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Rachel Weiss:    The Sixth Havana Biennial ( IV - end )
As in the past there were a couple of international art stars among the Biennial´s mostly up-and-coming assemblage. This year saw the slightly mysterious inclusion of Christian Boltanski and Braco Dimitrijevic, both of whom sent familiar works (Boltanski´s revolving shadow puppet looked incredible on the fortress´ 300 year-old stone walls). Ampaso by Miguel Angel Rios (Argentina, 1943), continued that artist´s obsession with maps as deeply coded ideological symbols in a lovely and ascetic installation. William Kentridge (South Africa, 1955) contributed UBU and the Truth Commission, an installation which deployed his signature graphic and animation styles in a skeptical view of his country´s current political process. Irony was in abundance, in works such as Priscilla Monge´s (Costa Rica, 1968) Shut up and Sing, a row of boxing masks equipped with tiny music boxes which played sweet childhood tunes, and Armando Mariño´s (Cuba, 1968) caustic paintings sending up the official history of (white, western) art in canvases such as Carrera con obstáculos (a black slave boy making a dash for it down a museum´s corridors) and Marcel Duchamp in the reflex of Postmodernity (the same lad with his back to us at a urinal, with Duchamp facing front).

William Kentridge
Artists always move much faster than institutions, and Havana is no exception. While the Biennial is unquestionably a key venue for emerging Cuban artists, it also bears the weight of institutional lethargy (in both ideological and aesthetic terms) which has spawned a series of fringe events staged by the artists themselves. While this biennial was much less plagued by scandals than its immediate predecessors, it was still the site of some political controversy between artists and the Cuban state, and it was in the fringe venues that this tension played itself out. The climate for expression in Cuba has been a complicated story for a very long time, and the situation during the past decade has become much more closed. Censorship of artworks and exhibitions became unsurprising, even leading to the open removal of some works from the very public arena of the last Biennial. In the years since then, probably as the result of the dual motivations of political stricture and an increasingly entrepreneurial mentality among Cubans in most sectors, private exhibition spaces and ventures have sprouted.

Los Carpinteros
For this biennial, plans were apparently afoot among quite a few young artists to rent private houses throughout the city in which to stage independent exhibitions of their own work. Apparently, these unsanctioned initiatives eventually attracted enough unfavorable attention on the part of the police (who reportedly harassed one group of artists repeatedly as they attempted to hang their show, to the point that their landlord became convinced of the need to un-rent the space) to prompt the Ministry of Culture to proclaim, in the days just before the grand opening of the Biennial, that artists could exhibit only in their own homes, and not in any other private location acquired for that purpose [ 12 ]. This in turn occasioned several responses including that of the Ludwig Foundation (which has become a kind of unofficial middleground between Cuban artists and the state bureaucracy), which placed some exhibitions under its own wing - transformed from unofficial initiatives to quasi-official events, they were allowed to open without further incident even though the critical content of the work was unchanged [ 13 ]. In this category was the excellent exhibition Virtual Reality which included work by some of the most prominent young artists in the country such as Los carpinteros, Abel Barroso, Thomas Glassford, Sandra Ramos, Osvaldo Yero, and Ibrahim Miranda.

Sandra Ramos
Other artists staged tiny exhibitions in their own homes, including Jorge Luis Pablos, Luis Gomez and Andres Montalvan, who assembled a succinct exhibition in Montalvan´s living room. The work, as is typical of much Cuban art of the past few years, blended criticism of political rhetoric with each individual´s poetic and visual vocabulary; Virtual Reality, by Pablos, was a diminutive photograph of himself with a line drawing of the iconic Martí portrait superimposed on the picture glass covering the image, such that the two faces lined up when looked at head-on, but were misaligned when seen from even a slight angle. And »Espacio Aglutinador«, perhaps the first private gallery to assert itself into the picture several years ago, continued its ongoing commitment to present the most risky new Cuban work.

As usual, the exhibition organized by the Instituto Superior de Arte was lively and a key element of the Biennial panorama. This school, at which the majority of the country´s artists study, has been the primary source for both the talent and the controversy which have characterized Cuban art for the past decade. The student work this year displayed both a strong familiarity with the most recent currents in contemporary practice and also a continuation of the kind of ironic and critical work which has come to typify much Cuban art since the mid ‘80s. Among the more impressive works were Saidel Brito´s satirical portraits of the artist as painting cow and Duvier del Dago Fernández´ monumental Allegory.

In softening its original rhetorical position, the Havana Biennial may be losing the edge which has given it such long term importance in favor of an easier fit with the current international discourse. It could be argued that now, with the proliferation of biennials, Havana is in danger of becoming simply another chapter of this emerging global Rashomon syndrome, narrating much the same story (of the end of the century/millennium, of global migration, of shifts in traditional identities, of re-valenced relationships between self and gender and other and history) as the others. Its organizers have proved that a convincing global position can be developed from outside the usual circles of power; their task now, one fears, is to defend their achievement from its own success well enough to preserve its voice and distinctness - a problem of middle age. On one level, the Havana Biennial remains a strong and valuable statement just by virtue of its perseverance and the extraordinary fact of its reappearance time and again, despite Herculean obstacles. Still, the Biennial´s own decelerating momentum combined with significant changes in the surrounding environment raise compelling questions about the future. Of course, the »what will happen next?« game is an old favorite among Cuba-watchers, but the question seems to have particular import as the Biennial struggles to redefine itself, its audience, and its position in a growing family.

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Espacio Aglutinador

12. It was also rumored that a happening orchestrated by a Argentinian artist (and assisted by many others) during the opening ceremony, inwhich small slips of paper printed with quotations by authors including and exiled Cuban were scattered into the air overhead, may have given the authorities the idea that the bienal was in need of reining in.
13. It appears that such enterprising spirit is discouraged, in the arts and elsewhere in the economy, to prevent a private sector from growing into real competition with the State. Private restaurants (»paladares«), for example, which have become ubiquitous, are subject to constantly shifting tax rates and regulations which effectively prevent them from settling into stable entreprises.

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6th Havana Biennial

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