Drinking mate memento-mori style

I’ve always been a little obsessed with skulls, so I was immediately intrigued when I saw a photo of one of Aníbal Garfunkel’s latest creations — a ceramic mate molded into a skull. How cool is that? I got in touch with him to find out what it was all about and learned that it is one of the works Garfunkel made for a project called giftshop at arteBA’s barrio joven.

Project giftshop, the creation of 15 of the 2010 recipients of the ECuNHi/FNA scholarship, will provide editioned reproductions of works by these emerging artists. While dubbed giftshop, the artists involved clarify that there is a difference between commercial enterprises and what they call cultural enterprises. Project giftshop falls into the latter category, and ultimately aims to make the work of these artists more accessible to the public during arteBA.

Soon after getting in touch with Garfunkel, I visited his studio in Almagro and while sipping mate from the very cool ceramic skull, we got to talking about skulls, which seem to be a recurring theme in his work. I remember liking his tongue-in-cheek use of them in previous works exhibited at Konex for the bicentennial event Cocinas Del Bicentenario last December. While citing inspirations such as the crystal skulls, and Damian Hirst’s diamond skull, Garfunkel sees the skull as a symbol for the notion that the only sure thing we have in this life is death.

While skulls figure prominently in various works, I noticed that Coca Cola seemed to figure even more prominently. In fact, the mold for the mate came from a previous sculpture containing actual Coca cola from 2008 called Es Sentir de Verdad. Garfunkel has since reworked the sculpture, which still includes the vintage bottle with a resin mold of a skull inside, but now includes a backlight that blinks in different colors. Photographer Andy Donohoe and I couldn’t seem to take our eyes off it. The result, at least from my impression of the sculpture, is an eerie, and anything but subtle statement about Coca Cola. Garfunkel’s idea was to make three editions of this sculpture for Project giftshop. However, after recently breaking his finger, he has been slowed down considerably. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to finish them in time.

We got talking about Coke and its undeniable presence in Argentina and Latin America. Garfunkel told me that when he was a child drinking Coke was a luxury, and now it is the drink of the masses. What bugs Garfunkel about Coke is not the drink itself, but how multinational companies like Coca Cola destroy culture. “It’s not the item, it’s the publicity… telling you how to dress, how to be,” says Garfunkel. He added that Coca cola now has its own brand of yerba known as “La Vuelta”, which he found out while doing research on his mate project.

Embarking on his skull mates lead to something a little more political than he first anticipated, but this is very typical for Garfunkel, who is never quick to go on a political rampage, but much of his work seems directed at political and social issues. He touches on serious issues, but always adds a bit of humor. Along with his skull mates, Garfunkel will be selling fair trade yerba made by the cooperative Jepe’a.  The yerba packages have been redesigned by Garfunkel, who has changed words here and there.

While admitting that until more recently, he has not always been the most regular drinker of mate, Garfunkel stresses the cultural importance of this practice here in Argentina. He thinks people should be careful not to lose this tradition. I hate to say it, but if Coke has jumped on the mate market, I’m guessing it’s not really in danger of losing its prominence.

Garfunkel’s sculpture and mate series alone make it worth the visit to the giftshop at arteBA. But with all kinds of cool pieces like a stethoscope Walkman and a travel pillow printed with an image of a birdcage stuffed with down feathers, I’m sure there will be something there for everyone. Even if you don’t share my obsession with skulls.

Anibal Garfunkel's skull mates. Photos by Andy Donohoe.

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