Breaking Down Walls at the Havana Biennial

Kate Flint

The Malecón, Havana’s five miles of curving, spray-soaked seawall and esplanade, is both magnificent and intimate. Since the early 20th century, it has been the site for evening promenades, a meeting spot for lovers, and a place for fishermen to cast their lines. The far side of its roadway used to be fronted with elegant mansions. It now mirrors a country in transition, with many structures crumbling, peeling, decaying: a traditional site of prostitution that now also caters to guilty lovers of ruin porn.

Other buildings along the Malecón, however, are being energetically renovated. There are a couple of new, plate glass bars and small hotels; on one recent night, a young man, wearing Soviet military uniform, darted out with a flier for a Russian-themed paladar—one of the many independent restaurants that are now sanctioned by the state. Indeed, many of Havana’s paladars, like the deservedly famous La Guarida, also serve as art galleries, showing new works among an eclectic mix of 19th and 20th-century antiques.

During the recent Havana Biennale (May 22–June 22), the Malecón was full of artworks: a perfect emblem of the interplay between art and communities that made this particular Biennale so different from other global art shows. To be sure, there were plenty of international collectors, dealers, and curators on the ground. But the Malecón’s pieces were situated within an everyday environment, quite outside of a gallery space. Some were very site-specific, like Arles del Rio’s sandy beach, complete with tiki huts, palm trees, and white sun-loungers. Some combined fun with conceptual provocation, like the American artist Duke Riley’s La esquina fría, a miniature ice-hockey rink, where Cuban children lined up for twenty minutes of skating on a special tropical-friendly substance. It was an installation at once delightfully surreal (as Riley has said, so much in Cuba doesn’t really make sense, and nor does an ice-rink outdoors in the Caribbean), an homage to history (in the 1930s, some Americans tried to establish ice rinks in Havana, including one just a couple of blocks up the Malecón), and a metaphor for the ongoing thaw in Cuban-US relations.

The Malecón’s exhibition, stretching between Parque Maceo and La Punto, was the second show there to be curated by Juan Delgado. Like the first, it was entitled Detrás del muro (Behind the Wall)—on one side, the choppy grey-blue Straits of Florida, the United States just a hundred miles away, yet for almost all Cubans, behind an invisible barrier. At the 2015 Biennale, three wooden towers by Duvier del Dago looked out over this water.  

Photograph by Kate Flint

Entitled Project Salvation, these structures borrowed their form from raised lifeguard look-out posts. But they also referenced the desire to look out with hope over a horizon (maybe to the US, or maybe just into the future). Children used the posts as climbing frames, and fishermen perched on them to fish, others climbed atop them to take photographs.

Walls are slowly breaking down, ever since Raúl Castro succeeded his brother as President. However, as José Parlá’s literalization of the metaphor in his Malecón installation shows—four large chunks of masonry are inscribed, painted, graffitied with suggestions of historical wear and tear, reminiscent of slabs of the Berlin wall—there are still plenty that are solidly in place, even as Cubans are experts at walking between them.

Photograph by Kate Flint



 

This year’s Havana Biennale is the 12th to be held. Its origins go back to 1981, when a group of young artists, working with abstract expressionism, pop art, conceptual art, and the neo-figurative, put on a groundbreaking show called Volumen Uno (Volume One). The works spoke from, and to, contemporary Cuban life, drawing on popular urban culture as well as on folk traditions and Afro-Cuban religious references, celebrating kitsch, ironically appropriating everyday objects, engaging everyday conditions in the country through exaggeration and the carnivalesque. The show excited a huge amount of interest within the country, and the Ministry of Culture, building on this, invited a group of artists to put together what proved to be the first in the series of Biennials. As the director of this year’s show, Jorge Fernandez Torres, wrote in his catalog essay, these Biennales were never for Cuban artists alone. This year is no exception in the continuing reaffirmation of the Biennale as “a space where those with no voice are granted a voice, and attempts are made to present a type of work that is not normally what we find in fairs or in the market”—especially those from the global south.

These remarks were amplified by Nelson Herrera Ysla, critic, poet, curator, and co-founder of the Wilfredo Lam cultural center, when he met with a small group of us who had traveled to the Biennale with the College Art Association. He brought home the challenges, over the last thirty years, of organizing these shows on a shoestring, and the necessity of involving many ordinary members of the community. Those traveling to seek out possible international contributors are put up by friends and connections; visiting artists have, especially during Cuba’s Special Period (when Cubans suffered economically after the fall of the Soviet Union) in the 1990s, been put up with local families in exchange for a bag of food. Ysla spoke of how Cuban art relies on irony, parody, and indirect criticism; emphasized that Cubans are continually alert to and engaged in politics; and discussed the difference between art that was offensive and that which was playful. Choosing art for the Biennale, he said—neatly sidestepping the issue of dissident art within contemporary Cuba—was a matter of presenting what’s good and innovative. At the same time, he drove home the point: since the 19th century, Cuban art has been strongly aware of its social, political, and cultural context, while increasingly putting these concepts under scrutiny. In the catalog introduction, Torres quotes Bruno Latour to this end: “What is a society? What does the word ‘social’ mean? How can the presence of social elements be demonstrated?”



