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Art in the Time of Politics

In the Afterglow of Détente at Havana’s Twelfth Biennial

ISSUE:  Fall 2015

A detail from Roberto Fabelo’s La ronda infinita. (Claudio Fuentes)

One late-May afternoon at a bar in Old Havana, I stood alongside a former police lieutenant named Miguel, who was slowly getting drunk, while the drone of a long and unceasing oration drifted through the open windows. The bar was, like much of Havana, faded and old-fashioned—not quite ruined and majestic yet, but quaint and dingy—with swinging wooden saloon doors and a bartender in a white shirt and a droopy bow tie. Roadwork was being done on many of the neighborhood’s streets; machines had chewed a foot-wide ditch along Tejadillo Street, just in front of the bar. The men who directed the machines worked according to no discernible schedule, digging and then stopping, leaving thick channels weaving down the block. But that’s how roadwork happens in Cuba. There is, after all, an entire highway in the countryside that simply stops, dead-ending at jungle because the money ran out. 

Across the street and a few houses down, two speakers propped on the sidewalk emitted a voice that bled into the bar. The voice was high and deliberate and spoke with familiar cadence, urgency, and rhetoric: confident enunciation, constant to the point of monotone, speech peppered with words like “threat,” “guard,” “paradox,” “conspire.” The speakers flanked an open door and were hooked up to a microphone. Past the open door, sitting in a wood-and-wicker rocking chair, artist Tania Bruguera read into a microphone from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). It was about ten degrees hotter inside than on the street and smelled like concrete dust. Earlier in the day, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez had tweeted about undercover state security agents in attendance. Now, thirty hours into what Bruguera said would be 100 straight hours of reading Arendt aloud—she would trade places with dozens of volunteers throughout the performance—the room contained two men with long hair and macramé bags who sat cross-legged against the walls and a woman who lay on the floor, her head on a pillow. A fan was trained on Bruguera. Two tuKola soda cans were pushed to the side. Thirty-five people had scrawled their names on a sign-up sheet taped up by the door.

Bruguera had received a state license in March to work as a cuentapropista, loosely translated as a freelance, non-state-affiliated worker—in her case, as a teacher. This project, the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism, was her latest in a series of works that blended political activism with performance. She timed the project to coincide with the Twelfth Havana Biennial, a large-scale, government-run exhibit of mainly public art that descends upon the city (in very Cuban fashion) every three years. Among the people who had read on that first day was Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera, one of the founders of the Havana Biennial, who parted ways with the organization in 1989 in protest against censorship. An English copy of the text was on hand for international visitors should they want to volunteer.

It was five in the afternoon—sunny, hot. Two blocks up and four blocks over, past the art deco Bacardi building, Wild Noise—an exhibit of works lent by the Bronx Museum, the first art exchange between an American and a Cuban cultural institution in fifty years—was opening at Museo de Arte Universal, the international wing of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana’s most prestigious art museum. More than 100 artworks that had never been seen in Cuba were on display, including Willie Cole’s How Do You Spell America? #2 and photographs by Andy Warhol. Amid them all, a line of reporters with microphones and cameras snaked toward Holly Block, the Bronx Museum’s director and exchange organizer, to ask about the show, the symposia she’d organized, the art magazine that a group of Cuban teens was producing, and which the Bronx Museum was funding. The air-conditioning at Bellas Artes had been fixed the day before—by Block’s team, which had found and purchased the right part in the two days since they had arrived. The AC struggled now to cool a space filled with so many people. Women fanned themselves with exhibition materials. Cuban artists who now lived in Mexico and New York stood in clusters and murmured about the heat, how it was affecting their feet and hair. 

In what was intended to be a boycott in support of Bruguera, a handful of international artists had discussed withholding their work from the show. Two had actually gone through with it. Many more artists had decided not only to show their work but to fly in and enjoy the festivities. “I was wondering if it was bad that I was here, with the boycott and all,” a Norwegian artist said to a group of us during a cocktail party at the Norwegian ambassador’s residence. “I’d bet you can’t find five people here who’ve heard of the boycott at all,” was an English expat’s reply. The Norwegian decided not to ask around. 

