I actually spent about 90% of my time in Madrid viewing sculptures, paintings, and installations at the city's numerous well-appointed museums and art spaces. My friend E's performance at La Casa Encendida consisted, in a purely visual sense,* of the artist alone in a sailing ship suspended by cables from the roof of a large hall above an artificial tempest of whirring air-blowers. It was pretty striking.
Now, for the sake of encouraging interdisciplinary appreciation, and at the risk of sounding like a total philistine, I'm going to aver that the scene at La Venencia - the rightly famous sherry bar in central Madrid where we all went after her performance one night - moved me in a similar fashion.
The grand display of ancient dust-gilt bottles behind the bar, and beside it the jet black double-stacked sherry barrels sitting as impassive as the grim besieged bartenders, and before it all the motley crowd of growling old ladies and loud men: there is a performance in this, a rich artistic tradition, that one joins simply by being there, even if, like many of the friends I was with that night, you share thimble-sized sherry glasses between three of you and generally drink like sparrows.**
I don't want to belabor what probably sounds like a boorish rhetorical stunt. What I mean by the above claim is just that in patronizing a strange anachronistic bar like La Venencia - which, with its 5 types of dangerously inexpensive house sherry and nothing else to drink, its coarse rustic bar snacks (dried tuna! olives! anchovies on bread!), its surly charm, evinces a truly winning disregard for or ignorance of the desires of the contemporary bar-goer - you are witnessing the interaction between a very idiosyncratic individual vision, that of the bar owner(s), and the surrounding uncaring normalcy of a Saturday night. It's a blast, if you make the effort to interpret it.
Said effort, in my case, involved a lot of gesticulating to the bartender (who like many Madrid citizens spoke no English whatsoever) and some serious entrenchment for about a handspan's worth of bar space, for which I competed with a cadre of rowdy Spanish women who for ten minutes were actually not-so-subtly shoulder-butting me in attempts to expand their party's territory. I presume I looked ridiculous: this keen foreigner, cheerily enduring mild violence for the sake of really tasty sherry in the kind of wild mis-en-scène many artists spend years conceiving.
One key difference between E's performance and La Venenzia: the former was the only piece in the group show where photography was permitted, whereas La Venenzia was among the surprisingly large proportion of Madrid bars we visited that explicitly forbade it. I had to take surreptitious photos with my iPhone held to my ear like some kind of lame secret agent. Hence the blurriness of the resulting reconnaissance. (What can I say, though? Just go.)
*There was a whole other conceptual framework involving scrawled confessions from the audience that are to be translated during the artist's forthcoming boat journey to Argentina; if I were to really unpack it all it would constitute a really egregious digression from the ostensible subject of this post, a sherry bar.
**We had, admittedly, been up till Lord-knows-when the previous evening drinking like pirates and stuffing ourselves in the wee AM with shameful amounts of hot chocolate and churros the size of bicycle chains. I can't really blame my friends for being, you know, sane.
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N.D.P. in Madrid: Txakolina in La Latina
N.D.P. in Madrid: Fighting for hangover cuisine at Almendro 13
A useful profile of La Venencia @ Catavino
A somewhat fanciful profile of La Venencia @ TravelingTongue