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Young Uruguay
by Karl Dahlquist & Paulo Ravecca
Montevideo, the capital and largest city of Uruguay, is famous in Latin America for its theater, but it is far from being an art-world center. Still, the tropes of global postmodernism are everywhere, particularly among the under-30 artists who make their home in this lusty metropolis (pop. 1.8 million) on the Río de la Plata.

It comes as no surprise that one of Montevideo’s best-known young artists, Martín Sastre (b. 1976), lives and practices in Spain. Still, Sastre maintains a connection with his country of birth through, the home site for "The Foundation for the Super Poor Arts," which ostensibly provides a three-month stipend to work and live in Montevideo to three "first world" students from Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany.

Fundación de Arte Contemporáneo
Something of a neo-Pop artist, Sastre has, among other things, made artworks using his own version of the supercute "Hello Kitty" figure, and created a video game in which players are sent on a mission to "masturbate Britney Spears with a giant cotton swab." He got his start as a member of the "Movimento Sexy," a group of 20-something "new media" artists that formed around Montevideo’s Fundación de Arte Contemporáneo (FAC, or Foundation for Contemporary Art). FAC is located in Montevideo’s Old City (as is the Spanish Cultural Center, see below), famous for its historical buildings, picturesque cafes and artist’s studios, as well as for a certain amount of poverty, criminality and prostitution. 

FAC is directed by Fernando López Lage, who figures as something of a "papa" for the new generation of artists, and the institution offers studio space and other support to the young Uruguayan art scene. Other "Movimento Sexy" artists affiliated with the center include Federico Aguirre (b. 1977), Paula Delgado (b. 1977), Julia Castagno (b. 1977), Martin Tailor (b. 1976) and Daniel Umpiérrez (b. 1974). Also working at FAC is Carolina Comas (b. 1979), a performance artist with an Asian alter ego known as Wing Sill, and the painter Sebastián Sáez (b. 1974), known for works that place angst-ridden figures against colorful landscapes.

A recent visit to FAC found the artist Sergio Porro (b. 1970) at work on a new series of colorful paintings portraying a big-eyed baby girl doll with a little red hood. In one of the canvases she is crying, with her panties pulled down. In another, she is tied to a pole and pierced by arrows. 

Javier Abreu at the Centro Municipal de Exposiciones
Still another young Uruguayan artist of note is Javier Abreu (b. 1980), whose work has something of a "punk" complexion. Indeed, Abreu has shown himself to be a fearlessly coprophilic, notably in a 2003 performance in which he supposedly ate his own shit while dressed as a McDonald’s employee -- he even offered the audience a taste! A common saying in Montevideo (especially among cultured leftists) is that "McDonald’s hamburgers are shit," and in his work Abreu returned the sentiment to its literal form, as if to say, "I can sell you shit and still be smiling."

A recent exhibition of Abreu’s work curated by Fernando Loustaunau at the Centro Municipal de Exposiciones was titled "Retrospectiva," July 1-Aug. 14, 2005, and took the absurd idea of a retrospective of work by a young, emerging artist as its central theme. The two side walls of the gallery were covered with 2,073 sheets of paper, each with the artist’s name written in a large black bold font ("Abreu" resembles the word "abre," or "open"). The same sheets were used in an earlier installation piece to cover the front window of a prominent downtown gallery, making their display here, indeed, a retrospective.

In the back of the space was a video projection of Abreu’s own face, saying, "I am looking at the art world of Uruguay," and asking, "Who succeeds and who does not?" Or, as Loustaunau put it, Abreu asks how one becomes a "functional subject in a ritualized system."

In a series of digital prints, unfortunately not in "Retrospectiva," Abreu offers a possible answer to this question. The pictures show the artist’s own naked back, seen through the half-open door of a public bathroom. On the door is tagged the celebratory words, "Che qué macho" ("Hey, what a macho"). The work suggests that the route to success is rather sordid.

Abreu is also known to wear a pink t-shirt printed on the back with the price of 500 pesos (about 20 cents). Reflecting on the relation of the artist to critics and collectors, Abreu says, "It’s dirty," but then adds, "Let’s be prostitutes!" Abreu’s attitude is ironic -- the reproduction of the objectionable situation becomes a way to contest it. 