By and large, the exhibits at the biennial were dominated less by a sense of their political context and more by a sense that they were debutante balls in miniature. Proof was in the American presence. Official biennial figures placed the number of registered Americans at more than 1,300. How many more were actually there couldn’t be verified, but anywhere from thirty to 100 people flew in for each of dozens of tours run by the likes of Cool Hunting, the Greenwich Arts Council, and the alumni groups of Harvard and Smith. Ever since December, when political relations between the US and Cuba had begun to thaw, American collectors and celebrities had been booking trips to Cuba, buying artwork, shuttling back and forth in private jets—or, if they couldn’t swing the jet, taking the recently launched JFK-to-Havana charter that ran every Tuesday. 

In preparation, Cuban artists, curators, restaurateurs, and scuba-diving instructors had ordered business cards from cuentapropista printers by the hundreds, to dole out at parties and openings. For the first time in the history of the biennial, a comprehensive listing of ancillary exhibits had been circulated, a virtual white pages of artists and spaces: The government-run Centro de Desarrollo de Artes Visuales sent an eighteen-page document, via e-mail, that listed open studios and inaugurations, both state-run and not. In it, eight other openings concurrent with the opening of Wild Noise were included. The rabble, in short, was dizzying, and potentially very profitable. 

Bruguera’s Institute for Artivism wasn’t on the Centro de Desarrollo’s list, but that surprised exactly no one. Bruguera had been a source of tension in Cuba since her return to the country in December, after she flew down from her home in New York City immediately following President Barack Obama’s announcement of imminent rapprochement. She had planned to stage a political performance in the Plaza de la Revolución, but was briefly detained after her arrival, her passport confiscated. A tide of articles in international magazines followed, focusing on the activist half of her artist-activist persona. The Cuban government offered to return her passport if she agreed to leave the country, the assumption being that she would not be allowed back in. By the time biennial festivities kicked off in May 2015, Bruguera’s passport was still in the hands of the Cuban government.

Other artists, too, had been arrested in the months leading up to the biennial, for performances that highlighted the continued political oppression in what is still, despite the buzz around rapid, real change in Cuba, a country under single-party rule. Danilo Maldonado Machado, a graffiti artist, had been jailed for attempting to stage a performance that featured two pigs with the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” scrawled on their flanks. Performance artist and poet Amaury Pacheco had been held for unclear reasons, as had been a number of prominent dissidents—Yoani Sánchez and her husband among them—who’d expressed solidarity with Bruguera. But it was Bruguera’s own detainment and harassment that was the darkest smudge on the culturati’s bright excitement for the New Cuba, a place that in the last year or so seemed on the verge of real transformation. To that end, the colossal production that was the biennial would exhibit not only art but intent. 

Miguel, the ex-lieutenant, would probably not attend any of the biennial’s festivities, he told me from the bar, where we could hear Bruguera’s voice amplified out of two waist-high speakers outside the door. He was vaguely aware of art exhibits in the city and thought, in theory, they were great. He was inebriated enough that he struggled to remain upright on his stool, and stared intermittently at me and at the rum—three Cuban pesos, or fifteen cents, per finger—in his thick greenish glass. 

Está bien,” he told me when I asked what he thought of the blare of political speech he seemed to be doing very well at tuning out. “I say what I want. She does, too. We should all say what we want to say. And I,” he added brightly, “am a Communist militant. Have been for fourteen years.” He had quit working for the police and was now working for himself as a cuentapropista, doing something that he expressed as either intentionally vague or blurred by drink: distributing items like fruit and sunglasses, he said, but also heavy machinery. 

I looked at the bartender, asked what he thought. He raised his eyebrows and waved his hand toward the street and the wafting Arendt. “It’s all blah, blah, blah these days,” he said. “We need less blah, blah, blah and more action.” 

