In 1953, the United States opened a new embassy in Havana. Designed in a modernist style that departed drastically from earlier diplomatic buildings, the structure, which still stands today, has a glass facade and inviting lobby that were intended to express transparency and cooperativeness. The embassy would be fully operational for just eight years. In 1961, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, the US sent its diplomats packing. The curious history of the building, which regained some diplomatic functions under Jimmy Carter’s administration and finally reopened as an embassy in August 2015, was the focus of Terence Gower’s recent solo exhibition “Havana Case Study,” his first show at Simon Preston Gallery.
Much of the presentation revolved around a single feature of the building: the ambassador’s large and conspicuous balcony, which inspectors carrying out an internal 1953 Department of State review disapprovingly likened to the one famously used by Mussolini. Ironically, the balcony ended up being used not as a platform from which the ambassador addressed crowds below but as a place from which personnel bore witness to the frequent anti-imperialist marches held at the site of the embassy. For the exhibition, Gower created a one-to-one-scale outline of the balcony in rebar—a material that has become emblematic of the Cuban people’s resourcefulness, owing to its use in everything from car parts to furniture. Situated in the center of the gallery, Gower’s sculpture (Balcony, 2016) provided a sense of scale to the multiple images of the embassy featured in a series of photo-collages that hung on the facing wall. A smaller sculpture, based on a segment of the balcony and adorned with wicker panels, recalled both modernist furniture and the woven palm leaves used in various domestic objects throughout Cuba.
Gower’s photo-collages (“Political Services 1–6,” 2016) each feature multiple archival images spotlighting the Havana embassy’s role as a staging ground for ideological battles waged between the US and Cuba. In one of the works, an image taken shortly after the embassy’s closure shows diplomats’ suitcases stacked high in the back of a large truck. In the same work we see a newspaper image depicting a national solidarity march that took place outside the embassy following the Mariel boatlift, the mass emigration to the US that occurred in 1980. The background of the print is taken up by a large shot of the embassy turned upside down, presumably in a nod to its upended aspirations.
During the George W. Bush years a giant LED system was installed behind a row of the building’s upper-floor windows in order to display pro-democracy slogans to passersby. The Cuban government responded by erecting a monument to Cuban victims of CIA operations. Comprising a “mountain” of 138 flags, the monument obstructs views of the building and, according to an inscription at its base, is meant as a response to the arrogance of the US government. In one of the photo-collages on view, the LED system can be seen displaying the phrase DEMOCRACIA EN CUBA, while in another the flags of the memorial appear to tower over the embassy.
The second in an ongoing three-part investigation into US embassy architecture (the other parts center on buildings in Baghdad and Tehran), “Havana Case Study” opened just two days prior to the US presidential election. Had things gone as most media outlets predicted, the show would likely have figured as a compelling look back at a more benighted era in US-Cuba relations. Now, with a president who has threatened to roll back recent diplomatic advances, and who released a vituperative statement about Fidel Castro in the wake of the former leader’s death, the exhibition seems instead to have foreshadowed a period of uncertainty for US relations with Cuba and with the world at large.