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Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial

Highlights of the 2012  Havana Art Biennial

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The Biennial’s golden circuit by Silvia Gomez
Although the 11th Havana Art Biennial has fulfilled its purpose of spreading throughout the entire city, Old Havana has undoubtedly been a privileged setting and become the most significant circuit within the event thanks to its many exhibition locations—the beautiful stretch of the Malecón that marks its northern border, selected for the installation project Detrás del muro [Behind the Wall]; its hotels and restaurants; its busy streets; and the Paseo del Prado, ideal for street congas, like the ones performed by artists Manuel Mendive and Los Carpinteros. Despite its small territorial extension, so many exhibitions and open-air performances have been announced, that in order to make the best use of time, one should draw up a route and devote the day entirely to art.

I began my tour at Havana’s Gran Teatro, which houses one of the core exhibitions: Art Practices and Social Imaginaries, which is also the theme that presides the event. I then crossed Parque Central to the Universal Art Building of the National Museum of Fine Arts, which is showcasing a selection from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection. A couple of blocks down, I visited the solo exhibitions of Cuban artists Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso at the Cuban Art Building of the Museum of Fine Arts. I then walked down O’Reilly St. to Factoría Habana, which is exhibiting Las metáforas del cambio [Metaphors of Change], and continued on the same street until I reached one side of the Cathedral of Havana, where the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center is located. The Wifredo Lam Center is the official organizer of the Biennial, which is now triennial, although out of habit or nostalgia, it has preserved its original name.

At the entrance of the beautiful eclectic building of the Gran Teatro de La Habana, Vulgo, an installation by the Brazilian artist Carlito Carvalhosa with music by Cuban composer Juan Piñera, welcomes the visitor. The huge room on the third floor was recently accommodated as an exhibition hall and opened with a stunning retrospective of Cuban artist Alexis Leyva (Kcho), who left one of his pieces there for the Biennial—David, which is structured on stakes forming a human figure, and which had previously been situated at sea. Accompanying the installation is a video that documents its construction and siting. Another interesting large-scale work, Babel, by Argentine artist Gabriel Valansi, is a hypothetical scale model of a city composed of electrical circuits and transistors.

Among the videos shown, Egyptian artist Mona Marzouk’s “Arab spring” is impressive, as well as the one shown by local artists Celia and Yunior, who with the succession of titles of thesis and master’s degree from the Department of Sociology at the University of Havana seem to call attention to how little decision-makers in Cuba have listened to academia, and to a lesser extent, how the latter may have distanced itself from reality. With humor as well as bitterness, Chilean Ivan Navarro’s and Alejandra Prieto’s video-installation deals with the recent elections in their country.

One way or another, the pieces delve into the conflicts of contemporary man in their relations with society from the use of new technologies to explore other forms of artistic expression.

Just a few meters away from the Gran Teatro, you find, in my opinion, one of the most attractive exhibitions of the Biennale, CIFO: Una mirada múltiple[CIFO: A Multiple Look], 85 pieces of contemporary art from the private collection of the Cuban-American Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who has organized an exhibition of this size for the first time outside the United States. Structured around five main topics—Contemporary Masters, New German Photography, Latin American Art, Photography, Video and Installation and Outside Cuba, each piece would deserve a review for their capacity to convey ideas.

Forever Bicycles by Ai Weiwei, an installation based on disused bicycles as a symbol of China’s integration into a “new era,” foreshadows what the exhibition will be: a compelling tour of milestones in artistic trends in recent decades. Photography is excellently represented, not only by members of the School of Dusseldorf with large-scale pictures, notably the spectacular Sao Paulo by Andreas Gursky and photographs by Candida Höffer and Thomas Ruff, but also by the impressive composition and expressive power of the two pieces from the series Rupture by Shirin Neshat, among other fine examples. Cuban-American Ana Mendieta’s photographs and videos of her performances take us to her personal, poetic world of communion with nature, especially with the earth, while Disco, a video by Muntean & Rosenblum, is a lesson in good taste and excellent fusion of poetry, music, acting, makeup and lighting, in a kind of resurrection of the crew of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

One outstanding guest at the Biennial is performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is also present in this selection with Rhythm 0, a photograph that documents one of her famous actions. The Cuban-American Jorge Pardo exhibits a beautiful piece made of PVC and lights reminiscent of the author’s partiality towards lamps and light effects. El peso de la imagen [The Weight of the Image] by Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto is made with mirrors, a medium characteristic of his art, while Self Described Twice by Joseph Kosuth, one of the greats of conceptual art, also exhibits one of his typical pieces.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros had to weather many obstacles to bring this significant part of her collection from Miami to Havana, and this is much appreciated.