Bruguera’s words echoed across the street: “…will develop a true secret police as the nucleus of its government and power. It seems that official recognition is considered a larger menace…” 

From somewhere within the many sandwiched residences along these streets, Cuban state security was probably listening.

Tobogán, by the art collective Stainless, at the Morro-Cabaña. (Claudio Fuentes)

Havana in the last twenty years has been a place of selective cognitive dissonances, of tourists eating in elegant backroom restaurants that recall the 1950s while the children of the entrepreneurs who have become wealthy off those restaurants, rich kids like any others, cut queues on Friday nights with the grandkids of apparatchiks. That these scenes take place in a Communist country in which political dissent is not tolerated but all citizens have free health care, education, and housing, in which lawyers and chemists earn a flat salary of around $20 a month, generates a sense that the dominant narrative does not match the evidence on the ground. 

For most American visitors, there are the ways in which Cuba does not match its native propaganda and the ways in which it does not match American cliché. A get-together of well-dressed artists drinking Rioja and watching an art film that has just been shown at Cannes will challenge one accepted narrative, but not the other. Music, too: During the biennial’s first few days, a woman told me with genuine confusion that she wished her Cuban taxi drivers would stop playing American music for her benefit, wishing they would turn off Carly Rae Jepsen and the Black Eyed Peas and play their own music. 

Certain realms challenge both narratives. The elegant backroom restaurants themselves are one. The contemporary art scene is another.

The arts have been a priority of the Cuban revolution from the beginning. Shortly after seizing power, Fidel Castro converted the golf course where United Fruit executives and American diplomats had swung clubs into an art school. Laws passed throughout the 1960s and ’70s required a quota of Cuban music on the radio and promoted Cuban art in galleries and museums. Art by Cuba’s most famous painter, Wifredo Lam, whose murky cubist canvases and charcoal drawings hung on the walls of the country’s elite, was donated to Bellas Artes in the name of the revolution, to be displayed at little to no cost to the public—or was reassigned to hang above the mantles at “protocol homes” designated for generals and dignitaries. 

If the expansiveness of art has been at odds with the constraints of a single-party political system—art is, as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas put it, a “dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque”—it has also been in line with the goals of an educated, idealistic populace. The Havana Biennial was founded in 1984, before the global vogue for biennials and art fairs and general seizures of excess that have become common in the art world—even the common recognition of the term “art world”—in the years since. It also anticipated the global vogue for “discovering” unknown art from outside of the US and Europe. When Holly Block went to her first Havana Biennial, in 1994, with a group of twenty-three Bronx Museum staffers, she saw work by artists not just from Cuba but also from South Africa, the Philippines, and Algeria. “None of that work was shown in New York,” she told me later.

Throughout the post-USSR economic depression, art’s visibility and utility to the revolution—economic and propagandistic—granted it a degree of immunity. Curators often organized shows, represented artists, and brokered sales, and many political artists were intimidated rather than thrown in jail—or at least jailed with less frequency than other dissidents or independent journalists. Now, postdétente, art had transcended immunity and become a diplomatic and commercial force. And it wasn’t just artists and curators who stood to gain from the art-world spotlight hovering over Havana. Gallerists, producers, collectors, entrepreneurs, corporations, and combinations of the above all had a stake in the business of the biennial. Cuban expatriates and canny Americans both saw it as an opportunity to get in, as if to a club or party, before the complete evaporation of the embargo, to enter on the ground floor of future US–Cuba business opportunities. They also simply wanted to participate in history, to witness the epilogue of the Cold War as it was being written. 

But if the line between art and commerce was blurred at the biennial, so, too, was the line between art and activism, and between activism and commerce. Parties teemed with “projects” and “collaborations,” with talk of “platforms” and their maximization. I met women from New York who were in town to work on “a cultural activism project we’d rather not discuss in detail yet.” I met the restaurateur behind Williamsburg’s Cubana Social restaurant, who also sought collaborations. The Italian Galleria Continua, which represents Cuban artists Carlos Garaicoa and José Yaque as well as a handful of international artists who’d been invited to stage large-scale performances of their work, had procured funds from Louis Vuitton to stage projects in a defunct Chinatown movie theater and throughout Havana. Its director was optimistic that the Cuban government and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton would continue to collaborate to bring great works of art to the Havana public using the gallery’s artists and platform. 

