Roberto Fabelo Hung, Aire fresco (Fresh Air), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Malecón, 2012. Photo: Pamela M. Lee.

Roberto Fabelo Hung, Aire fresco (Fresh Air), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Malecón, 2012. Photo: Pamela M. Lee.

the 11th Havana Biennial

Roberto Fabelo Hung, Aire fresco (Fresh Air), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Malecón, 2012. Photo: Pamela M. Lee.

“REVOLUTION IN RETREAT.” So blared the cover of the March 24 issue of The Economist, a “special report” on Cuba and the dawning capitalist prospects of the only Communist state in the Western Hemisphere. With Fidel Castro’s health in precipitous decline, the progressive lifting of travel restrictions between the United States and the island nation, and some 313 new economic “guidelines” approved by the Communist Party last year, there’s little wonder that the article described Cuba’s path to capitalism as all but “irreversible,” if with the inevitable provisos regarding the old-guard faithful and the continued privations imposed by the US economic embargo. And it was these realities that marked the eleventh edition of the Havana Biennial this past spring with a certain urgency and timeliness, even as the show was nominally concerned with the relationship between art and the social imaginary. Established in 1984, the region’s most prominent large-scale exhibition bears the distinction of anticipating the hyperbolic rise of globalized biennial culture by well over a decade. Now it has reached a critical point in its history, one in which the show’s original aim of “presenting the voices of totally silenced geo-policies” is impacted by the steady incursions of the global art world and its necessarily capitalist implications.

With the main venues organized by the curatorial team of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam (headed by biennial and art-center director Jorge Fernández Torres), and with adjunct curators working in collateral exhibitions, both official and unofficial, across the city, “Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries” included more than a hundred invited artists and collaborative projects from some forty countries. The diverse range of sites and venues enlivened the main thoroughfares and quiet corners of the city, the outlying district of San Agustín (where a prototype for a “Museo de Arte Contemporáneo” had been launched), and picturesque if historically fraught settings such as the Grand Teatro de la Habana, the eighteenth-century colonial fort and prison San Carlos de la Cabaña, and the Malecón, the city’s sea wall. The biennial continued its long-standing tradition of representing the contemporary art of Cuba and Latin America, offering a vision apart from the largely Eurocentric interests of a Venice or Documenta, while emphasizing a strong presence of African artists and good showings from Asia and Europe. And while only a handful of American artists were invited (among them Andres Serrano and Craig Shillitto), many others were represented in ancillary shows organized by extramural curators. Describing or listing such details is a prerequisite for any account of an international show of this scale today. But given the third worldist history of the Havana Biennial—the claims to cultural and political autonomy staked by developing countries during the Cold War—the composition takes on an unusual salience with respect to the show’s current direction and its relation to Cuba’s future.

Despite its vanguard history, the eleventh edition was all too consistent with any number of recent international exhibitions for its generic (or, more generously put, highly accommodating) theme. In the words of the curatorial statement, “The social imaginary expresses the bonds and relationships of wide groups of people. . . . It is the place where form is given to the notions of what is public, of citizen space and of the different aspects that make communicative interaction possible.” What this suggested, in theory, was a politics of space: a show that participated in the shifting identity of the public sphere both within and outside the white cube, such that well-worn notions of artistic “intervention” were endowed with an explicitly urban premise. What it amounted to in practice, however, was far more conflicted. Here, the social imaginary could not fail to be read through the incipient pressures of globalization, nor could the theme avoid raising questions about what effectively constitutes the public within Cuba’s ideological context. Indeed, throughout the biennial, one saw a familiar iconography of Cuban hardship, cultural pride, and geopolitical longing war with the creeping presence of more typical biennial fare aligned with the European and North American models that the Havana exhibition has traditionally positioned itself against. Across these divided perspectives, smaller-scaled efforts described alternative economies and their representations, ways of reimagining the social that fit into neither of the aforementioned paradigms.

Llegooo! FeFa, 2012, a performance by María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard, was emblematic of the iconographic tendency in its elevation of popular tradition to the status of political statement. Performed at the opening of the exhibition at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam (and subsequently in a different form on the Malecón), it featured some eighteen street vendors in colorful dress calling out mellifluously, hawking peanuts, flowers, and trinkets. With the appearance of “FeFa”—Campos-Pons’s performative alter ego—the distribution of bread began, dramatizing the transfer of goods not as mercantile exchange but as a politically charged vehicle of sociability. FeFa, as it turns out, is an acronym combining the Spanish familiares en el extranjer with the English “family abroad.” The bread itself was made by ten Cubans and ten bakers from the United States, evoking the inevitable if no less poignant theme of Cuban families divided by geopolitical struggle.

