Glexis Novoa

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The Havana Biennial 'Before it Changes'
Art Nexus (periodical), by Rachel Weiss; Miami, Issue #98 Sep - Nov 2015.


The throngs were there to see Cuba ‘before it changes’ but this was a bienal intent on exactly that—making things change. What was most exciting about it was also the most elusive, in part because of the radically fragmentary nature of the organism this time around. In light of that, what follows will be an effort to connect some of the dots in this bienal’s ambitious poetic.

As in 2012, the bienal had both centrifugal and centripetal energy. One of its orbits was the blue chip realm of artists like Kosuth, Buren, Pistoletto, Kapoor (Buren in an absorbing and reflective move, Pistoletto in a more embarrassing register); another was the ongoing re-definition of which Cuban artists get to be called “Cuban artists” on the island; another was its reach back into a local art history that has at various times been considered inconvenient by authorities; and another one, by far the most promiscuous in its reach, was into the very complex life of the city—un-romanticized, messy, often hard to figure.

The big names were there courtesy of Galleria Continua, the Italian operation with satellites in China, France and now in Havana too (and Louis Vuitton also pitched in)—maybe one of the clearest indications yet of where at least one slice of the island’s art scene is heading. The infinity signs inscribed ad nauseum by Pistoletto—by boats in the harbor, by a pots-and-pans choir in a colonial plaza, by rainbows of small children, were, not unlike the “United Buddy Bears” sent to the city earlier in the year by the German Foreign Office, mostly an annoying reminder of the shallow conceptions of ‘world peace’ that arise in some quarters. Buren, on the other hand, painting his signature stripes or causing them to be painted around the doorways of homes along a street well off the tourist routes, both added a layer to the ongoing evolution of what that gesture means to us and also occasioned all kinds of encounters with people who brought to that act an entirely different set of references—the scarcity of home improvement materials, among them. No less important, he also managed to lure bunches of elegant art tourists into a part of town that they otherwise would not have seen.

Cubans who left, or who were on the island for the first time, were a steady component among contributing artists. This in itself is no longer news, since the cultural apparatus has made concerted efforts to attract certain artists back for exhibitions and, in some instances, public lectures (although spottily: Glexis Novoa, for instance, was removed from the list of presenters at a conference held at the Casa de las Américas that was being held during the bienal[1]), and some are even re-establishing residences and studios in the city. And in fact some of the most memorable work came, this time, from two who were associated with the ‘golden age’ of the 1980s, one of them a Volumen Uno veteran based in Mexico for the past couple of decades and the other, the same Novoa, a member of the conceptually and critically aggressive generation that came on the heels of that cohort. As for the former—the show at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes of work by Gustavo Pérez Monzón was simply, staggeringly beautiful. Entering the space, arrayed as it was with a huge and elegantly spare web of lines and stones (“Vilos,” 1981, 2015), was one of those rare moments when you encounter an artwork that you feel immediately and deeply. The provenance of the exhibition is also noteworthy, since the artist decided around 25 years ago that he no longer wished to make art: the show happened as a result of events that are, like Continua’s presence, a complex indicator of how old circuits of communication, resource distribution and action are being replaced with new ones. During the previous bienal the national museum had staged a show of works from the (Miami-based) Cisneros Foundation’s collection and they did that again this time: Ella Cisneros, who has both an extraordinary eye and a vision of restoring neglected cultural legacies on the island, both acquired the works on display and arranged for them to be presented in the museum. (She has also acquired a substantial body of work by Sandu Darie, the Romanian-Cuban expat whose works are vastly under-recognized, as well as the Veigas archives, easily the most important depository of information on Cuban art of the past few decades: most importantly, her Foundation has agreed that the materials will remain in Havana and be accessible to all interested researchers.) The irony of such important patrimony being brought back into circulation by someone who was for decades persona non grata by virtue of her exilic status, bears noting.

The opening of Pérez Monzón’s show was a moment of real joy, a reunion among friends separated by many years. Only later did those assembled become aware that the reunion was not for everyone: Tania Bruguera, who has been subjected to continual harassment by authorities since December, was blocked from entering the museum—a public facility—by police. (Some speculation has it that the harsh measures against her arise from governmental worry that ‘subversive’ action such as her thwarted performance in Revolution Square might negatively impact the expected sales of artworks.)

