In Havana, An Air of Possibility

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Sun Nov 16 18:03:59 MST 2003

(This is, I guess, supposed to seem as if it's
actually a rather sympathetic report on the Havana
art festival now going on, while reminding you
that, of course, Cuba IS a terrible place because
of the Communist Dictatorship which runs it.

(According to writers and editors of this stripe,
you have these talented artists who manage very
adroitly to sneak in political criticism of the
island's politics through their art works.

(Cuba's Dull Communist Bureaucrats are, surely,
too stupid to grasp deep social and political
critiques which are obvious to this writer
from the Washington Post during his momentary
sojourn to the island. While it is true that you
don't get toilet paper in those blue metallic
Cuban porta-potties, nearly any other public
restroom provides paper for those who want
it and will leave a peso with the attendant.

(Long and detailed commentaries like this are,
in fact, part of the journalistic component of
Washington's blockade of the island as its
purpose is to trash the country and at the
same time discourage visits to the place.

(Certainly I've seen my share of dully-academic
contemporary art from the island. But here we're
seeing there's another form of "creativity" being
presented now: how eruditely one can trash Cuba
while writing a supposed review of one of its
gigantic cultural presentations.

(Writers of this ilk, which I'd think takes some
real effort, probably don't have the time or the
talent to do their own creative art productions.
They are a subcategory of the art world more
familiarly known as the "bullshit artist".

Walter Lippmann, Moderator
CubaNews list

The Washington Post

November 16, 2003, Sunday, Final Edition

In Havana, An Air of Possibility

Politics and Social Contradictions Waft Enticingly Over an
Impressive Art Biennial

Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


Here's a proposition for you: A work of art means something
different when there's a whiff of sewage in the air. It's
not an idea you're likely to have entertained, unless
you've visited the Havana biennial of contemporary art,
whose eighth edition opened two weeks ago.

Most of the time, art's meanings shift only subtly when it
gets shown in a new context. But Havana is such a strange,
fascinating, bewildering place that almost any art shown
here seems to come unmoored. The city's stunning
contradictions -- fervent creativity coupled with
heavy-handed politics; grand historic buildings housing
sewage-scented poverty -- force their way into your
consciousness as you try to contemplate this exhibition's

The biennial was organized by state-approved curators,
working on a shoestring budget after foreign funders pulled
out in protest of Fidel Castro's latest human rights
abuses. (There were also allegations of censorship and
interference in the art made for the show.)

Despite the cuts, the organizers managed to pull in close
to 150 local and international artists, mostly from the
developing world, and give them lavish space to display
their wares. The result was a show with many surprising
highs -- the best works rivaled anything at high-end art
events like Germany's Documenta exhibition or the Venice or
Whitney biennials --and some numbing lows. And both highs
and lows read differently because of the city that
surrounded them.

Counting up my favorites, I arrived at almost 30 works that
really seemed to mean something to me -- maybe a record
number for such an exhibition -- and that seemed completely
up to speed with the international vanguard. But why go
through the hassles of a trip to Cuba only to see art that
you could find elsewhere? After a week spent in the
sprawling show, however, it became clear that the works
themselves, for all their international cachet, meant more
here than they would have in other settings.

A large part of the biennial has been installed in former
ammunition vaults and prison cells and barracks in the
Colonial fortress of La Cabana. When you approach the
massive fortifications, the first thing you see is a row of
international flags, such as you'd find at government sites
around the world. But here in Havana, young Cuban artist
Wilfredo Prieto has put a subtle spin on them.

He's left the flags' official sizes and patterns absolutely
unchanged, but had them manufactured only in shades of
gray. The bright blue sky of a hot Cuban November still
shines true, but the red, white and blue of French and U.S.
flags, the red-on-white of Japan and Canada, the green and
red of Italy, now flap against that blue sky in black and

There's a striking visual effect to what Prieto's done that
anyone could read: A moving, wind-blown chunk of the real
world comes to look like a manipulated photograph -- like a
photo from the cover of a World Bank annual report, say, as
tweaked by a designer who knows the most basic moves in

There's a generalized political effect as well, one that
has meaning all around the planet. Crucial symbols of
international difference and political identity have been
bleached and disempowered. Prieto's move could be read as a
sign of optimistic one-worldism. Or it could be a cynical
rejection of differences among nation-states, asserting
that one is as bad as the next, and that none deserves
colorful celebration.

But in the very specific context of Cuba, where politics
and international affairs are pervasive forces, Prieto's
work takes on a specificity and urgency that it wouldn't
have in Venice or New York. Titled "Apolitical," it seems
to stand for the deliberate neutrality that Cuban artists
and intellectuals are tempted to adopt in order to survive,
draining their work of explicit politics until they risk
becoming tame studies in composition. And yet, of course,
by pointing out that very phenomenon, Prieto's piece itself
is far from apolitical. Its apparent neutrality is in fact
heavily charged, but ambiguous enough to get past the
censors and keep the artist out of jail.

The fascinating ambiguity of Prieto's piece seems to be a
hallmark of Cuban contemporary art. It makes the Cuban
works some of the very best in the biennial. Cuba's art
outshines the truly neutral, politically unconscious work
that some foreign artists have on show. It also outguns the
strident, message-driven works of other artists from
abroad. A nation of 11 million people has somehow
managed to turn out far more than its fair share of talented
creators. (Excellent education may have something to do
with it. A visit to the main art school showed student work
as good as you'd get anywhere, even in relatively
newfangled fields such as performance and video art.)