The imagery of divided communities, tools of emigration, maritime distance, and the fatal prospects of covert travel was pervasive throughout the biennial. The separate solo exhibitions of Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso, both held at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, featured visas, maps, and bridges: Ramos’s interactive 90 millas (90 Miles), 2012, entreated its audience to walk along a raised platform constructed of light boxes housing large-format photographs of the sea and sky, each taken from an airplane traveling across the ninety miles separating Florida and Cuba; Barroso’s pinball machines, fashioned from cedarwood, suggested that the process of obtaining a visa is like the rattling mechanisms of an arcade game. The Gran Teatro de la Habana and the fort of San Carlos de la Cabaña provided dramatic settings for work treating related themes by the well-known Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado, who produces projects collaboratively at his workshop Kcho Estudio). In the enormous neo-Baroque edifice of the Gran Teatro, Kcho installed El David, 2009, a cluster of wooden piers fashioned into anthropomorphic form. An adjacent video monitor documented the structure’s flotation on the water, with a group of children using the work as buoy and diving platform. But there are few innocent maritime images within Kcho’s work, as demonstrated at La Cabaña by The Conversation, 2011–12, a group of simple wooden boats of varying sizes stood on end. Their arrangement produced unavoidably anthropomorphizing readings, whether as a gathering of now-absent subjects or as a collection of empty coffins.

Such work viscerally attested to the reality of contemporary Cuba as one of material privation and restricted mobility. The most disturbing—certainly arduous—statement on these conditions was a performance by Carlos Martiel Delgado Sainz, whose work Sujeto (Subject), 2012, was part of “Detrás del muro” (Behind the Wall), a project curated by Juan Delgado along the Malecón. As a graceful promenade boasting a picturesque vista, and as a popular gathering and strolling destination for locals and tourists, the Malecón was a natural site for the showcasing of a wealth of public art. Some of the work made light of the setting’s orientation toward the US, among them Roberto Fabelo Hung’s harborside scrim Aire fresco (Fresh Air), 2011, which envisaged northern ice floes in Havana’s waters, and Arlés del Río’s oft-reproduced Fly Away, 2011, a chain-link fence out of which a profile of an airplane had been cut as a heraldic figure of liberation. Yet del Río’s image of literal and metaphoric flight could only be violently countered by Sujeto, which saw Sainz curled naked and shivering in a fetal position on a rock behind the seawall, his flesh impaled by hooks, his body tethered to the shore by what looked like strands of fishing line. This was no casual performative gesture. Restoring an acutely desperate note to site-specific art, the intensity of the performance called up both histories of colonial slavery in the region and modern forms of repression.

Powerful as the work was, one could not help but wonder about the fate of such practices for Havana Biennials to come, due not only to the growing presence of more standard art-world offerings in this year’s show (Damien Hirst, anyone?) but also to what those offerings suggest about the changing situation Sainz’s work faces. No doubt, the concept of art’s social imaginary was immediately applicable to some public or outdoor work, like the raucously joyful Conga Irreversible, 2012, a backward dance-cum-parade staged by the duo Los Carpinteros along the Paseo del Prado. Yet other visions of the social trafficked little in populist sentiment or collective belonging, to say nothing of the kind of direct communal critique that made Tania Bruguera’s El susurro de Tatlin #6 (Tatlin’s Whisper #6), 2009, for which the artist invited Cubans to come to a podium and freely express their views, such a controversial part of the biennial’s last edition. This year one of the most oversubscribed, certainly packed, events was the opening of the enormous exhibition in the international wing of Museo de Bellas Artes, “CIFO: Una mirada múltiple [A Multiple Look]. Selections from the Collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros.” The Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation has been formative in drawing the global art world’s attention to modern and contemporary Latin American art; the personal collection of Fontanals-Cisneros places such work on equal curatorial footing with the blue-chip offerings of Chelsea or Hoxton. That’s a positive thing, of course, but it cuts two ways, depending on context. While the biennial, to be sure, has always hosted art from beyond the Americas, fostering productive exchange between the regional and the global, it is likely that its presentation of international work has never approached the scope on such privileged display here. Works by artists from Judd to Gursky simply read as generically contemporary to the considerable international demographic in attendance. The show’s overarching attitude, in other words, was decidedly not “public” in the sense communicated by the biennial’s curatorial narrative. On the contrary, the event had all the trappings of a classic art-world vernissage, complete with glamorously turned-out youth rubbing elbows with the collecting class.

Camilo Martínez and Gabriel Zea, Generador de valores (Value Generator), 2012, wood, electric typewriter, electronics, desktop computer, custom-made software, paper, dimensions variable.