On Friday afternoon, the biennial’s second official day, I hired a private driver and his Lada to take me to as many events as possible. These included private openings at the studios or homes of Cuban artists and collectors and inaugurations of government-run biennial shows. All day we crisscrossed not only with the usual vintage cars and collective taxis but also with the blue-and-white Transtur buses that trawled the streets—descending the hill from the Morro-Cabaña complex or lining up outside the warren of Old Havana’s bay-side streets, often pulling through intersections three at a time.

In Miramar, I stepped out of the Lada and into a group of tourists—the crisply tailored and sweaty-suited alike—that slowly made its way out of a bus and toward an exhibit at an apartment recently purchased by conceptual artist Carlos Garaicoa, who divides his time between Spain and Cuba.

Few Cubans would have deemed it a party—Cuban parties involve dancing—but there was a DJ, who’d set up on one end of Garaicoa’s wide, fourth-floor balcony while a bartender prepared mojitos on the other. In order to approach the bar, guests sidestepped an installation, a tapestry rug that was a perfect reproduction of the polished gravel sidewalks of Vedado—down to the cracks, splotches of gum, gaps where the metal seams between slabs had begun to separate from the stone, and the gouges that had collected clumps of black dirt. It was so realistic against the slightly paler floor that some people accidentally walked across it, adding smudges and heel marks to the work’s experiential impasto, though not without a few sideways glances and chastising remarks: “Watch it! That’s art!”

Throughout the apartment’s four rooms, one could see a combination of Garaicoa’s work and the work of younger artists who participated in a studio program he runs in Madrid, which he hopes to duplicate in Miramar. As I walked through the rooms, I overheard various plans for acquiring the work on display. (“Are you buying this piece?” asked one American. “I love it. Yes, absolutely,” replied another. “And at these prices!” chimed in a third.) There was also plenty of commentary on the white T-shirts worn by Garaicoa’s staff (“I like the T-shirts, artists for artists”; “I really, really need one of those T-shirts”; “Can I buy a T-shirt?”).

If there is one phrase that is often overheard during introductions at art events in Havana, it is that someone lives “between X and Havana”—be it Mexico City or Madrid or Miami or New York. Ever since the nineties, when Cuba began to open to the globalizing world, this balancing act between isolated Cuba and the exterior world has afforded these artists a certain cultural and political cachet. But in recent years, especially in the lead-up to the biennial, many of those same artists have recommitted themselves to Cuba. Once it was the international city that mattered; now reputations are gilded by the commitment shown through the purchase of property or the creation of artistic programming. The reasons artists spend so much time abroad vary—the difficulty in finding materials for complex artworks; political repression; the lack of native, noninstitutional infrastructure such as gallerists, grants, and collectors. The reasons for the more recent homecomings have been varied, too. 

An exhibit at the apartment of artist Carlos Garaicoa. Havana.  (Leandro Feal)

Artists Marco Castillo and Dago Rodríguez, who make up the conceptual-art duo Los Carpinteros, recently bought a house in Nuevo Vedado to use as a studio, which meant that they could spend more time working in Havana and fabricate their elaborate, witty architectural sculptures in Cuba once again. On Friday evening, they inaugurated the first of what they anticipated would be many collaborative exhibits in the larger rooms of the house, which had been built for and inhabited by one of Fidel Castro’s doctors.

In the main room, two enormous armoires, the edges of their pressed-wood frames fraying, hung suspended from their corners, wrapped in one red and one black cable, both winched to the wall. The dangerous-looking assemblages seemed to sway, threatening to careen into each other. Mexican artist Jose Dávila had commandeered the armoires after Castillo and Rodríguez had removed them from the living room to make space. They’d also ripped out two seven-foot windows in order to expand the wall space. The windows now hung on the patio, their frames a crusty mottle of brown and white, crooked screws and ominous twisted nails protruding from the interior face, balanced around a chunk of a concrete column. They hinged outward from the bottom connected by a butterfly of red cable.