 

The Biennale most immediately demonstrates the presence of social elements by sprawling all over the city, and beyond. It ignores conventional boundaries between designated art spaces and everywhere else. But social engagement is also very visible on the walls of the more conventionally curated shows, including those in the “Zona Franca.” Roberto Fabelo exhibited a huge cauldron, with workers carrying table forks marching around the rim: a reference, I was told—like his fork-studded piece, Delicatessen, down on the Malecón—to hunger in the Special Period, and the shortage not just of food but of tableware to eat it with. Indeed, shortages persist. The well-known Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote, on May 28th, of a man pulling a fork from Delicatessen, and of speculation that the sand from the beach installation would eventually be given to locals to help repair their homes. The Biennale, Sánchez said, compels us to think in very literal terms about how the material qualities and value of the aesthetic “confirms the collision of art and need…Need marks each work of art of the Havana Biennial. Material need, where screw used in some pedestal could end up in the door of a home, or in a chair or even in the bed where four people sleep every night.”

Many works of art on show in the “Zona Franca” were overtly political: Michel Mirabal’s distressed and fragmenting Cuban and American flags; Luis Camejo’s delicate drawings of Cuban monuments collapsed, flooded, overgrown at the end of the third millennium; Arlés del Rio’s La necesidad de otros aires (The Need for Other Airs), an entire room filled with breathing tubes hanging from the ceiling, like elongated snorkels, reminding us that being choked by police, or by political or social constraints, or, for that matter, by pollution (and deep concern for the environment was a frequently occurring theme at the Biennale) is a global, as well as a local, concern. But Sánchez’s words remind us that the political is ever present in the everyday—in works that use and recycle everyday materials, often referencing personal and communal memory, like Rolando Vázquez’s haunting candle smudges on old plates, or Rigoberto Mena’s canvases, encrusted with wood and nails, thick paint and scratching and graffiti and crumbling plaster. Havana’s decaying buildings never seem far from artists’ minds.



 

All over the city, the Biennale emphasized the potential of public art to surprise viewers. Sometimes these surprises were delicate and extraordinary, like the miniature biospheres installed by the Argentinian Joaquín Fargas in a small garden off Mercaderes. Sometimes they were jarring, like the huge molar at the center of Parque Lennon (John Lennon’s life-size statue continued to smile enigmatically from its bench)—although after a while, in a climate where everything is metaphoric, one wondered whether this was a comment on Cuban dentistry, on big smiley American teeth, or on the possibility of being chewed up by a larger power. Sometimes they were transformative, like the semi-translucent banner depicting a pagoda temple by the South Korean, Han Sungpil, that flowed down a couple of buildings opposite the Capitolio Nacional.

Photograph by Kate Flint

Other Biennale projects reclaimed Havana’s history. Kadir López Nieves, internationally famous for layering Cuba’s past onto old porcelain-enamel signage from Havana and transforming it into art exhibits, restored ten old movie theater neon signs. Whole sites were temporarily repurposed, like the ruined Girón bus assembly plant that housed the Montañas con una esquina rota show. Other elements were more mobile: the printing from lino blocks done on the spot by means of a hand cart outside the Wilfredo Lam center; the specially decorated pedal cycles; a cart full of sunflowers handing out stickers in memory of revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos and all Cubans who have died at sea.

This breaking down of walls between “official” art spaces and everyday topography was perhaps most striking in the area around Kcho’s studio in Romerillo. Kcho, or Alexis Leiva Machado, is best known globally for his repeated use of boat, dock, and oar motifs (there was a huge boat-sculpture up in the Fortress) that signify migration. Within Cuba, he’s also much celebrated for his collective art practices. The Museo Orgánico Romerillo spilled over from the studio complex itself, where one could watch an Ai Weiwei video, or see Peruvian Cecilia Paredes’s new photographs of wood nymphs, or lose oneself in Brazilian Sérgio Cézar’s elaborate miniature favela, built from corrugated cardboard and other repurposed scraps of cloth and plastic.

In the surrounding streets, prints were wheat-pasted to house walls; murals decorated private dwellings and playgrounds; a bus shelter was transformed into a small hall of mirrors. 

Photograph by Kate Flint

Provocative and interrogative words appeared, in large white typewriter font on blue backgrounds: NO; PORQUE VIVÍ.  

Photograph by Kate Flint

Romerillo had undergone a transformation of both private and public spaces that sometimes completely blurred the lines between the two; that confused the unmediated and the artificial; that showed everything in a state of flux. The installation in the old Los Marino grocery store was especially effective in making the viewer ask—as the organizers of this year’s Biennale wanted us to do—what is art, and what is just there? If we find beauty, or questions, in bags of sugar, and old vinegar vats, and crumpled packing materials, and discarded bottles that catch the afternoon light, is this not as much “art” as anything in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes?



