Cuban art has aroused questions for native and foreign critics and curators over the past sixty years. The contemporary analytical tools continue to be insufficient to correctly evaluate the tsunami of artists, aesthetics, procedures and techniques that comprise an extended universe that resists limits or restrictive characterization. Perhaps this is an advantage, because in that way the names of Cubans change rapidly in the great world events, unlike what happens with artists from other latitudes. In our favor, then, is that the standards to characterize us become elusive, and that all certainties, at a second glance, acquire a suspicious smell. Personally, it is highly satisfying to note the widening of some lists, or simply the mutation in the indices of catalogues that seemed immovable.
The Cuban round resembles an infinite coil. There are moments when it might seem to narrow and almost fracture itself or simply lose direction, but that cosmic impulse of islanders always demands more. These lines will only point to how we have seen ourselves during two of the major art events of 2017: the Kassel Dokumenta and the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale.
Since its foundation by Arnold Bode in 1955, the art world meets every five years in medieval Kassel to attend its Dokumenta. It was conceived in the tragic post-war years, when that city, devastated by the Allies as a production center of Nazi weapons, committed itself to a national revival rooted in art. Fourteen editions have validated it as a prestigious and exclusive event that is not easily accessed by easy roads and that offers a space for the exhibition, discussion, and reinterpretation of the art of our times and the assumptions of its contemporaries.
Adam Szymczyk, of Polish origin and former director of Kunsthalle Basel, was appointed art director of this fourteenth edition. He introduced a turning point to the dynamics of Kassel when he decided to transcend the frontiers and, under the slogan “learning from Athens”, share the stage with the Greek capital. He thus points to the turbulent scene offered today by the city that was the once seedbed of western culture, reinforcing the need to take root in those origins for a new start. The Athens program ran from April 14 through July 16, while Kassel had its 100 busy days between June 6 and September 17. More than 160 artists participated, many of them in both venues, including visual artists, musicians, photographers, dancers, poets, filmmakers and architects.
Dokumenta 14 insists in revealing disparities rooted in the colonial past and questioning the contemporary fragile social and political balance. Economic tensions, debts, emigration, democracy, populism, intolerance, terrorism, and exploitation, are presented in very diverse spaces beyond the usual institutions and museums to expand into public squares, universities, and libraries. Many newcomers distant from the mainstream were alongside key figures in a prospective to project a vision of the future and look back more than a century at the experiments and utopias generated by art along the way: works, projects, rituals, poetic acts that transmit a sense of great intensity and link art with its time in the attempt to generate new receptivity and forms of exchange.
Who would imagine Antonio Vidal (Havana, 1928-2013) in these affairs? After fifteen years of the exclusion of Cubans from the German meeting, how does a deceased artist, dedicated to abstraction, attain first rank status? In his intention of stepping into someone else’s skin, Szymczyk goes beyond the object and seeks to reveal the moral values of the creative genius, his contexts and distinctive stories. Sharing a hall with Hans Eijkelboom and Cecilia Vicuña in the Neue Galerie, his works on paper, fabric, and a group of metals are presented next to the Declaration of Intellectuals and Artists about the pretended Latin-American Biennial and the catalogue of the corresponding exhibition. The extended, sharp, iconoclastic and trans-temporal view the Pole tested repeatedly in the countless salons of that magnificent building shows the efficacy of his curatorial decisions. Most of the public, attentive and presumably educated, did not seem to be promenading unenthusiastically, but rather seemed to apprehend and have an experience that had an impact on an intimate space of their sensibility.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons (Matanzas, 1959) and her partner Neil Leonard (Massachusetts, 1959) are something quite different. They are logical successors (as if there were logic in these decisions) of Carlos Garaicoa and Tania Bruguera who were invited to Dokumenta 11 by Okwui Enwezor. At Kulturzentrum Schlachthof, three tramway stops from the center of the city, they created a space of dialogue and confrontation about the challenges of humankind, culture, history, and ecology. Bar Matanzas recalls the particular charm of that urban treasure built by the sugar industry, and projects a future from the perspective of historical research that ties the author to her birthplace. A series of performances included, among others, Doris Sommer, Octavio Zaya, Phill Niblock, and Amnon Wolman. This program could not fail to include the iconic rumba of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, whose presentations added to the echoes of the design, drinks, and cuisine of The Athens of Cuba. The group, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, had already integrated the proposals of Campos-Pons and Leonard in Alquimia del Alma, Elixir de los Espíritus (Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir of the Spirits).
In turn, the Athens School of Fine Arts presented Matanzas Sound Map, a sculptural and sound installation in collaboration with Rafael Navarro (voice), Caridad Diez (musicologist), and Nelvis Gómez-Campos (biologist).
Altogether, the participation in this bifurcated Dokumenta was a kind of temporal and spatial puzzle where a sound map of the Cuban west transmutes to the classic paradigm of the origin of democracy and western civilization. At the same time, a bar becomes a vehicle of changes in a round trip journey where the stigma of the transatlantic slave trade legacy is the ferment for new approaches and transitions; paradoxes, in which the contexts of isolation and segregation create a record of disparate and concomitant receptivity.
