Making Waves

In the hands of Cuban artist Kcho, boats, docks, and oars become potent symbols of migration . In the hands of Cuban artist Kcho, boats, docks, and oars become potent symbols of migration.

In Ghent earlier this year, the Cuban artist Kcho leaned over the side of a small motorboat to lay strips of wood on the Lys River. He had been commissioned by the city of Ghent and its Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst to create new work for the group exhibition “Over the Edge.” It had been raining for three days, and his Belgian assistants wondered why Kcho, wet and covered with mud, chose to plot the dimensions of his on-site installation in the freezing weather rather than sketch his idea on paper and contract an engineer to build it. Kcho explained that he first needed to “make the drawing in the river” himself by using the cast-off wood he found in the city’s harbor. The completed piece, on view through the third of this month, is a 66-foot-long dock that spirals out into the water from a medieval castle on the riverbank.

Para olvidar el miedo (To Forget the Fear), a 1999 work that was installed on the Champs Elysées in Paris.
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, NY

Water–its presence usually just implied–is a powerful point of reference for Kcho (pronounced KAH-cho). Docks, boats, oars, rafts, inner tubes, and debris washed up from the ocean are among the objects he has included in his installations. For the 30-year-old artist, creating work that points to the sea is a natural result of having been born and raised on a small island off the southern coast of Cuba. “Where I grew up, all the limits were liquid,” says the artist, who is now based in Havana. To reach the main island required a four-hour boat ride.

Travel and migration in the context of his country’s recent history also figure prominently in Kcho’s work. In 1994, just months before a massive wave of emigrants embarked for Florida from all over Cuba’s northern coast, he created La regata (The Regatta), a flotilla of toy boats and beach debris–rocks, driftwood, twigs, pieces of rubber–that was installed in one of the fortresses that line the Havana harbor, as part of the Fifth Havana Bienal. Lo mejor del verano (The Best of Summer) was created that same year for “Cocido y crudo” (Cooked and Raw), an exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofí­a in Madrid, organized by Dan Cameron, now senior curator of Manhattan’s New Museum. That installation included rowboats, kayaks, bits of wood, oars, baskets, and fishing nets suspended from the ceiling and reflected in the black polished floor. One had the impression of being submerged in water, witnessing a shipwreck from below.

“People went into that gallery and cried,” says Manuel E. Gonzí¡lez, a Cuban exile and current director of the art program for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, describing how the installation evoked the tragic fate of so many Cubans who have taken to the seas over the years. And while his choice of imagery draws directly from the collective psyche of his nation, Kcho’s penchant for discarded objects mirrors the contemporary Cuban practice of salvaging and recycling materials because of the scarcity of basic items. “Kcho is the quintessential Cuban artist of the ‘Special Period,’ ” says Gonzí¡lez, referring to the era of economic crisis in Cuba that began after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Today, Kcho is celebrated as the island’s most internationally established artist since Wifredo Lam (1902-82). In the last decade, his poetic and sometimes nostalgic works have been featured in more than 50 group shows and biennials around the world and in 15 solo exhibitions, at such venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles (1997), the Jeu de Paume in Paris (1998), and the Palacio de Cristal at the Reina Sofí­a (2000). Para olvidar(To Forget), an installation consisting of a rowboat set atop a pile of empty and half-empty beer bottles, won the $50,000 grand prize at the 1995 Kwangju Biennale in South Korea. The artist’s first show in the United States took place in 1996 at New York’s Barbara Gladstone gallery, which continues to represent him. His work sells for between $4,000 for a drawing and $75,000 for larger sculptures. Many of his pieces are in the collection of major museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana.

In all of his installations, Kcho tends to use the same basic vocabulary of images and objects associated with the sea. “He works with few symbols, but every time you see a new drawing or a boat, it’s like seeing it for the first time,” says Alma Ruiz, assistant curator at MoCA in Los Angeles, who organized Kcho’s 1997 exhibition “Todo cambia” (Everything Changes). The artist created two installations for the show. One was a series of totemic sculptures of unbaked clay and wire fashioned in the forms of a raft, sailboat, kayak, oar, and inner tube. The other consisted of a large boat constructed of wooden racks of the sort used by Havana booksellers and filled with Spanish, English, and French texts representing a wide range of literature available in Cuba. Visitors were encouraged to board the boat and spend time reading the books. “These works have tremendous physicality,” remarks Ruiz. “Just like him.”

Kcho’s presence is palpable even before he enters a room. At Casa de las Americas, a Havana cultural institution where he recently showed, he could be heard thundering down the hall, calling out to friends he had not seen since his residency at Alexander Calder’s studio outside Paris. Not especially tall but as thick and solid as a football linebacker, Kcho was in constant motion, dominating the offices of Casa de las Americas with his voice, enormous smile, and seemingly boundless energy. It was a hot day, and he pulled off his shirt, cinched his pants with a rope belt, put the shirt back on, then shouted to fellow artist Tania Bruguera, literally lifting her off her feet as he hugged her. One gallery assistant offered him water and another brought out highball glasses with ice and Chivas Regal. This was star treatment, Cuban-style.

“I’m so happy that this place would invite me to do this show in Cuba, where my friends are and the people I love,” he said that day, talking at breakneck speed. “The last time I exhibited in Cuba was in ’97 at the Bienal. I wanted to do the MoCA show here but no one wanted it.”

Kcho’s lament is familiar among young Cuban artists, and it is due, in part, to the political subtext that exists in much of their work. In the 1980s, many artists were making art that overtly critiqued the government. This led to censorship and, finally, mass emigration of many of the island’s most prominent figures, such as José Bedia, who now lives in Miami. Now, a decade later, the artists of Kcho’s generation tend to cloak their messages in poetry and symbolism.