A few blocks away, at the Cuban section of the Museum of Fine Arts, Sandra Ramos exhibits Puentes: entre cercanías y lejanías llevadas a cabo [Bridges: between proximities and distances that have taken place], and Abel Barroso, Cuando caen las fronteras [When borders fall].

Ramos has structured her solo exhibition around the theme of emigration, mainly to the United States, and to the obsessions, frustrations and the grief that this entails. Living up to the name of the exhibition, a bridge receives the visitor, who, after climbing just three steps, moves along a surface that is illustrated with aerial photographs of the space that separates Cuba from American shores. A large buoy, passports, and “the damned circumstance of water everywhere” reinforce the leitmotiv of this selection, which is characterized by the variety of techniques and media (installation, video, serigraphs manipulated with drawings and various objects, fingerprints) and its consistency and exquisite making.

Barroso’s Cuando caen las fronterasalso uses the topic of emigration, so much frequented by Cuban artists, but with a more playful and general view—he refers to all kinds of barriers that get in the way of free movement and free coexistence of man—expressed in three-dimensional wooden objects that have characterized his work, and have made him an innovator in the art of engraving in Cuba. Tearing down walls, fading physical and mental boundaries to achieve a Multiple Residence—like a bird cage in which birds of all kinds live happily together—is the utopia that the artist has painstakingly built.

Parallel to Obispo Street, the main artery of Havana’s Historic Center, is O’Reilly St, where a former warehouse has been converted into a gallery—Factoría Habana. This venue is now exhibiting Las metáforas del cambio [Metaphors of Change], which brings together several key names in Cuban art in the past half century, with a well-defined curatorial purpose: “to identify the evolution of creative processes, mainly in recent decades, which refer to the treatment that society has given to such issues as culture, migration, sexuality, history, religion and economy.”

From the irony of Lázaro Saavedra’s drawings and Antonio “Tonel” Eligio’s installation (assembled with an agglomeration of kitsch objects in the shape of the island of Cuba), to the enigmatic works of Rocío García, the homoeroticism of Raul Martínez’s collages, the dramatic contrast between the exquisite illustrations of Edouard Laplante’s lithographs of 19th-century Cuban sugar mills and the devastating image of the sugar mills that were dismantled a few years ago, to Sandra Ramos’s house/suitcase, Las metáforas…proposes a daring journey into many of the concerns and occupations of more recent Cuban artists.

 Enjoyable from start to finish for the multiple interpretations it offers, my favorite piece was Solvet et coagula by the team composed of the artist José Ángel Toirac and the art historian Meira Marrero, who, according to their stated purpose of “‘exhuming’ fragments erased by history, refocusing on the way the cultural and historical memory takes shape, and the way in which the past is “built” and the notions of truth and reality are retouched,” combine the use of documentary sources on the explosion of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, the inauguration in 1925 of a monument to the memory of the victims and its vicissitudes until its restoration by the city’s Historian’s Office, accompanied by a series of polished souvenir dishes, “decorated” with pictures of the wreckage.

Practically exhausted, I arrived at the Wifredo Lam Center and right out, an intervention by the Nicaraguan artist Patricia Villalobos Echeverría welcomed me—cystema@23°8’27.054″N 82°21’10.117″W, small multiform pieces attached to the facade and walls of the building, and of their same color, like polyps or parasites which feed on the body, whether human or social, to which they adhere, and although they may destroy it, neither can exist without the other’s life.

On the second floor, and giving in to my reluctance to go around barefoot anywhere else other than in my own home, the proposal by the Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa made me walk on carpets which imitate sidewalks and portals in Havana, which have preserved old shop signs that the artist has changed their name in order to stimulate new interpretations. Interestingly, although one of Garaicoa’s intentions seems to have been to demystify the work of art by putting it on the floor to be stepped on, most visitors choose the side aisles, not daring to “desecrate” art. On the second floor, the Cuban-born, US resident, Jorge Pardo assembles his work in progress based on wood rosettes created in an adjoining room—which the public can see through a glass window—by a robot, from a preconceived design, polished and painted by young workers before they are placed on the wall like a frieze.

Finally, on the ground floor, amid glasses that can refer both to the fragility of life and toasts among friends, and strips of fabric that can be seen as family ties that have been broken, but ready to be resumed, Maria Magdalena Campos shows a video in which Cubans who live in the island, when asked about what they would like to receive from their families “on the other side,” reel off a medley of answers, functioning as a kind of barometer of today’s Cuban society.

On my way home, as I walked down Prado Street, I was surprised by the Irreversible Conga, a performance by Los Carpinteros, which, almost inadvertently, I joined on my way down to the Gran Teatro where I had begun my tour that day. Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial by Ricardo Alberto Pérez
The 11th Havana Biennial is already under way and for those of us who have attended its exhibitions, installations and performances so far, it is a time of evocation and strong emotions triggered by the passage of memory, which sometimes tends to confuse and mix them together, obtaining the necessary evidence that helps us to better understand the journey of our art and its link to other latitudes.