The other very moving act of return came from Novoa, whose contribution of the installation “Emptiness” to the second version of Juanito Delgado’s “Detras del muro” exhibition along the Malecón was the quietest among those offerings (which included the jokey and widely-remarked ‘ice’ skating rink by Duke Riley[2]), and the most profound. Working as he has for years now, with intricate and delicate graphite wall drawings of imaginary city skylines which often contain emblems of dystopias past (Soviet, among them), Novoa this time selected the site of a ruin along the waterfront, which is rumored to be the future location of a luxury hotel to be built by Chinese investors. The site is also home to two people living there in a shack, and so the artist put them at the center of his project: “I respect the people that live here and I respect their space… And they helped me, in the same way that they built their own spaces.”[3] The project became a collaboration after Novoa hired the residents to clear out the site; as the conversation deepened their care for the work grew, leaving as evidence of that their contribution of a scattering of plantings to the installation.

Other stand-out works included Nigerian Victor Ekpuk’s “Meditations on Memory,” a room-sized installation drawing on his collaboration with Ñañigos from Havana’s abakuá community—a religious system shared by the two countries. The work reproduced symbols from the abakuá graphic lexicon and songs from traditional funerary rites in an absorbing and mesmerizing surround. Nikolaus Gansterer’s “Eden Experiment” played with the idea that music makes plants happy (and therefore makes them grow better): while the work was not especially revelatory in itself, the artist had taken care in explaining it to an enthusiastic docent who clearly enjoyed her interaction with visitors, unlike the robotic limitations of the discussions about the meaning of ‘market economy’ that were being dutifully played out in Tino Sehgal’s work upstairs. The same dynamic was in play at the Rubén Martínez Villena library, where the experience of works by Eduardo Basualdo and Sofía Bothlingk and another by Shilpa Gupta was enriched immeasurably by the insights provided by library employees who were eager to engage visitors, and again in the Centro de Desarrollo de Artes Visuales where the exhibition of sound works on display—excellent in itself—was brought to even more vibrant life by the security guard who had clearly come to love it. Among the wonderful works in that show were “El sueño de lo quieto,” a sprawling, Rube Goldberg-esque installation by Leonello Zambón and Eugenia González that managed to be both incredibly funny and pensive, made up of scraps like an old fork, bits of string and the gentle breeze wafting in from the windows; and a video by Francisca Benítez, in which deaf people were invited to choose a poem by Nicolás Guillén and then dance and sign its meaning. The beauty and intimacy of their silent interpretations resonated against the raucous sounds of Antonio José Guzmán’s barrel organ playing notes determined by various people’s DNA, not to mention the noise of the street beyond.

The largest assembly of works (by some 240 artists) was a megalith in the Morro-Cabaña fortress complex titled “Zona Franca”— a name that had bite instead of crassness, the last time it was used to denote art (namely the collective Omni Zona Franca, comprised of poets, artists and rappers who ran afoul of the authorities for their independent festivals and gatherings a few years back). In this case, the show—which was put together by the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas—was pretty much the exact antithesis of the bienal, though that might be the wrong term to use since it implies that Zona Franca had a thesis. (Unless you count passports as a curatorial thesis, it didn’t.) Billed as “the largest Cuban art show of all times,” its sprawl only increased the sense of dismay incited by gallery after gallery of indiscriminately chosen work, much of it—much too much—simply bad. Apparently parts of the cultural apparatus felt that the bienal was straying too far from the mission of commercializing local art and artists, and this was the solution; unfortunately, this cynical move was mistaken by many visitors as a part of the bienal’s programming, which could not have been further from the truth.[4]

In a kind of middle ground between the poles of ‘exhibition’ and anti-exhibition, curators Dannys Montes de Oca and Royce Smith’s “Between, Inside, Outside” at the Pabellón Cuba functioned as a sort of project lab and salesroom: projects included Levi Orta’s “Capital=Cultura” an off-line Kickstarter that offered a database of cultural start-ups in Havana which visitors were invited to invest in, and Glenda Salazar set up a micro-industry that produced bienal tote bags that visitors could acquire only by trading something they had which the artist wanted. In a somewhat less transactional register, Pedro Lasch led a series of workshops investigating the ancillary effects of art-based capitalism and Susana Delahante staged a beauty contest for AfroCuban women with un-straightened hair (competition categories included natural, braids and dreads): winners were crowd-sourced according to audience applause. The project drew indirect attention to the continuing disparagement of black people on the island and, perhaps more incisively, to its current iteration in the form of the disadvantages that Cuba’s black community now faces under the economic reforms enacted by Raúl Castro, which favor Cubans with capital from abroad and those who are more likely to be hired into the tourism and service industries.

