Carlos Garaicoa

“Got it!” you say to yourself when you make out the graffitied slogan NI CRISTO NI MARX NI BAKUNIN in the photo of the same title by Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa. But the catch, for those who take the time to look a little more closely, is that the posters seen above the slogan seem to be written in Catalan—or more precisely, as Garaicoa explains, in the dialect of Valencia (just south of Catalonia, on the Spanish coast), where he took the photo in 1996 as part of a larger series on urban graffiti.

So much for quick takes on Cuba today. Not a bit of this exhibition of photographs, drawings, and video and other installations, ingeniously inserted in the nooks and crannies of the MEP’s grotto-like lower level (full of history and charm but devoid of windows), was either instantaneous or insular. Photos taken in Venezuela or South Africa, for example, are literally “prolonged” in hand-drawn pendants executed several years later; a six-monitor video piece takes its images from a 1997 performance in Angola and its title from a seventeenth-century haiku; and an installation from the series “Nuevas arquitecturas” (New architectures 2001), uses rice-paper lamps to construct millennial table-top cities where igloos, ziggurats, and pyramids coexist with modernist monoliths and futuristic towers undulating toward the ceiling/sky.

Somewhere between a real-life investigative reporter and a fictional private eye (a composite of Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and his character Pepe Carvalho comes to mind), Garaicoa tracks his subjects from one continent to another, prying into their pasts, analyzing their presents, imagining their futures with a compelling mix of determination and (self-) derision. The subject in question is most often the city, not as a locus of individual alienation but as a kind of archetype that permits the artist to tap into the collective psyche—his, yours, ours.

The photos from the “Jardín cubano” (Cuban garden) series, 1997–2002, with their exquisitely overexposed close-ups of urban detritus, were doubtless perceived differently against the timeworn stone walls here than they would be in another physical or geopolitical setting. The video installation with its tiny elevated monitors showing a man (Garaicoa) endlessly digging holes in an arid field under a blazing sun and an enigmatic haiku inscribed on the wall—IN THE SUMMER GRASSES THERE IS BOREDOM NOW. GLORIOUS DREAMS OF ANCIENT WARRIORS—similarly takes on different meanings for those who know that the field in question is in Cuito Cuanavale, the site of the last major battle of the Angolan war. And if the improbable rice-paper metropolis and the ethereal street plan traced on the adjacent wall with straight pins and thread (from the series “Porque toda cuidad tiene derecho a llamarse Utopia” [Because every city has the right to be called Utopia], 2001) reflect the more urbanistic approach developed in Garaicoa’s project for last year’s Documenta, these true-false cities—like the graffitied walls and the gardens of ruins he has been photographing for years, like the monuments he has redesigned with his architectural drawings, like the buried history he literally dug up on the Cuito Cuanavale battlefield—are also palimpsests of memories and dreams, inspired by two elements that know no borders: the precariousness of existence and the force of imagination.

Miriam Rosen