|« back||Art Nexus - Nr. 26/1997|
Rachel Weiss: Sixth Havana Biennial (Print/Download-Version)
Rachel Weiss: Chair, Arts Administration Program, School of the Art Institute, Chicago.
Ideally, a biennial is an opportunity to redraw the global map with the center newly located. As new areas log on to the global contemporary circuit, a biennial can magnetize a location, drawing in attention, ideas and works from faraway places and aligning them with the local reality. A biennial can also serve the parallel function of directing local attention (of both artists and public) outward, toward those places, trends and individuals with strongest relevance to the interests of the biennial epicenter.
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
Like any gigantic display, the Biennial is difficult to judge overall. The general level of work was probably a bit weaker than in 1994, especially in the Cuban work which has traditionally dominated the show. In this category, the first work in this year´s display was by Kcho, arguably the star of the moment in Havana (having won various international prizes and selling out his first show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York). A variation on the artist´s familiar theme of boat pieces referring to the exodus from Cuba in recent years, the work repeated the symbolic, material and spatial language of much of his previous work; perhaps the newest element was the line of people eager to have their pictures snapped with the artist in front of the work´s bulk. If the politics of Kcho´s work felt watered down, the installation by Lázaro Saavedra did not; a field of blank tombstones arrayed in front of a stone wall deeply scarred by countless bullets, the work recalled not only the long struggle for Cuban independence but also the years just after 1959 when the La Cabaña fortress (site of the Biennial) was run by the newly victorious Che Guevara, whose »revolutionary tribunals« concluded with executions at exactly Saavedra´s site. Also among the Cuban participants were René Francisco Rodríguez and Carlos Estévez, both of whom presented dense, room-sized installations; in the case of the former the work, Taller de Reparaciones was an acerbic reflection on the material realities of life in Cuba with even fewer spare parts than ever, while Estévez´s Donde sueña el Demiurgo, also concerned with the texture of everyday life in Havana, amassed dozens of puppets, drawings and quotations of ´80s Cuban art.
There were other exceptional works. Reamillo and Juliet´s (Phillippines, 1964 and Great Britain, 1966) spectacular installation Jesus and the Jeeps: God Bless Our Voyage filled one room of the Casa de Asia to great effect with an old jeep, super-elaborately encrusted with plastic and electronic baubles while a video game played incessantly in the cab. The artists´ statement in the catalog is a strongly-worded denunciation of the globalization of western capitalism and the cancerous effects of consumer culture which »achieve a superlative malignity in the periphery of the Third World«. Luckily the rhetorics of the work were countered by a more flexible aesthetic which incorporated strong elements of irony into its vocabulary; in contrast to the busy-ness and overkill of the jeep´s treatment, a column of pistol-shaped paper cut-outs floated on a string, casting incongruously beautiful bird shadows.
In the next room, Erasure and Remembrance by Alfredo Juan Aquilizan (Phillippines, 1962) was a somber counterpart to the Jeep´s exuberance. In an almost totally darkened space, thousands of used toothbrushes had been carefully laid out in a soft, dilapidated carpet. While impressive in visual terms, the work´s real interest lay in the process the artist had undertaken; over a period of months, Aquilizan had personally collected the toothbrushes from a small town in the Phillippines. For him, the main point of the piece was the process of that collecting, which required him to get to know the people over a period of time. His original idea was to also collect a parallel group of toothbrushes in Havana, and mix them all together - he is tired of the parochialisms of »identity« in culture. This proved impossible however, either because in Cuba there was not a ready supply of discarded toothbrushes or because he did not have the time to find a way to accumulate them.
Laura Anderson´s (Mexico, 1958) Epitome or easy way to learn the nahuatl language, on first glance was yet another artistic monument to corn, »essential ingredient of the Americas«; on closer inspection however, the grains of corn turned out to be human teeth - thousands of them - which instantly transformed the work into a requiem for the continent´s violent process over the centuries since the Conquest, and its uncounted victims. The cobs were laid out on bamboo stands which recalled the Aztec displays of war trophies in the public plazas.