The most attractive aspect of this phenomenon is the complexity that the Biennial has displayed over time, given that almost all of these events have taken place under different circumstances, and therefore accumulates to a great extent many elements of the past 25 years in the history of Cuba.

This time, it seems to contain an even greater spirit of expansion than in the past. In recent years, the event has consolidated a structure that is based on the existence and interaction of two exhibition levels—one that involves the main venues and exhibitions and another, the so-called collateral spaces, which give the event more pluralism and makes it decidedly controversial. The truth is that the city has been intervened, adulterated, intensified from its own everyday symptoms, and the look in the eyes of the citizens during these days tends to be clearer and more lucid.

Public spaces have started to become scenes of constant innuendos, provocations and metaphors. A multitude of giant ants has taken over almost the entire surface of a building on Prado Street, a place where performances are happening every day, such as the conga led by Los Carpinteros, which to the surprise of the Cubans who were there advanced backwards, while that great artist called Marina Abramovic danced to its rhythm.

The main venues include the buildings of Cuban and Universal Art of the National Museum of Fine Arts. The former contains solo exhibitions of Cuban artists Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso, while the latter has mounted an ambitious exhibition which covers substantial areas of the art that has been made in various parts of the planet in recent decades. A Multiple Glance is based on a selection from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, curated by Osbel Suarez and made up of works by artists such as Nam June Paik, Marina Abramovic, Jorge Pardo, Andreas Gursky, Joseph Kosuth, Gabriel Orozco and Thomas Ruff, among many others.

Meanwhile, a truly disturbing exhibition opened at the Gran Teatro de La Habana on May 11. It is notable for its feverish diversity of poetics, which represents artists from different geographic areas. However, its greatest interest lies in that which depicts the pictorial sensitivity of present-day Latin America that ends up being a strange combination of avant-garde aesthetic premises and an ethical commitment that seeks to find organicity in the visible dispersion of languages. The piece that undisputedly dominates the place, especially for the seductive mix of opposites that is caused by the union of the ephemeral with the monumental, is the one entitled Vulgos of Brazilian artist Carlitos Carvalhosa.

The Fototeca de Cuba has had the satisfaction of exhibiting the work of an artist of photography who is already becoming a legend in the history of this visual art form—the American photographer of Honduran and African-Cuban roots, Andrés Serrano, who has become famous for his photos of corpses and the use of body fluids, such as blood, semen and urine. The work of curators and the location of the pieces in space are of note.

One innovation in this year’s Biennial is the inclusion of the National Art Institute as one of the principal venues, which, without doubt, enriches and encourages the exchange of ideas between acclaimed and emerging artists. The contact has been top level thanks to the leading role played here by the renowned Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, one of the great revolutionizers of the language of visual art in the past decade. He and young artists who study in that institution have worked with material that already existed in the place, and, as Orozco explained, the weight of the work lies on its rearrangement and on giving it meaning.

Another venue that has become historical is the Wifredo Lam Center, an ideal place for performances. This time, the theme that stole the show was the cries of street vendors, an aspect that is deeply-rooted in Cuban popular traditions and which has been revived by María Magdalena Campos, who interacted with genuine street vendors of today. The most attractive exhibition at the Lam Center seems to be that of Cuban Carlos Garaicoa, a solid artist of effective coherence between one and another project, a feature that has led him through the path of a very consistent, memory-accumulating poetics. Here he speaks of the imaginary that we tread on day after day in the city in which we live through gigantic carpets that parody the relationship that we end up contracting with these codes.

We are convinced that there is a point where the Havana Biennial becomes strictly unique and this is related to the topic that we have mentioned above—the intervened city. For Cubans, this occurs in a very ideological way, almost always in counterpoint with the established discourse of power, which makes many of these actions valuable conceptual testimonials that somehow wind up acting on the collective consciousness. One artist who has literally taken to the street to make his artistic concerns prevail is Reinier Leyva Novo, who within an important project that goes by the name of Behind the Wall, in which a group of notable Cuban artists are participating, summoned the people to meet at Havana’s Malecón to perform the action which he called Looking Out to Sea, which is radically parodic given that throughout the island there are detachments of volunteers who help the Coast Guard to surveil the coasts and whose name is precisely Looking Out to Sea.

This examination proposed by Leyva Novo and by all of those who have exhibited their works here goes far beyond mere surveillance. It is a responsible excavation saturated with pain and longing, one that delves into the scars that all these losses—of which the water that surrounds us has been the most immediate witness—have left in our society.