The "Logo" group in "13 por 13" at CCE
Not far from FAC is the impressive Centro Cultural de España (CCE), where the exhibition "13 por 13: Trece Curadores/Trece Artistas" ("Thirteen Curators/Thirteen Artists") can be found, July 12-Sept. 19, 2005. Organized by Patricia Bentancur, CCE’s visual arts director, the exhibition focuses as much on the challenges of "curating the contemporary" as it does on the artworks themselves, inviting 13 different curators to choose an artist that they consider "contemporary."

At the vernissage, we found the artists Mariana Ures (b. 1977) and Felipe Ridao (b. 1978), who work together as a collaborative called Logo. Their work for "13 por 13" is a critical survey asking visitors to rank the "contemporariness" of each work and the show itself -- and also of Uruguay’s new center-left government. In general, the artists are concerned with the language of cultural control in the city and the financial capital that underlies it. For Ures and Ridao, the most important question in their survey regards the absence of compensation for artists who exhibit in the cultural centers of Uruguay. The sobriety of the questionnaire offers a chilly contrast to the illusion of prosperity created by the wine and smiles of the elegant visitors at gallery openings.

Another Logo venture is the "Lovetour" (see, a Situationist-inspired endeavor for which they perform different urban interventions. Recently, they embarked on a project to explore the type of perception specific to tourism, conceiving of several itineraries through the city for participants, recording their observations in a pseudo-scientific manner. The Lovetour is documented in Logo’s own artist-designed magazine, on their web page and in installations, including one at the "Salón Anual Municipal de Artes Visuales 2004," which also doubled as a recruitment effort for the tours.

Logo cites Antoni Muntadas, Laura Baigorri and Hiroshi Hara as influences. "The material aspects of our work are passageways to the abstract," Ridao says. "It is the conceptual part that matters." Logo seems propelled by a vigorous idealism, refreshing in today’s dominant culture of self-indulgent cynicism. 

Paula Delgado’s Como sos tan lindo
Another standout in "13 por 13" is Paula Delgado’s eight-minute-long video, Como sos tan lindo ("How could you be so beautiful?" Or, alternatively, "How beautiful you are!"). The video presents a stylized scene of men posing in a luxurious hotel room, a kind of global-nowhere-anywhere-space. The men, it turns out, responded to an advertisement posted by Delgado in a daily newspaper, "looking for attractive males for photo shoot. 15+." In the video, the men talk about male beauty and self-perception. A separate section presents still images of the men posing provocatively, often naked or nearly so.

The video shows that "masculine beauty" remains a contested field in contemporary society. "The awareness in Uruguay of the commoditization of the male body has not yet been as forceful as in Europe and the U.S.," Delgado says. Nonetheless, the stereotypical script of the sexualized media industry dominates the way these men think about both themselves and male beauty, and the way the participants act out and perform for the camera.

In their attempts to appear attractive, the young men in the film violate some of the esthetic codes of advertising, for example, by having cheap-looking underwear or overacting.  One of the film’s most potent aspects is precisely the way it shows these "errors," which glaringly disturb the overall stylization of the scene. Some of the still photography borders on amateur pornography, but it never becomes that. The project is disarmingly honest.

Dani Umpi, Diva
Adriana Broadway, the curator who selected Delgado’s video for "13 por 13," is one of the many alter egos of Daniel Umpiérrez. Dani Umpi, as this performance artist is also known, fictionalizes the intimate aspects of his own life and presents it to the public as his art. Parts of his diary are found online (see He writes fiction, poetry and even sings (or rather, he screams), and has made works that toy with the esthetic typical of Latin-American soap operas (recently, he even wrote a script for an Argentinean one).

Frustration, envy, anxiety, hysteria -- these affects all appear in his work. But are they filtered through Umpi’s art or are they a fatally accurate reproduction? Ambiguity is central to Umpi’s creations. 

Umpi takes both male and female roles, and has become something of a diva-star-freak or even idiot (in the Dostoevskyian sense) in a society with few celebrities. Umpi’s artistic practice challenges constructed roles and rules, and he (or she) has become an "institution" in his own right. It does not matter what Umpi does, as long as he does it, it is art. 

