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Forging a Sea of Iron: Yoan Capote Explores the Cuban Obsession with America

Tear Duct, 2001, a drinking fountain replaced with a stainless-steel mold of the face of one of Capote’s classmates, who had to support herself through prostitution. ©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Tear Duct, 2001, a drinking fountain replaced with a stainless-steel mold of the face of one of Capote’s classmates, who had to support herself through prostitution.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

The sea, for me and for a lot of Cubans, was like a wall, more an image of isolation than a beautiful place,” said Yoan Capote. The 38-year-old Havana-based conceptual artist was in New York preparing for his current show at Jack Shainman Gallery. “I grew up with a frustration about the limitation and an obsession about crossing the sea,” he explained. When he had his first chance to travel to the United States in 2002, for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center facilitated by the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba in New York, he fully intended to immigrate.

“It was my opportunity to stay in the United States,” said Capote, who during his residency made In tran/sit, a cluster of eight flea-market suitcases cast in solid concrete. Positioned to form a bench, they symbolize the weighty baggage associated with the immigrant experience. During his extended visit to Vermont and New York, he met two people who would influence what became his change of heart. One was Carole Rosenberg, president of the Ludwig Foundation’s American Friends, who guided him around the New York art world. She ultimately advised him to return to his homeland, pointing out that he could use the difficult situation there as a springboard for developing work from his very particular point of view. The other pivotal figure was Louise Bourgeois, who had inspired Capote through her use of classical materials like marble and bronze to express interior states of mind. Capote attended two of her Sunday soirees, through the help of Rosenberg, where the artists exchanged drawings.

“Louise Bourgeois gave me a lot of encouragement to continue in the psychological direction,” said Capote. “I went back to Cuba with another view of my role in the society. I tried to transform and take advantage of what had been very bad for me.”

Capote approaches his art making as a kind of therapeutic process, a way of exploring conflicts plaguing human beings, both individually and collectively. He likes to start with words describing emotional states, which he collects in notebooks and then figures out the best way to represent them, often through surreal juxtapositions. For Stress (monumental), 2010, his own experience as a tooth grinder led him to collect thousands of teeth from Cuban society by posting advertisements at clinics and medical schools. He cast all the real teeth, including his own wisdom teeth, in bronze and spread them out in layers, which he set between four 500-pound blocks of concrete stacked in a modernist-style monolith.

Stress (monumental), 2010, collects thousands of bronze-cast teeth, originally sourced from Cuban clinics and medical schools, between four blocks of concrete. ©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Stress (monumental), 2010, collects thousands of bronze-cast teeth, originally sourced from Cuban clinics and medical schools, between four blocks of concrete.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

“It’s this material metaphor for the difficulty of speaking out against some improbable pressure,” said Jen Mergel, senior curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “whether frustration with the limits of expression in a governmental structure or just being unable to speak about a frustration with any personal situation. Using very concise metaphors, Yoan gets to bigger issues of the individual in connection to the social or the civic in really direct ways.”

Mergel, who is contributing an essay to Capote’s first monograph to be published later this year by Skira, included his two-channel video Afterwords/Epílogo (2011) in her exhibition “Permission to be Global,” drawn from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection and on view in Boston last year. On side-by-side screens, a younger and an elderly man hold plungers to their ears, as though trying to extract something. Political lies? Family secrets? “Over the past 15 years, Yoan’s been addressing conditions of self-expression within the context of the Cuban political situation,” Mergel said. “But he’s a humanist at heart and wants anything he is creating to be legible to people more broadly.”

Capote has made many pieces over the course of his career that specifically involve ears, mouths, or hands—primary vehicles for communication. “Collective Unconscious,” his second solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery, on view May 28 through July 10, features work from Capote’s ongoing “Abstinencia” series, in which he uses bronze casts of hands forming letters in sign language that spell out words such as “liberty,” “religion,” and “economy.” As with collecting the teeth of the masses, he likes to pull in passersby from the busy central avenue where his studio is located and make plaster molds of their hands. “Together I make the hands spell ‘democracy’ but the people don’t have any real idea about what democracy is,” said Capote, who views his manipulation of their hands as mirroring how the Cuban people are always being manipulated, consciously or unconsciously. “And if they have an idea, they don’t have any real voice in those issues.”

For another piece in the show, titled Laboratorio (2012), Capote collected photographs of crowds dating from the beginnings of the Cuban Revolution to now. He printed these images of smiling people on antique beakers and Petri dishes using silver emulsion, and displays them in dense configurations on laboratory tables. “A lot of mistakes happen when I’m printing because of the chemistry or the light,” said Capote, describing how his process distorts the images. “They’re focused in some areas and in others look like ghosts. It becomes a metaphor for a failed social experiment.” He also salvaged hundreds of rusted hinges from dilapidated doors on buildings in Cuba (and installed brand new hinges in their places). The old hinges will be welded into an oversize bust of Fidel Castro, titled Inmanencia, transforming the joints from something flexible to something static and monolithic.

