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Alejandro González: Chronicling a city called home

Alejandro González: Chronicling a city called home

The voice, the written word and images are typically three essential elements for bearing witness to a period or context. These should be able to remain for those who did not have the privilege of being witnesses to these events. Of these three, the voice seems to be the most emotional, but also the most ephemeral. The written word, somewhat distant and cold, surpasses the voice in terms of durability. Images are potentially the most balanced of the three elements. There is every indication that their definitive greatness is achieved through the intensity and the talent of the person who produces them. Thus, photography has occupied a place in a somewhat privileged time in the history of mankind.

Because Cuba is a country that for the past five decades has been under constant radical changes and unique complex processes which have left a physical imprint on the environment, both in the urban and rural areas, as well as in the lives and in the faces of its inhabitants, good photographers have found fertile ground on which to focus their lenses. Today, we will look into the work of an artist who does not pursue what is in a phase of splendor. Rather, he explores decadence, the reasons of how this has occurred, and ends up showing his pictures as a peaceful landscape, devoid of all things spectacular. The artist is Alejandro Gonzalez, a kind of chronicler who relies on black and white, although, at times makes somewhat unexpected inroads in the world of color.

In 1999, Alejandro González debuted with a highly disturbing exhibition, putting forward a poetics whose most striking component was the risk that a virtually unknown creator was taking. The series of photographs, which was called “Quién” [Who], in principle delved into the almost mystical relationship that man establishes with his city. Through these photos, the people of Havana recover essential spaces where momentous events in their lives may have taken place. The presumed protagonists are atomized by an effect that very explicitly states the intention of each piece. The subject is reduced to an anonymous presence. “Quién” makes reference to the fleeting passage of individuals through space, and at the same time makes clear the effect of the imprint, or trace, contributed by each of them.

A year later, in 2000, another exhibition seemed to follow up on “Quién.” Under the title of “Donde” [Where], the artist now focused on a sort of archaeological view of one of the most fascinating and commented on edifices in Havana: the Girón Building, located a few meters off the Malecón and G. Street. In this series of photographs, Gonzalez’s starting point is details, giving them an abysmal depth, a kind of hole through which the viewer’s curiosity will always be able to enter. The photographer cleverly takes over structures; he practically makes them talk. He shows the desolation and decay they express, focusing on striking parts of the building. He knows he is not dealing with just an inert object, this huge mass of prefabricated concrete that somehow is immersed in its background, in the meanings that during the passage of time it has gained, both in the urbanistic and in the ideological sense.

In the same year 2000, he exhibited “Vacío” [Vacuum]. Here he abandoned the use of black and white and used color to comment on different public spaces, in which some recent human activity is discovered but, at the time of being captured by the camera, are empty, resulting in an inanimate composition. It is here that minimalism emerges. Each thing means too much, and confronts the adjoining object aspiring to a naive hierarchy.

In his series “Memorias del Subsuelo” [memories of the Subsoil] (2001), he makes a fortunate return to black and white. For those who like associations, the title can be understood as a play on words with the title of one of Cuba’s most famous films, Memories of Underdevelopment. The approach is arid, literally at ground level, conceived where the weeds impose their dominance and accentuate a touch of desolation. Dirt roads, abandoned places, dry eroded surfaces, discourse without any interference or clarification by the artist.

“Puramente Botánica” [Purely Botany] (2002) seems to be in every sense of the word an experiment. The photographer uses a technique that is rarely used in professional photography—a polaroid camera—to produce images that bear witness to the survival of the plant kingdom faced with any kind of hostility. The pictures show plants claiming their right to exist, whether on the edge of a sewer or in the hollow part of a pole for street lighting.

Alejandro Gonzáles prepares his photo projects from a profound intellectual condition that accompanies his poetics. This is clearly seen in the types of metaphors he uses and the parallels he establishes with other fields of knowledge and public life. The artist has stated that 2005 was a turning point in which his work underwent a change of direction, which is the one that Alejandro now reaffirms, expressing it as an organic means of declaring his contact with reality. From that moment, he seems to have become more intimate with people, with their behaviors, taking on a responsibility that places him, repeatedly and devoid of any mask, in the midst of incalculable unrestraint.

In his series “Ciudad Habana: futuro” [Havana: future] (2005), the use of color regains a fully essential sense. He revisits city sites that were emblematic for several generations. The first merit of these pieces lies in the choice of locations, which in a rather underground way end up by having some kind of contact among each other. What Alejandro González undertakes in these shots is a kind of theme poem, whose greatest lyrical content has a marked political nature when it becomes a claim of collective memory. The central irony of these images is hidden in the very title, when one comprehends that the longing for each of these places is based on their past splendor, a splendor that can no longer be recovered. Most of the places in these photos are connected to the Soviet presence and collaboration in the island: the Russian Embassy, several sites at Lenin Park, Moscow Restaurant and Ciudad Escolar Tarará.

In recent years, Alejandro González’s interest seems to be centered on faces, in scrutinizing through their diversity and the contexts which they are inserted in. It is indeed an intense and almost unfathomable universe. Those who have taken a day or two during their travels to study the faces of the peoples in any city in the world, have understood that the matter is fascinating. Faces express the circumstances in which they find themselves; they are almost ideological, and this carries a visible ethical content.

Along this same line, other exhibitions by González have attracted much attention: Conducta impropia [Improper Behavior] and Am-Pm. The latter is a stark account of some social groups who burst into Havana’s nightlife with their contentious—although in some ways legitimate—habits.

Most recently he prepared Cuba, año cero [“Cuba, year zero”]. He describes the project as follows:

“This millennium’s mass media outlets have homogenized urban subcultures to the point that a teenager in modern-day Havana resembles a teenager in Shanghai.

Adolescence is a period of search, discovery, and confrontation, as well as a period of ideological formation. In these processes, the conflicts experienced by young people are the same regardless of regional differences.

Twenty years ago I was almost the same age as the young people shown in my pictures. The doubts, satisfactions, and longings were the same. The only thing that separates us is the political-geographic situation of that moment: the Socialist Block was disappearing and Cuba was left alone.
The young people I have portrayed did not experience the period of economic welfare that resulted from exchanges among socialist countries. They were all born during the Special Period, a moment of moral and economic crisis. This social transformation affected political discourse in light of the chaotic reality.

Cuba, año cero [“Cuba, year zero”] is a sociological registry of the various adolescent urban tribes: frikis, emos, repas, mikis… It’s a dialogue about the past, present, and future of Cuba through this “post-Berlin Wall” generation to express its rebellious condition, pleasures, worries, ingenuity, doubts, frustration, hopes, and joys…”

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1974, Alejandro González learnt photography in workshops directed by photographers like Diego Goldberg, Luis González Palma and Edgar Moreno. He later won a residency at the Cologne Academy of Media Arts in Germany. In 2009 he was awarded the Cuban Casa de las Americas prize in the photography section. His work has been exhibited in Cuba, as well as Mexico, the United States, Spain and Italy.

Contact details:
Calle 39 #852 e/ 24 y 26, nuevo vedado
La Habana, Cuba. 10 600.
Tel: (+53-7) 881 98 71
Cel: (+53) 5 253 33 04 January 2013

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