Art NexusN° 26  
Alejandra Pozo:   Bodies of artists in full action

Performances at and around the Sixth Havana Biennial

Performance art has become one of the most authentic forms of artistic expression in Cuba in recent decades and one which has been able to confront the officialdom which was gradually asphyxiating creative freedom in the country. Today things are not censured, merely ignored, and once again there are spacious »undergrounds« where free artistic expression is possible. During the sixth edition of the Havana Biennial, and within its officialist framework, performance art co-existed alongside other expressions, and was also on full view in the »off Biennial«.

This edition was inaugurated on the Saturday afternoon in the Plaza de la Catedral with an eloquent performance by the mythical Cuban artist Manuel Mendive, entitled The Gods and Ancestors, the Good Man and the Bad Man, a performance-installation whose participants were the men and animals inhabiting the Yoruba Olympus. Each color, each figure was associated with an element of the Afro-Cuban religion. Eshu, the god of destiny, Oshun, the goddess of water, Shango, the Vulcan, life, death, fertility, animals, doves; each banner was a picture, with tens of persons interpreting the super spectacle which once it reached the Colonial Museum became a multi-faceted kind of ritual theater. Mendive took his inspiration from the occult and synchretic codes of the Yoruba spiritual tradition which has been his since childhood. An enormous public patiently awaited the delayed arrival of Mendive and his magical procession and the Colonial Museum almost collapsed under the pressure of so many people.

Participant in
Manuel Mendive´s
The next evening, Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco, Cuban artists whose works were not included in this edition of the Biennial, offered performances in the house of the former. Bruguera, an artist and performer who represented Cuba at the last edition of the São Paulo Biennial, awaited at the entrance to her house opposite a handsome Cuban flag which she had made with human hair; she was barefoot and dressed in white and with the headless body of a lamb around her chest like a cuirass. There was a pot of Cuban earth in front of her, along with a deep plate of water and salt. In an almost mechanical act of submission and resignation, she mixed in her hands a small amount of earth with the tearful water, raised it to her mouth, chewed and then swallowed it. The Weight of Guilt was the title of the action, and the artist spent almost an hour eating earth in a calm and ritualis-tic manner.

Tania Bruguera
In a back room in the same house, Coco Fusco, a Cuban artist who lives in New York, was interpreting his dead grandmother, under a white sheet along with her few personal belongings, with the light of a black neon above. A text at the entrance illustrated a family anecdote according to which his grandmother had left her native town to go first to Havana and later to the United States, until, just before her death, she decided to travel to Barcelona, Spain, and thus abandon the arduous life of exile. The day that Coco Fusco went to identify the body in Spain, he saw the only objects with which she had remained up until the last moment - a pair of glasses and her purse. Perhaps she had left all the rest in Cuba many years ago. Fusco's work, with its handsome visual and aesthetic poetics, evoked the concern of so many of the older Cubans who have gone into exile, the anguish of dying outside their homeland. These performances also marked the inauguration of a new project by Tania Bruguera, consisting of the establish-ment of an artistic space, »Tejadillo 2l4«, which will operate from her own house as a venue for conceptual works and performances within a double kind of cultural project - i.e. not only showing the experiences of Cuban artists, but bringing to Cuba foreign artists to share with the cultured, inquisitive and respectful local public.
Within the framework of the Biennial, a Brazilian artist, Flavio Pons, made his debut on Cuban soil with extracts from several of the performances which he has devised over his career. Despite the lack of connection between the actions, there was a repeated use of painting, not just as color, but as a means of graphism and writing. Pons was accompanied by three other perons and his presentation concluded with the participation of an entire class of Cuban school children, each with a paper heart which they waved around to the public and then crumpled in their innocent hands.

Flavio Pons
The programme of activities of this sixth edition announced a performance by Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) for Tuesday at 3 p.m. The »happening« consisted of the counterpart to the Japanese Garden which he presented within the Museum. This time it was the Cuban Garden, an area of ruins recovered from Havana itself and which had been subtly intervened by the artist. Rubbish and waste materials and urban junk provided a perfect setting for a reflection on memory, the past and the sense of ruin which Garaicoa conjured up. Certain details of the place were photographed by the artist to produce handsome images which appeared as a frieze on the walls of the site, heightening the charm of the garden and the city as a whole, which was a perfect setting for the theme of »The Individual and Memory«.

Carlos Garaicoa
Two Asian artists used their bodies in their work. Arahmaiani, a woman from Indonesia, used an almost choreographed action to express her rejection of violence and the plastic invasion in contemporary society. Against a white circle and background music, she performed a dance with plastic toys, mostly war figures. »A new kind of slavery has emerged, which will continue so that we can construct the greatest plastic pyramid ever recorded in history«, wrote Arahmaiani in the catalogue note. For his part, Chandrasekarana, an artist from Singapore, kept his public waiting in the street, alongside several empty boxes which in various languages referred to the theme of waiting. The work of this original artist is based on atman, one of the fundamental concepts of Hindu philosophy which for Chandra represents »the innermost nucleus of a constant flow of life and creative energy«. At the same time, Chandra appeared dressed like a beggar and covered (including his face) with rags. After settling down inside one of the boxes, he adopted the posture of a beggar with his hand extended, waiting for alms. Someone in the public offered him a coin which he raised to his mouth through the only available orifice in his rags. From this point on other generous members of the public also offered him scraps of food, until the moment when Chandra dragged himself to the other side of the space and began to vomit up all that he had ingurgitated. Back in the box and in the same position, the story was repeated until Chandra ended his action and waved to the public.
Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis, a Chilean duo formed by Francisco Casas and Pedro Lemebel, decided very aptly to use their two voices to focus their video-conference-performance on the tragicomic anecdotes of their calvacade through the political and artistic history of Chile. As a duo formed in l987, they represent the marginalized and oppressed voice of the minorities. The victims of the dictatorship, confessed homosexuals, frustrated socialists. The two artists, dressed in black and wearing rings in the form of white birds, presented their work in the back patio of the Wifredo Lam Center in Havana. The charisma of these »Yeguas«, a word which in Chile means something like »bitches«, finally conquered the public and it was perhaps the only moment - or one of the very few - at the Biennial which referred to the subject of homosexuality.

Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis
Despite the manageable or unmanageable nature of some of the works included, the dynamics of this sixth edition offered the spectator a delicious to-and-fro rhythm set within a handsome cultural heritage and the magic of spaces in ruins. The greatest performance of all was in fact the global spectacle itself, which transcended any of the individual experiences. These kinds of bodily expressions by artists provide a vital quality which, within an ephemeral setting, endow objectual space with a unique kind of strength and experience. This is the energy of the artist, not just of the act of creation, but the presence itself of the artist.
Alejandra Pozo. Venezuelan art critic. Resident in The Canary Islands, Spain.
  Art NexusNr. 26  
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Please see: Great Report Sixth Havana Biennial