Posted November 24, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
By MARIA FINN | New York Times
Once again and, as usual, seemingly against all odds, the Havana Biennial opened. In this, the eighth rendition, contemporary artworks from around the world vie for attention with the decrepitly beautiful colonial city where they are displayed indoors and out.
The theme of the 2003 biennial, “El Arte con la Vida” or “Art With Life,” foreshadowed the event itself, as the Prince Claus Foundation, a Dutch cultural fund that supported the biennial in the past, withheld its $100,000 pledge in protest against the imprisonment, in April, of 75 dissidents — primarily librarians, journalists and organizers of a referendum calling for democratic reforms like freedom of association and expression — sentenced to up to 28 years in jail by the Cuban government.
This did not stop the show, but it may have contributed to the stunning disorganization of the event. Visitors milled around the headquarters of the organizer, the Wilfredo Lam Center in Old Havana, trying to figure out where they could find a schedule of the exhibitions, performances and panel discussions taking place throughout Havana. The responses by officials to questions usually fluctuated between “come back tomorrow” and “I don’t know.”
But this barely slowed the momentum, because art has become big business in Cuba. Charter flights from the United States to Havana filled fast this year, as curators, art buyers, gallery owners and artists jockeyed for seats with large groups of travelers on cultural tours. While real estate developers and tourist agencies in the United States cannot do business with Cuba, art collectors can, and works of art here are generally considered good investments.
This year, people headed to the biennial, held from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, with a heightened sense of urgency. After Jan. 1, very few cultural licenses will be renewed by the Treasury Department. This is part of President Bush’s plan to tighten the embargo on Cuba in an attempt to force Fidel Castro to introduce democratic reforms. United States officials sharply curtailed the cultural exchanges because they felt the trips were being abused by Americans simply looking to vacation in Cuba.
At the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a print studio in Old Havana, Rebecca Schnelker, curator at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, was on the lookout for talented printmakers to invite to workshops. With the changing climate between Cuba and the United States, she fears this will be difficult.
“A few years ago it took three weeks for a Cuban artist to get a visa to come to the States,” Ms. Schnelker said. “Now, it’s nearly impossible.”
This year, a climate of uncertainty hangs over the events. Congress voted to end the travel embargo to Cuba, reasoning that a deluge of American citizens traveling to the island could be more effective in pressuring the communist government than the embargo. The president pledged to veto the bill and to use the Department of Homeland Security to track down violators. Two weeks ago, a Senate-House committee stripped the provision from an appropriations bill, but still, because of the bipartisan support for lifting the travel ban, many people think an end to it is imminent.
Whether hordes of American tourists descend on Cuba or tours are canceled altogether, life for artists in Cuba will change dramatically. Either they will return to trying to survive on the Cuban peso like most of the population, or the influx of American dollars could create a scramble to make ideologically neutral work, art that sells.
Younger generations of Cuban artists have become savvy about their careers. They know the rewards of being noticed during the biennial are fellowships to study in the United States, exhibitions in American galleries, gallery representation and cash from collectors. Meanwhile, American tour groups have been coming to Cuba to visit the homes of artists and buy their work. These artists have cachet in Cuba, and they also have financial clout as important attractions at a time when Cuba has come to rely on tourism as its primary industry.
Some people attending the biennial lament such commercialization. Teresa Iturralde represents several Cuban artists at her Los Angeles space, the Iturralde Gallery. “Young artists here are creating art to sell,” she said. “They saw what happened at the last biennials, and they are making what they think people want to buy, and it’s a little disappointing.”
Among the Cuban artists Ms. Iturralde represents are Raúl Cordero, Fernando Rodríguez and Juan Carlos Alon, whose works command prices from $1,000 to $10,000. In a country where surgeons earn approximately $20 a month, this is an enormous amount of money. To get these prices, an artist must have a name, an individuality that is in opposition to the values of socialism.
