The Simple Life

Left: Martin Craciun and Este Arte director Laura Bardier. Right: Artist Leandro Erlich.

THE SUN NEVER SETS on the international art-fair circuit. In fact, in the southern hemisphere, it blazed down on the first such event of 2016: Este Arte, whose second edition opened a fortnight ago in an abandoned disco a mile or so inland from La Barra, a trendy village thirty minutes up the shore from Punta del Este. 

Known as the Saint-Tropez of Uruguay, Buenos Aires’s Hamptons, and other glossy—I must say, accurate—blue-blooded superlatives, Punta del Este would seem to have the bare materials for sustaining a small fair: far-flung mystique, perfect weather, and, most important, a seasonal population that is filthy rich. Uruguay’s reputation as “The Switzerland of South America” was popularized in the 1950s when it adopted Swiss-style banking laws. The nation of three million people and twelve million cows ballooned with European émigrés after the war and is roundly considered the most tranquil corner of Latin America. Este Arte itself was even dreamed up in Switzerland: Its Uruguayan director, Laura Bardier, has been based in Geneva for five years. 

Unlike Helvetia, Uruguay is an all-day trip from any art capital other than São Paulo or Buenos Aires, and as Argentine collector Marlise Jozami pointed out, it’s wondrously flat. “The sky is the best thing here,” she told a small group who had come for dinner to her and her husband’s elysian estate overlooking a 250-acre preserve. “Landscapes have a profound influence on the personality,” she said, comparing the local calm to the craziness of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro, where mountains plunge into the sea. As a fluffy golden retriever wove through their formal dining room, her husband, Anibal, chancellor of the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires, explained the ambitious plans for a new biennial spanning South American called UNASUR, “one south,” whose principal exhibition in BA will be excerpted and reprised around the region.

Left: Principe Eric Ioan Sturdza and Afshan Almassi. Right: Artist Artur Lescher and dealer Piero Atchugarry. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)

Dinner began at nine and wound down around two in the morning. This was Monday. Fortunately, the bulk of Este Arte was held after peak sun. Tuesday’s preview was scheduled for 5 PM to midnight. At dusk I arrived to the forest glade hiding the concrete complex still emblazoned with the words “MADAME DISCO GROUP.” As I stepped through the booths, I recognized a small number of European galleries among the twenty participating in the fair: Continua, Carroll/Fletcher, and Xippas, whose Renos Xippas is Greek-Uruguayan and has an outpost in both Montevideo and the La Barra–adjacent hamlet of Manantiales. 

A local outfit with an international profile, Xippas had perhaps the most success during the preview. About a dozen brushy drawings of rotund figures by Robert Lazzarini were sold during the first hours. My favorite works belonged to Robinson Mora at the Santiago gallery Factoriá de Arte Santa Rosa. From his home in southern Patagonia, the seventy-year-old painter translates intellectualized impressions of the Aurora Borealis into moody, hard-edged geometric compositions. By the end of the week, Continua had sold an Antony Gormley that promises to end up as a public artwork in the neighboring state of Rocha. With a handful of other sales paced throughout those four days, one figured that most dealers took a gamble on the fair partly as an opportunity to meet new collectors on their home turf, partly as a sure bet for a slice of vacation for themselves. “You have to see this year as an adventure,” said Geneva-based dealer Sandra Recio. “It’s like coming here to conquer—actually, as a Spaniard I probably shouldn’t say that.”

Around 11 PM I found Bardier as she was completing her rounds. Happy in the new space—last year the fair was held at a country club on the highway between La Barra and the moneyed hippie village of José Ignacio—she was optimistic. “It’s a fair on a human scale,” she said. “Nothing is in large quantities here in Uruguay—throughout Latin America, there’s a big poor and a small rich, but here it’s more even.” The analogy may not hold up as well in Punta del Este, with its lime Lamborghinis parked on dusty dirt roads, but it’s true that even here the gestalt is one of personal whims and unbridled fluidity. Case in point: By the time word of the fair made its way around town, three people had spontaneously volunteered their mansions to host an afterparty for the preview. Then, once the disco’s doors shut at midnight, the lucky collector charged with hosting duties decided to cancel.

Left: Designer Lucia Venturini with artists Juan Pablo Campistrous and Paola Monzillo. Right: Cao Guimarães talk at La Huella restaurant. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

The next night we made up for lost time, as two newlywed patrons of the fair, Prince Eric Ioan Sturdza and Afshan Almassi, opened their summer home for a huge party. The courtyard of the mission-style compound was flanked with twenty-some daybeds, reinforcing the twenty-first-century notion that a home in the style of a hotel is the ultimate expression of luxury. A troupe of traditional Candombe drummers kept beat as artist Jonathan Van Dyke crept around the grounds with two accomplices, holding bluntly colored shapes up as masks and freezing before guests in quasi-cubist formations. 

The rest of the week was taken with outings around the region: a restaurant built into sand dunes whose reservations are dominated by Argentine celebrities, for a talk by Brazilian artist Cao Guimarães; the pastoral studio and foundation of Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry; and the exceedingly remote gallery of his son Piero Atchugarry, for an installation by Brazilian artist Artur Lescher, located on the outskirts of a one-hundred-person village called Pueblo Garzon. 

This town of roughly ten square blocks, nearly an hour’s drive from any form of civilization apart from multimillion dollar estates, was discovered for luxury purposes by celebrity chef Francis Mallmann, who opened an all-inclusive $600 a night hotel here in 2009. On the opening day of the fair, Garzon was named to the New York Times’ Fifty-Two Places to Go in 2016 list. As if Punta del Este weren’t a good enough example, this municipality hovering between the scale of a tiny village and huge installation is an uncanny demonstration of how far people with complicated fortunes will go to simulate simplicity.