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|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
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
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
Visitors to this Biennial found a Cuba increasingly focused on tourism
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
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)
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
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
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