Also holding its own exhibitionary status at a certain remove, “Mountains with a Broken Corner” presented works in the cavernous ruins of an old bicycle factory (the curators refer to it as an ‘accidental exhibition’). Mostly slight and barely perceptible, they were gentle indicators of various force fields—Navid Nuur’s rough pile of salt with little bursts of magnetized iron filings blossoming randomly across its bulk, or Shimabuku’s “Cuban Samba,” consisting only of a few old tin cans placed on the floor where rain dripped through, creating a delicate, syncopated melody that resonated quietly across the vast space. Meanwhile, Ariel Schlesinger designated that a small fire be tended continuously for the duration of the exhibition, harkening both to the building’s own demise in 2002 and to the invisible forces of labor that keep the art system operating. And on a meta-level, even the choice of site reckoned with that other force field with which art contends so contentiously, namely that of History: the building began its life in the 1970s as a bus assembly plant, which was memorialized in Nicolás Guillén Landrián’s (censored) film “Taller de Linea y 18,” and which insinuated various doubts about the socialist workplace. Its conversion into a bicycle factory came only in 1995, when Special Period conditions deprived the city and its residents of petroleum-fueled transportation, and then a fire closed it for good. The building is thus a kind of metonym for recent decades of Cuban history: no longer the site of material production, it nonetheless embodies two of the currents in the contemporary value scale in its status as ruin and exhibition space.

But the bulk of the bienal was a moving target. The organizers had announced that the bienal would be staged outside of the usual cultural venues that it has traditionally occupied, in order to engage with the life of the city and not only with its high culture precincts. While this was not 100% true it was mostly the case, as presentations occupied wide-ranging corners that included a dilapidated gym, street vendor carts and the old town of Casablanca across the bay, among many others. One of the bienal’s most valued resources, the curatorial team noted, has always been the city: “to feel the city and its people, which amounts to involving its populations… its micro-politics and micro-spaces of socialization.”[5]

By now we’re all familiar with the languages of social practice and also with the fights about it (aesthetics vs politics…). How to think about the value or success of such work is a difficult set of questions, which are made even more complicated by their presentation in the context of an exhibition, where the natural expectation is that you’re seeing artworks, rather than some indication of processes that are either already over or yet to be fully consummated (a ‘loose and elusive social experiment,’ as Holland Cotter called it). The other, very thorny set of questions that comes up has to do with who such work is actually for and, in a related vein, what the role of the art viewer might be. All the works described thus far were pointed at bienal visitors, and their presentation was designed to facilitate their access to the works’ layers of meanings. That’s what generally happens in exhibitions. But the center of gravity of this bienal lay elsewhere, pointed toward the Habana Vieja resident picking up mangoes on her way home from work, the teenager dropping by the gym late in the afternoon, the pensioner and his grandson who come to see that they can draw beautiful pictures and write elegant lines of verse, the passenger on the ferry to Casablanca, the believers who join in the homage to Yemayá on a wooded hillside, the neighbors who together made maps of daily life in and around Parque Trillo or those in barrio Colón, whose extended conversations with architecture, design and art students addressed local problems and advanced ideas for the area’s renovation, all of which was then presented at a giant block party at the bienal’s close—long after the art world had gone back home.

Havana has many problems, not only crumbling buildings, and the bienal took an interest in several of them, including environmental issues, housing, food supply, urban planning and social inclusion. These were approached in the bienal via multiple routes: arts, of course—including music, theatre, film, architecture and more— and also botany, genetics, anthropology, sociology, communication, philosophy, and networks of many kinds.

