Biennials & festivals

Dispatches from our man at the Antarctic Biennale: goodbye—until next time


Wednesday 29th March: Hotel call in the 7am dark, specially chosen striped New & Lingwood shirt given me by Ed Spurr, director of Marlborough Contemporary who had been pleased to hear of my travels with their star artist Bismarck. “Marvellous, we have been trying to track him down... he was last seen in Mexico... it’s good to hear he has been sighted in the South Pole.” Crappy lobby coffee and romantic taxi up to Ushuaia airport, so nearby, clouds hanging low under the ringing mountains, the dawn street lamps still alight. How cute that alpine-chalet airport and all our group gathered one last time, the beginning of the end. 9am flight and by going on at the end managed to find a window seat, yet despite first vista of fjord we were soon up above thick cloud, standard Ushuaia weather, realised how fortunate to have had that amazing view when I arrived, very rare.

Much milling around in Buenos Aires Aeroparque as the endless luggage arrived, thankfully the Biennale had hired a big bus to take us all directly to Faena Arts Center for the press conference and final debriefing from our whole adventure. High spirits on the coach as we inch through the notorious Porteño traffic. I noticed bright circus posters for ‘ADRIAN’, wonderful old-fashioned typography and then Yto sitting in front of me said, “Look, a poster in your name” and we agreed how pleasing  to have one. Nobody else would have spotted it, one of the certain signs of a good artist that they ‘see things’, notice things, that others would miss, they are just that much more aware, more observant, more visually acute.

The bus went round and round various blocks filled with Faena buildings, different offices and outposts, they were responsible for redeveloping this whole area of the city, very Miami with gleaming new towers. We disembark in great heat at the extremely gleaming back entrance to the Faena Center. Yto had been up for their famous prize last year, highly prestigious. The money must be limitless; funny so many different contemporary art foundations in Buenos Aires and all so wealthy.

We disembark in great heat at the extremely gleaming back entrance to the Faena Center

Vast empty marble polished space with those wooden haute couture catwalk chairs, all as gleaming white as the Antarctic itself, blindingly shiny. Those usual beautiful ‘clipboard girls’ from good families working in ‘events and PR’, most delicious air conditioning almost too cold, very South Pole. A special selection of works from the Biennale including a classic Joaquín Fargas ‘Glaciator’ with its rotating robot legs and a set of the tripod photographic display boxes.

John Royall looking snappy in ‘Jockey Club’ red slacks, white shirt, all this was very much his event as the ‘US Representative’ of the Arctic Biennial, under the patronage of Unesco. Many heavy hitters gathered by John who has a whole network of Argentine connections from Ivy League roommate days.

Even Pablo Avelluto was in attendance on the podium, the fabled Minister of Culture, a bearded Umberto Eco lookalike who wisely only speaks Spanish. Smash that Yankee imperialism amigo! Our glorious leader Pon-Pon was rightly introduced as “very much a man of the sea” with tales of his varied victories at the Louvre, Pompidou and Venice Biennale. “Sorry, sorry, sorry” his always comic mantra. “All together one ship — I think it was great success — Hurrah! This is our first encounter with civilisation here in Buenos Aires and we will take the Minister with us on our next trip. We will make countless more journeys and voyages." They embrace on stage.

Kaspersky explains his many good deeds, including sponsoring the first female skiers across the Arctic. “I like unpredictable projects — see how the world is different. Here all the artists were on ship, they have no option to go downtown or to a casino and they have to get back on because the next ship is not scheduled! We were almost two weeks all of us together, looking like special alien penguins walking on ice. There was something of Fellini’s ‘Ship Sails On’ but we had a happy end. We even managed to change the weather, our last day was a paradise of sunshine and no wind, albatrosses flying round ship, I am crying, we just landed on ground and are missing the ship and our crew, our world. Now I’m most looking forward to the next Biennale.” Thunderous applause.

Pon-Pon summed it all up, how to change the way we see the world, to see “the Antarctic as a blank sheet of paper where time disappears. Ask anyone of our expedition and they will say how difficult to understand just how much time has passed, we should call it the ‘Biennale of Time’. We artists have to be ready for any kind of change, the ship changing direction, to take out our artworks and fold them up as quickly as we brought them out.”

Official gratitude to the many sponsors including The Art Newspaper, our logo proudly branded on the screen and thanks also to Lady Anna Somers Cocks herself, quite rightly, hear hear.

“This historic event was able to break the line of reality in our environment, every one here has a great sense of adventure, philosophers and scientists; no matter the shaking of our ship we were busy discussing the problems might exist in world today.”

A really rather good film as a ‘teaser’ for the forthcoming full length documentary; Shama singing‘Truth be Told’, the underwater moons of Ponomarev, Hasegawa skating, Saraceno’s black kites mounting up to their sun. All very convincing indeed, far more cohesive and credible than the naturally chaotic reality.

And then the mysterious John Royall brought the whole thing to a close, “This utopic project - to be outside civilisation, working together in an extreme environment building a culture, this is part of a series events talking place around the word, bridging groups of institutions looking for solutions for the planet. We now invite you to cocktails and our sitarist will be performing, all with an Antarctic flavour.”

And thus all of us get drunk together one last time, delicious giant goblets of every sort of beverage, top class snacks in endless circulation, all very fancy indeed, getting smashed in this gleaming white deep-freeze. Many jokes about the Biennale going into partnership with ‘FRIEZE’ of course and whether participants should be called ‘ANTARCISTS’ or ‘ANARTISTS’, to put the two worlds together. Much local media and high society and I am telling a beautiful woman, as French as she is Argentine, about Drake’s Passage and she actually turns out to be called  Florence Drake, the best name ever. And I am happily able to buy a drawing by everyone’s favourite artist, ‘Big Ben’ Andrey Kuzkin, an outstretched palm with the pulsing mystic number ‘7’, nice to have an actual art work as memory of this Biennale, and he signs it for me and adds in pencil those magic words, ‘The Antarctic.’

It is a warm late afternoon outside and we all sit, all of us drunk on the shiny steps of the arts center, all feeling very warm towards each other indeed, the end of our long weeks together. The ground still shifts beneath us, it is the Malbec and ten days at sea, we have not found our legs yet, and legless we embrace and say farewell; “Goodbye! Until the next Biennale, until Venice and the Antarctic Pavilion, only in a few weeks time, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!”