The year María Magdalena and Leonard were born, Wifredo Lam was already exhibiting in the second Dokumenta. That mythical 1959 that changed so many lives in the Island, and which undoubtedly somehow served as vehicle for the meeting of the young artist and her admired professor Vidal in the unknown territory of the art, confirmed in what is today estimated to be the most important exhibition in the world.
Szymczyk reconsidered the project of this Dokumenta in many ways. Another symbolic change was to reserve the Fridericianum-Dokumenta to exhibit for the first time in Germany the collection of the National Greek Museum of Contemporary Art (EMET). At the same time, the recently reopened venue of the Museum in Athens hosted a vast section of Dokumenta. Another surprise was to find the phototypography images exhibited by Carlos Garaicoa at the EMET between 2011 and 2012 in the impeccable halls of the event’s historic venue. In this series of milled and printed works, the black and white images become typographies in relief and are milled in polystyrene blocks. The artist’s fascination for the ruins of Havana is the backdrop to show tensions between the ideals of utopia and the controversial reality; another terminal connected to the plot of elements that come together and make up the variegated inventory of contemporary Cuban art.
The oldest international exhibition in the world is the Venice Biennale. It was inaugurated for the first time in 1895 at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, especially constructed for such purpose in the Giardini di Castello, a large green parcel commissioned by Napoleon in early 19th century in his attempts to redesign the city. Conceived to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of King Umberto and Margaret of Savoy, the Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia, later called Biennale because of its periodicity, was a complete success and received over 200,000 visitors in its first edition. The construction of the national pavilions, as they are known today, began twelve years later. Belgium built the first, and was followed by Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, France, Sweden, New Zealand and Russia, until completing thirty individual buildings, each one according to the imprint chosen at the time by the corresponding nation. New sections were established in the third decade of last century: the Music Festival, the International Film Festival, and the Theater Festival, while the Grand Prizes of the Art Exhibition were consolidated. In recent decades the Arsenale di Venezia, a huge naval base mentioned by Dante in The Divine Comedy, hosts great thematic exhibitions and some national participation. Add to that the palaces, libraries, churches, and former convents and warehouses that can be rented throughout the island.
122 years after its founding, and having been through successive waves of splendor and crisis, the Biennale is still considered the Mecca of art; a network where experts and neophytes engage in a feverish pilgrimage that includes each and every corner of the buildings surrounding the lagoon. The most frequent criticism is linked to the power that the market and high finances have been gaining in the course of the event, or the damage caused by tourism in that sort of “art amusement park.” For our current globalized world, the Venice Biennale and its enormous exhibition space offer a fragmented, personal experience in accordance with the real capability of each individual touring it. Let us assume the possibility of individual selection only where vaporettos (water taxis) sail as a wise decision. It is a show where one must inexorably choose what to see and which arouses among certain elites the expectation of where it has been seen. This represents a never ending challenge for the conclave in Havana.
Cuba arrived in Venice in the early 1950s with a big exhibition that included 15 artists. Juggling diverse genres ensured the sporadic presence in the Mediterranean event, where the collaboration with the Italian-Latin American Institute (IILA) played a decisive role. It should be mentioned, for example, that the same year when our Havana Biennial was founded, against the grain of the Central European models, the Italian event was attended by Raúl Martínez and Mario García Joya, perhaps as extension of those decolonizing positions. Also a couple of Cuban-born artists represented other flags in the event: Ricardo Rodríguez Brey as an adopted son of Belgium (in 1999), and Félix González-Torres on behalf of the United States (2007).
Since 2009, the National Council for Visual Arts has granted substantial support, helping to consolidate our regular representation at the event. Its fourth round was at Loredan Palace in St. Mark’s Square, Campo Santo Stefano, with 14 contemporary artists and curatorship by José Manuel Noceda. The central showcase invited nonagenerian artist Zilia Sánchez and ICE Venice organized a collateral show of Susana Pilar’s works.
French curator Christine Marcel, appointed art director of the present edition, presents under the motto Viva Arte Viva a showcase “designed with the artists, by the artists, and for the artists” with the purpose of promoting art itself or what the artists can offer. According to the experts, there is a noticeable change in the radical political discourses of their predecessors toward a vindication of the leading role of artistic arguments in favor of a new humanism. Leaving diatribes aside, the question would be to consider a biased reading of the proposals of 120 artists from 51 nations (103 for the first time in Venice) that articulates a space of reflection for the vision of the future for which we strive, starting from the restlessness and uncertainty of the present we share. Nine chapters or trans-pavilions were created with that purpose: Pavilion of Artists and Books; Pavilion of Joys and Fears; Pavilion of the Common Space; Pavilion of the Earth; Pavilion of Traditions; Pavilion of Shamans; Dionysian Pavilion; Pavilion of Colors, and Pavilion of Time and Infinity. Added to them are the national representations of 85 countries, for which I have not found statistics.