Belgian artist Koen Vanmelchen’s project “Arena de evolución,” an “international artistic crossbreeding endeavor” done in collaboration with genetic scientists, re-introduced the nearly-extinct Cubalaya chicken to the island. David Bade and Tirzo Martha teamed up with street vendors to embellish their carts. The new look proved to be popular with both vendor and customer: from the former’s perspective, it attracted new customers and led to new kinds of conversations and, while the original deal allowed for the carts to be restored to their original condition after the bienal, it seems that they’ll be left as they are. As for customers, they’ve flocked to the special carts, in part because of TV coverage which identified them as a way for people to participate in the bienal. Steeve Bauras built a half pipe in a dank old gym in the marginal barrio of San Ysidro, which became a magnet for Havana’s skateboarding denizens who are, in themselves, a marginalized group.[6] Aman Mojadidi’s installation of suitcases and other items resonant of migration traveled back and forth across the city’s harbor on top of the creaky ferry to Regla, referencing, as well (though more discreetly) the history of that boat, which was hijacked by people desperate to flee the island in the 1990s. Both Néstor Siré and Francisco Masó used the ubiquitous paquete—the underground digital subscription service that stands in for the (unavailable) Internet, providing movies, TV shows, video games and more to a sizable chunk of the population across the island—as the platform for their own works. And in Casablanca, a forlorn hamlet across the bay, a whole raft of projects did everything from establishing a community newspaper, to opening an art gallery in a family’s livingroom (which was displaying, during the bienal, pictures and handmade books that were the output of the drawing classes that were another artist’s project). A community space was created, and a film screening room and a WiFi network,—not quite legal, not exactly illegal. Guisela Munita installed dozens of beach chairs on the plaza by the ferry and train terminal, reprising an action she did in Valparaíso: the title, “80 Chairs to Contemplate Waiting,” speaks for itself. Along with the artworks, other kinds of resources materialized in the town, thanks to the bienal, including the restoration of the train station, street re-paving, and an ambitious plan for local sustainability. And with the community’s spiritual well-being in mind, a gigantic necklace for Yemayá made of coconut shells was installed on the hillside above the square, which will eventually be thrown into the sea. It has, apparently, become a sort of amulet for the town.

The question is: how to square this kind of panoply with the structure of a bienal, and with the expectations that come along with it? The concept of a bienal implies a bringing together of works and audiences to experience art, but this one, dispersed across the spread of the city and lodged in spaces and places that haven’t been much noticed for decades, almost seemed to hide from visitors at the same time that it made itself known to those who live or circulate in those locations. Bienal director Jorge Fernández had warned in the run-up to the opening that this would not be a bienal for collectors, and that was indeed the case: all of this, at the very moment when the cliché version of Havana was at a frenzied peak, stimulating appetites for all the versions of the city that the bienal turned its back on. This was the radicality of the event, using the platform of the bienal not to satisfy cigar/rum/’50s Oldsmobiles-seekers, but rather to invite them to a party thrown in other peoples’ honor. Under the cover of the bienal, real resources were brought into those places, and people with no relation to the formalities of Art—the holy grail of social practice—became the star players.

One way to gauge this bienal’s success might be to contrast it to the shadow state set up by Kcho (the ‘Nueva Bienal de Arte de La Habana,’ as he called it) at his Museo Orgánico Romerillo. There, the self-proclaimed maestro put on a splashy show of work by well-known names from Warhol to Lam, Matta to Shirin Neshat to Spencer Tunick to the Kabakovs, in a project that he grandly asserted alongside the legendary “Mural Colectivo” staged in 1967 by Lam and the hundred or so artists from around the world who came to Havana on the occasion of the Salón de Mayo. The MOR has gotten a lot of press lately as one of a handful of places on the island offering free WiFi, an anomaly directly traceable to the artist’s unusual political connections. So it probably should have come as no surprise when, after keeping the throngs waiting, literally, outside the gates for the better part of an hour, the fanfare began with the ultimate tourist kitsch—the carnival stilt walkers who parade through the (renovated, restored) streets of Old Havana to the delight of mojito-drinkers resting their weary feet as they marvel at the vivacity of the Cuban people. As to the ‘bienal-ness’ of the show on offer out there in Romerillo I can’t say, since the doors to the exhibition space remained shut to all but the press until such time as they were finished turning the event into world news. In other words, the organic museum was taking the day off from its neighborhood beat.

At base, Bruguera’s performance was about the sea change that’s been going on for quite some time in Cuba, in which the national focus has been shifting from a dream of social ethics to a savage capitalism that dreams in the private confines of property. Regardless of what you think about the initial performance (and because of its nature, there’s plenty of room for differing views), it’s undeniable that her subsequent developments of the work, especially the currently unfolding Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism, are brilliant. They are the work of an artist working artistically. In a recent interview, she said this in response to the perennial question about what art can really do: “I think art, because it’s art, and because it’s about what you feel and it’s about things that are not put into words, it’s just about what is happening, the fluid of life, things we don’t understand and want to get at and to know what it’s about, gives you a space and a leverage to talk about things other people don’t feel they have the language to speak, or are afraid to talk about, because in other contexts it is forbidden.”[7] Art, in other words, is that bridging space that speaks about, acts upon, moves into intelligibility that which we need to understand.