Other features of the tropical modernist house were reflected in art or had been similarly requisitioned for it: In a Los Carpinteros piece, a twelve-foot row of books by Leon Trotsky, Karl Marx, and other leftist thinkers, left behind by the doctor, was bored through with a hole like a bullet’s path. Watercolors of the Soviet-style apartment blocks constructed by the hundreds in Cuba to quell housing shortages included phrases written across closed jalousie blinds along the building facades: conmigo tienes que gozar, a line from a Los Van Van song; another, el pueblo se equivoca, a line from a Fidel Castro speech. Castillo and Rodríguez hoped to build real-life sculptural models of the cheekily modified housing blocks soon. In the future, Castillo told me, he and Rodríguez wanted to convert the house into not only a studio and exhibition space—particularly for artists who haven’t shown in Cuba before—but also a library with privately donated art books. “Sometimes it’s not easy to get books, literature,” he said. “Information is always a privilege.” 

Back on Tejadillo Street, the sign-up sheet that had been posted on the wall of the Bruguera exhibit, which suggested that interested visitors note their names, home cities, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers, now held fifty-four names—visitors hailing from Rio de Janeiro, Havana, New York. Initially, Bruguera had intended the list to be only for those who volunteered to read into the microphone. Once she realized that the list was a sort of protection for her—“I could say international curators, Cuban artists, even the director of the biennial, were here,” she told me later—she and her faithful encouraged everyone who stopped in to sign up.

A cluster of people stood on the street as a young woman sat in the rocking chair, pitched over the Arendt tome, reading. Bruguera wasn’t there, and this reader did not sound anything like Fidel: Her speech was salted with slowly pronounced words and exclamations, “¡Oye, escucha esto!” (“Hey, listen to this!”).

On Saturday afternoon, in the heat of 4 p.m., a crowd gathered in what was left of the shade at the Plaza de la Catedral to witness Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Third Paradise, a project that involved pot lids of varying colors and sizes resting atop cymbal stands of varying heights, arranged in three circles in the center of the plaza. (Pistoletto had installed similar circles atop the glass pyramid of the Louvre, in the plazas of Milan, and here in Havana back in December, using boats that circled one another in the ocean.) A firm wind blew in off the sea, occasionally tossing a lid onto the ground. A drone wavered back and forth as onlookers pointed into the air and took pictures of it. Finally, staffers with walkie-talkies cleared people out of the way to make room for Pistoletto and a group of ebullient rumberos, a herd of young Cubans involved in the performance. After proceding into the square, the rumberos began playing the improvised cymbals, their rhythmic riffs echoing off nearby buildings. 

Just a few blocks over, in the Plaza de Armas, artist Nikhil Chopra had locked himself in a small metal cage, about ten by ten feet, where he intended to paint for nearly sixty hours straight. By the second day of his self-imposed imprisonment, his eyes were shot through with pink the color of the paint he used to compose bright, lyrical representations of the buildings around him on a white sail-like canvas. Once each work was  finished, he hung it against one side of the cage, eventually closing himself in. He wore white lace tights, a white dress, oxfords with low heels. A jar with pencils sat alongside a bottle of water, a bag with flashlights, a flask, a cup of coffee, a plate with seven bananas, and a rolled-up foam mattress. At one point, a boy in a dusty red Nike jersey began to lean against the cage, sticking his thin arms between the bars and clasping his forearms. He did this for a while, on different sides of the cage, staring at Chopra the whole time. When he finally left Chopra, I asked the boy what he thought of the performance, and he responded with a stream of questions: Where is he from? Who put him there? How long will he stay there for? How do you talk to him? What language do people from India speak? Does he have water? What happens when it runs out? He headed toward the Plaza de la Catedral, where kids his age and younger were banging away at Pistoletto’s cymbals.

