Rachel Weiss: Sixth Havana Biennial

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Ideally, a biennial is an opportunity to redraw the global map with the center newly located. As new areas log on to the global contemporary circuit, a biennial can magnetize a location, drawing in attention, ideas and works from faraway places and aligning them with the local reality. A biennial can also serve the parallel function of directing local attention (of both artists and public) outward, toward those places, trends and individuals with strongest relevance to the interests of the biennial epicenter.

It is also clear that biennials can and do serve as a vehicle for civic aspirations far beyond the art world; potent showcases for local, regional or national ambitions [ 1 ], they have been inaugurated in city after city where political and economic accelerations demand such splashy public cotillions. With its simultaneously centrifugal (de-centering) and centripetal (re-centering) potential, the idea of the biennial enjoyed a rebirth with the advent of postmodern notions of globalization [ 2 ]. In the past decade and a half, a slew of new biennials has cropped up; in the second half of 1997 alone, biennial exhibitions will open in Istanbul, Johannesburg, Kwangju, Lyon and Porto Alegre (the MERCOSUR Biennial) [ 3 ]. In the case of Havana, the Biennial has very successfully exploited this rich potent.

Inaugurated in 1984, the Havana Biennial used to be pretty much in a class by itself. It was a stalwart advocate of the need for a forum outside the mainstream, in which new and local discourses and aesthetics could grow. It told a story that was different from the stories told by international exhibitions elsewhere in the world. It occupied the role of antidote to the homogenizing forces of the marketplace, and potential model for alternate practice. As the only biennial operated by a Socialist country, it stood for anti-commercialism and solidarity among artists, a challenge to the cultural hegemony of the (Yankee) mainstream. The Biennial´s staunchly anti-imperialist mission presaged much of the subsequent postmodern discourse regarding the de-centering of the art world and of cultural legitimacy generally, and Havana therefore acquired a kind of cachet for its clarity of vision and for having been there first.

While Havana has lost some of its singularity, at the same time it has been acquiring the weight of experience - for good and bad. Initially a decisively idealistic operation, the Biennial eschewed slickness and polish for an earnest devotion to presenting a diverse array of work in democratic format, even forsaking the granting of prizes after 1986. The Biennial was to be a place for artists and publics to meet and to understand each other, across high and low, spanning Africa, Asia and Latin America [ 4 ]. While, at least for its organizers, this mission remains intact (in her catalog Introduction, Havana Biennial Director Lillian Llanes refers to the »indispensability« of the project), the entity of the Biennial has evolved into a more complex presence.

In its original, idealistic construction, the Biennial was meant as a gathering place which would join not only artists from throughout the Third World but which would also bring the art to the Cuban public. Small, populist exhibitions which characterized earlier Biennials (such as those of African wire toys and of folkloric representations of Simón Bolívar, both in 1989) have faded away as the exhibition has »professionalized« its discourse, replacing it with a more uniform, high culture approach. Celebratory, publicly staged events (such as an open air concert with Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque and Pablo Milanes, who played while artists painted impromptu murals on stage behind them and a huge crowd danced all night (1986) and a catchy fashion show in 1989 with models parading artist-made fabrics and designs through one of the city´s oldest neighborhood squares), which used to be organized at the heart of each biennial now seem to be a thing of the past, and local attendance seems also to have withered.

Meanwhile the Biennial has grown in its geographic coverage and its professional profile. No longer simply a Third World curiosity, Havana has become a magnet for influential curators, dealers and collectors, a site where significant business gets done. While the Biennial´s primary audience was originally composed of people who shared many key referents (Latin American-ness or Third World identification, problematized relation to the artistic mainstream, an at least somewhat idealized/idealistic position with regard to the role of art in society, and a vaunted sense of purpose for the artist, etc.), its audience today is much closer to a typical international art crowd, shopping for trends and new discoveries. Perhaps even more importantly, artists´ aspirations for their own participation seems decisively more focused nowadays on networking with curators and collectors, and less with each other. Still, even if Havana has ceased to be a place which questions the assumptions and aims of art, settling instead for a »regularized« and institutional presentation of works, the position that the Havana Biennial now occupies on the contemporary art world spectrum remains light years away from its more established siblings.

