« back Art Nexus - Nr. 26 next »  
Rachel Weiss:    The Sixth Havana Biennial ( II )
It is also clear that biennials can and do serve as a vehicle for civic aspirations far beyond the art world; potent showcases for local, regional or national ambitions [ 1 ], they have been inaugurated in city after city where political and economic accelerations demand such splashy public cotillions. With its simultaneously centrifugal (de-centering) and centripetal (re-centering) potential, the idea of the biennial enjoyed a rebirth with the advent of postmodern notions of globalization [ 2 ]. In the past decade and a half, a slew of new biennials has cropped up; in the second half of 1997 alone, biennial exhibitions will open in Istanbul, Johannesburg, Kwangju, Lyon and Porto Alegre (the MERCOSUR Biennial) [ 3 ]. In the case of Havana, the Biennial has very successfully exploited this rich potent.

Inaugurated in 1984, the Havana Biennial used to be pretty much in a class by itself. It was a stalwart advocate of the need for a forum outside the mainstream, in which new and local discourses and aesthetics could grow. It told a story that was different from the stories told by international exhibitions elsewhere in the world. It occupied the role of antidote to the homogenizing forces of the marketplace, and potential model for alternate practice. As the only biennial operated by a Socialist country, it stood for anti-commercialism and solidarity among artists, a challenge to the cultural hegemony of the (Yankee) mainstream. The Biennial´s staunchly anti-imperialist mission presaged much of the subsequent postmodern discourse regarding the de-centering of the art world and of cultural legitimacy generally, and Havana therefore acquired a kind of cachet for its clarity of vision and for having been there first.

While Havana has lost some of its singularity, at the same time it has been acquiring the weight of experience - for good and bad. Initially a decisively idealistic operation, the Biennial eschewed slickness and polish for an earnest devotion to presenting a diverse array of work in democratic format, even forsaking the granting of prizes after 1986. The Biennial was to be a place for artists and publics to meet and to understand each other, across high and low, spanning Africa, Asia and Latin America [ 4 ]. While, at least for its organizers, this mission remains intact (in her catalog Introduction, Havana Biennial Director Lillian Llanes refers to the »indispensability« of the project), the entity of the Biennial has evolved into a more complex presence.

In its original, idealistic construction, the Biennial was meant as a gathering place which would join not only artists from throughout the Third World but which would also bring the art to the Cuban public. Small, populist exhibitions which characterized earlier Biennials (such as those of African wire toys and of folkloric representations of Simón Bolívar, both in 1989) have faded away as the exhibition has »professionalized« its discourse, replacing it with a more uniform, high culture approach. Celebratory, publicly staged events (such as an open air concert with Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque and Pablo Milanes, who played while artists painted impromptu murals on stage behind them and a huge crowd danced all night (1986) and a catchy fashion show in 1989 with models parading artist-made fabrics and designs through one of the city´s oldest neighborhood squares), which used to be organized at the heart of each biennial now seem to be a thing of the past, and local attendance seems also to have withered.

Meanwhile the Biennial has grown in its geographic coverage and its professional profile. No longer simply a Third World curiosity, Havana has become a magnet for influential curators, dealers and collectors, a site where significant business gets done. While the Biennial´s primary audience was originally composed of people who shared many key referents (Latin American-ness or Third World identification, problematized relation to the artistic mainstream, an at least somewhat idealized/idealistic position with regard to the role of art in society, and a vaunted sense of purpose for the artist, etc.), its audience today is much closer to a typical international art crowd, shopping for trends and new discoveries. Perhaps even more importantly, artists´ aspirations for their own participation seems decisively more focused nowadays on networking with curators and collectors, and less with each other. Still, even if Havana has ceased to be a place which questions the assumptions and aims of art, settling instead for a »regularized« and institutional presentation of works, the position that the Havana Biennial now occupies on the contemporary art world spectrum remains light years away from its more established siblings.

Given the volatility of the Cuban situation since 1989, it has become important in the case of its last three biennials to understand the event, at least in part, within the framework of the moment in which it was staged. The country´s economy virtually imploded in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and things were so bad on the street during the last biennial in 1994 [ 5 ], that many observers felt uneasy about their own presence there, privileged to eat and move across the city easily at a time when most Cubans could do neither. The possibilities for cultural and political expression in Cuba have also suffered an attendant unpredictability, and the Biennial, with its large international audience, has been an especially sensitive spot; the opening of one small exhibition in 1991, for instance, was marked memorably by artist Lázaro Saavedra´s attempt to punch out the presiding official after his entire body of work was censored from the galleries the night before.

Visitors to this Biennial found a Cuba increasingly focused on tourism [ 6 ]. The situation in Havana is both better and worse this year than it was in 1994 - better for those with access to the dollar economy [ 7 ], and grim for the many who don´t. While food seems more readily available, prostitution is epidemic, and scams of various sorts abound. And although the streets do seem more lively, much of that activity is directed toward, and populated by, tourists with dollars.

Such was the backdrop against which the Sixth Havana Biennial opened in May. The hotels were full of artists, collectors and the curious who had flown in to see it, there was a big crowd in the plaza for the opening speeches, and the galleries were filled on the first day or two. (While extensive radio and TV coverage meant that most habaneros were aware of the exhibition, the fact that two of the three main exhibition spaces were across the harbor from the city, and relatively inaccessible by public transportation, meant that once the crush of foreign visitors subsided, the galleries emptied out precipitously.) 177 artists from 44 countries were represented. Perhaps most significantly for Havana´s ascendance into the big time, there was a strong representation of the [ 8 ], including top people from the upcoming international exhibitions in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Istanbul, Kwangju, and Pittsburgh (site of the Carnegie International).