There’s all kinds of bridging going on these days with regard to Cuba— Presidents Obama and Castro, to begin with, and then myriad others: Miami billionaire Jorge Pérez wants to open communication with Havana by way of art since it ‘has nothing to do with politics;’[8] Richard Blanco, the 2008 US inaugural poet, wants to make a bridge to Cuba out of poetry; (arts) entrepreneur Pamela Ruiz is the bridge to Hollywood (as her dinner parties with the likes of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, top Proenza Schouler designers, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler and “high-ranking government officials” attest);[9] Zona Franca was the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas’ (not the bienal’s) bridge to the market, in the form of the ‘stampede’ of art collectors expected to descend on Havana (artnet news referred to the opening day of the bienal as “the art world’s version of Black Friday in the tropics.”)[10] Raúl met with the Pope (with Kcho in tow) and later remarked that he just might start praying again. And then there was the bienal. It was a bridge leading in a hundred directions, most all of them pointed inward to the tangled worlds of its own city. To forsake the usual dictat that a biennale’s job is to entertain the visitors was a courageous and principled move, and I got the sense that it might really be a breakthrough. Havana re-invented the biennale once before in 1984 and it just might be on the verge of doing that again.

There have been projects embedded in the bienal for a while about reimagining the city, or restoring it or rehabbing it, but this one felt more frank about the destitution that is very real, and the fraught nature of that proposition in a moment when big (Big) money from various parts of the world—China, Europe and of course the US—is about to be thrown at the process, with a total lack of clarity about who’s going to be calling the shots and who’s going to benefit. Every one of these bridges points to the Havana-to-come, ‘once it changes.’ It would be amazing if the ones being built by the bienal can interweave their tracings far enough into the life of the city to strengthen its resilience, as it now faces up to that brave new world.


[1] Novoa had also proposed a work for the San Agustín neighborhood that would have consisted in the creation of a giant Buddha, which was to have been the centerpiece of a project involving month-long meditation workshops. The project was called off, anonymously and with no explanation. He was not the only artist whose work ran into problems: Lázaro Saavedra, winner of the National Arts Award only a few months ago, had a video work (“Progreso de una nación”) removed from a collateral exhibition at Fábrica de Arte.
[2] Apparently, the artist’s research turned up the fact that from 1933 until sometime in the 1950s there was an actual ice rink in Havana, at the current location of the Fuente de la Juventud. http://www.elnuevoherald.com/vivir-mejor/artes-letras/article21409584.html
[3] http://www.cubanartnews.org/news/bienal-snapshot-glexis-novoa-emptiness/4558
[4] While there were rumors that the bienal had displeased officials with its inconformity to market expectations, public statements so far have been very positive: Minister of Culture Julián González Toledo finds that it ‘exceeds all expectations’ (http://www.cubaheadlines.com/2015/06/02/p13/xii-bienal-has-exceeded-expectations-says-minister-of-culture.html ) and Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas president Rubén del Valle called it ‘absolutely revolutionary’ (http://en.granma.cu/cultura/2015-05-26/an-open-air-dialogue-with-art ). On the other side of the aisle, Holland Cotter of the New York Times also loved it (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/arts/design/the-havana-biennial-is-running-at-full-throttle.html?_r=0 ).
[5] http://www.bienalhabana.cult.cu/?q=es/content/entre-la-idea-y-la-experiencia
[6] Skateboard shops do not exist in Havana; the sport is still not considered a legitimate activity by authorities. Nonetheless it is popular among youth, who either get boards as gifts from relatives abroad or else improvise their own from spare parts. (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2015/05/28/268077/skateboarders-in-cuba-find-a-niche.html )
[7] http://suffragio.org/2015/06/22/talking-to-cuban-artist-tania-bruguera/
[8] http://www.elnuevoherald.com/noticias/mundo/america-latina/cuba-es/article24057112.html
[9] http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/06/havana-biennial-art-us-cuba-thaw
Ruiz, dubbed “Cuba’s Peggy Guggenheim” by the NY Times Style magazine, got creative with the restrictions on buying and selling houses by arranging with the elderly owner of a house that Ruiz coveted to stage an exhibition there during the 7th bienal in 2000 (“Esta es tu casa Vicenta”): in exchange, Ruiz would provide badly-needed repairs. At the time, the deal was presented as a charitable quid pro quo, but apparently there was another part to the story since that house is now the grandly restored home where Ruiz and family live and dazzle foreign VIPs.
[10] https://news.artnet.com/market/will-havana-biennial-2015-bonanza-cuban-artists-300110
According to official estimates, over 1,400 people from the US had registered for accreditation (http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2015/05/29/actualidad/1432893458_038205.html ), and a thousand more were expected to take part in workshops and other events without registering (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/05/22/world/americas/ap-cb-cuba-art-exhibition.html ).