Halfway across the city, in what was once a bicycle factory, visitors sought shelter from the sun in the broken shadows of what remained of the roof. Twenty years ago, the bicycles that were used during an extended fuel shortage were assembled in this factory; today, bicycles are derided by those who consider them a symbol of an era of hunger and indignity. The factory had been converted into an experience of sonic, spatial, and temporal disorientation by a group of artists selected by two curators and artist Wilfredo Prieto, who used to live between Havana and New York and is now based in Havana. Eventually, artist Shimabuku’s broken pipes dripping water on tin cans of different sizes did develop a son-like rhythm, but then lost it; bits of silver jewelry that Tatiana Mesa had haphazardly stuck into a deteriorated brick wall snatched your attention, but then lost it, too. The oddly magical acoustics of the space muffled the noise from the street outside, where cars accelerated up the off-ramp from a tunnel and often backfired while doing it. More than three steps out of the factory and the traffic won out. But inside, somehow, it was silent, resulting in a sort of sensory intermission, a momentary suspension of reality. 

Above and below: Nikhil Chopra’s The Black Pearl, performed at Havana’s Plaza de Armas.  (Paola Martinez Fiterre and Alejandro Mesa Crespo)

Curators and artists were hard at work at new “exhibition spaces”—in the Cuba of creatively interpreted and capriciously enforced cuentapropista licenses, a private art gallery’s legality is murky. At El Apartamento, a Cuban art-production team called F5 waited for American collectors and curators to look at the work they’d assembled from local artists. All three twentysomething members of F5 had quit their jobs at the same state-run gallery in the last month; the opportunities were greater elsewhere, like at this new venture. They had led curators from the Getty through the show the previous day; Block’s Bronx Museum tour group had visited, too. All works were for sale, all for less than $20,000. At another space a few blocks away called Cristo Salvador, Danish and Cuban artists scrambled to finish politically inclined artworks made of, among other materials, Havana Club rum bottles and snipped-out headlines from the state propaganda rag, Granma, which they’d produced in the two weeks since the Danes had arrived. When someone ran out of something—paint or oil or canvas—it took a day and dozens of phone calls to figure out where to procure it, the Cuban artist who’d organized the show told me. This pleased him. He wanted his Danish friends to understand the logistical challenges and creative opportunities of Havana. The show would open on Monday. 

At the Morro-Cabaña, across the choppy bay, at one of the biennial’s official exhibits, there was sun and wind and too much art. The vaulted old jail cells that had held Cuban independence fighters under the rule of the Spanish, then capitalist dissidents in the early years of the revolution, was now filled with art organized in no evident manner, or at least no immediately evident manner, and no one working there knew where anything was. Even here, deals were being made: I watched one man in safari pants kneel on the ground to write a dollar sign and a number on the back of a business card on a bench, and then slide the card into the pocket next to his knee.

In more instances than not, the work itself took a backseat to the experience of it, turning even static works of art into “social practice.” The experience was one of overload, a slam at the required shift in pace between the buoyant rabble and a chilling painting, or the conceptual art piece that snags a sensation and unfurls. The magic of the 2015 Havana Biennial was one of long-shut doors flung open and roles exuberantly melded, chances taken in the open that would not have happened a decade ago, politically charged exhibits and actions, potential, participation, collective undertakings, porosity. 

But just under the surface, it was also a confrontation with what had not changed, what was still resolute. The Cuban DJ at a cocktail party was tired, he told me as we sipped rum and waited for a famous guest to arrive, because he had been up early to go to the market, because the good stuff was always gone if he got there late, and there wasn’t much on state-run grocery-store shelves. Items have always disappeared from shops at strange intervals, but the in-home restaurateurs had developed an astonishingly effective network of buyers who swooped into fruit markets and supermarkets long before residents could, leaving little for anyone else. The state appeared no closer to legalizing a wholesale marketplace for business owners than when Fidel was in power. And tourism alone had not had the desired impact: A taxi driver named Jorge told me that though, yes, there were certainly a lot of Americans around, and though Americans spent a lot of money, it hadn’t been as he’d hoped, enough to push the country forward on a tide of American money. Another taxi driver who wouldn’t give me his name told me that he couldn’t find new clothes to buy for his seven-year-old daughter as a birthday gift, not anywhere. 

