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 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 accumulate 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 gives 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 by 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.