Feliz Año

Work by Daniel Leber at 2019, Buenos Aires.

2019 ARRIVED LIKE A NEW YEAR. In the final days of 2018, Santiago Villanueva, an artist and art historian from Azul, Argentina, announced on his Instagram that he would open an exhibition space with fellow artists Rosario Zorraquín and Fernanda Laguna in Buenos Aires’s Villa Crespo neighborhood. The post looked like an informal invitation to a New Year’s Eve party: “Ya viene 2019 Spacio de Arte” (2019 Spacio de Arte is coming) outlined in bubble letters over an airbrushed blue and violet orb of lo-res glitter.

For 2019, the three artists (who are also curators, writers, poets, and organizers) would collectively curate approximately one exhibition per month, just for the year. Each lasted only as long as its opening. The artists whose works were shown were decidedly outside of the art system: Consider Ana Wandzik, with her whimsically embroidered creatures and poignantly brief diaristic poems, or Anahi Sosa, whose meticulous practice involves sculpting wood into sensuously supple forms but also braiding hair. Or Gabriela Binder, aka ChicaTrans, whose macabre comic-book drawings chronicle the misadventures of trans women; Gladys Afamado, a ninety-four-year-old Uruguayan engraver who now makes Photoshop collages and word puzzles on Facebook; and Clara Angélica Castro, who has created a new reality for her plush, life-size human dolls she calls “los muchachos.” Events of all kinds—performances, readings, conversations, fashion shows, and DJ sets—coincided with most of these shows.

Works by the aforementioned artists and others were installed in “a poorly lit corridor”—per the founders’ description—and the adjoining courtyard of a simple two-story residence, with Zorraquín’s studio and a terrace on the upper level. Unassuming from the outside (graffitied facades, middling architecture), the building reveals itself to be magical when the tiny one-car-garage door is opened: Colorful light illuminating Laguna’s “El Universo” (The Universe) beams out and welcomes people into the cheap and cheerful gift shop, brimming with stuffed animals, sand, branches, drawings, stickers, bibelots, and ephemera. This wonder for all of the universe’s creations and those who make them enlivened 2019, evident in the artworks exhibited but also in the gallery’s nonhierarchical structure and anti-professional ethos. At some point during the year, the “Spacio de Arte” became a “Spazio de Arte,” a joke about the founders’ Italian ancestry (as much as about the cliché that Argentinians are Eurocentric) that was said to give their hallway “some European luxury,” in the playfully ironic words of Villanueva. Artists and founders cooperatively installed and deinstalled the shows and cleaned up together at the end of the night. Works were priced around two thousand pesos (a little over thirty US dollars), making it possible for noncollectors to support artists’ labor. When things sold—and many did—2019’s founders didn’t take a cut. No official installation photos were taken. There were no web pages, checklists, mailing lists, private views, or press releases.

Fran Stella.

Instead, lo-fi flyers were made for each show and circulated in WhatsApp chats and on Instagram. On any given night, those who came through might have been the artists’ family, friends, friends of friends, and neighbors from the surrounding area, which, while home to a number of contemporary art galleries, hasn’t quite undergone total gentrification like the adjacent Palermo district. People spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the open door to “El Universo” for hours into the night, talking, smoking, sipping fernet or cerveza, leaving only to buy more drinks or empanadas to share. We danced and listened to music by artists like Gilda, the late Argentine cumbia singer of near-saintly status, and Kim Petras, the trans pop phenom who dropped two new albums this year. Photocopied libritos (little books) were made for each show and sold for ten pesos (not even twenty cents). Words and images by the artists were included therein, alongside the same question to be answered differently by the founders: “¿Por qué hacíamos exposiciones en los dos mil diecinueve?” Why were we making exhibitions in 2019

DECEMBER IN ARGENTINA is distinctive. It’s the liveliest month of summer, before las fiestas and las vacaciones; it’s also when new presidents are sworn in. In 2015, this was Mauricio Macri—the first democratically elected non-Radical, non-Peronist president in nearly a century. His eponymous breed of neoliberalism and right-wing populist policies, macrismo, gained momentum during his various tenures in the city government (2005–15), coinciding with the left-wing populism of the Kirchner presidencies (Néstor Carlos Kirchner Jr., 2003–2007; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 2007–15), which followed the country’s most recent and severest Great Depression (1998–2002). This was the moment of the Argentinazo, when, in December 2001, Argentinians took to the streets with pots and pans—a form of popular demonstration called cacerolazo—to protest restricted banking policies known as el corralito, the pegging of the Argentine peso to the US dollar, and spiraling debt. Police brutality ensued; five presidents assumed office in eleven days. Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, in office for a week, announced Argentina’s ninety-three-billion-dollar sovereign debt on December 23. (It was on this same date, seventeen years later, that Villanueva announced the beginning of 2019.) The New Year would bring total economic collapse.

Work by Gabriela Binder, ChicaTrans.

This year’s December was triumphal. Thousands rallied in the Plaza de Mayo on December 10, as Alberto Fernández of Frente de Todos (“Front of All,” a coalition that aimed to bring together all factions of Peronism) returned to the Casa Rosada, this time as the president (he had previously served as the chief of the Cabinet of Ministers during the Kirchner years), with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his VP. Macri’s fifty-six-billion-dollar IMF bailout in September 2018—the largest in the organization’s history, and Argentina’s third sovereign default since 2001—resulted in cuts to pensions and public utilities, and proved that his economic agenda would not bring about the stability he promised. When it was clear that his Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition had effected no (positive) change at all, Fernández could oust him.

