoke with pride of the imminent inauguration in Cáceres, Extremadura, of the new building by Tuñón y Mansilla that will house the superb collection she has donated to the city. She mentioned that she had asked another crowned entity who was expected at the fair, the King of Spain, to contribute a new monorail to Extremadura, a petition supported by countless civil associations and which would partly remedy the isolation of a region as beautiful as it is unknown.

I left the fair and trekked to the headquarters of Ivorypress, the gallery/art press/bookstore established by Elena Ochoa Foster and designed by Sir Norman Foster. Obrist was there, speaking with artist Michal Rovner to a large audience with an impressive front row: professor and curator Estrella de Diego, veteran curator Carmen Giménez, Isabela Mora, and Lady Foster herself, among others.

Estrella de Diego, Isabela Mora, Elena Ochoa Foster, and Carmen Giménez at Ivorypress. Photo: Pablo Gomez Ogando.

Tired, but following the example of the incombustible Jonas, I gathered energy to go to dinner in the Andalusian restaurant La Giralda, where the gallery Parra & Romero celebrated the opening of the new exhibition of Rosa Barba. At a particularly fun table, Agustín Pérez Rubio talked about the Berlin Biennale that he is cocurating with Lisette Lagnado; curator and activist Arakis posed for a group photo with a great hat completely concealing her face; and Inti Guerrero, a curator of Latin American art at Tate Modern, expounded on a whole generation of proto-performers from the mythical Brazil of the ’50s, from Elvira Pagã to the formidable Luz del Fuego.

During ARCO, it is well known, you sleep little, if at all. A dutiful early bird, Juan Várez, the former head of Christie’s Spain and a discerning art collector, offered, with his partner, the designer Jan Taminiau, one more of his traditional breakfasts at their home. This time it was dedicated to showcasing the work of the Portuguese artist Ana Jotta.

From breakfast to breakfast, oozing caffeine, I approached the arts center La Casa Encendida, where the young Alvaro Urbano inaugurated a beautiful and poetic architectural installation. Director Lucía Casani and I agreed: The mysterious and hazy atmosphere was particularly clement with us attendants, and appropriate at concealing the ravages already visible in many faces after an intense week. Urbano’s partner, the Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj, always smiling and simpático, shared details about his upcoming installation in the Palacio de Cristal at the Retiro Park, part of the Reina Sofía and curated by its director, Manuel Borja-Villel.

Cecilia Gandarias, curator Pilar Soler, and artists Pereñíguez, Miki Leal, Elena Alonso, and Manuel Viturro.

That morning, in the Bermuda triangle of Madrid art—between the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofía—in the Palacio de Neptuno, the most seasoned of the ARCO spinoff fairs in Madrid, JustMad, opened its doors. As it is often the case, the less jaded and more curious happened to be also great veterans—from pioneering gallerist Soledad Lorenzo to collector Pilar Citoler. Next door, with his effortless elegance and usual savoir faire, another living legend of Madrid cultural ecosystem, the interior designer Pascua Ortega, opened his living rooms for a massive warming-up lunch of sushi, a welcome alternative to the very Hispanic menus of previous days.

From one crystal palace to another, the night ended at the great party organized by ARCO and the creative collective ELAMOR, in the mythical glass pavilion of Florida Park, a jewel of playful modernism set in Retiro Park, which, since the ’50s, has hosted legendary performances by many a great Spanish and Latin American performer, from Chavela Vargas to Lola Flores. In an atmosphere of almost Lynchian romance-cum-gloom, Hassan Khan warmed the atmosphere with one of his concerts. The dance floor was soon packed by aspirants to Rosalías and Rosalíos dancing to the rhythm of electrocumbias and arty deconstructed reggaetón.

Helga de Alvear at her stand at ARCO.

And it was only Thursday. Downtown, in the gallery of Helga de Alvear, with cafés con leche and somber under-eye circles competing in darkness and density, a large audience assembled to listen to Santiago Sierra talk with Georg Imdahl, the author of a book about Sierra’s work published by This Side Up, the very sophisticated Madrileño art publishing house. “My art is a fast poison and a slow medicine,” said Sierra, explaining that it first causes scandal and hate and then, over time, reflection. Sierra is, for better or worse, one of the Spanish artists who have best been able to portray a supposed intrinsic national or historical character (if such things exist, that is): picaresque, stark, coldly cynical and disillusioned, sometimes cruel and harsh. His talk with Imdahl was like seeing, face to face, each in his chair, two allegories of two approaches to art and life as a whole, from the highly idealistic to the crudely realistic. I found it instructive, if not edifying.