On Tejadillo Street, a small crowd, including a handful of Cuban artists whose work was exhibited at the Morro-Cabaña complex, gathered outside the site of Bruguera’s performance.Across the street, in a kitschy souvenir shop, I saw a one-eyed man playing chess. I left the group and walked toward the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, where the biennial’s main museum—four exhibits by Cuban artists Wilfredo Prieto, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Alexandre Arrechea, and Tomás Sánchez—was about to open.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Third Paradise at Fototeca de Cuba (left) and Havana’s Plaza de la Catedral (right). (Lorenzo Fiaschi) Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana

Inside the museum, I watched children jumping in and out of a waterless fountain, people chatting as they waited to order beer or cola at the museum café, artists and curators milling with what Buena Vista Social Club film producer Rosa Bosch would later describe to Vanity Fair as “the largest concentration of Cuban political heavyweights at an ostensibly non-political event.” The rooms were crowded enough that actually viewing Arrechea’s or Pérez Monzón’s work was difficult. In the courtyard, Prieto’s light, meditative installations confounded children and those not inclined toward conceptual art: a metal safe encased in a cardboard box, or Uncertain Future, a crystal ball that sat on the ground surrounded by viewers, reflecting upside-down legs and an expanse of sky.

Outside, Bruguera stood amid a cluster of people at the entrance to Bellas Artes, in front of the Granma, the sixty-foot boat that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara stuffed with eighty other revolutionaries and steered over from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to try to overthrow Fulgencio Batista’s regime. As Bruguera approached the entrance, five policemen standing guard denied her access. Holly Block appeared on her way out of the show, and Bruguera asked Block to advocate for her, to help her get into the museum. Block walked back up the steps and spoke with the museum subdirector, who told her that Bruguera had announced on Tejadillo Street that she would read The Origins of Totalitarianism to the opening-night crowd, which was why she would not be allowed inside. She was welcome to come see the show at any other time—like tomorrow, he suggested. 

By the next round of private parties, which would last until five in the morning, hearsay about Bruguera was self-correcting and spreading. Questions were asked: Had her intent been to incite confrontation? Would a large cultural institution in New York or London allow an artist to stage a political performance at an opening reception? Among what had not changed in Cuba was the fact that things were not as they appeared. Blame was quickly but murkily apportioned, politics isolated. Motives remained unclear. The various agendas—artistic, commercial, dissident, governmental—swam together and collided, and gossip charted the space among them all. 

Still, the dancing continued. At a deteriorated Vedado mansion that Prieto recently bought—a house that has long been admired by young and arty Cubans, a house that many refer to as their dream house—wooden scaffolding held up the moldings while waiters served aged rum in plastic cups from behind a long bar of two-by-fours. A cluster of young Cubans complained outside of the house’s iron gates as a bouncer in an official biennial lanyard granted immediate access to a foreigner who quietly said, “I’m a friend of Wilfredo’s.” 

Throughout the biennial, politics hung like a scrim behind the art. Some artists openly mined the particularity of Cuban hypocrisy and absurdity, using references both subtle and not: a large-scale painting by Alejandro Campins, with abandoned military forts facing off across a ten-foot expanse of abstraction; Los Carpinteros mining Fidel’s phrases for exterior décor. Whether an artist intended for a work to be political was irrelevant, because most artworks in Havana in the summer of 2015 were political by default: Jose Dávila’s delicately balanced armoires, threatening to careen into each other yet frozen in place; Chopra’s cage and the shoe marks on Garaicoa’s rug; a dance party staged on the steps of Bellas Artes by an artist who casually orchestrated the hundreds of revelers to turn their backs on the Granma all at once. Whether such artwork needed to identify itself as activism in order to activate something was the question. 

