Four months into my artist residency in Buenos Aires I finally accept an invitation to attend a gallery opening. Why did it take so long? Perhaps it is the language barrier, perhaps it is still the fatigue from all the past nights of gallery hopping, small talking, “networking.” Or maybe it is because I have grown accustomed to spending my nights not standing in front of bewildering works of art, wondering if I am missing something, not attempting to connect with others through talking, not analyzing, judging, predicting, documenting. Every night I look to bypass the rituals of the usual social interaction. I look for the shortcut to that direct one-on-one intimate experience with another body through dance. Even as I write this, I am aware how romanticized and melodramatic this might sound, but that is the only way I can talk about tango these days. It is in tango, over the past months, that I have begun to understand the disparate pieces of myself as an unusual, non-linear, constantly changing whole. It is within this frustrating, maddening, elusive, sublime tradition that I am sensing other possibilities of experiencing myself as a body. In this way, it is tango that has been a guiding light for my daily questioning of how and why I am here at all, and what it is I am attempting in my dance/video/painting/performance/collaborative project.
So it is with some reluctance that I agree to accompany a group of artists on a Friday night to an opening at a very new contemporary gallery. As I approach the growing crowd of people congregating in front of the gallery I feel that familiar twinge of discomfort in my belly. It is amplified by my anxiety about having to converse in Spanish. After saying hola to a few familiar faces and politely saying no to cervesa I enter the gallery and head to a wall of photographs. I have an expectation about my experience: I will spend an appropriate amount of time considering the work, it will be interesting, maybe even clever. I will make up my mind about the work’s meaning, I will place it within a particular art historical context, I will then file it away, appropriately classified in my “art” folder, and having accomplished that, I will move on to the next. Instead, the experience unfolds in a completely different way. The modest photographs slowly begin to enchant me as they reveal their complexity and I am enamored and excited. Excited about the work and excited that I am having such an unfamiliar, refreshing, emotionally rich experience at a gallery opening. As I stand there in awe, visually traveling in multiple directions at once, I overhear a man next to me quietly comment about the wonder of these images. He says it so quietly that he and I are both surprised when, without intending it, I comment back to him in Spanish, agreeing with him. And suddenly I am engaging in a deep conversation about the complexity of the layering, the architectural nature, the play of color within the photographs. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that I sound like five year old chiquita, clumsily stringing unfamiliar words together in an attempt to express something important. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know anyone, that I feel like an outsider, I feel alone, I feel insecure. All of this doesn’t matter as I just allow myself to be carried by this singular moment of joy where I get to experience my body, myself, in a new but also familiar context.
After the lively conversation with the stranger I see the rest of the show and having found nothing else that peeked my interest in quite the same way as that first group of photographs, I walk outside. The group of people has swollen and there is a lot of exclaiming, gesturing, laughing, smoking, drinking, articulating. For a brief while I stand alone observing. The realization gradually dawns on me that this scene, this group of people, these conversations, these gestures are really the same as everywhere else. Whether it is in Dallas, Portland, New York, art openings feel the same everywhere. That might sound depressing but to me it feels encouraging because that means that I don’t need to be anybody different, I can be the same as well. I can be me, no more, no less. It is liberating. It means that I know what I am doing, I don’t have to strive, I don’t have to impress, I don’t have to judge.
I don’t have much time to ponder this because another stranger approaches me and begins to converse. Soon there is a whole group of people around me and the lively exchange flows rapidly from subject to subject, ranging from the making of kombucha and raw foodism to importance of experiencing vulnerability for personal growth and evolution of one’s art. Another idea gradually overtakes me and it takes a while for me to admit it to myself. People actually like me! It is an innocent thought, but radical nonetheless, as I see within myself all that unnecessary effort over the years of wanting to impress others, wanting to prove to everyone else that I am deserving of love, always working hard, always achieving. In this moment I suddenly realize I don’t have to do anything beyond being myself and everyone is on board with that. I can be awkward, I can make mistakes, I can misunderstand, I can not know things, I can be too loud, I can laugh too hard, I can be quiet, I can be shy, all of it is not only allowed, it seems to be encouraged! The only obstacle appears to this seems to be my own judgement.
So then I am in a car with three other people heading to another gallery and then a dinner. I am continually surprised at myself. At this point I should be scheming my escape into another dark milonga where I decided I now belong. But this feels so good! I follow my instinct and here I am, with three new friends listening to American songs from the early 90s. I am relishing in every moment as we all sing along with Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” We laugh, we joke about accents. It is curious to me that I, a Russian immigrant, am teaching Argentinians the “correct way” of pronouncing “cowboy.” One of the guys begins to tell me about a band he enjoys. The name sounds like Eggs and Crosses, which after a few minutes of confused explanation, I realize is Guns and Roses. The next moment I exclaim, full of nostalgia, as the familiar voice of Brian Adams takes over, followed by Rod Stewart and Sting in the unforgettable and rather kitchy song “All For Love.” In my broken Spanish I explain to my companions the significance of this song, that I remember singing it before I really knew English, when I was an awkward teenager in a newly non-Soviet Russia, at a time when MTV and VH1 first aired on television and the glamour and promise of “The West” filled everyone with hope. That song reminds me of my rather odd journey thus far and curiously, retelling it in Spanish makes my life appear even more odd, even more unlikely. The song builds towards a crescendo as we arrive at our destination. But the driver waits to kill the engine as we all sing at the top of our lungs the final verses of the song. There is an air of triumph in our little group, as if we really are “all for one, and all for love.” Once we complete the final note we break out into spontaneous applause before leaving the stage. Exhilarated, we exit the car only to realize that we are at the wrong location and have to walk a few blocks in the opposite direction. I laugh at the appropriateness of this as my friend knowingly comments “Yes, a typical Argentinian moment.”