View of Havana from the roof of Espacio Tercer Piso.
It’s so easy to fall into a cliché when trying to describe a city such as Havana, but one cannot help but feel as if in a time warp; a time where technology had yet to replace physical interaction and where all the luxuries of our contemporary world are suddenly elusive and distant. As a writer I was enchanted by the city, as many usually are, its buildings, streets and vintage cars, but I wasn’t particularly wooed by these things; I was moved by the energetic intellect of contemporary artists, their drive and professionalism, and of course their incredible talent and honesty. Among the many of my discoveries, I realized that I had found a long-lost brother or sister, who for reasons which I would much rather not discuss at this time (but mostly political and foreign to us), had remained hidden in plain sight. And I wanted to get to know him/her with all their complexities and contradictions.
Wilfredo Prieto’s Circo Triste at El Vedado
Black Cuban flags at Havana’s Freedom Plaza. Source: The Guardian
My first outing in the city was for the closing event of Wilfredo Prieto’s ‘Circo Triste’ (Sad Circus), a project in El Vedado right behind the Sección de Intereses de Estados Unidos (United States Interests Section), the equivalent of an American embassy in any other country. Wilfredo and I had met through e-mail when we were working on an interview for DaWire. At the time I had much curiosity for Wilfredo’s politically motivated yet wonderfully and skillfully ambiguous works. This particular project consisted in simply hiring a circus for three weeks. The circus workers’ task was to set up the tents and just hang out. Inside the main tent, the chairs were left disheveled and the spotlights highlighted nothing. There was no spectacle inside, nothing to see really, yet outside the conditions of the place Wilfredo chose were significant and added a subtle layer of complexity to the work. The relationship between the local United States Interests Section and the Cuban government have never been smooth, not surprisingly of course. During a recent altercation under George W. Bush’s administration, the Section had a news ticker installed on the building’s façade which flashed provocative information on democracy and human rights to the Cuban people. In retaliation, the Cuban government installed over 60 flag posts displaying black Cuban flags in front of the building to hide the ticker. They also expropriated the Section of their coveted employee parking lot. Today things have changed a bit but not so much. The ticker was removed under Obama’s administration, but the flag-less posts in Havana’s Freedom Plaza are a sad reminder of sour diplomatic relations. Considering this immediate context, Wilfredo’s empty spectacle coupled with the Section’s guards, bored and watchful, sitting in front of one of the tents, was an ironic scenario to witness. The idea of the political act as one of pure spectacle immediately came to mind.
Inside Circo Triste
After talking to a great deal of artists and planning some studio visits, the next day I headed once again to El Vedado to visit the studio of artist Humberto Díaz. A pupil of René Francisco’s La Pragmática (many other successful artists including Los Carpinteros have come out of this program) and colleague of Wilfredo Prieto, Humberto graduated from the prestigious ISA University in Havana. His work, just as Wilfredo’s, is very conceptual and reflexive of the local social and political context. It is also at its best very site-specific. High on a strong shot of Cuban espresso, we talked for hours about his work, projects in Spain and Germany and how he was able to pull off some very ambitious and complex projects in Havana. One of them, staged on a busy street in Old Havana, on the roof of the Factoría Habana space, proved to be quite a show in process. It consisted of lifting a local bus with a crane (in broad daylight and on a weekday) to the roof of the building, letting it hang halfway on plain view to passersby. Although the actual ready-made sculptural moment didn’t last very long (the director of the space removed it rather quickly because she thought the bus might actually tip over and fall to the street), according to Humberto, the process was exciting and the people’s reactions to the project were diverse and engaging. I could see how this particular project could immediately engage the public’s attention.
At the studio with Humberto Díaz. On view: maquette for Tsunami project
Images of Humberto’s project at Factoría Habana
Another project that grabbed my attention during our conversation was ‘Nothing Inside’ developed this year for the Oncena Bienal de la Habana at La Cabaña/Morro. The piece consisted of a hollowed and fragmented royal palm tree suspended and lit from the inside. I didn’t know this at the time, but it is illegal to cut down a royal palm tree in Cuba since it is the emblem of the Cuban nation. The project necessitated special permits to be able to use a palm tree that was ‘oficially’ cut by the government for practical reasons such as construction. The piece poignantly speaks of emptiness and fragmentation, a national symbol further aestheticized though violent cuts and manipulation, but also subtly suggests the ways that artists are able to navigate the system to produce works and simply just keep working.
Humberto Diaz’s Nothing Inside at La Cabaña/Morro, Oncena Bienal de la Habana.
Rafael Villares at Espacio Tercer Piso
Down by O’Reilly street in Old Havana, I had been trying for days to get in contact with an artist, José Manuel Mesías, who had opened a makeshift gallery in his apartment during the Oncena Bienal de la Habana named Espacio Tercer Piso. The space brings together the works of various artists including Rafael Villares, Ernesto García, Ladicani and Rolando Vázquez. Similar to other spaces in Puerto Rico such as La Loseta and Chemi’s Room, which also present works by local artists providing an alternate model for exhibition making and viewing, Espacio Tercer Piso emerged temporarily out of need, but can also become in the long-term a viable alternative for young artists. Personally, I really enjoy shows in apartments because it is such a different experience from a sterile and impersonal environment such as a gallery or white cube institution.
In just a few days, I had managed to see quite a lot and meet many people. But it’s not easy to do research in Havana. The lack of internet access and even telephone access can make planning meetings very difficult. And although I had initially traveled to Havana for the Oncena Bienal de la Havana, the shows and artists met along the way were a lot more interesting than the main event itself.
*More to come on Part II: ISA and more studio visits
José Manuel Mesías, Bollo.
Ernesto García at Espacio Tercer Piso. Resin on plastic.