Cubans in Venice

Lucía Cintas

The curatorial proposal for the exhibition Tiempos de la intuición (Times of Intuition), by José Manuel Noceda for the Cuban Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennial is based on the concept with the same name Alejo Carpentier used to refer to our times. A group of fourteen artists of several generations with very different visual and conceptual lines of research participated in the showcase, brought together with the sole criterion of being Cuban artists who currently live and work on the Island: Abel Barroso, Iván Capote, Roberto Diago, Roberto Fabelo, José Manuel Fors, Aimée García, Reynier Leyva Novo, Meira Marrero y José Ángel Toirac, Carlos Martiel, René Peña, Mabel Poblet, Wilfredo Prieto, Esterio Segura, and José Eduardo Yaque.

Apparently such consideration supports the optimistic assertion that gives name to the biennial’s present edition: Viva Arte Viva, conceived by curator Christine Macel, which proposes the questioning of curatorial authority in favor of vindicating the role of the artist and his work; a program that Cuban artists have known very well how to defend.

It comes as no surprise that a large majority of the works were based on local concerns with direct reference to the Cuban context, although the simple fact that they were exhibited in Venice extends their possible readings. That is the case for Escala de valores (Scale of Values) by Mabel Poblet, a large hanging installation that fills an entire room. Once more the fragment is the leading figure of his work, composed of numberless Cuban newspaper clippings, where interacting with the piece entails submerging into it. Mabel uses this resource to problematize a problem that is local and global: the power of media in a controversial sense.

Primer plano Iván Capote, al fondo René Peña

Other works presented in the exhibition also go beyond the local context. One example is Wilfredo Prieto’s One Million Dollar, which presents a successful synthesis in visual language, a technique this artist has used before. A one-dollar bill is placed between two mirrors that reproduce its image infinitely. Who guarantees the value of money? And, by the way, while the Venice Biennial is one of the most important validating and business centers of the international art market, who guarantees the value of art?

Beyond the contexts, the interesting thing is that you can perceive a transversal state of mind in contemporary art. Although not as festive as the phrase Viva Arte Viva, it does show a critical commitment still present in the artist, at least with regard to the Cuban presence in Venice.

On this topic, I would also like to comment on Carlos Martiel’s performance Mediterráneo. It is an overwhelming scene where the artist remains forty minutes on the lower part of a glass and metal structure simulating a giant hourglass, while water from the nearby canals slowly drops from the upper part until completely filling the space where Martiel stands. The poetic and violent elements of his performance greatly upset all attendees, and barely compares to the extreme nature of the events he intends to denounce: the African emigration to Europe and the lack of responsibility of the European Union member states faced with this painful phenomenon. Martiel’s consequent and sharp gesture also results from the righteous selection of this venue to make that complaint.

The Venice Biennial, an essentially European event, is the oldest of its kind (it was founded in late 19th century) and maintains the international fair model from two centuries ago. In that sense it promotes a nationalist logic, out of step with the dynamics that currently govern contemporary art. It is the only one with national pavilions of the participating countries. Nevertheless, it is still a hegemonic and validating event. In this context it is admirable to see Cuban art establish itself in a privileged site because of its infrastructure and location, with a very large and valuable roster that includes the latest generations of artists.

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