Blue Cube-Immersion by Rachel Valdés Camejo, on Havana’s Malecón. (Claudio Fuentes)

Bruguera later told me that she had no intention to stage any sort of political performance at the Bellas Artes opening. Another artist, whom she did not name, had planned a piece in protest of Danilo Maldonado Machado’s continued detainment, and she thought state security had heard about a planned performance and assumed that she’d be the performer in question. Either that or it was a campaign “to isolate me and eliminate me, as if I never existed,” she said. She didn’t see a dissonance between her roles as artist and activist. Even so, she had come, over the course of the biennial, to represent something, though whether it was what she had set out to represent was unclear. 

The art cascaded on. The Malecón was closed to traffic for the opening of Behind the Wall, public art installations that would dot the seawall for the duration of the biennial. Hundreds of people in the street were shrouded in the fine salt mist of an afternoon that threatened to rain for hours but held off. Spanish artist Carlos Nicanor’s yellow brick road, made of chunks of wood stitched together, led from the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital—the city’s premier surgical hospital, which used to be a bank, where gold is rumored to remain in a vault—to the seawall, and then over the seawall and into the ocean, toward Miami. Just past the yellow brick road, Cuban reggaeton blared from a DJ station above Brooklyn artist Duke Riley’s synthetic ice-skating rink. Eight-year-old skaters culled from the city’s youth in-line-skating leagues struggled to coordinate themselves with a photographer who was trying to get just the right shot of the girls gliding in front of Riley, who leaned against the rink’s rail with his tattooed arms crossed. The rink was small, and there was barely enough space for the spandex-clad girls to pick up speed before they bounced against the wall on the opposite side, and they couldn’t seem to cross at the right angle in front of Riley to get the right photo. The photographer sent them back and forth, again and again. Their arms flailed, and they giggled as their legs stuck on the faux ice, over which the photographer, with no skates on, simply walked. 

Then other skaters who’d lined up were let onto the “ice,” and the dancing picked up. Cubans and foreigners mingled on the Malecón until nightfall. Sometime in the late afternoon, in the maze of Old Havana, Bruguera was detained on Tejadillo Street and then released.

In a few days, Rihanna and Annie Leibovitz would touch down for a photo shoot. I would glimpse Miguel, the ex-police lieutenant cuentapropista, on his bar stool one more time. Restaurants would continue to buzz with American tourists. Artists would show the work that hadn’t already sold to these latecomers, now that they had time to spend in their studios, attending to tourists.

In July, Bruguera would be appointed the City of New York’s artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, MoMA would announce the acquisition of its first Bruguera piece, and the Cuban government would return her passport. Apart from the passport, she clarified to me, all of these developments had been in the works before she’d set foot on Cuban soil. It had recently been announced that she’d be a Yale World Fellow. As the fellowship’s programming got underway, Bruguera heard that graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado would be released from jail, and with that—one of the conditions, she said, of her departure—she would return to the US. (As of press time, Bruguera had begun her work at Yale, but Maldonado had yet to be released.)

In fall 2016, Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje: Artwork from El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes—ninety-plus works from the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes—will come to New York. By then, Los Carpinteros hope to have installed their library, Garaicoa to have hosted at least one resident artist, Prieto to have renovated his Vedado mansion so that he can invite international artists for symposia. Perhaps Cristo Salvador and El Apartamento will be legal galleries and a cuentapropista license will offer plausible cover for F5’s ventures. There may be new hotels, new architectural plans for spaces like the bicycle factory, too. 

On Sunday night, though, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Prieto’s Uncertain Future sat on the ground, no longer reflecting upside-down crowds as it had done the day before, at the opening. With the museum closed and everyone at the Malecón, it reflected the art, the walls, the empty space.



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Alan White's picture
Alan White · 8 years ago

I would be curious to know if support on the part of artists and writers in general for Cuban style socialism has changed in the past decade or two.  Do they still see socialism as the wave of the future or might be there be some doubts about that outcome? 


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