The centric district of El Vedado saw another intervention in urban spaces, this time shared by several artists, including National Art Prizewinner René Francisco. Under the name of Generous City, the artists have represented a metropolis according to the rules dictated by utopia, by which the city is a friendly and accommodating place for its citizens, and not a reservoir of hostilities that generate tension.

In addition, some of these actions are intended to highlight our national passions. One example of this is the project called The Hot Corner, which reflects our deep attachment to baseball, to the extent that the jargon used in this sport is of common usage in our daily life with other meanings. This circumstance has been reflected in the arcade of one of the most centrally located places in Havana, the shopping area across Central Park called La Manzana de Gómez.

At the Morro-Cabaña Complex, many of the exhibitions stand out for their diversity and quality. Touring this venue is one of the best ways to penetrate the “dense and plural jungle” that Cuban art is today, in which artists of different generations and multiple sensitivities converge. The exhibitions of artists Leandro Soto, Cyrenaica Moreira, Carlos Quintana, José Manuel Fors, Rainier Tamayo, Kadir Lopez, Nelson and Liudmila, Kcho and Lázaro Saavedra are not to be missed. The latter proposes an exhibition that goes by the suggestive title of A Visual Break for Viewers of the Biennale, in which he goes deep into a thorny criticism of the discourses of art itself.

Tolerating and even priding itself in the many ways of expression when it comes to visual art, the Havana Biennial has opened wide its doors again. We hope that when these doors are closed in June, our spiritual links with the rest of the world and ourselves have gained in clarity and coherence. Blog of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial May 23, 2012 By Silvia Gom
The month of May should officially be declared a holiday in Havana. An incessant movement of artists, builders, designers, cranes and scaffolding shake the city heralding the approach of the 11th Art Biennial that will take place from May 11 to June 11, 2012. Meanwhile, theater lovers are having a field day with the Mayo Teatral Festival (May 8-13); the rhythms of Cubadisco (May 19-27) can be heard throughout the island; the sound of castanets announce the Spanish Imprint Festival (May 27-June 6); and poets get ready for the 16th International Poetry Festival (May 21-27). And to crown it all, this intense cultural program coincides with the National Baseball Championship semifinals and finals.

However, the Havana Art Biennial steals the show. Artists from 40 different countries from all over the world will pour on to galleries and public spaces with their art.

Here are a number of exhibitions that Cuba Absolutely would like to recommend (see complete program at

Fotografía en vivo Havana (Havana Live Photos) by Norwegian artist Crispin Gurlhot, who will exhibit for the first time in Latin America his innovative “live pictures,” frozen moments that are separated from viewers by acrylic sheets or natural barriers (Línea entre D y E, Vedado, Saturday, May 12, 4:00pm).

The flags/clouds of South African artist Doreen Southwood will fly on the flagpoles of the Telegraph and Parque Central Hotels, across Parque Central in Old Havana (Friday, May 11).

El barco de la tolerancia [The Ship of Tolerance], by Russian artists IIya and Emilia Kabacov. Young carpenters from the City Historian’s Office have built a galleon on whose sails 500 Cuban children have painted their idea of ??tolerance (Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Old Havana, Friday, May 11).

Detrás del muro [Behind the Wall], 18 projects by 28 artists (Malecón from Parque Maceo to La Punta, Sunday, May 13).

Ciudad generosa [Generous City], built by René Francisco and his students from the Fourth Teaching Practice on an empty lot on 3ra entre D y E, Vedado (Friday, May 11, 5:00pm).

Surcos de la ciudad [The Furrows of the City], by JR (France) and Jose Parlá Puerto Rico) will contrast the traces of life on the faces of the elderly with the furrows visible on city walls in Old Havana, Centro Habana and El Vedado, Sunday, May 13.

Conga Irreversible (Irreversible Conga) by Los Carpinteros (Friday May 11, 5:30pm. Paseo del Prado. This presentation will be repeated on May 19 and 26 at the same place and time.

Cabezas [Heads] performance by Manuel Mendive. Over 100 actors, dancers, singers and circus performers whose bodies will be painted by the artist, will parade down Paseo del Prado to the Malecón and return the Capitolio (Friday May 11, 6:00pm

Se soltaron los leones [The Lions Got Loose], by Roberto Fabelo, who in the past Biennial surprised the public with cockroaches that climbed the walls of the National Museum of Fine Arts (Prado and Malecón May 13, 7:00pm).

HB, muestra de arte cubano contemporáneo [Cuban Contemporary Art], a sample of the work of 45 Cuban artists, which includes Kcho, Los Carpinteros, René Francisco, Abel Barroso, Duvier del Dago, Yoan and Ivan Capote, Raúl Cordero, Sandra Ramos and many more (Pabexpo, Wednesday, May 9, 9:00pm). May/ 2012 Home (The 2012 Havana Biennial Art Exhibition )   

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