Where Rube Goldberg Meets Kafka

At the Havana Bienal, concepts like political correctness and radical chic got all shook up.

Havana has changed a lot in the last two years. Some parts still look like bombed-out ruins. Others are starting to resemble sets from Guys and Dolls. There are still lots of American classic cars, giant, sleek Chevys and Pontiacs with gleaming, sculptural hood ornaments (coffee-table book, anyone?). But now they share the road with brand-new, air-conditioned taxis. Starbucks, the Disney Store, and a Frank Gehry Guggenheim are still a distant future. The question for American business is: how distant?

Havana was the first stop for Ciudad Transportable (Transportable City), 2000, the movable metropolis constructed by Los Carpinteros.
Courtesy Grant Selwyn Fine Art

In this curious mix of capitalism and communism, concepts like political correctness and radical chic get all shook up. It’s been ages since U.S. citizens who traveled to Cuba were automatically assumed to support the socialist cause. For a growing number of American tourists visiting the island these days, revolutionary culture can seem deceptively quaint—the Socialist Realist style so retro that they can forget it comes in a package with repression. Those patriotic highway billboards (and there are no other kind) celebrating Rebels and denouncing Imperialists may be photogenic, but they only get more ironic as the number of tourists increases: in today’s Cuba, everyone knows, the capitalists from abroad get treated a lot better than the locals.

Even at a time when tourism in Cuba is growing by leaps and bounds, the American invasion for the opening of the Havana Bienal last November was spectacular. There were about 3,000 Americans in the city for the show—curators, collectors, dealers, trustees, museum directors, critics, journalists. It was impossible to eat in a paladar, one of the government-tolerated, privately run restaurants, without running into someone you’d seen the week before on 57th Street. One artist who had a big party told me he’d never thought he’d ever hear so much English in his own backyard. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Bronx Museum, Art in General, and several private dealers, among others, brought organized groups to Havana or hosted events to coincide with the opening of the exhibition. So did the U.S. Interests Section, our diplomatic representative in Cuba, which showed works by exiled artists, including José Bedia, Luis Cruz Azaceta, and Arturo Cuenca, brought by Virginia Shore, a curator for the Art in Embassies Program of the U.S. Department of State. While dollar-wielding Cuban Americans are welcomed in Cuba, artworks by its prodigal sons are not. The country held up Shore’s passport so long that she almost missed the opening. Later, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations sent a letter of protest to the Section, complaining that its show “profoundly offends” the Bienal’s organizers by trying to “divert attention” from the larger exhibition’s important “cultural presence.”

The thing was, many foreign guests were distracted from the Bienal, but not by art they could see on 57th Street. For first-time visitors taking in the historic modernist architecture and postnuclear ambience of the place, the city itself was competition enough. Add to that the user-unfriendly nature of the informational materials—the map listed venues around the city that had works on view, but not the artists being shown there; the catalogue listed the artists, but not the venues—and tracking down work became unnecessarily difficult.

Patriotic billboards can seem quaint to foreign tourists, who may forget that they come in a package with repression.
S.B. Olmo

There was the sense that the Bienal, which featured mostly installations by artists from more than 90 countries, wasn’t what the Americans had come to see (and they certainly didn’t come for the only one-person show devoted to an American, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Fiction or Reality”). They wanted Cuban art, which has been enjoying an international vogue lately. The real action was not in the exhibition spaces, but rather in the studios, as air-conditioned buses and vans fanned out to ateliers across the city. American businessmen may fret about being excluded from the bandwagon, but art collectors have no such problem. In Havana, an American can pay for a $5,000 drawing with the wad of bills in his sock, roll it up, and carry it home. It’s perfectly legal—art is exempt from the U.S. embargo. As for more elaborate pieces—paintings, sculptures, installations—they can be sold and shipped in more elaborate transactions. Sometimes, artists said, the visitors seemed more interested in what the work cost than in what it was about. And sometimes, they revealed, they made enough money from sales to live on for the next year. During that pre-Thanksgiving weekend, individuals and institutions collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, according to anecdotal evidence. The Cubans are learning fast how lucrative cultural tourism can be.

The phenomenal hotness of Cuban art has created a new genre of artist-under-communism—a kind of unofficial/official artist. Consider some of the most successful—and most prominently featured—Cuban art in the Bienal: the portable tent city (cathedral included) by the artist collaborative Los Carpinteros; the dysfunctional microphones installed by another collective, Galerí­a DUPP, around the perimeter of El Morro, a former fortress; Abel Barroso’s Café Internet Tercer Mundo(Third World Internet Café), which was indeed a café, although the computers (in case anyone there decided to check if there was a U.S. president yet) were made of cardboard. All of the works, in some way, played on the nation’s Rube Goldberg–meets–Kafka esthetic. Contemporary Cuban art often evokes themes of exile, emigration, and the absurdities of daily life. Yet despite its subtle critiques of Cuban society, the generation of 30-something artists was not forced into exile, like Bedia and his compatriots. Instead, they are permitted to travel outside of Cuba, sell their work abroad, and keep their earnings, thereby bringing dollars into the country and joining its privileged elite. Many Cuban artists now have personal computers and e-mail. Getting a phone line is another matter.

All the artists are aware that what you can show abroad is different from what you can show at home, where censorship—and, consequently, self-censorship—remain looming problems. How—and how far—you can push the envelope is always in question. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist who has a flourishing international career, knew this when she assembled an installation for a dark, dank space in La Cabaña, which used to be a military prison. On the floor she spread sugar cane, which soon began to emit a rotting smell. Overhead, she installed a television monitor, which played a loop of familiar moments from Castro’s life. If the tape seemed subversive, it’s because the man himself evokes so much emotion—as does the specter of watching him get older, and older, and older….

But that’s not, ostensibly, what caused the problem. On the Bienal’s opening weekend, Bruguera staged a performance in the installation. As visitors turned away from the monitor and their eyes adjusted to the obscurity, they saw four nude men making a series o
f repetitive gestures: rubbing themselves, wiping themselves, etc. Bruguera’s intention was to stage the piece once, but because many people were left outside, she decided to repeat it a few days later. That morning, however, she received a call telling her not to. The military authorities in charge of La Cabaña had objected to the male nudity.

Robin Cembalest is the executive editor of ARTnews.

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