from an interview by Gerhard Haupt
G.H.: How would you compare this Biennial to the last one?
G.M: The problem is that I was unable to see all of the 6th Biennial, as I had to leave for Amsterdam on May 7th. During the few days after the opening, I met a lot of the people who had come to Havana. I was in Morro and in La Cabaña, where I was only able to see a portion of the works because the venues were, for reasons unexplained, closed too early. This reinforced my impression that there was a lack of organization. Even in the Centro Wifredo Lam I only saw part of the work. So I can't fairly make a comparison.
It seemed to me that in Morro and in La Cabaña, the artists approached the theme »Memory« very conventionally. I noticed a lot of repetition - many old photos, family memories, all these things that can be pretty banal. Of course, in addition to the visually somewhat boring works, there were many that were quite moving.
G.H.: At this Biennial, artists were included such as Christian Boltanski, Braco Dimitrijevic and Bill Woodrow, who don't fit into the »Third World«-oriented concept. Has the Biennial loosened its requirements?
G.M.: Well, the majority of the artists, as they have in the past, come from the »Third World«, which was the original idea behind the Biennial. I don't know why the artists you mentioned were invited, and wouldn't mind finding out. Maybe they were meant to be some type of guests of honor, which is a bit strange. Of course, the Biennial is no secret society to which one's not let in without being able to show a »Third World« passport. Other artists can be invited as special guests if they have some sort of relationship to the problems being addressed by the Centro Wifredo Lam or the Biennial. You have to be flexible. But it is rather shocking when you see the star treatment these artists get.
G.H.: Doesn't that present a contradiction? The Biennial is meant to be independent of the international mainstream mechanism, but at the same time, it tries to achieve recognition through the mainstream.
G.M: Yes, exactly. The idea behind the Biennial was always to introduce artists who work outside of the main centers. It was meant to facilitate horizontal relations, which doesn't exclude North-South relations. However, this wasn't supposed to come as an attempt at legitimization by the mainstream, rather facilitate an equal relationship upon the inclusion in the mainstream mechanisms, which is something completely different. There's a difference between trying to be an active presence in these circles and letting oneself be subordinated. It's important how the Biennial deals with this problem, so that it doesn't end up a shop window for critics and curators from the centers - a kind of »scouting for Third World talent«.
G.H.: There were various exhibitions of Cuban art parallel to the Biennial. It was interesting how numerous artists turned their own apartments and studios into temporary galleries. Why does the state so obviously fear these private initiatives?
G.M.: The fact that artists took this initiative really says something, because that hints at a more independent, more active attitude. Authoritarian regimes are always afraid that the people will get used to a feeling of independence. In these artists' private exhibits, I see the signs of a definite awakening of Cuban society, a search for a way out of the institutional framework. What's interesting is that there was no declaration in the sense of »Galleries of the Rejected«. The artists simply wanted to show their work to foreign visitors. Nevertheless, all inofficial events which weren't in private homes were forbidden by the Ministry of Culture. What goes on in a private residence can hardly be forbidden. That illustrates the fear which the Cuban state has of these intiatives.
There was, however, a lot of pressure against those who exhibited work at their homes. When Tania Bruguera ended her performance, she was visited by the police. Luckily, she had previously obtained official permission for a celebration, so there wasn't anything they could do. Although the exhibition »Zona Vedada« was in the end officially supported by the Ludwig-Foundation in Cuba, the artists were continually hassled by the police. Finally, they were forbidden to hold any activities in the temporary exhibition rooms. Without a doubt, some of the most interesting works of the Biennial was to be seen in this exhibition. Tania Bruguera's performance was especially noteworthy, not only from an artistic point of view. In one of the more run-down and overpopulated quarters of Old-Havana, she opened her house to the street and gave an impressive performance in which she ate Cuban soil for 45 minutes straight. Her audience included Biennial visitors from across the globe, as well as people from the street and from the bar across the way.
G.H.: The critical attitude of many artists was striking...
G.M.: That's always been there. There was actually the danger that this critical attitude could become a sort of trademark to be used to make oneself more interesting to collectors and the international press. But a lot of serious artists, like Tania Bruguera, Lázaro Saavedra or Fernando Rodríguez, have always had criticism as part of their work and their personal position. That was evident in the work of Lázaro in La Cabaña. Maybe it's the relationship to the specific place, and the very emotional reflection on a theme which is taboo in Cuba, which is so interesting. His installation was in a vault in which, until not too long ago, firing squad executions took place.
G.H.: You're the curator of an exhibition for the next Biennale Africus in Johannesburg. How do you rate this Biennial in the international context and in comparison to Havana?
G.M.: I find Okwui Enwezor's concept very interesting. He's introducing some changes that I like, as they signal a departure from the original 19th century Biennial style, a »Great Salon« and country participation, that was related to the big European industry trade shows. Here it deals with an ensemble of curatorial exhibitions which were organized from a single concept, having to do with current debates.
To me, this base is set up more modestly, but at the same time being more concentrated. It goes in the direction which I had in mind for the Havana Biennial when I was still working at the Centro Wifredo Lam. I wanted to show more exhibitions from different curators, while at the same time put more weight on the program as a whole, to which the theoretical conferences, workshops, meetings, publications, etc. were to be a part of. The Biennial should be more open, and not simply a »Great Salon«.