Spain’s Avant-Garde Hits Neighborhood

Posted May 15, 2009 at 3:42pm

In as politically minded a city as Washington, it’s easy to get mired in the daily grind: the hearings, the legislation, the back-and-forth about the economy. Perhaps less at the forefront of the collective mindset are things like music, design and dance.

But the Spanish embassy is determined to draw Washingtonians out of their bubble. For two months, the embassy is inviting people to “Preview Spain— through a series of events designed to bring the Spanish avant-garde into the American arts consciousness.

Fittingly, many of the Preview Spain programs are set in the evolving enclave of Penn Quarter. Jimena Paz, a cultural affairs officer at the embassy, said the area presented a unique opportunity to reach those people who would be most interested in what they are trying to do.

“We saw that this neighborhood is up and coming,— she said. “Penn Quarter is becoming fashionable.—

Events have included a performance by Spanish students at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre and a lecture by architect Alberto Campo Baeza at the National Building Museum.

In June, the embassy will partner with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to present “Fever/Dream,— a reinvention of Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is a Dream.—

The embassy is attempting to bridge a gap in understanding and appreciation of its country’s creative culture. Most people, Paz said, associate Spain with flamenco dancing, wine and food. “We support that, too,— she said, but emphasized that much of the thriving arts scene is overshadowed by such perceptions.

This is the second year the embassy has held the program. The series is a fusion of theater, music, food, cinema, design and fashion. Paz said the embassy has tried to bring forth elements outside the mainstream that likely would not have garnered attention in the United States.

For example, they showed “Los Girasoles Ciegos— (The Blind Sunflowers) at Filmfest DC. The film is based on Alberto Mendez’s novel of the same name about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and may not have been widely seen otherwise.

“Especially in Washington, which is such an international city, it’s a way of opening [people’s] minds and eyes to what is happening in other parts of the world,— she said.

One of the more interesting elements of the program is the connections it makes, not only between different countries but between artistic mediums.

The ongoing “Foodjects— exhibit, which is housed at Penn Quarter home-design store Apartment Zero, blends art and cuisine to draw attention to two thriving aspects of Spanish culture.

At first glance, the exhibit looks like a banquet table set for a quirky, light-hearted dinner party. Stacks of white porcelain bowls, steel breadbaskets and colanders, and coporrón, a hybrid of a wine glass and drinking bottle, are among the collection of kitchenware noteworthy for their beauty and utility.

Artist and exhibit curator Martín Azúa was looking to highlight the complementary natures of the culinary and visual arts.

“It is a small selection, which showcases that the new Spanish cuisine has influenced the design of products and in some cases the other way around,— Azúa said in an e-mail. “The new Spanish cuisine requires tools so that chefs can express all their creativity.—

The spare design of many of the pieces speaks to Azúa’s commitment to sustainable art and eco-friendly design.

“In Spain there is a big curiosity about sustainability. It is as if we are waking up from a dream where all our wishes can be satisfied, but it’s not like that,— he said. “We are generating a big problem due to the excess of consumption and the poor quality in large part of [the] products. I think we should restate if we really need so many products, if the material surrounding us that we have created is the most efficient and that which makes us better.—

Paz said the question of eco-friendly design is timely both in Spain and the United States, as the countries grapple with issues of green living and climate change. The arts are one way to further that discussion.

It seems fitting that this unique exhibit is housed at Apartment Zero, which itself is an intriguing representation of the neighborhood.

Grace Gottlieb, the events coordinator for the store, said the store works regularly with various embassies and international artists to present innovative designs and expose customers to new and thought-provoking pieces.

“We are committed to the idea of education in design and exposing international designers to the American consumer,— she said.

“It has made us more interesting,— she said. “We have a great passion for design, and we hope to cultivate and share that passion with our clientele.—

Gottlieb has been with Apartment Zero for eight years and said she has seen the neighborhood become livelier as new restaurants and entertainment have been developed.

“It’s become known as a place to go,— she said.

“Foodjects— has been unique for the store because they have never worked with the Spanish embassy before and because they have never had an exhibit set up in the middle of the showroom. The design suits the show, however, given the subject matter.

Washingtonians even got a taste of one of Spain’s biggest musical events, the annual Sónar festival, which is held in Barcelona. Last week, Spanish and Mexican disc jockeys spun electronic beats for an ethnically diverse mix of young professionals and artist-types at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Columbia Heights.

Tijuana-based DJ Roberto Mendoza said such events presented a chance to look past political issues like violence, drugs and immigration, and to come together through creativity.

“There is more than what people think about Spain and Mexico,— he said. “It is a good beginning.—