The Casa de las Americas show, which ended in March, was modest in size, but Kcho nevertheless managed to use the awkwardly divided gallery and low ceiling to their best advantage to convey his themes of migration and impermanence. The most effective piece was a simple boat made of chain-link fencing that filled almost an entire room. The boat’s prow protruded through a narrow doorway between rooms, and one got inside the boat by walking through an opening in the prow. “Upon entering the gallery, we were obligated to board the boat,” says Cuban curator Cristina Vives, recalling her visit to the exhibition with a group of curators from Minneapolis. “Those who went inside became temporary travelers, emigrants, and those of us who chose to stay outside–on land, as it were–watched this mass of humanity crowded together like immigrants on any latitude of the
planet.” The title of the installation, No me agradezcan el silencio(Do Not Thank Me for Silence) is typically poetic and ambiguous.

“Kcho’s titles are essential to understanding his work,” says Ruiz. “He is purposely enigmatic so he can say things indirectly. ‘Todo cambia,’ the title of his show at MoCA, was his way of saying that in the island everything changes, but everything stays the same.” Kcho explains that his titles play a role in his art-making process. “I was in a bar last night, having a beer with one of my assistants. A small thing suddenly became something: don’t hammer two nails in one line. I was explaining it to him and, at the same time, I knew the expression would be the starting point for a new work. I have notebooks full of phrases like that,” says Kcho. “Sometimes it takes me a year or more to do something with them, but my process always begins with the title.”

Kcho was born in 1970 on the Isla de la Juventud. His father, a carpenter, had always wanted to name a son Cacho, which means “chunk” or “piece.” His mother, the person in charge of the decorations for the island’s annual carnival, protested, and he was named Alexis Leyva Machado. Still, the nickname stuck throughout his youth. In high school, the artist changed the spelling. “Crooks had aliases, I wanted one, too,” he wrote in the catalogue for “La columna infinita.”

Kcho learned to use hand tools and to make wooden toys from his father. “If I had not gone to art school,” he says, “I would have ended up a carpenter like him.” But he began early academic training in art, after a local teacher was impressed by his talent. He attended school on his island until he was 14, when he was accepted into the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Artes Plí¡sticas in Havana, Cuba’s national fine-arts school. He began as a painter but soon switched to sculpture because, he says, “painting seemed too methodical, too much about process, and there’s an element of deceit in it.” Now he eschews most applied color in his work, but he credits his painting background for enabling him “to see that trash also has color.”

Unlike many Cuban artists of his generation, Kcho was not accepted at the Instituto Superior de Arte, the university level of the fine-arts school. Consequently, he began his professional career much earlier than most. At the age of 21, he was in group shows in Havana and Caracas and was given a solo exhibition at the Havana gallery Centro de Arte 23 y 12. Titled “Paisaje popular cubano” (Cuban Folk Landscape), the show featured Kcho’s 1990 La peor de las trampas (The Worst of Traps), a ladder made of branches that culminate in fake palm fronds and whose rungs are machete blades, and the elegantly spare Como el garabato se parece a Cuba(How the Hook Resembles Cuba), a 1991 piece consisting of a farmer’s grass-cutting tool that looks remarkably like the profile of the island.

In 1992 Kcho traveled outside of Cuba for the first time to participate in shows in Mexico, Holland, Belgium, and Spain. While abroad, he encountered works by artists who had been influencing him for years. “Picasso and Duchamp are gods,” says Kcho. More direct influences come from the work of Constantin Brancusi and the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. A los ojos de la historia (To the Eyes of History), Kcho’s 1992 spiral tower made of twigs, sticks, and twine, was modeled after Tatlin’s never-realized Model for the Monument to the Third International(1919-20). Kcho’s tower, however, is topped with a used conical fabric coffee filter, recycling a failed monument into a quasi-functional item.

Kcho makes frequent reference to Brancusi in his “La columna infinita” series. Since 1995, he has been constructing columns composed of everything from bent wood to stacked boats to rubber inner tubes to bottles. The recent show at the Palacio de Cristal brought together eleven of these pieces from collections around the world.

Sly political references are tucked here and there throughout Kcho’s work. Included in the Madrid show was a series of drawings of docks–each dock in the shape of a letter that spells out, among other things, Elií¡n, the first name of the six-year-old Cuban boy who survived a boat wreck and whose contested custody put a spotlight on Cuban-American relations.

Like most Cuban artists, Kcho rejects a purely political understanding of his work. Still, sometimes he cannot help having the political discussion imposed on him. His 1996 show at Barbara Gladstone was picketed by angry Cuban exiles who claimed that any support for a Cuban artist directly assists the Castro regime. The following year he was denied an entry visa by the U.S., making it impossible for him to create the wall drawing that was to be part of the MoCA show. Once it became clear that no amount of lobbying by MoCA would overturn the U.S. decision, the artist had Ruiz include their correspondence and the rejection notice from the State Department as part of the installation that contained the book racks.

Meanwhile, Kcho has been able to travel to different parts of the world for numerous exhibitions. And when he’s home in Havana–where the money he makes from sales abroad affords him a degree of wealth–Kcho enjoys an international cachet. Wherever he is, when discussing his work he continues to stress its universal themes–travel, nostalgia, loss, and impermanence–rather than letting it be pigeonholed as purely political. After all, he says, “Cuba is not Fidel alone…. Cuba is also its artists.”

Rosa Lowinger is a writer and art conservator living in Los Angeles.

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