The daughter of Torres García
Still another artist in "13 por 13" is Jacqueline Lacasa (b. 1970), whose conceptualist work takes the form of texts describing the artistic environment in Uruguay. Written across the floor and resembling the famous branching "rhizome" structure of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the work, Lacasa says, "tries to bring to light the very discourse of cultural agents, exploring the ways in which dialogical processes are the fundamental support for artistic memory." She stresses the importance of memory, or what she calls "the archive," an interest that seems notable in the context of the generalized neglect of contemporary art in Uruguay.

Although abstract and theoretical, Lacasa’s art clearly explores the concrete social situation. Her publication, La Hija Natural de JTG (The Biological Daughter of Joaquín Torres García), for which she gathered the opinions of more than a hundred local cultural producers in Uruguay, explores the ways in which Uruguayan society supports its artists, and through this, the very possibility of creation in the first place -- ultimately, the ways in which young artists make room for themselves with or without the support of (the) Capital. 

New painters 
Montevideo is not all theater and conceptual art, of course. In addition to Sergio Porro and Sebastián Sáez, who were mentioned above, the new generation of Uruguayan painters includes two who break with traditional materials and subject matter. Their focus is the canvas, not the persona. 

Paola Puentes (b. 1974) paints -- in monochrome green -- scenes of everyday leisure such as a young woman lying in the sand with her dog or two girls laughing in a car. Puentes has worked in advertising, and it’s easy to read her work as oppositional to the imperatives of marketing. The paintings are about "nothing," she says, adding, "That’s why I do not use a lot of colors." They show a world separated from the urgencies and excess of commodity culture. Instead, Puentes paints shared "moments in time," small invaluable acts and laughs. This "nothing" is nevertheless a something, namely, a space of love.  

A second Uruguayan painter of interest is Martín Pelenur (b. 1977), whose studio is in a century-old loft in Montevideo’s historic Old City. The space would produce envy in most artists, and is the location of his current show, titled "Series of Black Paintings." The series is site-specific -- each painting is made specifically for its respective place in the space. Pelenur uses industrial paint, which he applies in multiple layers, with the chance chemical reaction of the various pigments determining the fine patterns on the canvas -- but it is the artist’s hand that decides what is to be covered in black or left to transpire, to be seen. 

"After three years of hard work, I feel that I am able to make a synthesis," Pelenur says. "This synthesis is black." The paintings are large and have required some physical strength to develop. "I have finished the painting long before I begin to paint," he says, indicating the kind of control he brings to the process. Given the materials and the huge size, Pelenur’s work also has a sense of "industrial virility." The surface does not have an oil painting’s typical fragility. "You can touch," Pelenur says. "Touch it!"  

Others and more
Among the many other significant young artists in Montevideo is Paulino Duarte (b. 1985), who introduces himself by saying, "Yes, sadly I am Paulino Duarte." A digital artist, Duarte made a video installation featuring "Paukas, the Worst DJ in the World," playing his music in a violent, simulated environment. The installation was shown earlier in 2005 at the Goethe Institute in Montevideo. 

Pedro Tyler (b. 1975) is a well-thought-of sculptor who works with glass, metal and similar elemental materials and whose work is preoccupied with notions of subjectivity and beauty, and the dangers posed by reason. His sculpture, writes the art historian Ricardo Loebell, has a lyrical way of subverting our normal sense of line.

Finally, on the stairway outside "13 por 13," we struck up a conversation with two artists who turned out to be visiting from Weimar -- as guests of Sastre’s semi-comic foundation! They receive room and board, plus $100 a month for expenses, not that bad in a country where workers often earn less than $120.

Their art project for their Montevideo residency was to make a video for anyone who paid them for it, so we offered them five pesos (about $2) and, since it was not exactly clear to us whether their role was in front of or behind the video lens, we shot our own tape of the duo with our camera, while they filmed us with their cell phone.

KARL DAHLQUIST and PAULO RAVECCA are writers whose work involves the political and the esthetic.