THERE'S NO QUESTION that mounting an exhibition of this scale in Cuba involved countless bureaucratic hurdles for its curator, Osbel Suárez: The sheer fact of its appearance must therefore be praised on this count. That such hurdles were successfully cleared, however, also suggests a different vision of the Havana Biennial from that of the past, one in which a private collection from the United States can take pride of place among the city’s grandest exhibition halls. If nothing else, the opening of “Una mirada múltiple” suggested that the ubiquitous presence of US citizens on the ground played as much of a role in the biennial’s social imaginary as the locals who were its immediate audience.

The phenomenon, it bears saying, did yield compelling results. Take the show “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded 2.0: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970,” which originated at Atlanta’s Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in 2007, having been organized by that institution and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and was edited for its appearance in Havana. Including work by American and South African artists Maren Hassinger, Tracey Rose, Berni Searle, and Lorna Simpson, among others, and organized by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee of Spelman and Valerie Cassel Oliver of camh, this video exhibition highlighted the perspectives of black women as at once highly intimate, collectively shared, and mediated. In a visual language both cutting and elliptical, “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded” met the terms of the biennial’s social imaginary by productively crossing hard and fast distinctions between private reflection and public representation.

But often such border crossings had more ambivalent outcomes. What might count as public and private here—and to whom these terms are ultimately directed—was an especially pressing question relative to Havana’s biennial culture. Shillitto, a restaurant designer and architect as well as an artist, organized a pop-up restaurant, specifically a paladar, the local term for a subterranean private restaurant opened in order to bypass restrictive licensing laws and thus generate extra income. Shillitto’s Proyeto paladar, 2012, a dining space fashioned out of shipping containers, featured a team of ten American and ten Cuban chefs pairing off and cooking meals together over successive evenings. As Campos-Pons’s FeFa performance made plain, there are few rituals as elemental in creating social space as those revolving around eating and drinking; and Shillitto’s event, as anecdotal information would have it, was wildly successful in bringing Cubans and Americans together around the table.

Yet other commentators attested to the exclusiveness of the paladar event, which reportedly saw Cuban elites (i.e., insiders to the Castro family) breaking bread with wealthy collectors, thus complicating definitions of the “private” with which paladars have been historically associated. In the biennial’s catalogue, Torres described the origins of the exhibition in terms of its “total economic modesty”; with tickets to Shillitto’s feast costing US$250 for foreign attendees, such claims largely read as obsolete. In drawing attention to this impressive figure (intended to cover the travel costs of the American chefs), I hardly mean to assign a lumpen directive to the biennial—to exhort it to celebrate some misplaced aesthetic of the impoverished or, for that matter, bad food. The point is to dramatize the gross disparities between the biennial’s historical past and the exhibition’s present tense—and what this might imply for its future.

Indeed, references to “the economic” remain instructive for the biennial, as a quieter kind of work prevailed in other corners of the show—art that, in featuring subterranean modes of production and distribution, or suggesting new ways of analyzing the social, made cogent statements about the existence of such imaginaries in Cuba and elsewhere. At the Casa del Alba, for example, the Ecuadoran collective Tranvía Cero presented Habana Patent, 2012. Undertaken in collaboration with residents of the city, the project aimed to represent the inventiveness and creativity born of daily hardship, documenting citizens’ repurposing of quotidian objects, from an electric toothbrush remade as a tattooing instrument to an old bottle reconfigured as a stovetop lighter. There was something surprisingly artful and moving about such mundane transformations, offering an alternative vision of “creative” economies to those typically trumpeted in the business press. In a more abstract or conceptual vein, the media-inflected exhibition “Open Score” at the Centro Hispanoamericano de Cultura featured an installation by the Colombian duo Camilo Martínez and Gabriel Zea. Generador de valores (Value Generator), 2012, was described as “an economic device,” “a system that creates value through interactions between the people and the work.” In other words, this clanking value-making machine, which spit out ersatz “currency” or stock through the manipulations of its viewers, put the production of art and the generation of value into direct dialogue. In producing random bits of code graphically arrayed, the work underscored the creation of value itself as an exercise in virtuality.

Other projects sharing this spirit were common throughout the biennial, from the democratizing street actions of Argentina’s Mujeres Públicas to René Francisco Rodríguez and the collective 4ta Pragmática’s imaginative mini-metropolis Ciudad generosa (Generous City), 2012. But if the relative quiet of such work threatened to be overshadowed by the more spectacular offerings earlier described, that modesty, I would argue, is far from a liability. In the face of a swiftly changing Cuba, perhaps the last Havana Biennial before Castro’s demise, such work invests notions of the social imaginary with doggedly concrete ramifications.

Pamela M. Lee is a professor in the department of art and art history at Stanford University.