La Cabaña and El Moro (the old fort) and multiple city venues 17 November 2000 - 1 January 2001
The Havana Biennial began in 1984 as a maverick voice from outside the mainstream art world and antidote to first-world rhetoric. This Biennial in its 7th incarnation titled Uno mas cerca al otro ('Closer to Each Other') is an event that still hovers on the periphery, just. These days the event fulfils its original intention to give a voice to artists from developing nations, and introduce Cubans to international art tendencies, as well as providing Cuba with a voice in the globalized economic environment of the 21st century.
In 1989 walls came crashing down, creating a global political shift which meant that Cuba lost the USSR as its main supporter. The island suddenly plunged into a dark era called the 'special period'. The Biennial was at risk. Tourism became an integral doctrine in Cuban economic survival, which in turn confirmed the survival of the Biennial as a major drawcard.
Havana is not one city but many. Its contrasts and juxtapositions can surprise and shock the visitor. On the one hand it is a romantic colonial city, on the other it is a modern regime with utilitarian structures. The city presents a sophisticated nostalgia or looking at it another way, tremendous poverty. The rich and the crumbling sit side by side. These various cities that make up Havana are what the artists at the Biennial have to work with or against. Cuban artists exhibiting in both official and fringe events of the Biennial respond to these cities in their work.
Havana, the Nostalgic City, sings to the beat of tambours, croons to the rhythm of the 'son' and moves like a majestic mulatta. This is the city immortalized by Hemingway, Bene More, Perez Prado and Cecilia Cruz and more recently by Ry (?) Cooder and his Buena Vista Social Club. It is a zone of classic cars from the 1950s and earlier, Cojibas cigars, splendidly romantic colonial buildings and superb mansions from the 30s and 50s in tree-lined boulevards.
This pre-revolutionary city in its exotic excessiveness and corruption is served up eighty years on for the tourists as a stylized image in which American dollars are required to be quickly spent. The Cubans have re-romantised their past for the tourists, and for themselves, to the point where it is not clear whether the Havanans are doing it for dollars or recreating the old stereotypes for themselves.
Its art is found in the market place behind the Havana Cathedral. Locally trained artists pump out images of old cars in the colonnaded streets of Old Havana; cartoon-style images of Hemingway's hangout El Bodegito al Medio; big hipped mulattas smoking Cojibas and so on. Esta es tu Casa Vincenta, the most popular fringe exhibition of the Biennial was held in what looked like a burnt-out French-style villa but which turned out to be home for more than 50 years to Vincenta, who lent the once-grand rooms, their attendant fittings in a quaint state of decline, as a temporary exhibition space. In the dining room Angel Delgado placed on the long bench table, a meagre dinner for 12 made of soap and displayed in the divided aluminum plates usually used in institutions. Amongst many other engaging works video artist Alberto Casado, displayed on a small TV a home video of an old raconteur, singing and chatting to the camera, an image of small town Cuba in all its simplicity.
The Tourist City sits between the Nostalgic and Revolutionary City. Tourism has become the Cuban governments panacea for the economic woes of the country. The Tourist City is a sparkling place full of beaches, water-sports, music from the old days, mojitos and general excess. The currency of the Tourist City is American dollars; without them you will not receive the key.
Visitors are segregated from Cubans in an economic apartheid that requires them to spend their dollars in specified places or with registered agencies employed by the State. Cuban pesos are virtually impossible to spend, becoming just a souvenir of the visit. The boundaries of this city are invisible but potent and there are taxis, restaurants and public spaces where it is illegal for non-registered Cubans to stray, hinting at how the Cubans themselves are controlled by the State. Without access to dollars the average Cuban lives on the edge, but with them they can afford basic necessities. The US dollar has become the new Cuban Godhead.
As the Biennial relies on the Tourist City for support it is not surprising to find a number of Cuban artists making work that appeals to visitors' concepts of Cuba. The curators from the US particularly like work that rings of dissidence such as the work of Tania Bruguera who is well known inside and outside Cuba for her performance-installations. This time she created a work in which she hired actors to perform. Set inside a cavernous stone warehouse carpeted with crushed sugar cane, giving off a pungent odour as it fermented, men were standing naked in the semi-darkness. High in the ceiling at the centre of the space a small black and white TV had been suspended showing a silent video of Fidel kissing children, addressing and waving to his people - statesman, politician, God. The work was a reflection on Cuban slave history in relation to their current economic and political situation. This work had even greater appeal for the international audience once they realised the Cuban authorities had tried to close it down. A moment of conflict between the Tourist and the Revolutionary City.