And then, it was time for me to call it a week. I knew that in the very dynamic arts center CA2M in the red belt and working-class neighboring town of Móstoles there was a show about the tradition of absurd humor in Spanish art (among whose forefathers would be the Disparates by Goya himself). The neighboring galleries Nogueras Blanchard were exhibiting lesser-known works of Ana Mendieta, and at García Galería was an installation by Francesc Ruiz, a complement to his retrospective at CA2M. But this diarist knew that sometimes a withdrawal in time is worth more than a thousand victories, and he carried home his bag full of books and brochures and notes, and his purely carbon-based organic memory card full of conversations and images. The plan, by now, was to take a long-overdue Spanish siesta and try to distinguish if the slight migraine and painful joints were the normal results of a week of excess or its viral coronation, heroically earned by this correspondent reporting from the first line of the battlefront.

Agustín Pérez Rubio, cocurator of Berlin Bienniale, and architect Javier Gómez Cordero.

Architect Pilar Briales and Grassy’s co-owner Patricia Reznak.

Javier Montes, architect Selina Feduchi, and art entrepreneur Miguel Bonet.

ARCO party at Florida Park.

ARCO party at Florida Park.

Artist Alexander Apóstol.

Artist Rosa Barba, publishers Cecilia Gandarias and Bruno Lara from This Side Up, Carlos Urroz, director of TBA21, and Soledad Gutiérrez of TBA21.

Artists Pereñíguez, Miki Leal, and Elena Alonso, and publisher and designer Bruno Lara.

At Juan Várez’s home.

Bea Espejo, arts editor at El País, in front of Artforum’s stand at ARCO.

Brazilian artists duo RodriguezRemor at their opening at Casa do Brasil.

Cocido madrileño at Fundación Fernando de Castro.

Collector Betty Guereta and gallerists Gerard Faggionato and Inés López-Quesada at Travesia Cuatro.

Collector Juan Várez under one of his Pepe Espaliùs.

Curator Javier Iturralde at the Italian embassy.

Curators Agustín Perez Rubio and María Inés Rodríguez.

Designer Baruc Corazón and Salvador Nadales, from Reina Sofía, at the Italian embassy.

Designer Jan Taminiau showing his work alongside pieces from Juan Várez´s collection.


Doctor Javier Anido.

Entrance of Pascua Ortega's home.

Riiko Saakkinen’s Franco was not as bad as they say, the yearly scandalous show-stealing artwork.

Fundación Fernando de Castro.

Gallerist Oliva Arauna, director Quique Polanco, and collector Pilar Citoler at JustMad.

Gallerists Silvia Ortiz and Inés Lçopez Quesada, from travesía 4, and Paco Sert.

HUO, Michal Rovner, and Elena Ochoa Foster at Ivorypress. Photo: Pablo Gómez Ogando.

Installation by Alessia Rollo at the Italian embassy.

Italian embassy reception.

Jan Rivera, creative director of Mango, Sofía López-Quesada from Wozere, and Ainhoa San Martín.

Landscapist Manuel Viturro and interior designer Carlos Alonso at Florida Park.

Lucia Casai and Monica Carroquino, from La Casa Encendida, and artist Alvaro Urbano.

Luis Silva and Joao Mourao, from Kunsthalle Lissabon.

María García Yelo, from Christie’s Spain, and Chisco Villar.

María Inés Rodíguez and Hassan Khan at Joan Jonas’s performance, Prado Museum.

Javier Montes, Marta Rincón from ACE, and curator María Inés Rodríguez.

Marta Rincón of ACE, artist Rosa Barba, and curator María Inés Rodríguez.

Members of the collective ruangrupa and artist Fernando García-Dory (inland.org) having lunch at the Center for Rural Approach.

Petrit Halilaj at La Casa Encendida.

Reception at the Italian embassy.

Rosa Barba, Cecilia Gandarias, and Bruno Lara, founders of This Side Up, and Carlos Urroz and Soledad Gutiérrez, from TBA21.

Santi Riveiro from Ivorypress and Javier Montes. Photo: Pablo Gómez-Ogando.

Twin brothers and artists Mp & Mp Rosado.

VIP area designed by Teresa Sapey.

Ian Cheng, PSRR, and HUO. Photo: Benedetta Mascaclchi.

Frances Reynolds, PSRR & Paloma Botín. Photo: Benedetta Mascalchi.