 

Daily, at 9 p.m., a cannon is fired from the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress. It’s heard all over the city. Sound travels in Havana. So does rumor, in a country with limited access to the Internet, where non-government sanctioned TV stations are available only in the hotels, and there is one official newspaper, Granma. The embargo—in Cuba, “the blockade”—will be lifted on Tuesday, we heard. Obama will be visiting next week! Tania Bruguera has been allowed to leave the country to attend the Venice Biennale!

None of this, of course, was true. Bruguera, probably Cuba’s best known artist internationally, was arrested by the Castro regime on December 30th for planning an art performance in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, memorably described by P. J. O’Rourke as “a vast open space resembling the Mall in DC, but dropped into the middle of a massive empty parking lot in a tropical Newark.” The idea was to offer one minute to anyone who wished to speak, at a podium, saying anything about anything. This would have been a reprise—albeit in a symbolically different space—of her Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), performed at the Wilfredo Lam Center in 2009. But Bruguera was stopped before the performance began; she had her passport seized, and faced criminal charges (for disturbing the peace, resisting the police) in a country where all lawyers work for the state. She was also barred from the Biennale opening at the Museo de Bellas Artes, despite having been invited by the artists inside.

This treatment of Bruguera led to comparisons between her and Ai Weiwei that become even more apt in the light of the events that followed. During the Biennial’s first weekend, Bruguera staged a hundred-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Seated inside her own home, she was breaking no laws (she asked for, but was told she didn’t need, a police permit).  

Photograph by Kate Flint

The reading—usually in Spanish—was broadcast through loudspeakers, muted at night, to the street outside. The premise of Boccioni’s Futurist painting The Noises of the Street Invade the House was turned on its head: here, the sound that collapsed the space between inside and outside came from room to roadway. Until, that is, the utilities company decided that it was time to take a jack-hammer to the street and dig a trench around the block, temporarily drowning out Arendt’s words.

The readings were carried out by those who signed up on a sheet inside space, bare but for a chair, video camera, treats brought by supporters, and a tethered dove—symbol of peace, of course, but more pointedly alluding to the dove that landed on Fidel Castro’s shoulder during his famous speech on January 8, 1959. To read was, necessarily, to give support to artistic freedom of expression. This support was international, and from both hemispheres.

I attended the event on its final day, in the company of DeWitt Godfrey, President of the College Art Association; Linda Downs, its Executive Director; and three other colleagues, Monika Burczyk, Judith Rodenbeck and Joanna Szupinska-Myers. I was about the 124th person to sign up to read. About an hour later, I was invited to sit in the chair. I’d only intended to read a short paragraph, but no one around seemed to want to take over. Indeed, people seemed to be clearing up their things. Seven pages of Arendt (in Spanish) later, Bruguera herself came over and took the book from me, finished that particular paragraph, and we all exited. We walked twenty paces up the street, where Bruguera was greeted by a woman and man from the Ministry of the Interior. She released the dove, dropped the Arendt volume, got into their car, and off she was driven. By this time, I’d been stopped from taking photographs. Less than two weeks later Bruguera was arrested again, at a demonstration held by Las Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White, who hold weekly protests against the detention of loved ones by the Cuban government. She was handcuffed, thrown into a bus, and badly bruised. 

Photograph by Kate Flint



 

I walked back, after Bruguera’s arrest, along the Malecón. A large cube stood on the sidewalk, tilted and balanced on one of its corners.  

Photograph by Kate Flint

At a casual glance, the surfaces seemed to be covered with images of Venetian palazzi—as if symbols of the ur-Biennale were being appropriated and disrupted. A moment later, one could see that these were, in fact, the facades of the magnificent mansions close by. Entitled Balance cotidiano de la suerte (Daily Balance of Luck), this installation by Bolivian-Spanish artist Pilar Rubí was an homage to her two years living with local families and documenting their daily lives, in all their pragmatism and precarity.

After witnessing Bruguera’s arrest, the cube also seemed, in its balancing act, to point to other issues. Successful artists are like rock stars in Cuban society. They can obtain permission to travel, and to represent Cuban’s genuinely exciting, innovative artistic scene worldwide. They can earn substantial money in dollars—no small thing in a society where incomes are kept low, second jobs a norm, and tips in dollars ensure that tour guides earn more each week than an engineer, doctor, or dentist. No wonder that few artists resident in Cuba openly came out in support of Bruguera during the Biennale, though she’s certainly not the only dissident artist. But many whose works were on show have internalized an aesthetic balance that allows them both to comment on the conditions of everyday life, and not to fall afoul of the regime. They know that there are invisible walls: they make good use of that non-space. In other words, “entre la idea y la experiencia”—between idea and experience. The motto for this year’s Biennale.

Engaging first hand with Bruguera’s experience brought home another side of contemporary Cuba: the struggle for human rights. Whilst we celebrate much that is happening within the country, we need to be reminded that certain walls are still very much in place.

 

Postscript. Tania Bruguera had her passport restored on July 10. She subsequently left Cuba (with a written understanding that she will be able to re-enter the country) to participate in the 2015 Yale World Fellows Program, and to take up a position as the first Artist in Residence for the City of New York’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.