2019 was a response to macrismo—its plutocracy, disregard for social welfare, and privileging of international capital over national and regional interests. It drew on the example of earlier alternative spaces like the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas and Belleza y Felicidad (Beauty and Happiness). Founded in 1989 and 1999, respectively, the two galleries bookended the decade-long presidency of Carlos Saúl Menem, during which he leveraged his form of Peronism to implement drastic neoliberal reforms. Austerity, privatization, and a proliferation of international commodities marked this period, as well as a “whatever it takes” entrepreneurial ethos that Menem himself embodied. (So much so that the term menemismo, which first referred to a political alignment with the president, later expanded to describe virtually anyone who flaunted their wealth through conspicuous consumption.)

The artists associated with the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas—Graciela Hasper, Magdalena Jitrik, Benito Laren, Alfredo Londaibere, Cristina Schiavi, Omar Schiliro, Marcelo Pombo, and Laguna herself, among many others—refused this neoliberal turn. Founded by artist-curator Jorge Gumier Maier (who also exhibited his work there) in what he called a “poorly lit corridor” (his words were invoked by 2019’s founders decades later) at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1989, the gallery radically reoriented Argentine contemporary art, rejecting normative artistic and political ideologies through the artists’ investment in vernacular materials and “light,” seemingly anti-intellectual and apolitical aesthetics: the decorative, the beautiful, and kitsch.

Clara Angélica Castro and her los muchachos.

After Gumier Maier stepped down as director in 1996, and as many of the El Rojas artists were subsumed into the art world proper, there was a cultural vacuum to be filled. Three years later, Laguna and poets Cecilia Pavón and Gabriela Bejerman started Belleza y Felicidad. It was created in the spirit of a regaleria (gift shop), where artworks were as sweet, fun, and (notwithstanding inflation) affordable as the curios on offer alongside them. Not unlike those for sale in “El Universo,” these objects gestured toward a certain argentinismo/a/x, offering a mode of communal luxury in symbolic opposition to global commodities. Belleza y Felicidad ran an imprint of the same name and was a gathering space for parties, workshops, and readings. Stories and poetry—often autobiographical, with queer protagonists, and influenced by emails, blogs, texts, and social media—filled the pages of black-and-white photocopied booklets. As scholar Cecilia Palmeiro has observed in her research on their literature and activities, the gallery’s publications and events furthered countercultural oral traditions, imagining different ways of togetherness amid the profound economic, political, and technological changes sweeping the aughts. Belleza y Felicidad sought to retain some of the internet’s initial idealism toward democratized self-expression and communication, but in physical space and on a relatively local scale. (While its first location in Buenos Aires’s Almagro neighborhood closed in 2007, the gallery’s imprint continues to publish and participate in book fairs; Laguna also opened a second Belleza y Felicidad in 2003 in Villa Fioriot, a very low-income city south of the capital, where she still organizes workshops and free gourmet dinners.) 

AS WITH BELLEZA Y FELICIDAD and the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas before it, 2019 militated against its cultural and technological milieu—against the homogenizing effects of feed aggregators and influencer culture, against the influx of global art-world interests and their professionalizing standards. Is it any wonder that Art Basel’s “Cities” initiative found its footing in the context of macrismo? Why were any of us making exhibitions in 2019? In one answer to this question, Laguna, Zorraquín, and Villanueva write: “To tolerate, together, the misfortunes and sadness that Macri caused us. With artists and works, we thought of ways to resist together, ways to embrace each other, to be calm but awake. The works and artists always reminded us that politics and art should be closer.” And achieving this closeness, they believed, could be done through very simple means: by bringing people “out of their homes” to convene around art like a “family bonfire.”

Work by Ana Wandzik.

The closing exhibition of 2019 was on December 6, days before Fernández and Fernández de Kirchner were sworn in. Castro was invited back to organize this last show. Her hand-stitched garments for los muchachos were available for others to wear—princess dresses, vests, capes, hand-painted T-shirts, chokers. So were her masks made of buckets and tubes, and those of otherworldly creatures made by Florencia Rodríguez Giles. The evening was accompanied by Castro’s music and choreography, though anybody could join in. Adorned and enrobed, everyone danced in a celebratory, almost mystical trance. 

Like any of us, Laguna, Villanueva, and Zorraquín could not anticipate the outcome of 2019 when it began. The years leading up to it had been difficult, giving rise to a suspicion among many Argentinians that their destiny was cursed. So, the three friends imagined putting a “blessing” on the year, “to leave one thing, to enter another thing that is supposed to be better.” Without knowing for certain that Macri wouldn’t be reelected, they wanted “to better the neighborhood, and the city, too.” Their language derisively echoed that of the former president’s empty Cambiemos campaigns, but 2019’s words were also heartfelt and intentional. The final exhibition invitation was a slight variation of the first, with a rough superimposition of los muchachos over the same glittering background. As though asking the question “Why 2019?” of himself, Villanueva’s caption read, “It was beautiful to do it.”

Kerry Doran is writer and curator with projects based out of Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and New York.