Capote, who grew up amid tobacco plantations in Pinar del Río, works comfortably across a spectrum of mediums. His father, a mechanic who restores old cars, took advantage of the strong educational opportunities offered by the Communist government by enrolling Capote at age eleven, along with his older brother Ivan (also an artist working in Havana), at the Provincial School of Art in Pinar del Río. “The government supported schools for sports and for arts because it needed to export the image of a nice cultural country,” said Capote, who received a classical education in painting, sculpture, and drawing, and proved adept at reproducing any style of art.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Capote and DUPP’s collaboration, 1, 2, 3, Testing (2000) placed 100 microphones, set in alternating directions, around the perimeter of the El Morro fortress.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

In 1991, he came to Havana to continue at the National School of Art, as Cuba was plunging into an economic crisis declared a “special period” by the government. “At the same time I was changing schools, my country was changing,” recalled Capote, who, while attending university at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana from 1996 to 2001, often went to bed without eating because of severe food shortages. During this time, he sketched the idea for a sculpture titled Self-Portrait (each one of us), which he realized in 2008. It consists of skeletal leg bones, cast in bronze, that support more than 400 pounds of concrete in three stacked cubes. “It’s talking about Cuban resistance but also existentialism,” explained Capote, who discovered through artists like Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Maurizio Cattelan, and Tom Friedman that art had the capacity to communicate what he was seeing and feeling. “I always try to find the point between the local and the universal.”

Capote received public attention for his work while still a student in 2000 at the 7th Havana Biennial. He was invited to do an installation with the artists’ collective DUPP, which executed his idea. For 1, 2, 3 Testing, they cast in iron 100 oversize microphones—the kind used by politicians to address the people—which Capote installed in alternating directions around the perimeter of El Morro fortress at the edge of Havana along the sea. “The piece is about listening to what’s coming from inside and breaking the direction of the dialogue,” said Capote. It won the UNESCO prize.

Capote always tries to draw a connection between the spectator and his art, whether by casting his sculptures from the body parts of real people or by inviting viewers to physically interact with works that take the form of furniture or functional objects. In Tear Duct (2001), he replaced the top of a drinking fountain with a stainless-steel mold of the face of a classmate who had to support herself through prostitution, a prevalent social problem in Cuba at the time. When viewers put a coin in the slot of the fountain, red wine spouts from her mouth. People drinking from the fountain are put physically and psychologically into the position of her customers, watching the wine and their saliva drain through her eyes. Viewers might experience similar discomfort or uncertainty about whether to climb Will of Power (2006–13), a ladder balanced on rockers, or to sit on Dogma (2011), a school chair with one leg bent and attached to another with police handcuffs. Both precarious-looking pieces are bronze and, in fact, stable.

Open Mind (barricades), 2014. Capote wanted to create a place of encounter and meditation akin to         Stonehenge. ©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Open Mind (barricades), 2014. Capote wanted to create a place of encounter and meditation akin to Stonehenge.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Last year, Capote was able to realize a large-scale version of Open Mind, an ambitious public-art project first conceived in 2006. He originally built a model of a maze designed to look like a brain. He envisioned it as a public park to be excavated from the earth that would bring together people of all races and backgrounds. He exhibited a larger maquette of the proposed work in 2009 at the 10th Havana Biennial, but the expense of executing it proved daunting. Invited last fall to contribute to Toronto’s contemporary-art festival Nuit Blanche, Capote was inspired by the widespread presence in the city of barricades used for crowd control. In Canoe Landing Park, which is surrounded by office buildings, he “drew” the labyrinth of Open Mind using barricades raised up on poles; they cast a matrix of shadows. “To lift them and welcome people in is very symbolic,” Capote said. He wanted to create a place of encounter and meditation, akin to Stonehenge. Visitors had the sensation that they were entering an architectural space, but “they didn’t know they were walking inside the human brain, like neurons interacting,” he added. Only those with a bird’s-eye view in adjacent buildings could tell what the barricades defined.

Only through a bird's-eye view from the adjacent buildings to Canoe Landing Park could Open Mind (barricades), be recognized as representing the structure of a human brain. ©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Only through a bird’s-eye view from the adjacent buildings to Canoe Landing Park could Open Mind (barricades), be recognized as representing the structure of a human brain.

©YOAN CAPOTE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Capote’s freedom to travel to the United States has fluctuated depending on the administration in power. While President Clinton expanded access to travel licenses in 1999, President Bush tightened it in 2003 and Capote was unable to get a visa after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006. Under the Obama administration he retrieved the fellowship money several years later, which helped him produce his first show at Shainman in 2010.

In that exhibition, titled “Mental States,” Capote exhibited monumental canvases of the sea and horizon. Up close, the choppy gray surface of the water revealed itself to be composed of thousands of fishhooks in waves and clusters hammered into canvases backed by wood panels. “The sea is our iron curtain, this aggressive fence,” said Capote, many of whose friends have died trying to reach America by boat. “Even now, there’s still an obsession within the society about leaving.” The process of affixing each hook to the painted backdrop was so laborious that he started paying volunteers by the square meter, with up to a dozen people hammering simultaneously. “It’s a social piece, talking about a social situation,” he said.

For another series in the exhibition, titled “American Appeal,” Capote used the same materials and method to re-create images appropriated from postcards of New York at grand scale. “The stereotype of America is New York, a place for opportunities,” said Capote, who, after seeing paintings of New York by Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, and Georgia O’Keeffe during his first visit, wanted to make his own images of the city as an outsider. “It is a symbol of seduction.”
New York remains an attraction for him. Capote now visits more frequently given the lifting of travel restrictions, and he works with a foundry in Queens, where he produced sculptures for a 2013 exhibition at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton. But he no longer feels the desire to emigrate. “My roots go too deep already in Cuba,” said Capote, who is married with young children. “My country is changing and I’m more optimistic about the future.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “Forging a Sea of Iron.”

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