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|Havana, Art Capital
by Walter Robinson
|The sun shone bright on the opening of the seventh Bienal de la Habana on Nov. 17, 2000. Organized by the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center in old Havana, the Biennial and its concurrent exhibitions are on view at about three dozen different venues throughout the Cuban capital until Jan. 5, 2001.
Fidel Castro's 41-year-old Caribbean Communist dystopia may well present the strangest setting for an international art show, even one whose participants are drawn largely from the Third World. An avant-garde with no photo-processing labs? Could it be possible?
In fact, in addition to works by over 170 artists from 40 countries, the Biennial is fitted out with all the usual trappings. It boasts a deluxe, door-stop-sized catalogue (462 pp.) and a day-long "Theory and Art Critique Symposium" at the International Press Center (with participating critics from Bolivia, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, along with curators Harald Szeemann and Ute Meta Bauer).
Several ambitious museum exhibitions are part of the festivities, including ones dedicated to the early work of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Casa de las Américas, to Wifredo Lam at the Memorial José Martí and to Helio Oiticica at the Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas. And the biennial's opening week was populated with many North American and European art professionals, many of them on the scene as part of tour groups organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum, the New York alternative space Art in General and London's Royal College of Art, among several others.
Needless to say, Havana is a considerable spectacle in its own right, with a considerable romantic allure. The deep azure bay stretches out before the island capital, devoid of boats, skiffs, rafts or any other watercraft. The city's beautiful colonial architecture is almost uniformly crumbling and looks as if it hasn't been repainted in decades -- a function of poverty and the notorious U.S. embargo, which no doubt extends even to paint and stucco.
Still more astonishing is the total absence of advertising, television and other manifestations of American pop culture. Christina Aguilera? Who? Music and songs are everywhere, but it doesn't come from Uncle Sam. The people are poor but educated, and their iconic hero is a bearded, bespectacled macho intellectual -- Che. It's as if Fidel's revolution has proved one thing -- privation does not have to equal squalor.
Among contemporary artists, perhaps the most celebrated of this biennial is Alexis Leyva Machado, otherwise known as Kcho, who wasn't included in the exposition proper but nevertheless installed three large works at the San Franciscan monastery. Centerpiece was To Forget (2000), one of the artist's trademark sculptures -- a sprawling, ramshackle dock, complete with a fisherman's straw hat, surrounded by hundreds of empty glass bottles -- containers for medicine, water, alcohol.
A Rabelaisian figure -- albeit of a revolutionary cast -- Kcho works out of a studio near the Santa Maria beach, and was an energetic presence at opening events during the Biennial's inaugural weekend. It goes without saying that artists of his stature are part of the Cuban elite, who earn the equivalent of a year's salary for an average Cuban from the sale of a single work.
Los Carpinteros won the UNESCO prize for their entry in the Biennial, a collection of 10 tents in the shape of prototype buildings -- a factory, a jail, an apartment house, a lighthouse -- called Ciudad transportable (the tents were actually manufactured in Los Angeles). "It's a city you can move with you," said Alexander Arrechea, one of the three members of the group (the others are Marco Antonio Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez). Los Carpinteros, who are slender, young and beautiful (like many Cuban men!), have a busy schedule ahead, one that involves a certain amount of international travel -- shows at Grant Selwyn in Los Angeles, at the San Francisco Art Institute, at museums in Spain.
A third Cuban artist making waves is Tania Bruguera, whose symbolic performances are Cuba's answer to Joseph Beuys or Hermann Nitsch. For the biennial, Bruguera carpeted a huge, dark chamber with stalks of decaying sugar cane, which filled the room with a pungent, vinegary scent. Visitors felt their way through the spooky, dark space by the light of a TV monitor hanging from the ceiling in the distance -- a TV that turned out to be playing a tape of Fidel giving a speech. Upon reaching the end of the vault, which was hung with a black curtain, the apprehensive viewers turned around only to notice a handful of shadowy nude actors, standing stock still in the dark. The metaphorical parallels to Cuban society were all too evident.
The late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón, who died under mysterious circumstances a few years ago, is the subject of an exhibition at Galeria Habana. Her dramatic, dark colographs are peopled with mysterious figures taking part in what appear to be religious rites -- last suppers, benefactions, exorcisms. Her actors are pitch black or white; they have eyes but no mouths or noses. They hold white snakes and black staffs. A reporter's impolitic questions failed to elicit much information about her death, except the note that she was a woman investigating black magic and Santeria, a field ordinarily reserved for men. Her powerful works have reportedly been bought by New World collectors, including Peter Norton and the Museum of Modern Art.
One of the wittiest works in the Biennial -- and one particularly popular with visitors -- is the installation at the Morro Castle by Abel Barroso, which transformed the cozy tourist restaurant into Cuba's first Internet Café. Barroso is a master printer, but here he crafted the laptops, PCs, cash registers and video equipment that lined the space out of wood and cardboard. "Mango tech" read the printed image on one paper screen, a South-of-the-Border reference to Apple. Placemats at the café, which quickly filled with art lovers happy to study the work with refreshments in hand, were signed and numbered silkscreens of a beachgoer perusing his email underneath the coconut palms.