Given the volatility of the Cuban situation since 1989, it has become important in the case of its last three biennials to understand the event, at least in part, within the framework of the moment in which it was staged. The country´s economy virtually imploded in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and things were so bad on the street during the last biennial in 1994 [ 5 ], that many observers felt uneasy about their own presence there, privileged to eat and move across the city easily at a time when most Cubans could do neither. The possibilities for cultural and political expression in Cuba have also suffered an attendant unpredictability, and the Biennial, with its large international audience, has been an especially sensitive spot; the opening of one small exhibition in 1991, for instance, was marked memorably by artist Lázaro Saavedra´s attempt to punch out the presiding official after his entire body of work was censored from the galleries the night before.

Visitors to this Biennial found a Cuba increasingly focused on tourism [ 6 ]. The situation in Havana is both better and worse this year than it was in 1994 - better for those with access to the dollar economy [ 7 ], and grim for the many who don´t. While food seems more readily available, prostitution is epidemic, and scams of various sorts abound. And although the streets do seem more lively, much of that activity is directed toward, and populated by, tourists with dollars.

Such was the backdrop against which the Sixth Havana Biennial opened in May. The hotels were full of artists, collectors and the curious who had flown in to see it, there was a big crowd in the plaza for the opening speeches, and the galleries were filled on the first day or two. (While extensive radio and TV coverage meant that most habaneros were aware of the exhibition, the fact that two of the three main exhibition spaces were across the harbor from the city, and relatively inaccessible by public transportation, meant that once the crush of foreign visitors subsided, the galleries emptied out precipitously.) 177 artists from 44 countries were represented. Perhaps most significantly for Havana´s ascendance into the big time, there was a strong representation of the [ 8 ], including top people from the upcoming international exhibitions in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Istanbul, Kwangju, and Pittsburgh (site of the Carnegie International).

The exhibition was organized under the banner of »The Individual and Memory«. This apparently interior focus stood in some contrast to previous installments which generally stressed a social construction for art through titles such as »Tradition and Contemporaneity« (3rd Biennial) [ 9 ], »The Challenge to Colonialism« (4th), and »Art - Society - Reflection« (5th). Whether this reflected a philosophical retreat from the social space to the personal, is not clear, though the essays by both Llanes and Head Curator Nelson Herrera Ysla make clear that their idea of memory is not constituted of nostalgia but rather is the substance through which the individual can be, in such broken and failed times, reconnected to each other and to a sense of mutuality. Herrera even refers to a »transnational notion of culture and memory«, indicating that, in his view, memories belong more properly to societies than to individuals. Still, the theme was the source of some problems in the exhibition. While biennial themes are most productively vetted as a way of capturing the sense of a global moment, in this case it became an often prescriptive presence, and the exhibition had much more than its share of old family photos as a consequence. Less than a global snapshot, this Biennial began to feel at times like a huge theme show.

In organizational terms, the Biennial was severely hampered this year by the loss of the National Museum, which is currently closed for restoration. The exhibition was therefore more spread out than usual [ 10 ], occupying much of two colonial-era fortresses on the far side of the harbor and a cluster of small museums and buildings in the city´s Historic Center district. The fortress spaces are of an extremely imposing and beautiful nature-ancient, history-laden, materially rough, uneven and dimly lit. They are the ultimate rebuttal to the neutral, white, modernist cube, and they are very hard on art objects such as paintings, photographs and sculptures. The preponderance of installation-based work in this Biennial is therefore not surprising. While this format is conducive to contemporary production in some places (it has dominated Cuban work for at least a decade), it closed off the possibility of showing well for others. Many artists found their work simply overwhelmed by the muscularity of the exhibition space, reduced to invisibility or insignificance by it.

