Havana, Cuba

VII Bienal de La Habana

Various Venues

Since its inception in 1983, the Bienal de La Habana has tenaciously promoted itself as an alternative biennial—less cookie-cutter-commercial and more genuinely representative of the art of the developing world. And yet as Cuba’s economic situation has changed—dramatically even in the three years since the last biennial—so have the aspirations of Cuban artists and the ambitions of the exhibition’s curators. The discreet charms (and harms) of globalization, it seems, are hard to resist. The theme of the seventh installment, “Más ma uno del otro” (“Closer to the other”), was designed to allow “a reflection on communication and dialogue among human beings,” a proposition that suggests a fuzzily defined conceptual zone between old-fashioned liberal humanism and information-age “communicative action.” In fact, this biennial dealt equally with the poetics of miscommunication, partly because of maladroit organization and frequent technical glitches and, more important, because of different local and international presumptions about the function and meaning of artistic expression. Still, as a showcase for Cuban and other Latin American art, the biennial was, in its own peculiarly proud, gutsy cubano way, a triumph.

Funded by various European foundations and the cash-strapped Cuban government and organized by the Centro Wifredo Lam, this biennial was remarkable for its deft utilization of Havana’s urban landscape. Because of ongoing renovations to the exhibitions’ usual location, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Havana’s equivalent to, say, the Prado), they occupied not just the colonial-era Castillo de Morro and La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, both of which have been used in past years, but also buildings throughout Old Havana, a public walkway along the picturesque Malecón seafront, and small venues in less frequently visited neighborhoods. The Münster sculpture show was suggested as a purported model—which in terms of both logistics and curatorial sophistication is a bit of a stretch. Thankfully, though, Havana is so much more alive than sleepy, stuffy Münster: The city I saw had as little to do with the charming decrepitude of Wim Wenders’s romantic Buena Vista Social Club as with the vast, grotesque prison house portrayed in Julian Schnabel's powerful Before Night Falls. Havana and its people weere animated, warm, funny, and inspiring.

Given the presence of busloads of European and American art tourists, walking around the exhibitions during opening week sometimes felt a bit reminiscent of that scene in Godfather II when a group of ’50s American gangsters on a yacht greedily cuts up a cake meant to signify Cuba. Such was the not entirely benign air of hunger and anticipation. In the evening, the bar at the still glamorous Hotel Nacional was packed, and during the day the streets of Old Havana were filled with fashionably dressed US museum “gold circle” members armed with Bienal badges and dollars with which to buy art (or pledge to do so). But after all the charter flights went home, visitors, along with Havana’s always curious citizens, could actually look at the exhibitions.

Among the featured artists was Jean-Michel Basquiat—a predictable choice given that the idea of the “Caribbean artist embraced then abandoned by money-driven art world in cahoots with cruel, racist system” might still have currency in Cuba. But because of wrangling on both sides of the blockade-plagued Gulf over shipping, insurance, and legal minutiae, most of the work shown was unimpressive—studies, drawings, sketches, and the like—and with the scarcity of the offerings, galleries were reduced to exhibiting photographs of Basquiat smiling with Warhol and other celebrities. Hélio Oiticica’s retrospective fared much better. His conceptually driven tactile and participatory work influenced a generation of Brazilian artists, and here it was easy to see why. On a table at the entrance to the exhibition were the artist’s collections of Bijos, little plastic bags filled with shells floating in water; nearby were buckets of dirt you were invited to touch (through rubber gloves) and smell. “That’s soil from Cuba,” a museum worker proudly told me. “He visited Havana in the ’60s.” In the next room, another gallery worker, a young black woman, unself-consciously modeled the brightly colored Parangolés, 1963–67, outfits that Oiticica asked observers to wear.

In keeping with the biennial’s emphasis on artists frequently overlooked in Europe and the United States, the majority of the approximately 170 participants was from the “Third World,” with local artists enjoying special prominence. Of particular interest, for the outsider at least, was art made by Cubans who have been fortunate enough to get documents to travel elsewhere but have returned to Cuba to live. Among this group are Kcho, Tania Bruguera, and the collectives Los Carpinteros and Galería DUPP; each presented site-specific installations that approached the (cutting) edge of censorship to explore Cuban history and myth. Kcho’s Para olvidar (In order to forget), 1996, a collection of bits of wood and glass presented in a corridor of the grand San Francisco de Asís church, formed a kind of castaway’s island, complete with a nearby sculpture resembling a wooden raft. To a Yanqui viewer, his installation was a little reminiscent of Gilligan’s Island, only less insipid and sadder, which is perhaps what it feels like to be an ambitious artist living on Cuba. Surviving as a castaway requires inventiveness, fortitude, and moxie—each amply displayed in Kcho’s work.