Another favorite work in the biennial was by Liset
Castillo, born in Cuba in 1974. She is presenting
large-scale aerial photographs of expressways and off-ramps
and cloverleafs and other major highway projects. Except
that, on closer examination, you see that the public works
were in fact only tiny models immaculately molded out of
sand -- not sand castles, but sand turnpikes. They have all
the appeal of perfectly made sand castles: Wonder at the
craft that went into them (we've all tried, and failed, to
make sand obey our wishes); at their ephemerality; at the
simple, unlikely beauty of their sleek forms. But they also
have a political poignancy to them in a land where grand
government projects often come to naught. Bone-jarring
potholes are more prominent in Cuba than expanses of
pristine pavement. And yet Castillo's photos don't register
as a simple protest at what's lacking. They have an almost
utopian wistfulness, too, for what could be, in a country
that has all the signs of high culture and education, but
few of their usual material rewards.

The Cuban love of subtlety and ambiguity also seems to have
governed the selection of work by certain foreigners at the
biennial. Alejandro Diaz, a New Yorker of Mexican
extraction, is the only American to show work in the
exhibition. (A handful of others will be participating in
upcoming performance art events). And Diaz's contribution,
though clearly politically tinged, has a Cuban-style
multiplicity of meaning.

Diaz took some classic red-and-white striped beach balls,
as well as white vinyl tote bags, and then had an "I
[heart] CUBA" logo printed on each one. On the surface
Diaz's work looks like a simple tourist valentine sent to a
winning place and people -- but coming from an American,
and from the wily world of art, it has a pile of
alternative readings as well.

It infects a communist country with U.S.-style marketing,
in a kind of foretaste of what might happen if economic
relations between the two countries were to change. (It's a
delightful irony, well appreciated by Diaz, that the artist's
day job is in the marketing department of Estee Lauder.)

Handed out free by Diaz from the stacks on show in his
installation, the bags and balls also provided ordinary
Cubans with a taste of the tacky capitalist opulence that
they can't get at home, since they are refused admission to
the foreign-run resorts beginning to clog their beaches.
(In a lovely twist, Diaz has discovered that impoverished,
entrepreneurial Cubans are reselling his works to
foreigners for 30 or 40 bucks a pop.)

Carried on the streets of Miami by an anti-Castro emigre,
Diaz's vinyl bag could indicate a love of Cuba as a native
land, and an insistence that it should throw off communism
and become as American in spirit as New York, source of its
logo design.

Proudly borne aloft on Capitol Hill, a Diaz tote could also
be used as a standard for the pro-Castro crowd, allowing
Americans of the far left to assert their support for
Fidel's radical alternative -- as lovable, to them, as the
Empire State.

Everything about Cuba, and its relations with the outside
world, is vexed. Diaz's deadpan project takes that vexation
and runs with it.

It starts as a formal installation, and moves on from there
to find a larger audience. Some other artists in the show
left the exhibition spaces altogether, to carry art
directly to the people. (The biennial's official theme was
"El arte con la vida" -- roughly "Art and life as one.")

There is a program of performance art, assembled by a Cuban
group with the mocking, pseudo-bureaucratic title of the
Department of Public Interventions, that turns the streets
into its gallery.

Irish artist Vanessa O'Reilly, who typically works with
water, built little temporary electric fountains to enliven
a crowded housing complex. She had to cooperate closely
with the residents, who husband both water and electricity
as precious resources, in order to rework her projects so
that they could function in their new Cuban context. Both
artist and residents declared themselves pleased with the
results of their unusual collaboration.

Another group of artists set up free toilet paper
dispensers on one of the dirtiest street corners in Havana,
as an anonymous gesture of generosity in a city where
public bathrooms don't come equipped with anything beyond
the toilet itself. (Sinks and even toilet seats are at best
optional equipment; paper products of any kind are unheard
of.) A video of the reactions of passersby to the free
supply of tissue is both hilarious and poignant.

Other artists were invited by biennial curators to
"intervene" in the tiny concrete apartments of the run-down
suburb of Alamar, so that the exhibition could reach into
the homes of ordinary Cubans. Working in consultation and
collaboration with the apartments' occupants, they
decorated and painted and restyled their rooms as a kind of
domestic installation art. The results were mostly pretty
weak, in strictly artistic terms. But that hardly mattered.
What made the projects worthwhile was the open-minded,
open-armed embrace of art by a segment of the public that
in other countries would have been ignored by the vanguard,
and would have been happy to be so. In Europe and North
America, installation and performance art tends to be the
province of the most rarefied art-world elite, and the
object of scorn and suspicion from almost everybody else.
The so-called "masses" opt for traditionally pretty
pictures every time. In the confused streets of Havana,
where just coping with the absurdities of an almost broken
system requires a kind of daily performance artistry,
radical, even absurdist art seems to intervene in life with
an authenticity it almost never achieves elsewhere.

In fact, during the biennial, art seems to creep into every
corner of Havana. The official biennial events are
supplemented by a huge roster of independent shows in
artists' studios, private houses and even hanging from the
rafters in a meager farmers market.

Go into the quiet, ivy-clad courtyard of one ancient Old
Havana building --careful where you step in the
impoverished streets that lead you there --and you come
across a gleaming black Chrysler that has survived intact
from the 1950s, only to have a pair of airplane wings,
exquisitely crafted and finished to match the car itself,
grafted onto its roof by well-known local artist Esterio
Segura. Of course, by cynical First World standards the
symbolism isn't exactly subtle. But in Cuba, home of
transcendent jury-rigging and hopes that refuse to stay
earthbound, it has a poignancy that makes it resonate.

The Havana Biennial continues in venues across the city
through Dec. 1. Visit for information,
images and Spanish commentary.

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