How did René Peña react to the invitation to participate in the Cuban Pavilion at the 57 Venice Biennial?
When I received your first questionnaire for this interview I realized that I couldn’t answer the questions properly. Around that time I went on the internet and found a question by someone concerned about the number of Cuban artists at the Venice Biennial. I don’t remember if there was a response, but the question was enough for me. And I said to myself a possible answer would be, “Because in Cuba there are a lot of super artists!” or, “Because the curators’ concept involved these artists!”
When you visit any exhibition and talk to the curator/viewers, you always hear negative comments. No matter what is being presented, it’s as if there is a general inability to accept it. People give opinions about everything from positions that gradually develop, forming groups as they coalesce into “circles” of “prestige.” There is a type of censorship common in Cuba, a dark censorship hidden somewhere, which you will never hear verbalized. There is no way to reach those guys; perhaps they are machines. Our curators have that problem: some have grown old and others have not realized that they have to grow a little.
When you proposed the Venice Biennial to me, I was happy . . . very happy. I said to myself, “This is perfect for me.” Besides, I didn’t have to take care of the printing or the shipping. I was happy to participate without having to lift a finger.
It did not occur to me, because it never occurs to me to think of a specific piece for an event or an exhibition. Curators are curators. They choose the work. And if they chose me it’s because of what they’ve seen of my work. That is how I was educated. In the ‘90s it was the curators who decided and did not allow the artist to make those decisions.
If the curators of this edition of Venice select me among many, many artists, I . . . am very flattered. But it is you who choose. Of course, I will never show you a piece that I don’t want exhibited. I will only show you what I think is good, and it is up to you to decide, according to your concepts and the relationships you have already established with the other participants. I leave pieces that don’t please me in storage for one or two years, and if they still do not please me, I discard them. I do not work for any specific reason; I do it because I need to do it. It doesn’t even occur to me . . .
I couldn’t go to Venice because I had problems with my mother. I tried to work things out to make the trip, but it wasn’t possible. Aimée García brought me the catalog.
Even though you didn’t go, you’ve had a clear idea of how it all worked: the showcase, the artists, and the pieces. What is your opinion about that type of project for a biennial that is more individualistic, like Venice?
The style of that biennial is ºto feature a very important artist displayed in an area. In general, biennials usually work with artists whose latest exhibits are considered “good.” According to my experience, it’s easy to find very good artists who are not taken into consideration because they are “out of style”; artists who are no longer in the annual hit parade because the powers that be discard them and very quickly replace them with new ones. This dynamic is repeated again and again, and they do not even know what the artists are currently doing; they’ve been forgotten.
Miles Davis died when he was almost 65 years old, and his last CD is rap and techno music, very crazy. There are artists like me, the mortals, who work, but somehow remain and belong to their time. If we are speaking of Cuba, to take part in a Biennial we could easily do it only with artists from the latest movement, but another perspective is also valid. I ask myself: Is Garaicoa already old? How old is Zilia Sánchez? What’s the problem with speaking of art focused on more than one generation?
If having mixed generations fulfills a theoretical proposal, it is perfectly valid. Of course, those positions attract enemies, and there are counterattacks . . . and comments . . . particularly, “And why am I not there?” Just like that other allegation that the same ones are always chosen. And what if it is well grounded that they should always be the same ones? Because the others do not get to be like “the same ones.”
For instance, Carlos Martiel is super. I have liked him ever since I met him. I always saw him as very dedicated, very coherent, and violent. In the same way, I admire Fors’ honesty and the transparency he assumes in his work. They are artists outside of any fashion. That fusion of generations is valid. Who in Venice cares if they are from the 1970s or from 2002? Faced with the real world of art, we are all equally unknown.
Every once in a while I think about the Havana Biennial, about how it started. So exciting! So cool!