Carlos Garaicoa

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In the 1990s, Carlos Garaicoa became known for his careful studies of his hometown of Havana. His work since, whether in photography, performance, drawing, sculpture, installation, text, or video, has been inhabited by the city and its ruins, its shattered dreams turned to dust and piles of rubble. Interweaving art, city planning, and architecture, he examines the ways in which its urban spaces preserve memories of the past and are charged with political, documentary, and social content. Just as Havana previously constituted an inescapable point of departure for the artist’s investigation of the meaning, potential, and limitations of the historical moment, Palermo, Italy, similarly becomes a bitter metaphor for a contemporaneity suspended between anatomies and anathemas, as the title of this compelling exhibition, “Anatomías y Anatemas,” had it. In fact, the show suggested an unsettling parallel between the Sicilian and Cuban capitals, places that are far apart historically and geographically as well as politically and culturally, but which share a bitter destiny that has preserved vestiges of a sumptuous past and impressive architecture in a present marked by apparently inevitable decline.

Here, a selection of works, mostly from the period 2014–16, traced a parabola of creation and destruction. But Garaicoa pushed further, using his existing works to respond dialectically to the theme of Manifesta 12, the itinerant biennial that took place in Palermo last year and addressed the idea of the world as a “planetary garden.” Indeed, the cornerstone of Garaicoa’s exhibition was Jardín (Garden), 1998, an installation connected directly to the same key metaphor of Western culture. In this work, a long, narrow table (a recurring element in Garaicoa’s three-dimensional vocabulary) is covered by a meadow of luxuriant grass in a miniaturized and unexpected presentation of nature. At one end of the table is a bonsai; at the other, a small screen showing a video loop of a dead tree in a desolate courtyard: The two encompass the clash—-in all its poetic virulence—between the natural and the artificial, and the cycle of life and death. Where is that bit of decaying architecture and moribund nature located? It doesn’t really matter if it’s Palermo, Havana, or any other city.

A related parallel, this time between urban macrocosm and human microcosm, was posited in some diptychs on the walls—photographs printed on panels made of cow bones, all from 2014. The images, which seem evanescent, almost spectral, show buildings in ruin, paired with vintage X-rays of children’s bone deformities. On the opposite wall, a work from the series “Testigos” (Witnesses), 2015–, offered a utopian view that stood almost in antithesis to them. Here, drawings executed via a frottage technique, with small wooden models resting on their frames, showed an ideal version of architecture, focusing on its design phase. This vision, however, was immediately muffled in turn by the dystopian reality that brutally burst forth in ¿Y después qué haremos? (And Then What Will We Do?), 2016, an installation composed of planks of wood—now rotten and decayed and infested with a multitude of small architectural “parasites” in glass resin. These hybrid organisms, bulbous insects with buildings at one end, recalled the monstrous figures that inhabit the visionary works of Hieronymus Bosch, which seem to arouse and feed off that same implacable decay.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.