Additionally, the material poverty of the Biennial is an inevitable factor; there was none of the expensive lighting and polished, self-conscious museological techniques which have become an increasingly important aspect of much contemporary art. The scale of most works was limited to what the artist could afford to ship to Cuba [ 11 ], the form of it circumscribed by what she/he could install, with basically no resources and little assistance available. All this conspired to give the Biennial a definite overall »look«, analogous to the certain temperature of spectacle that characterized, for example, the recent Whitney Biennial; a certain sameness of tone prevailed in each case. For those accustomed to this local effect it was not a big issue. However, for the Biennial´s increasing audience of arts professionals whose time is more typically spent patrolling the precincts of Kassel and Venice, it was, »Third World shit«, in the harrumphing words of one visiting German curator. Artists whose work depends on being able to more closely control the conditions of display suffered. Rosangela Renno´s photographs were de-laminating from the humidity, and some like Agnes Arellano got so carried away by the intrinsic drama of the space that their work became its victim. For others, though, like Suzann Victor and Lia Menna Barreto, the space was a real bonanza, ideally suited to the dramatic narratives they were working with and incorporated into the work in a skillful and extremely successful way.

Like any gigantic display, the Biennial is difficult to judge overall. The general level of work was probably a bit weaker than in 1994, especially in the Cuban work which has traditionally dominated the show. In this category, the first work in this year´s display was by Kcho, arguably the star of the moment in Havana (having won various international prizes and selling out his first show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York). A variation on the artist´s familiar theme of boat pieces referring to the exodus from Cuba in recent years, the work repeated the symbolic, material and spatial language of much of his previous work; perhaps the newest element was the line of people eager to have their pictures snapped with the artist in front of the work´s bulk. If the politics of Kcho´s work felt watered down, the installation by Lázaro Saavedra did not; a field of blank tombstones arrayed in front of a stone wall deeply scarred by countless bullets, the work recalled not only the long struggle for Cuban independence but also the years just after 1959 when the La Cabaña fortress (site of the Biennial) was run by the newly victorious Che Guevara, whose »revolutionary tribunals« concluded with executions at exactly Saavedra´s site. Also among the Cuban participants were René Francisco Rodríguez and Carlos Estévez, both of whom presented dense, room-sized installations; in the case of the former the work, Taller de Reparaciones was an acerbic reflection on the material realities of life in Cuba with even fewer spare parts than ever, while Estévez´s Donde sueña el Demiurgo, also concerned with the texture of everyday life in Havana, amassed dozens of puppets, drawings and quotations of ´80s Cuban art.

There were other exceptional works. Reamillo and Juliet´s (Phillippines, 1964 and Great Britain, 1966) spectacular installation Jesus and the Jeeps: God Bless Our Voyage filled one room of the Casa de Asia to great effect with an old jeep, super-elaborately encrusted with plastic and electronic baubles while a video game played incessantly in the cab. The artists´ statement in the catalog is a strongly-worded denunciation of the globalization of western capitalism and the cancerous effects of consumer culture which »achieve a superlative malignity in the periphery of the Third World«. Luckily the rhetorics of the work were countered by a more flexible aesthetic which incorporated strong elements of irony into its vocabulary; in contrast to the busy-ness and overkill of the jeep´s treatment, a column of pistol-shaped paper cut-outs floated on a string, casting incongruously beautiful bird shadows.

In the next room, Erasure and Remembrance by Alfredo Juan Aquilizan (Phillippines, 1962) was a somber counterpart to the Jeep´s exuberance. In an almost totally darkened space, thousands of used toothbrushes had been carefully laid out in a soft, dilapidated carpet. While impressive in visual terms, the work´s real interest lay in the process the artist had undertaken; over a period of months, Aquilizan had personally collected the toothbrushes from a small town in the Phillippines. For him, the main point of the piece was the process of that collecting, which required him to get to know the people over a period of time. His original idea was to also collect a parallel group of toothbrushes in Havana, and mix them all together - he is tired of the parochialisms of »identity« in culture. This proved impossible however, either because in Cuba there was not a ready supply of discarded toothbrushes or because he did not have the time to find a way to accumulate them.

