The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba is housed in a hotel-like building across from the famed Malacón seawall between Vedado and Old Havana. In January, U.S. diplomats set up an illuminated news ticker on the building’s façade, beaming human rights messages in Spanish, a thumb-in-the-eye to Fidel Castro, the longtime Caribbean bête noire to successive U.S. governments.
The following month, Castro had a veritable forest of 138 flagpoles put up in front of the building, each flying a black flag and ostensibly commemorating victims of U.S.-sponsored violence against Cuba. Nearby, Barbara Krugeresque billboards equate George W. Bush with, alternately, a terrorist, a mass killer in a movie thriller, sticks of dynamite, and Adolph Hitler.
The Cuban president is clearly something of an installation artist.
At a party at Cuban photographer Carlos Garaicoa’s marble-floored, three-story villa in Havana’s Miramar section, a neighborhood once home to high-rollers and casino-owners, some local artists fretted. Standing in a dried-out weedy garden of the sort that seems to surround even the most lavish mansions here, Deborah Bruguera summed it up. "Usually by this time," painter Ibrahim Miranda's wife confided, "the Americans have descended." She was referring to art collectors, not U.S. troops.
On the eve of the Ninth Havana Bienal, things indeed felt disturbingly quiet. Contemporary art has made a huge splash in Cuba, becoming one of its reliable revenue streams. Two biennials ago, an estimated 3,000 art lovers swept into town direct from Chelsea, Los Angeles and London. Collectors traveled in air-conditioned buses from studio to studio, buying everything on the walls -- "like animals," according to performance artist and provocateur Tania Bruguera, sister of Deborah.
The fabled "1990s generation" (Garaicoa, Bruguera, Los Carpinteros, Kcho) was becoming a privileged caste, traveling freely to exhibitions around the world. Even young Instituto Superior de Arte students saw that they could make a quick peso churning out "product" in suddenly semi-capitalist Havana. It seemed a happy if unholy post-Cold War thawing.
But Fidel couldn't let well enough alone. In early 2003, the volatile maximum leader tossed 75 dissidents in jail, including 27 journalists, and marked three activists for execution. This time, it wasn’t only the perennially pissed-off U.S. that got upset, the European Union was, too, and foundation sponsors cut off support for Cuban cultural activities, including the Havana Bienal. That December, the Eighth Bienal limped into reality. Yet, crowds did materialize.
Perhaps Castro was counting on the irresistible allure of his amazing island with its ever more ghostly skyline of hollowed-out buildings, its 1950s-era Chevys and Dodges still rattling along, held together only by layers of body paint. The suspense alone is a draw. Will teetering, rubble-filled Havana finally collapse in a pile of dust? Will Fidel, who turns 81 this summer, himself ever expire?
By 2004, though, yet another diplomatic jab from the U.S. appeared to have become a fatal body blow, at least in terms of the bienal. U.S. travel restrictions were screwed so tight that only the strictest "humanitarian visits" would be possible. No spending more than $50 a day. Cash only, no credit cards.
At a post-opening night party for the 2006 bienal at the mansion of superstar artist Alexis Leyva, a.k.a. Kcho, it became clear that all this fretting had been justified. Tables with vast spreads of food were barely picked at. Guests milled around an empty swimming pool and a cement Art Nouveau nymph holding a platter that in former eras spilled water. American pop music played through a sound system. Gossip had it that the house, a former embassy, had been given as a wedding present to the artist, reportedly a favorite of Castro, who was grateful that he chose not to emigrate. Kcho’s physical bulk seems to wax and wane in proportion to Cuba’s international art status. He was slimmer this year.
At 9 pm on Mar. 27, 2006, the cannons fired in front of La Cabaña, the 18th-century granite fortress overlooking Havana Bay. The arched wooden doorways of the old barracks opened. The salsa bands stopped playing. But those of us who hiked up and down the stone walkways of the bienal's official site began to have a sinking feeling. Maybe all those well-heeled museum groups and flavor-of-the-month collectors who could have come if they really, really tried had known something that we hadn’t. (Were they at the Sotheby’s auction of Chinese art?)
Gazing at the efforts of 98 artists from 47 countries, the final impression was -- meager. Meager digital prints pinned to walls, old-fashioned TVs as monitors. Here and there a few video projections danced across uneven plastered surfaces. The theme of the show was "The Dynamics of Urban Culture." Maps, lots of maps, teeny tiny buildings on grids. Photos of slum residents looking oppressed, barrios. Bad European art "getting down" with graffiti.
The event prides itself on being an "anti-biennial," specializing in young, Third World artists. Thus, no superstars and only one U.S. representative (Tsung Loeng Sze). The romantic, moody Morro castle nearby, customarily a sister site, wasn’t even in use. Of course, this year, the Cuban government, the sole sponsor, provided a budget of only $100,000. Artists were responsible for underwriting their own works, and evidently not everyone who had been invited was able to show up.
