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I go back to the time I met him in his Old Havana studio. This was when his first works were gaining some visibility (1992-1994) during the so-called Special Period. In an exceptional manner, the artist was capturing the possibility of converting some of those contingencies into objects and situations that would be considered art. Following that line of thought, in 1994 he turned a building in danger of collapsing into an installation. He called it called Acerca de esos atlantes que sostienen día a día nuestro presente [About these titans that hold up our present from one day to the next].
Many of his pieces from his earlier period are sustained by the ironic reconstruction of scenarios that were demolished by indiscriminate negligence and indifference. These works used many of these ruins as focal points, admired for their efficiency within a conceptual viewpoint.
One of Garaicoa’s resources in this quest has been recycling textuality, especially the one that has been imposed on Cuban urban spaces, repositioning it as an essential element in order to give meaning to situations and events which apparently have little importance. Garaicoa launches on a stream of serious reflection against immobility and the diverse projections of the absurd and demagoguery.
His ideas are constantly being nourished by the contributions of photography. The testimonial wealth of this language seems to spontaneously go hand in hand with the purposes and concerns emerging from many of his pieces. He exploits these photographic images, converting them into a singular process that ends up producing an assortment of hyper-texts.
Another aspect that has been vital to his creative research is the relationship he likes to create between interiors and exteriors. This becomes a metaphor that takes us to the contradictory nature of being which, by its inevitable social insertion, is constantly violated. Maybe for this reason a great part of the history of architecture has been a valiant effort to create some harmony between human beings and the environment surrounding them.
Just two examples of that area of his experience are found in Interior Habanero (1994) which counterpointed a great part of the visual reference of the exteriors of the city, and a more recent project made up of two pieces, Loss inside and Loss outside (2006), which set up a dialogue dealing with the experiences exchanged between life and death, with death being the enigmatic path.
Reconstructing urban memory is one of his most frequent obsessions. In 1995, he made a significant work on this theme when he set out to rescue an abandoned location that at one time had been one of the most popular bars in Havana: Sloppy Joe’s. Using documentary elements and an acute sense of performance he constructed a simulation that was able to make citizens believe that they have a right to salvage anything that forms part of a memory that belongs to them.
Another memorable work is Jardín japonés [Japanese Garden)[ (1997), a kind of hybrid between photography and installation, interweaving elements of very different scenarios, making a sudden strangeness force its way in, blending itself with beauty. Fragments taken from a whole that is no longer standing fit in with a symbolic territory filled with gravel that will always have the memorable marks left by the rake, as in the venerated Zen garden.
I would dare say that around 2000, the work of Carlos Garaicoa gained new dimensions, especially because of his extraordinary intuition at that moment in capturing a change of sensibilities that were beginning in almost every corner of the planet. This is indicated in his two series Nuevas arquitecturas [New Architectures] (2000) and Ahora juguemos [Let’s Play Now] (2001), which let filter a sort of obsession with light as the protagonist.
In Ahora juguemos, wax cities are ignited and viewers contemplate this occurrence under the verticality of the flame that is multiplied to facilitate a dynamic and emotional process that can be interpreted as a radical position in view of the artistic event itself, creating also a kind of reflexive vertigo.
There are buildings in Cuba, and elsewhere, too, that even before they are completed, fall into ruin. Construction is halted for any number of reasons and these spots start accumulating a hazardous life story, which in almost every case become a negation of urban order. Garaicoa has turned his attention to those scenarios, absorbing every detail and transforming them into an inflection on collective awareness.
The series En construcción [Under Construction] (2012) is an exercise with much anthropology in it and exactly illustrates the phenomenon mentioned above. He intervenes in urban or suburban segments using color and texts that acquire a notable presence, projecting a new level that appears as a drawing over those sites.
In his last one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogota in 2014, he returned to that idea but used a new strategy: instead of basing his work on photography , he turned to sculpture. With splendid minimalism he reproduced unfinished buildings on a small scale, buildings that have been abandoned because they are under investigation, seemingly related to drug trafficking money.
The background of this show confirms the weight of the ideological in each of his interventions. His interpretations of power go beyond geographical borders and root themselves in a consistent analysis that dismantles, at least theoretically, the structures of that monster that ends up being everywhere.
Quite clearly his work in the last ten years has managed to achieve high levels of mastery in workmanship in relation to the materials he uses, such as cow’s bones, gold, glass, resin, string or simply paper. Depending on the objective of each piece, these materials hover between durability and fragility. Many of the objects making up his installations, for example the lamps, are so beautiful they hint at the decorative but at the same time they could become an invocation for citizens to make use of their civic components: Tu puedes construir tu propia ciudad a tu propio riesgo [You can build your own city at your own risk] (2001).
The weight of graffiti in contemporary urban life, the subject of roots, inter-communication among problems, the production and reproduction of schizophrenia and other behaviors that are the result of alienation, as well as not losing memory around all that which has been extremely repressive for our civilization, are topics that still nourish his work. With his degree of sensitivity, this artist will continue to inspire many emotions.
May 2015 This article formed part of the May 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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