Laura Anderson´s (Mexico, 1958) Epitome or easy way to learn the nahuatl language, on first glance was yet another artistic monument to corn, »essential ingredient of the Americas«; on closer inspection however, the grains of corn turned out to be human teeth - thousands of them - which instantly transformed the work into a requiem for the continent´s violent process over the centuries since the Conquest, and its uncounted victims. The cobs were laid out on bamboo stands which recalled the Aztec displays of war trophies in the public plazas.

In fact for many of the Latin American artists, the Biennial´s theme of memory prompted references to lost lives, mutilated bodies, and other human remnants of violence. In exquisitely embroidered panels, Pablo van Wong´s (Colombia, 1957) series Obreption with ornament reproduced journalistic images of corpses, funerals and so on; the lushness of his colors and surfaces made the sinister images beautiful, deepening the sense of violence. Above the frames there were shallow boxes holding rows of thread spools, arranged in the form of military decorations.

Mortality and disease have been ubiquitous themes in contemporary art for more than a decade, both in the postindustrial centers and in the »small circuits« of the periphery which are no less affected by the epidemics and crises of identity which plague our era. In Suzann Victor´s (Singapore) dramatic work, Untitled, an old metal bed frame hovered high above the floor, draped with a huge blanket knitted together from thousands of small glass squares dotted with drops of blood. Roberto Huarcaya´s (Peru, 1959) the Return of the forgotten cloaked the armature of a spiral staircase in huge, startling photographs of faces, from infant to old man, alive and dead.

Even if the ideas of »Third World« and »periphery« that were operative at the Biennial´s inception are now greatly changed, there was still no mistaking much of the work presented in Havana for the wealthy productions of the market centers. As in the past, there was a material reliance on the used, discarded and the recycled, with many of the resulting works bearing a patina which announced their approximate origin. Among these was the extensive installation by Romuald Hazoumé (Benin, 1962), made entirely of plastic objects washed ashore. In his hands, old detergent jugs became postmodern African masks, and a long stone wall covered with rows of old plastic beach thongs became a fascinatingly generic portrait gallery. Not far away another materially austere installation, by the very young South African Moshekwa Langa (b.1975), consisted of puddles of milk and scattered rocks on the old stone floor (by the second day, the room had filled with a sweet, rotting smell) illuminated at odd intervals by a pair of strobe lights. The milk, pooling in the floor´s uneven surface, became a de facto contour map of its topography, similar to Langwa´s other work which consisted of a tangle of nearly invisible threads laid on the floor and tracing a vague map occasionally demarcated with a place name spelled out in chalk. Langwa´s own explanation of the work, which referred to resolving dilemmas of identity, did not shed much light on the work´s mysterious allusions (the title of the first piece was The Permanent, Unfixed Image), but still the work had a potent, unforced aura. Eduardo Tokeshi´s (Perú) The Rescue Room, while also made of reclaimed materials (including beach thongs), achieved a magnificence through its meticulous fabrication and elegance.

Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba, 1967) presented two »gardens«, one Japanese and the other Cuban; the former consisted of a traditional expanse of raked gravel interspersed with chunks of architectural ornaments that had fallen off of Havana´s decaying buildings, continuing the artist´s ironic treatment of the romanticizing of his deteriorating country. The »Cuban« garden took the form of a happening in an empty, garbage-strewn lot to which Garaicoa had invited an audience. While sipping drinks and chatting, we all noticed that small details of the landscape - the rusting shell of a car, for instance, had been commemorated in photographs inserted into the surrounding concrete walls as »virtual« replicas of the destroyed place itself. It was an acerbic commentary, especially in view of the now extensive renovations being undertaken in Havana´s historic district by international investors eager to open boutiques and cafes to capture the expanding tourist throngs (Garaicoa´s garden was not too far from the new Benetton shop).