But nothing is simple in Cuba (for example, since 1994, the biennial is actually a triennial). Far away from La Cabaña, without very much fanfare, in a vast hall in an 18th-century San Francisco de Assisi convent, lay a glistening, imaginary city-of-the-future designed by 1970s art stars Anne and Patrick Poirier. With their 30-foot-diameter floor installation, the veteran French philosopher-artists had fashioned an oval base from white-weave sugar sacks, crafting ingeniously within it globes and spires of white and clear polythene to look like a Space Age metropolis fallen into mysterious ruin, as if ruins overwhelmed by dust -- granulated sugar, here resembling sand. The wall text described a city in the year 3235. Dazzling.
It turned out that some 60 such "collateral events" had been placed throughout the city. They could be identified via a complex tabloid, the festival's only guide, which was published in one language only, Spanish. Among the sites ordinarily used by the Bienal were the Fototeca de Cuba, which was showing Shirin Neshat’s lush tragic gender tale Zarin (seen at Barbara Gladstone Gallery last year), and the Wilfredo Lam Center, where Spencer Tunick’s large-format photos of the unclothed en masse assumed a strangely communal read in Havana’s socialist paradise.
It took commitment, all this trudging up and down rubble-strewn cobblestone Havana Vieja byways, searching for hard-to-find addresses, climbing dusty stairs. But as if in consolation, friendly middle-aged women were eager to tell you (in Spanish) about the works, plug in plugs, turn on videos, chase you down while waving an explanatory brochure.
And there were rewards, like Rene Pena's intimate installation of photographs of exquisite closeup details of everyday objects, honey-bears, Venetian glass fish, images that were strangely erotic (surprising how pornographic the spread legs of a Mickey Mouse figurine can look). Farther afield, an "unofficial" solo exhibition by Sandra Ceballos at her Espacio Aglutinador documented the difficulties she has had juggling roles as both an artist and a gallerist at Havana’s oldest alternative space, via canvases serving as collage-scrapbooks of each year of a gallery that was the first to be daring enough in 1994 to show art independently.
I last visited Havana in 1997, and this time around Cuban art seemed even more alive and thriving, ever sharpening its mix of formalism, social commentary (obliquely anti-Castro) and existential wistfulness. A new generation is emerging, another in the wings. One of the most satisfying exhibitions, "Huelles Multiples" (Multiple Traces), brought together the up-and-coming Capote brothers (Yoan and Iván), Aimée Garcia and Katiuska Saavedra, with veterans like Sandra Ramos and Toirac. Co-organizer Abel Barroso, whose pseudo-Luddite carved-wood-and-cardboard Café Internet was a hit at the 2000 bienial, created an equally witty lego-construction of oil derricks, cranes, aircraft carriers next to a do-it-yourself kit sitting in a pile of sawdust. It was titled The Cold War Has Ended, Let’s Enjoy Globalization.
The show explored "prints" in the most expanded sense. The seven-member collective MAKINA, art students in their early 20s, performed 3'30". Each listened with ear buds to a radio station that announced the hour as they inscribed an etching plate with a metal rod. Yorick García explained (in relation to printmaking), "It’s to understand the pressure of time." (Ha! And here you thought Cuba was laid back.)
Maybe it was an optical illusion, but on a second visit La Cabaña started to yield treasures -- the virtuoso deconstructed urbanscape paintings of Dionne Simpson, the canny gender-difference-race installation of Michele Magema. And even with the three or four "humanitarian visit" groups that made it, there seemed to be enough purchasing going on to underwrite Havana till the next bienal.
Art, as it happens, is exempt from the U.S. embargo against Cuban goods. At the free state-run ISA, on former country club grounds, collectors went crazy for digital prints by a surprised-seeming art student, Yasser Piña. The works concerned, well -- money. To wit, close-ups of Cuban coins arranged in geometric configurations, each a tribute to a Minimalist, like Carl Andre, Richard Serra or Sol LeWitt.
Cold cash, isn’t that what it’s all about, even for Fidel?
It’s all in the way you look at it. Perhaps Ibrahim Miranda’s La Cabaña installation summed it up best. Miranda’s paintings ingentiously morph city maps into the shape of animals. Here, though, a huge transparent sheet of plastic bisected his chamber diagonally. On one side were maps of Havana, on the other, Berlin. But in contemplating works on the other side, one had to confront one’s own reflection, as well those of the maps behind.
Just so, we always can't help but see our own image and where we came from when we encouter another place.
CAREY LOVELACE, who is based in New York, is co-president of the U.S. Chapter of the International Association of Art Critics.