South American magic on show in the north
JORGE MACCHI'S studio feels a bit like a tree house. It's on the top floor of his Beaux Arts home in the increasingly gentrified district of Villa Crespo in Buenos Aires. In order to reach his studio, he has to climb a grand historical staircase then walk across a large outdoor terrace, which offers a panoramic view of cirrus clouds that seem brushed onto the sky. For an artist whose work suggests serious daydreaming, the airy location couldn't be more appropriate.
Mr Macchi is one of Argentina's most celebrated living artists. His first large exhibition in a European museum will open on April 29th at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK) in Ghent, Belgium. The exhibition, titled "Music Stands Still", will contain watercolours made in this room as well as sculptures, installations and videos, the most recent of which were also conceived here. Mr Macchi has another studio in an old "Tango neighbourhood", which he keeps "for the dirty jobs" like oil painting, but his rooftop retreat has become his most important thinking space.
The artist spends most mornings here, plotting out his universe on pieces of paper that measure 30cm x 40cm. Keen to remember the images that float through his head, he captures them quickly by sketching. “Drawings can be the first step for developing another kind of work," he explains. On the only solid wall, 30 or so watercolours depict a range of subjects, including pianos in strange states. One piano has keys that mutate into finger-like tubes that tie into knots; another portrays a bird's-eye view of a red balloon sandwiched between two grand pianos. As a teenager, Mr Macchi played piano for five hours a day, but he was better at drawing and ended up in art school. His work still betrays an intense relationship to music, particularly when he renders musical scores as visual objects or composes atonal music out of multi-lane traffic, as in his orchestral "Streamline" video.
Contemporary art has become synonymous with conceptual art, but Mr Macchi resists the term. "I am annoyed that everyone thinks I'm a conceptual artist," he says. "For me the work starts with an image, not an idea." How, then, does the artist explain his use of ready-mades, his disregard for virtuoso craftsmanship, and the pleasing conceptual buzzes around globalisation afforded by his work? "I have links with surrealism. I have no problem with that," he says. "And my work is also related to Arte Povera and the transformation of stuff that is thrown away into something that has transcendence."
Mr Macchi hasn't lived in Buenos Aires all his life. Between 1993 and 2005, he participated in a number of artists' residencies that took him to Paris, Rotterdam, London, San Antonio (Texas) and small towns in Germany and Italy. The time away was difficult but liberating. "All these experiences abroad, they gave me a kind of feeling of lightness," he says. It also influenced his many fantastical map works, such as “Blue Planet”, where the earth is covered in water, and “Buenos Aires Tour”, in which the cracks in broken glass are meant to determine the viewer’s trajectory through the city.
Given the amount of travel done by artists today, it is not surprising that maps are to contemporary artistic genres what fruit bowls were to 19nth-century ones. Mr Macchi doesn't doubt that the experience of navigating new environments influenced his attraction to the geographical form. Baffling maps also jibe well with Mr Macchi's personal definition of art. "For me, an artist is someone who is searching for something, even if you don't know what you are searching for."
For Mr Macchi, great art has the power to transcend the banalities of everyday life. It was on occasional visits to church as a child that the artist first encountered this feeling. Upon entering the house of worship, he recalls that he felt something, "a change from the experience of the street, a sense that something was not natural." Mr Macchi has since been keen to recapture this emotion, "to reproduce in my works what I felt that first time in church." He explains that art and religion have "something mysterious" in common, "something that you can't define precisely." Indeed, his work often bears a little magic that is hard pin down, let alone puncture.