Bruguera’s installation in a tunnel at La Fortaleza formerly used as a penitentiary cell, Untitled, 2000, was even more conceptually stunning. You entered at one end of a guarded, cavelike space that emitted a powerful odor of fermentation; the floor was covered with layers of bagazo, milled sugarcane, which made each step difficult. Disoriented by the darkness, the smell, and the effort of walking/trudging, you were drawn toward a blue light emanating from the hard-to-discern distance that turned out to be a television screen, silently projecting looped video images of Fidel Castro in what are for Cubans famous scenes of their “maximum leader” displaying his heroism and humanity. Only on looking back from the end of the tunnel could you see that you were being watched by men—nonprofessional actors from Bruguera’s neighborhood—standing naked in two rows of two and making a series of repetitive gestures: One bowed rhythmically; another rubbed himself as if trying frantically to remove a taint (like the Lady Macbeth figure in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood). The effect of seeing their silhouettes in conjunction with the video was astonishingly powerful. It was as though Bruguera were presenting a philosophy of (national) history, in which people journey through a collective experience that can only be comprehended once they’ve reached its end, whereupon “the past” reveals itself as having consisted of repeated rituals and empty gestures. Bruguera’s installation drew so many visitors that it was featured on the evening news. The next day, the actors were not allowed to participate. (Bruguera surreptitiously recorded the performance on video.)

Aboveground, Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters), a collaborative group of three artists who explore lived urban space, erected a dozen or so tents on a grassy knoll between the Morro and La Fortaleza. The tents were designed to look like architectural icons will known to Cubans—a model sugar refinery, a historically significant lighthouse, etc.—only they were obviously flimsy replicas. The group seemed to be commenting on the notion of transience (no less a problem in Havana than in any other capital cities of the developing world) as well as the artificiality of national historical ideals.

Galería DUPP, a collective of twelve young artists, placed dozens of ’50s-style microphones cast in cement and rusted iron around the edge of the Castillo de Morro, situating them in direct visual dialogue with the larger, rusting cannons that have surrounded the castle for centuries. Half the microphones faced the Caribbean, as if tapping into the sounds of the outside world; half faced in, as though keeping tabs on the local inhabitants. The installation turned the biennial’s theme of communication on itself, exposing at once the anachronisms of Havana (its cars, architecture, technology, perhaps its ideology) and the Cuban artists’ sense of geographical and cultural isolation.

South American art was also well represented Argentines Leandro Erlich and Judi Werthein installed a painted backdrop of a winter scene against which visitors, most of whom will never see snow, could be photographed. A long line regularly snaked out of their stall in La Fortaleza; kids gleefully passed around snapshots of themselves standing on skis or sitting in a toboggan. It was as though Santa had come to Havana. Other highlights included the work of two South Africans: William Kentridge’s animated film The Shadow Procession, 1999 (Kentridge seems a biennial fixture), and Willem Boshoff’s floor sculpture made of sand, invoking untranslatable words in various African languages.

A particularly intriguing aspect of this biennial was that it featured several “unofficial” exhibitions in private residences in and around Havana. Pámela Ruiz, an American married to Cuban artist Damián Aquiles, curated a show in the ramshackle but still grand home of her neighbor Vicenta Aquila Borge, a very old (and yes, cigar-smoking) black woman who was granted occupancy of the house after the revolution. In one of its rooms, Ángel Delgado created Silencio absoluto, 2000, an installation of a prisonlike space containing a long wooden table bearing plates of unappetizing-looking food, all of it made of soap. (Soap was scarce in Cuba for many years; it also bears such metaphorical resonances as institutional captivity and “whitewashing.”) Outside, near Misinvoluntades, 2000, a large painting and floor sculpture by Aquiles, a pig roamed around the backyard. (No, we were definitely not in Münster!)

As is increasingly the case elsewhere, this was a very self-conscious biennial. The curators organized the almost obligatory conference on theory and criticism, much of which focused on globalization (and its discontents). Rosa Martínez, who curated the last SITE Santa Fe and is currently attempting to mount a biennial in Kathmandu, Nepal, spoke about the potential for biennials to make genuine connections among people of different nations and cultures: Others (like Ery Camara, a Senegal-born critic who lives in Mexico) handwringingly decried the biennialization of the art world, comparing it to economic globalization under Western domination or the homogenizing effects of “world music.” While there is surely validity in the second view, I found myself swayed by Martínez’s enthusiasm (if not by her insufficient theorization of her own, privileged place). After all, it is easy for world-weary bienalistas to say, “Oh, we’ve seen that installation before,” conveniently forgetting that the locals hadn’t. In fact, the biennial’s biggest beneficiaries were not only the Cuban artists, whose work was exposed to potential patrons from Europe and the United States, but the broader art world—which will now have the benefit of those artists’ skillfully wrought, politically astute, and often immensely moving work to complicate its notions of what a globe might be.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.