Revolutionary City. Spoken City.
Monolithic images of Che Guevara sit upon this classless, Revolutionary City of smiling children who receive their gaudy, sugar-frosted birthday cakes from the State. It is a city of happy children, in red and white uniforms, singing sweet songs of revolution while eating ice-cream, where revolutionaries are talked of as if they are old family friends. A place in which everybody has the chance to learn to read and be who they want as long as they respect the wishes of their founding fathers.
Fidel's Spoken City is far more enticing than the one that actually exists and is re-narrated in a work by Galeria DUPP, a group of Cuban artists that have been collaborating on large scale projects since 1989. In 1,2,3 probando ('1,2,3 testing'), they chose the site of the old fort at the entrance to the city for their installation. The fort becomes a metaphor for the control and containment of the flow of goods and ideas in and out of Havana. Along the sandstone walls of the fort they installed extra-large 1950s microphones made out of oxidized cast iron. They faced both inwards, the viewer becoming the orator, and outwards towards the city and the sea, perhaps referring to Fidel's endless rhetoric. A second part of the installation was set inside one of the cavernous stone rooms of the fort. A series of grey plastic curtains painted with black acrylic realistic images of the fort itself which blew in the wind in the gun portals, the curtains moving back to reveal an impenetrable sameness, a reluctance to change.
In Esterio Segura's installation Donde el silencio produce tornados ('Where silence produces torment') several realistic sculptures of a man sleeping are surrounded by contemporary symbolic objects - cages, planes, machines, light bulbs - in the dark spaces of the old fort. The somnambulist screams into the darkness, his voice lit up by light bulbs. The sleeping protagonist lies on top of mounds of bamboo birdcages, while hundreds of small planes line the roof above him. The voiceless individual in the Revolutionary City who receives no reprieve, even when he sleeps and dreams.
Real City in the globalised environment
Old Havana looks like a bomb site. But the only war that has gone on is one of perception. In 40 years since the revolution nothing has been painted or repaired. Stylish Deco and Nouveau buildings decay, crumble and rot. High-ceilinged rooms of old palaces have been divided and wedged with new levels, and brim with families living on top of each other. Old Havana never had proper sewage or an efficient aqueduct and it still doesn't, so the streets shimmer with blackwaters that leak through the cracks in the footpaths and roads.
Inhabitants of the houses fill up buckets with potable water from trucks that pass by every few days. The city is being lost under a cover of grot and grime. A tawdry princess collapsing in on herself.
In a fringe Biennial exhibition in a private home in the Vedado, a Cuban artist explored Cuban desperation to get their hands on a few dollars, in a performance piece that took place on opening night on the rooftop. The artist had made several long bench box seats with cushions on top as furniture for people to sit on during the opening. Apparently, several people had been employed by the artist, for a fee of $50 to lie confined in these dark, airless boxes for the duration of the opening, his point being that Cubans will do anything for dollars even if it means prostituting themselves, or compromising their own dignity.
Access to the Internet is forbidden to the private individual in Cuba, and on-line participation is limited to a few official institutions. The artist Abel Barroso points to the disparity between the concept of participation in the global marketplace brought about by the Internet and other technology, and an individual's actual ability participate. In Café Internet del Tercer Mundo (Third World Internet café) all the computers and associated technology are made out of wood blocks carved with messages then hammered together in a crude folkloric style.
The Havana Biennial is not hermetically sealed because the environment of the city constantly interrupts and adds to the reading of the work exhibited. The various cities that make up Havana continue to inform the work of Cuban artists and provide a shocking contrast for international visitors who are used to seeing art displayed in crisp white cubes and poses questions for the capitalist project in art by presenting Cuba's special socialist vision of the world in the global language of the Biennial. Because of this the Havana Biennial will continue to occupy a special position giving artists from the fringes an opportunity to engage with each other and exchange ideas.