Quality born from chaos

The taxi takes me to the first location. It’s a light blue car of American make. At least 50 years old. Round curves, lots of ornaments. Polished to a shine. Everything still functioning. We drive along the coastline. Remarkable houses from the pre-Castro epoch have lost the battle against time. Faded glory in stone. UNESCO fights against deterioration, but the organization is up against too much, and it is too late. In between one can see the grey and ugly revolutionary construction. Concrete towers which are at most functional.

The main location of the 11th ‘Havana’ is an old theatre. A beautiful building, in fairly good condition, lots of scrolls and other decorations, baroque paintings on the ceilings and walls. Just somewhat more than two days to the opening little can be seen. It seems as if most artists are lost. They await materials and help. And there are people to assist them, but no one to give them instructions. They are not used to work in freedom. They are having a good time on the stairs. With each other. There is plenty of laughing and flirting.

I spot LucFoster Diop. An artist from Cameroun that I know from my days at the ‘Rijks’ [the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands – SAX]. “I’ve been here since Monday. It’s cost me over five thousand Euro to participate in this event. Nothing happens. I would have built my installation in two hours should we had been in Amsterdam. Here everyone calls out ‘This is Cuba’ all day long. As if that says it all.”

I try to reassure him.

LucFosther Diop, ‘Open Studio’, 2012 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

In the Cuba Pavilion – type House of the Revolution, mostly open – I find the Surinamese artist Marcel Pinas next to the wooden frames of his installation. It should have been a steel frame. Customs confiscated all fastening materials. He remains calm. So far.

Marcel Pinas, ‘Sanfika’, 2009-2012 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

Many other locations tell the same story. This is my first Cuba experience, therefore I don’t know how previous years have been, but experience has taught me that the press days of many biennales give an incomplete impression. Appliances do not work yet, name plates cannot be found, works of art are reshuffled or replaced at the last minute, walls are being painted, complaining artists are looking for support.

When scheduled openings of parts of the exhibition are put forward or delayed and even the official opening is cancelled the day itself, I start to be suspicious. What kind of chaos is this? Where did I end up?

Eventually it all miraculously, ends up in a good Biennial. With weak spots, but these can be neglected, looking at all the beautiful, interesting and impressive works I have seen. Although in principle I agree with artistic director Jorge Fernandez Torres’ concept – “the audience must not remain in the places of cult, traditionally represented by the big museums, gallery circuits or international events. It is essential [for us, curators – RP] to also listen to the noise of the street” – I see so little of it back in the selection, that I quickly decide to let it go. I decide to make my own, limited choice.

Most artists come from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Yet one of the highlights is an American contribution. ‘Cinema Remixed and Reloaded’. These are existing video works of African-American and African women amongst which Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Berni Searle. The eight artists show in a direct, relatively unique manner, what it means to be a woman in the context of a burdened, black history

Sheena Rose is an artist from Barbados. In her animations – ‘Town to Town’ from 2011 – she tries to bend the image of her country towards reality. She does so by illustrating her daily live. In fast outline drawings intersected by pictures. Rhythm, details and now and then color add emotion to her story. By adding audio texts – often as an image – the personal becomes universal.

Sheena Rose, Town to Town, 2011 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

Travesty, a known phenomenon in Cuba, is the theme in work of the South-African Steven Cohen and the Mexican Rolf Abderhalden. The first makes pictures and videos in which he presents himself in a provocative manner in public places. Highly shoed, half naked, sometimes with a Jew star on his head he walks amongst astonished pedestrians. Abderhalden shows shots of a transvestite who is doing his make-up by spinning a disco ball in a dark room in ‘De carne y hueso’ 2008. He adds text in which the transvestite talks about the art of applying make-up in a similar way a painter talks about his painting technique. Without visuals one technique would seamlessly merge with the other.

Gabriel Valansi, ‘Babel’, 2011 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

Provocative in a different manner is the model of a still fictive city by het Argentine Gabriel Valansi. ‘Babel’ from 2011. As material he uses print plates from old computers. These are painted in a deep shade of black. When the viewer sets himself to looking at the whole through a night viewer, he sees a ghost town that looks like a battle field. Canadian Bill Vorn does not see the city as a bugbear, but machines. He lets ‘Hysterical Machines’ as he calls them, mow around with their unpredictable grab cranes, accompanied by shrill sounds and blinding light flashes. His works repels and attracts at the same time. The beauty of it is that this work is presented in a part of the exhibition where electronic media set the tone. Tongues in poisonous colors move towards you, temptingly, luring and dangerously (Ingrid Bachmann); words lose their first syllable and then get a new beginning which results in an absurd story (Mariano Sardon).

Bill Vorn, ‘Hysterical Machines’, 2006 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012
Ingrid Bachmann, Pinocchio’s Dilemma, 2007 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

Everywhere in the city, but especially along the coast, various sculptures are placed. The most outstanding is the cage from Cuban Roberto Fabelo painted in vivid red. ‘Se solteron los leones’ is placed in between two existing sculptures of lions. Alienation is the result.

Robert Fabelo, ‘Se soltaron los leones’, 2012 | PHOTO Vincent Vlasblom, 2012

When I return to the first two locations during the last day of my stay, Diop’s construction is ‘up and running’. A sort of primitive house made out of collected materials. Behind the fabric walls one can see the inhabitant on two screens. Making faces. Pinas’ thousand spoons – ‘Sanfika’, 2009-2012 – hang from the ceiling tinkling and shiny. Every spoon is carved with a letter sign from the traditional script from the artists’ native town. Language and hospitality go through a renaissance.

Although the organization leaves much to be desired, again a rich event has resulted from the chaos.  One that does justice to a long and influential tradition called ‘Bienal de la Habana’.

© Rob Perrée | Havana, May 10, 2012

‘Bienal de la Habana’ could be visited on various locations in the Cuban capital from May 11 until June 11, 2012.

This article was previously posted on the Kunstbeeld website. You can find the original blog post here.

Rob Perrée works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-)American art, African art and art that incorporates new media. His work has appeared in numerous catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of the Dutch art magazine Kunstbeeld.

Translated by: SAX/Vanda Koorndijk-Kernizan, 2012 

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