The title of the current exhibition of new work by Los Carpinteros, the Cuban-based artist collective of Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez at Sean Kelly is “Rumba Muerta” (translation: “death song”), which seems to imply some kind of end. But to what kind of end the exhibition refers is left to be decided, as the work falls very much in line with the duo’s longstanding practice of examining Cuba’s failed socialist state amid the prevailing international trends of globalization and late capitalism. This isn’t to say that the three monumental, mixed-media sculptures in the exhibition are any less effective in their critical commentary, or any less ecstatic in their technical execution. Rather, perhaps it signals something of a rebirth for Los Carpinteros, and the re-charging of a refrain so well played it’s almost become background noise.
The focus of the current exhibition is three monumental sculptures that vary wildly in form and presentation. It opens with Luces del Estadio del Pueblo (2011), a work based on the lights of the disastrous stadium in Havana, which was built in the 1990s for the Pan American games that bankrupted the Cuban regime. Comprising two aluminum and VIROC frameworks that support facing LED light screens, the work initially appears to be a conversation between two anthropomorphic robots.
The title of the sculpture plays on the proclivity of socialist governments to use the word “people” in their political propaganda. The duo traveled to Beijing and stayed at the People’s Stadium Hotel, which abuts the stadium built for the 8th National Games of People’s Republic of China, Castillo explained to A.i.A in a phone interview from Barcelona, where he was preparing Los Carpinteros’ booth in collaboration with El País at the ARCO fair. “In socialist countries, they always speak of ‘people’ rather than individuals.” The work, which uses the symbol for a period of great starvation and poverty in Cuba, inverts that ethos with seemingly naïve, angelic optimism. Castillo says, “There is nothing fraudulent. When you go to the gallery, you are one being lighted.”
In the next room, Cuarteto is the melted remains of a four-piece band. It lies silently petrified in gray, red and black metal and chrome on the polished concrete gallery floor. “In Cuba, we are very connected to certain feelings we get in relation to temperature,” says Castillo. The musical instruments in Cuarteto are rendered silent by their distorted shapes, transforming them from functionality into objects that have no use value, and that can no longer be wielded for celebrations or joy. “You get the feeling that you will melt at any moment, and sometimes even the asphalt on the roads does melt.” It articulates a sublime combination of suffering and celebration.
The work is “another victim,” says the artist, and “it’s the government’s fault that the sound has melted.” He alludes to a tradition in Cuba where “if there is not enough food, everyone says it’s the government’s fault. If it rains too much, it’s because of the government. It’s not even rational anymore.”