The impulse behind Cuban artist Raúl Cordero's Fabulous Las Vegas, a half-size replica of an actual Las Vegas sign that is exhibited in the rear plaza of the Lam Center, was perplexing at first. A direct appropriation? A gesture of Pop homage? In the end, the work makes sense as something unique to Cuba, a bizarre and alien object that someone might actually want to craft by hand. In other words, a sculpture. The power of context could hardly be more pointed.
"Antennas reaching the world," said Serbian curator Bojana Pojic of the pair of soaring -- antennas -- made by the team of Cuban artists known as Gabinete Ordo Amoris (Francis Acea and Diango Hernández). Called A Day Like Anyplace Else, the work is installed in a tall vaulted room in the Morra Castle. These simple, if imposing, objects are a particularly elegant expression of Cuban isolation, a theme that was repeated throughout the Biennial.
This sentiment is echoed by the work of Esterio Segura Mora, whose lifesize figure tableaux include fleets of airplanes or oversized megaphones (Mora may show his sculptural installations in New York at P.P.O.W.).
Another artist hewing to this motif of poetic isolation is Carlos Estévez, whose Botellas al mar (2000) was on view at the Morra Castle. For his project, Estévez made 100 elaborate drawings that will be put into bottles and thrown into the sea off the Havana Malecón, or esplanade, which is 100 years old this year, as "a metaphor for Cuba's geographical limits."
Still another is the installation by Galería Dupp, a group of Cuban artists who first began collaborating in 1989. For their work, 1,2,3 Probando (2000), they placed a series of overscaled, art-brut microphones of rusted steel along the parapet of the Morra Castle like so many podiums to address the world.
Like any international show, the Havana Biennial is a good place to discover new work by younger artists from around the globe. Among them is Eliezer Sonennschien of Israel, who set up a booth in a gallery at the Lam Center that looked rather like a sideshow attraction. Standing shirtless behind the counter with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the curly-haired artist presented passersby with a "certificate of excellence" in a "best artist contest" for "great achievements in plastic art." A simple joke, perhaps -- but an amiable one.
Valia Carvalho, a 31-year-old Bolivian artist, posted framed photographs of herself at various spots on Havana streets, posing in high black boots and a blue and lavender-colored Pucci dress, lounging in a chair smoking, playing with her laptop and, most tellingly, clicking towards the viewer with a remote-control TV channel-changer. This work was all the more striking for its format -- the kind of large-scale color photo that is still rare in Cuba.
Jane Alexander, a sculptor from South Africa who was born in 1959, installed a group of black and white photographs at the Fototeca de Cuba building on the Plaza Viejo. The works are from a series called "An African Adventure." Each shows a young actor in an animal mask standing on the mean streets of Johannesburg slums, along with captions that suggest delirium and depravity. "Bom boys, lonely boys, fancy boys, sexy boys," reads one. "National Road 2; Lonely boy, candy boy -- weekend spoiler."
Among the artists in the Biennial who are already players on the international stage are William Kentridge, who projected his animated film Procession in one of the vaults in the Morro Castle; Annette Messager, who made a heap of bowling balls in another vault, spotting it with taxidermied birds wearing colorful plush animal heads (as if to hatch the big black eggs); and Susan Hiller, who filled a dark room at a building on the Plaza Viejo with dangling speakers playing tales (in Spanish, French, English, etc.) of close encounters and alien sightings.
Perhaps the most telling event connected with the biennial, however, was the special auction of contemporary Cuban art to benefit the children's ward of the Havana Oncology Hospital. Mounted in conjunction with the Cuban authorities by the Austin-based U.S.-Latin American Medical Aid Foundation, the combination silent and public auction of 40 works (donated by the artists) raised about $150,000. A large painting by José Bedia went for $19,000, a Tomas Sanchez drawing sold for $10,000, an early print by Carlos Alfonzo was nabbed for $4,000 -- and the Museum of Modern Art apparently bought a suite of small drawings by the young artist José Toirac (showing martyrs of the Revolution, done in red wine) for $9,500.
[Incredibly, medicine cannot be shipped directly from the manufacturer to the Havana children's hospital, though it is possible for individuals to carry 70 pounds of the supplies in person. For the Biennial, the MedAid program organized a charter-load of visitors from the U.S. who each transported a portion of medical supplies. Over the last five years, the organization has brought approximately $1 million worth of medicine to Cuba in this fashion.]
Significantly, buyers at the auction event -- and the room at the Casa de las Américas was full of collectors, art dealers and curators -- could pay for their purchases with American credit cards, a special dispensation previously unheard of in Cuba (tourists to the island must come supplied with a stash of cash). If an art auction represents the Theater of Capital in its purest form -- a spectacle of surplus value in action -- then we are present at the beginning of the end of the Cuban economic experiment. Just don't tell Fidel.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.