In Times of Intuition, Noceda refers to essayist and man of letters Alejo Carpentier, creating a specific model based on the theory of symbioses and synergies of artists from different generations and aesthetics. Carpentier proposes a formula to study the story of our continent, which starts from the coexistence of three registers of time: the past (memory), the present (intuition and vision), and the future (expectation). Although the title underlines the time of intuition alluding to the present of an island, its art and artists, our curator and the exhibition itself extended that repertoire to different periods displayed in a library with a Renaissance touch. Past and future were integrated into a grid in which only a totalizer could synchronize a coherent vision.
The wonder of reality found adequate space in Times… At the gateway was the Hybrid Chrysler dragged to the square by Esterio Segura (Santiago de Cuba, 1970) and deposited near the library, next to the plaque of the Istituto Veneto; an old American car that presumably flies standing where no car ever rode, born in a country where the notions of travel and displacements have dramatic tints of conflict. Inside the building, Abel Barroso (Pinar del Río, 1971) exhibited artifacts to present the real reality, built with xylographic base in a playful and at the same time caustic combination that tells stories and supplies contents with wireless transmission: labeled screens turning on their own axis and activated with mechanical energy. And Roberto Fabelo (Camagüey, 1950) created an original archipelago by placing his towers of pots in the midst of a sea of marble busts, traces of the classic heritage of the building. Pots blackened and later ingeniously scratched by the artist, containing anonymous stories now tangled up in the quietness of the carved stone.
José Manuel Fors (Havana, 1956) creates an intimate geography in which he melds his own memories with those of others, presenting fragments of printed papers covered in graphite. José Yaque (Manzanilo, 1985) gathers four thousand bottles arranged as volumes on the very old shelves to present a collection of singularities, while Roberto Diago (Havana, 1971) builds an eternal column that reaches the bluish Murano glass of the ceiling. Dark houses consumed by fire alluding to horrible crimes, were piled up in restrained profusion and rising to confront the powerful luxury of the transparent glass. A row of cult images rest on a plank with a carved phrase by the greatest of Cubans. Identity and nation are present in those Virgins of Charity of Cobre collected by Meira & Toirac (Havana, 1969 and Guantánamo, 1966) in a pilgrimage that gathers attributes of a Martí utopia based on plurality and equality.
The works of René Peña (Havana, 1957) and the performative initiatives of Aimée García (Matanzas, 1972) and Carlos Martiel (Havana, 1989) are self-referential. Insisting in high contrasts and in confirming a discourse where race and society debate with each other, Peña remains faithful to his captivating portraits, while Aimée undoes the paradigm of her gender, engrossed in a technique that subverts rewinding into the possibility of other beginnings. The artist creates figures, alienated in her work with serene resistance, perceiving changes that exceed individual limits. Martiel employs the sharp shades that refer to his previous projects, always tightening the rope and submitting his body to extreme periods of time. He remains on his knees inside a structure that recalls an hourglass, while a thread of water collected in the Mediterranean drowns him beyond hope of recovery. Immigration of the poverty-stricken “black continent” that supports western splendor on ever weaker shoulders, cornered in a mortal jump in a sea of inequalities that sink any possibility of hope.
Mabel Poblet (Cienfuegos, 1986) and Reynier Leyva Novo (Havana, 1983) turn to national history. The former constructs a collective pathos based on news selected from the official press by several Cuban families. Graphic redundancy is expressed in a jungle of analogous, seductive, and disturbing contents. Novo focuses his interest in Cuba’s independence struggles in the 19th century. For El deseo de morir por otros (The Wish to Die for Others) he fuses in polyester resins replicas of a bullet, four machetes, and three revolvers used in those war actions, exhibiting them in their immaterial transparency.
Other languages transcend specific and circumstantial references: Wilfredo Prieto (Sancti Spíritus, 1978) and Iván Capote (Pinar del Río, 1973) are artists who connect with more universal statements, from where they succeed in presenting generic allusions. In One Million Dollar, Wilfredo presses a one-dollar bill between two mirrors, in such a way that it reproduces infinitely, creating an atmosphere of rigorous control around it, reinforced with cameras and security guards. It is a problematic gesture that impacts the relationship of art with the speculative market. Considered a neo-conceptualist of linguistic tradition, Capote searches into the interstices of the language and its material nature to propose reflections about human conduct, politics, and the current society. At the bottom is the intangible verb “LINKEA” in the shadow of desire, another artifact attaches to the sterile machinery of sententious dyslexias.
Cuba is a fertile land, fertile with unmanageable situations. Hurricanes swirl on its coasts and agitate the surrounding waters in erratic cadences. Contagious salt penetrates the skin of its inhabitants, anointing them with creativity that is beyond reason. Extensive, confusing, the Cuban round scatters the expanded variables of its art and its people beyond the seas.