Open Show Buenos Aires review

An audience watching the screen at Open Show Buenos Aires (Photo by Caitlin Margaret Kelly)

In the ivy-swathed garden of the Oasis Clubhouse in Palermo Soho, a mixed crowd of Argentines and English-speaking expats gathered on a Saturday night last month for a relaxing evening of photography. Images were projected on a screen above the glowing green pool; soft yellow lamps and plush red armchairs were visible through the glass walls above; a bartender was kept busy serving out “signature cocktails”. The normally members-only social club had let in guests for the inauguration of the Open Show project in Buenos Aires. But it could have been London, or Dubai—luxury is a city of its own.

The dreamy, culturally ambiguous setting was a fitting one for Open Show, which has already launched in 18 cities in 12 countries and is set to have its second event in Buenos Aires this week. Thought up by San Francisco-based photographer Tim Wagner in 2008, Open Show aims at the give and take of artistic creation and viewer participation. The premise is so simple one wonders that something similar doesn’t exist already—choose five photographers, let each one present his work for ten minutes, throw the floor open to audience questions. It’s a format that shares blood ties with other “open” movements. After all, if music clips and scientific data can be made accessible to the public, why not the artistic process too?

First up to test out the idea at the November event was Nicolas Otaegui with his series ‘Bronson’s Cave’. Otaegui’s work features extreme close-ups set in a tattoo parlour, nearly all the images black and white. According to Otaegui, the shoot wasn’t planned; the photos were a result of casual day with friends. But the intense looks on the faces of the artists’ friends suggest their immersion in this world is anything but casual. His photos don’t give the viewer space to stand back or evaluate; one simply comes face to face (or face to tattooed arm, as it were) with the culture, whether one is used to seeing a bottle of tattoo ink at such intimate distance or not. In Los Angeles, Bronson’s Cave is known to directors as a go-to location backdrop: hundreds of westerns, B-movie horror flicks, and series like Twin Peaks have turned to its gloomy, craggy landscape for instant atmosphere. In Otaegui’s photos, needles and monochrome photography supply something of the same imagistic immediacy.

  Sofia Mazo presents her work ‘Umbilical’ at Open Show (Photo: Caitlin Margaret Kelly)

Sofia Mazo came next with her collection ‘Umbilical’. Mazo, a Colombian, plays with the idea of links, whether to family or city, and whether organic or transplanted. The black and white photos mostly feature eclectic scenes of Mazo’s adopted home: a Buenos Aires park, an armchair discarded in Microcentro. Though Mazo’s collection lacks the unified theme of the others (she’s a career publicist and “aficionado” of photography) they reflect her clear wonder at her new environment. The strongest few images feature an old photograph, tacked up to an ancient tree, of her mother as a young woman. The wood grain is wonderfully clear—the image an evocation of slow growth and continuity.

‘Fuerza Diablo!’ was the name of the next selection of photos, presented by porteño Eduardo Rivero. The most technically impressive of the bunch, they take up the Carnaval de Oruro, a major carnival in Bolivia second in scope only to Rio’s. The photos were clearly manipulated digitally to bring out the vibrant tones—but Rivero claimed the colours are just as ravishing in real life. Rivero included a number of formal portraits of subjects, whom he said were more comfortable posing in an official setting. But it’s the spontaneous images which most impress, the religious intensity of the Bolivians as they go about preparing lush masks and costumes taking on a frenetic incandescence. It seems a kind of bacchanalia—bright-jacketed musicians clashing cymbals, lines of girls posing in thigh-high white boots. In fact, explained Rivera, it’s just the opposite. Though alright (or expected) to be borracho on Sunday, at the Saturday festival you must dance with religious fervour to expel the devils and properly dedicate yourself to the virgin.

Brazilian photographer Thiago Pimentel followed, presenting his ‘Hazy City’. Pimentel’s stated ambition is for a “new movement” in photography beyond documentation, and for the creation of an imagined city “more perfect than reality”. In his case this means black and white images generously manipulated by computer—very dark, with heavy contrast and a quasi-Gothic aesthetic. The photos of bridges, buildings under clouds, and staircases spilling into patches of light started as photos of seven different cities, but have mutated unrecognizably beyond their real-life counterparts to take on the quality of dreams. Taken seriously, Pimentel’s aesthetic would have one thinking of each city not as an isolated singularity, but as a collection of details that can be infinitely recombined in an always-renewing city of the imagination.

In the final presentation, ‘Buenos Aires con Ojos Extranjeros’, Pablo Gardner presented his pictures of various foreigners in Buenos Aires—from Paraguay to Switzerland—who have settled in the city and now call it home. Each photograph depicting a subject going about life in his or her barrio, from construction workers determined to start a second career to self-described “exiles” of the world, is accompanied by a sentence in the subject’s own words. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the exhibit seemed to garner the most audience enthusiasm. At its heart lay a gimmick, certainly (and it was disappointing to learn that the pictures were posed)—but the classic pairing of image and text was also surprisingly thrilling. One can always start anew.

Eduardo Rivero’s work ‘Fuerza Diablo!’ reflected at the Oasis Club’s pool at Open Show (Photo: Patricio Murphy)

There was nothing specifically “Buenos Aires” about the first Buenos Aires Open Show. Indeed, it’s somewhat surprising that none of the presentations took on controversial subjects; none of the artists claimed political motivations. Though all of the photos played with the idea of an environment diverse or alien to the viewer, similar photos could have been displayed in any one of the project’s other international locales. Is that lack of social engagement something one should worry about? Perhaps not. For a little under two hours it can be nice to forget where you’re from and what you are, and live only in a world of photographs—a medium beyond the thorny terrain of language. On that congenial, wine-soaked evening, anyway, no one was game for much interrogation. (The audience questions, less lobbed than tossed very lightly, tended toward polite inquiries into artistic motive.)

This may change going forward, however. A recently released list of the five artists chosen for the second event suggests more site-specific works, exploring issues from the ecological effects of fishing in the Península Valdés to the aftermath of a recent volcanic eruption in Patagonia. According to founder Tim Wagner, Open Show launched faster in Buenos Aires than in any other city thus far; its organizers hope there will be many similar events to come, expanding into different media like short film. The tone at future gatherings is difficult to predict. But certainly, it will depend on at least three things—the location chosen, the kind of artists selected, and the decision by those artists of whether or not to leave politics at the door.