Days from El Bulli’s announcement, the 29th ARCO Madrid–a major global art fair–panoramically showcased Los Angeles. It was the first time the fair had elected to demonstrate a city’s expressive output over that of a country.
Beyond the calendar, how are these two news items related? Well, travel, at least for those inclined to flip through, ahem, fashion mags, is cuisine and art. What’s more: Spain going out of style as a destination for such sexy, antiquity-meets-trendy inquiry is an impossibility. So, in accordance with this spirit: in with the new.
Our itinerary: a quick motorway streak to San Sebastián’s pleasure den of avant-garde cuisine, Mugaritz–helmed by Andoni Luis Aduriz–a former Adrià pupil. As world famous cuisine served in a farmhouse goes, Mugaritz did not disappoint. Next: roadside Rioja stops en route south (though there needn’t be much said about this little misty interloping with the region’s hillside crianzas—young Spanish wine. It would just be rude, and you’d be jealous). Finally, some scuttling, with pals from L.A.-based art initiative ForYourArt riding sidecar, to the art world collision of ARCO Madrid. And naturally, its trove of satellite happenings for dessert.
Former Flaunt art columnist, and co-curator of the L.A. exhibit at this year’s ARCO, Christopher Miles, back home in Los Angeles, shares that the most remarkable thing he ate while in Madrid was “a very simple salad with green peas and sautéed mushrooms with shaved foie gras.” Nice one, Chris, though probably a trite dwarfed by the lump of langoustine, blanketed by an oily Iberian pork tail–a lone dish among Mugaritz’ 16 or so courses and pairings–enjoyed by your humble narrator up north. [Ed. note: Oooh, snap.] Of Los Angeles as a featured city in Spain, Miles suggests an even more savory combination of contrasting ingredients (and unique likenesses). “There is a shared history,” he says. “L.A. is basically the spawn of Spain. So, there are perhaps some contextual cultural things that connect. But the idea of Madrid, an old Spanish capital in the truest sense, built around a centralized culture, converging with L.A., which is the city all about this utterly diversified culture, is pretty interesting.”
On this point, Miles couldn’t pin it more deftly. Spain is delightfully about variations on centralization–about its art (public exhibits adorn the capital, galleries spill into one another), its nightlife, its political system. Even its mellow, yet impassioned disinterest in any kind of workaday grind. When contrasted with other destinations of scatter and newness, like Los Angeles, this atmosphere is an art form, and seemingly one of the greater public whole.
But can we say this of the Basque Country, home to Mugaritz? Well, yes and no. Sure, the autonomous community sits in the country’s high, mountainous reaches–with an odd, clunky language nothing like Spanish, and a history of ideological and political dissidence. But within this, while on the centralization kick, are San Sebastián’s breezy, central plazas, peppered with trees and old women in full-length fur, its culture fests, its cycling squads dotting the rugged Bay of Biscay with colorful flashes of electric spandex. As well, the honoring of pan-traditions isn’t entirely dismissed. One evening, while washing several small pintxos, or little bar bites, down with a spicy tempranillo wine, a raucous pack of old men costumed in Native American drag, each with stuffed niño dolls strapped to their backs, came blaring horns and thumping drums up the narrow street and joined the bar for a quick splash of beer, reveling in Carnaval’s commencement.
A day later, in Madrid, following an afternoon of ARCO wandering: multimedia artist Doug Aitken’s opening at the art space Matadero, along with public-fruit-as-art advocates, Fallen Fruit Collective. Matadero features a sleek renovated gallery with exposed walls, indie-published book vending machines, and as many attendees bedecked in black as there were bubbles in the celebratory champagne.
Quite the contrast in a mere 24 hours—the global mix of Madrileños (people of Madrid) and art world guests at Matadero (most of whom had the luxury of stumbling to another nearby opening, another restaurant, another unflinchingly talkative venue until daybreak), when compared to the head-feathered, rouged, grinning mugs of the north’s Carnaval processions, illustrate Spain’s cultural diversity. But also its artistry of nightlife.
With this comes a unique ability to merge community, to centralize, if you will. Regarding the reception of Los Angeles (and several of its leading galleries) by this welcoming atmosphere, Miles says, “In Madrid, L.A. is not a big travel destination. People go to New York, London, other cities in Europe. So, this was a chance to bring L.A. art to Madrid and allow it in some ways to confront a few of the assumptions of L.A. for a population that mostly hasn’t ever been here. And because galleries absorbed most of the cost for this to happen—a real risk of investment at a time when one should really be cautious—was really telling about their enthusiasm for bringing art to Spain.”
Bizarrely, and sadly, while twisting the night away at Matadero, Mugaritz suffered an electrical fire that burned much of its famed kitchen. It seems Spain’s culinary world is taking its bruises. Similarly, the organizers of the ARCO panorama—most notably the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs—are weathering their own kind of fire: there are those that believe money shouldn’t be allocated to fine art when the state of California is wholly broke.
The seizure of operations at Mugaritz would be a grave shame, a cosmic disservice to ingenuity. But so would stymieing the spread of L.A.’s innovative artistic voice. As would clotting Spain’s ever-absorptive cultural tissues of old royalty and the vanguard. We can’t lose the wanderlust—be it a quest for cod throat and beet reductions, the exhilaration at being an outsider, or lavishly priced acrylics hung in new spaces. And while these conquests may at times carry hefty, disproportionate price tags, it’s not about the product. It’s the fetching of precious, indigenous insights and practices that need re-seeding, not exploitation, in new and interested venues. And in exchange, leaving something behind. As Adrià said, regarding new horizons, and their unique possibility, “Everything new looks strange.”