The exhibition was organized under the banner of »The Individual and Memory«. This apparently interior focus stood in some contrast to previous installments which generally stressed a social construction for art through titles such as »Tradition and Contemporaneity« (3rd Biennial) [ 9 ], »The Challenge to Colonialism« (4th), and »Art - Society - Reflection« (5th). Whether this reflected a philosophical retreat from the social space to the personal, is not clear, though the essays by both Llanes and Head Curator Nelson Herrera Ysla make clear that their idea of memory is not constituted of nostalgia but rather is the substance through which the individual can be, in such broken and failed times, reconnected to each other and to a sense of mutuality. Herrera even refers to a »transnational notion of culture and memory«, indicating that, in his view, memories belong more properly to societies than to individuals. Still, the theme was the source of some problems in the exhibition. While biennial themes are most productively vetted as a way of capturing the sense of a global moment, in this case it became an often prescriptive presence, and the exhibition had much more than its share of old family photos as a consequence. Less than a global snapshot, this Biennial began to feel at times like a huge theme show.

In organizational terms, the Biennial was severely hampered this year by the loss of the National Museum, which is currently closed for restoration. The exhibition was therefore more spread out than usual [ 10 ], occupying much of two colonial-era fortresses on the far side of the harbor and a cluster of small museums and buildings in the city´s Historic Center district. The fortress spaces are of an extremely imposing and beautiful nature-ancient, history-laden, materially rough, uneven and dimly lit. They are the ultimate rebuttal to the neutral, white, modernist cube, and they are very hard on art objects such as paintings, photographs and sculptures. The preponderance of installation-based work in this Biennial is therefore not surprising. While this format is conducive to contemporary production in some places (it has dominated Cuban work for at least a decade), it closed off the possibility of showing well for others. Many artists found their work simply overwhelmed by the muscularity of the exhibition space, reduced to invisibility or insignificance by it.

Additionally, the material poverty of the Biennial is an inevitable factor; there was none of the expensive lighting and polished, self-conscious museological techniques which have become an increasingly important aspect of much contemporary art. The scale of most works was limited to what the artist could afford to ship to Cuba [ 11 ], the form of it circumscribed by what she/he could install, with basically no resources and little assistance available. All this conspired to give the Biennial a definite overall »look«, analogous to the certain temperature of spectacle that characterized, for example, the recent Whitney Biennial; a certain sameness of tone prevailed in each case. For those accustomed to this local effect it was not a big issue. However, for the Biennial´s increasing audience of arts professionals whose time is more typically spent patrolling the precincts of Kassel and Venice, it was, »Third World shit«, in the harrumphing words of one visiting German curator. Artists whose work depends on being able to more closely control the conditions of display suffered. Rosangela Renno´s photographs were de-laminating from the humidity, and some like Agnes Arellano got so carried away by the intrinsic drama of the space that their work became its victim. For others, though, like Suzann Victor and Lia Menna Barreto, the space was a real bonanza, ideally suited to the dramatic narratives they were working with and incorporated into the work in a skillful and extremely successful way.


1. The nationalist dimension of the biennial project stands in interesting contrast to what many cultural critics now term a post-national reality, in which a metropolitan identification supercedes the national.
2. For reasons of brevity, I am not taking into consideration the various other »margin« biennials, such as that in Ljubljana, which have ocurred over the years, both because their ambitions seem to have been more circumscribed formally and because they never really weighed in to the large international market and critical circuits in a significant way.
3. As Havana Biennial Director Llilian Llanes points out in her introduction, Biennials are proliferating not only in places which have traditionally been marginalized (i.e. Istanbul, Johannesburg Dakar), but also in the secondary cities of »mainstream« nations - - Galicia, Lyon, Rotterdam. In either case, the idea has been to use the old formula of the biennial to recapture attention for that place.
4. In 1991, the bienal even began inviting artists from the US and Western Europe, identifying them as connected to the bienal´s project by virute of race or ethnicity rather than natinality (most of them were black or Latino).
5. The economic and logistical difficulties endemic to this period have apparently made it impossible to keep the biennial scheduled at two year intervals.
6. The pre-1989 economy, which was based on subsidized sugar sales, has dropped by more than 30%. Additionally this year´s harvest is likely to be a bad one, damaged both by Hurricane Lily and by the continuing US sanctions which impede the purchase of fertilizer, herbicides and other supplies.
7. One recent fiscal innovation has been the permissibility of Cubans owning and doing business in dollars. A new monetary issue of pesos convertibles is tracked directly to the dollar´s value.
8. This term was recently coined by Arthur Danto.
9. The first and second bienals were unthemed.
10. Even in past bienals, however, more than one venue has been used. The difference this time was that there was not one central venue around which the other displays were constellated.
11. Havana has no budget to pay for shipping, so it was up to the individual artists, or to their home countries, to get the works to Cuba.
  « back Art Nexus - Nr. 26 next »  

©   Art Nexus and author. On-line presentation by  Universes in Universe