After the revolution of 1959, artists in Cuba like the painter Raúl Martínez or the multimedia artist Alberto Blanco contributed their talents to community projects. They designed posters and billboards to be disseminated around Cuba advertising Cuban films, giving health advice and encouraging the sugar cane harvest. At the last biennial (which in Cuba does not occur every two years as the name implies; the last one was in 2000), groups of Cuban artists, brought together by Rene Francisco Rodríguez, collaborated on installations at El Morro, a 16th-century fort. This year, no such collaboration took place.
Mr. Francisco, whose biennial exhibition is at the Museo de Bellas Artes, has been invited to the United States several times for shows and to colleges as a visiting artist. He believes that for the Cuban artists the motivation is not just money but also international recognition.
“When the U.S. says `yes’ to your art, it matters,” he said. “But it’s too bad in a way. The work here used to be radical and more in the streets for the Cuban people. Now, the art is made more for New York City.”
Because of his success as an artist, Mr. Francisco could live anywhere he wants in the world, but he stays in Havana because, he says, he has a much higher standard of living here than in New York or Berlin, where a small apartment costs much more than a nice house in Havana.
He also works as a professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, saying he believes that he has a responsibility to the Cuban artists who came before him as well as to his students and to the role of artists in Cuba’s development. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s, Cuba has been left financially insecure and without a social model to follow. For perhaps the first time in Cuba’s history, it has not had a larger country to rely on for help in surviving.
Mr. Francisco encourages his students at the institute to make art part of the community instead of just for themselves. He and his students rehabilitate buildings in Old Havana for impoverished families, repairing them and painting the walls. In this way, he says, art is not isolated but has a practical function in the community. Among the students involved in a 1990 project with Mr. Francisco were Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters).
They followed Mr. Francisco’s idea of trying to forgo self-interest and creating a collective identity in which nobody signed his own name. This group of young men, Alexandre Arrechea, Dagoberto Rodrígues and Merco Castillo, all now in their early 30’s, traveled to New York for shows at P.S. 1 in Queens in 2001, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998 and Art in General in 1996. The group is known for installations of shapes that reinterpret urban spaces, evoking movement and impermanence.
Los Carpinteros embody both the Castro era’s values of Cuban art of the collective and the new sophistication of young Cuban artists who are less self-referential and more abstract. But their current show here proved to be the final collaboration for one member of the group.
While creating the biennial installation “Flúido,” large black nylon shapes resembling drops of liquids, Mr. Arrechea decided to leave. “As a Carpintero, I renounced by own persona for the experience of working as part of a group,” he said. “Now I want to work in a different way, and I’m trying to recover my own identity.”
At a small gathering apart from the biennial, Mr. Arrechea gave a presentation of a new video project. He had created a series pictures resembling police sketches and projected one after the other onto the screen, sometimes showing pairs of faces in tandem. The men’s faces looked like those made by forensic artists. Video representations of actual eyes animated the faces, creating isolated expressions of bewilderment and concern.
“These men possibly exist,” Mr. Arrechea explained. “But it can’t be confirmed. It’s still a search.”
At another exhibition apart from the biennial, on a beach near the burned-out shell of Casino de Santa Fe, Grupo 609, a collective of young women named for the dorm room they once shared at the institute, climbed into a shallow river under a low concrete bridge. With musicians accompanying them from shore, they performed a puppet show from behind a tarp. The puppets danced to whistling, grunting, hissing and snoring noises that echoed from under the bridge. In this way, Grupo 609 mocked and condemned machismo in Cuban society.
For the grand finale, people standing on the bridge waved sparklers, and as if in response, lightning sparked behind thick clouds gathered over the sea. When the performance ended, a group of neighborhood boys collected their bikes, and as they mounted them, one commented, “I didn’t really understand it, but I think I liked it.”
Maria Finn, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, is currently editing “Cuba in Mind,” an anthology to be published by Vintage Books next spring.
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