In fact for many of the Latin American artists, the Biennial´s theme of memory prompted references to lost lives, mutilated bodies, and other human remnants of violence. In exquisitely embroidered panels, Pablo van Wong´s (Colombia, 1957) series Obreption with ornament reproduced journalistic images of corpses, funerals and so on; the lushness of his colors and surfaces made the sinister images beautiful, deepening the sense of violence. Above the frames there were shallow boxes holding rows of thread spools, arranged in the form of military decorations.
Mortality and disease have been ubiquitous themes in contemporary art for more than a decade, both in the postindustrial centers and in the »small circuits« of the periphery which are no less affected by the epidemics and crises of identity which plague our era. In Suzann Victor´s (Singapore) dramatic work, Untitled, an old metal bed frame hovered high above the floor, draped with a huge blanket knitted together from thousands of small glass squares dotted with drops of blood. Roberto Huarcaya´s (Peru, 1959) the Return of the forgotten cloaked the armature of a spiral staircase in huge, startling photographs of faces, from infant to old man, alive and dead.
Even if the ideas of »Third World« and »periphery« that were operative at the Biennial´s inception are now greatly changed, there was still no mistaking much of the work presented in Havana for the wealthy productions of the market centers. As in the past, there was a material reliance on the used, discarded and the recycled, with many of the resulting works bearing a patina which announced their approximate origin. Among these was the extensive installation by Romuald Hazoumé (Benin, 1962), made entirely of plastic objects washed ashore. In his hands, old detergent jugs became postmodern African masks, and a long stone wall covered with rows of old plastic beach thongs became a fascinatingly generic portrait gallery. Not far away another materially austere installation, by the very young South African Moshekwa Langa (b.1975), consisted of puddles of milk and scattered rocks on the old stone floor (by the second day, the room had filled with a sweet, rotting smell) illuminated at odd intervals by a pair of strobe lights. The milk, pooling in the floor´s uneven surface, became a de facto contour map of its topography, similar to Langwa´s other work which consisted of a tangle of nearly invisible threads laid on the floor and tracing a vague map occasionally demarcated with a place name spelled out in chalk. Langwa´s own explanation of the work, which referred to resolving dilemmas of identity, did not shed much light on the work´s mysterious allusions (the title of the first piece was The Permanent, Unfixed Image), but still the work had a potent, unforced aura. Eduardo Tokeshi´s (Perú) The Rescue Room, while also made of reclaimed materials (including beach thongs), achieved a magnificence through its meticulous fabrication and elegance.
Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba, 1967) presented two »gardens«, one Japanese and the other Cuban; the former consisted of a traditional expanse of raked gravel interspersed with chunks of architectural ornaments that had fallen off of Havana´s decaying buildings, continuing the artist´s ironic treatment of the romanticizing of his deteriorating country. The »Cuban« garden took the form of a happening in an empty, garbage-strewn lot to which Garaicoa had invited an audience. While sipping drinks and chatting, we all noticed that small details of the landscape - the rusting shell of a car, for instance, had been commemorated in photographs inserted into the surrounding concrete walls as »virtual« replicas of the destroyed place itself. It was an acerbic commentary, especially in view of the now extensive renovations being undertaken in Havana´s historic district by international investors eager to open boutiques and cafes to capture the expanding tourist throngs (Garaicoa´s garden was not too far from the new Benetton shop).
Not all the work in Havana employed such materially poor aesthetics, however, and photography in particular was a recurrent medium in the exhibition. Photo-Respirations, a lustrous series of works by Tokihiro Sato (Japan, 1957), featured portraits of isolated spots in Havana, blown up into huge translucent panels. Using time exposures, Sato caught glints of light scattered across the frame with a small flashlight and mirror; while the images are all empty of people, the little flashes of light seemed to become a ghost population. Using the same technique which, in Tokyo, connotes the cyclonic pace of development in that city, Sato´s images of Havana seemed to trace an opposite course of change. Marta María Pérez (Cuba) opened a stunning exhibition (in conjunction with the Biennial) of new work which continued her exploration of folk beliefs, using the format of photographic self-portraits. Other strong photographic work (covering a very broad spectrum of uses of the medium) by Alvaro Zinno (Uruguay, 1958), Tatiana Parcero (México, 1967), Victor Robledo (Colombia, 1949), Juan Enrique Bedoya (Perú, 1966) and Martín Weber (Argentina) was also presented.
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).
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.
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
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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