Not all the work in Havana employed such materially poor aesthetics, however, and photography in particular was a recurrent medium in the exhibition. Photo-Respirations, a lustrous series of works by Tokihiro Sato (Japan, 1957), featured portraits of isolated spots in Havana, blown up into huge translucent panels. Using time exposures, Sato caught glints of light scattered across the frame with a small flashlight and mirror; while the images are all empty of people, the little flashes of light seemed to become a ghost population. Using the same technique which, in Tokyo, connotes the cyclonic pace of development in that city, Sato´s images of Havana seemed to trace an opposite course of change. Marta María Pérez (Cuba) opened a stunning exhibition (in conjunction with the Biennial) of new work which continued her exploration of folk beliefs, using the format of photographic self-portraits. Other strong photographic work (covering a very broad spectrum of uses of the medium) by Alvaro Zinno (Uruguay, 1958), Tatiana Parcero (México, 1967), Victor Robledo (Colombia, 1949), Juan Enrique Bedoya (Perú, 1966) and Martín Weber (Argentina) was also presented.

As in the past there were a couple of international art stars among the Biennial´s mostly up-and-coming assemblage. This year saw the slightly mysterious inclusion of Christian Boltanski and Braco Dimitrijevic, both of whom sent familiar works (Boltanski´s revolving shadow puppet looked incredible on the fortress´ 300 year-old stone walls). Ampaso by Miguel Angel Rios (Argentina, 1943), continued that artist´s obsession with maps as deeply coded ideological symbols in a lovely and ascetic installation. William Kentridge (South Africa, 1955) contributed UBU and the Truth Commission, an installation which deployed his signature graphic and animation styles in a skeptical view of his country´s current political process. Irony was in abundance, in works such as Priscilla Monge´s (Costa Rica, 1968) Shut up and Sing, a row of boxing masks equipped with tiny music boxes which played sweet childhood tunes, and Armando Mariño´s (Cuba, 1968) caustic paintings sending up the official history of (white, western) art in canvases such as Carrera con obstáculos (a black slave boy making a dash for it down a museum´s corridors) and Marcel Duchamp in the reflex of Postmodernity (the same lad with his back to us at a urinal, with Duchamp facing front).

Artists always move much faster than institutions, and Havana is no exception. While the Biennial is unquestionably a key venue for emerging Cuban artists, it also bears the weight of institutional lethargy (in both ideological and aesthetic terms) which has spawned a series of fringe events staged by the artists themselves. While this biennial was much less plagued by scandals than its immediate predecessors, it was still the site of some political controversy between artists and the Cuban state, and it was in the fringe venues that this tension played itself out. The climate for expression in Cuba has been a complicated story for a very long time, and the situation during the past decade has become much more closed. Censorship of artworks and exhibitions became unsurprising, even leading to the open removal of some works from the very public arena of the last Biennial. In the years since then, probably as the result of the dual motivations of political stricture and an increasingly entrepreneurial mentality among Cubans in most sectors, private exhibition spaces and ventures have sprouted.

For this biennial, plans were apparently afoot among quite a few young artists to rent private houses throughout the city in which to stage independent exhibitions of their own work. Apparently, these unsanctioned initiatives eventually attracted enough unfavorable attention on the part of the police (who reportedly harassed one group of artists repeatedly as they attempted to hang their show, to the point that their landlord became convinced of the need to un-rent the space) to prompt the Ministry of Culture to proclaim, in the days just before the grand opening of the Biennial, that artists could exhibit only in their own homes, and not in any other private location acquired for that purpose [ 12 ]. This in turn occasioned several responses including that of the Ludwig Foundation (which has become a kind of unofficial middleground between Cuban artists and the state bureaucracy), which placed some exhibitions under its own wing - transformed from unofficial initiatives to quasi-official events, they were allowed to open without further incident even though the critical content of the work was unchanged [ 13 ]. In this category was the excellent exhibition Virtual Reality which included work by some of the most prominent young artists in the country such as Los carpinteros, Abel Barroso, Thomas Glassford, Sandra Ramos, Osvaldo Yero, and Ibrahim Miranda.

Other artists staged tiny exhibitions in their own homes, including Jorge Luis Pablos, Luis Gomez and Andres Montalvan, who assembled a succinct exhibition in Montalvan´s living room. The work, as is typical of much Cuban art of the past few years, blended criticism of political rhetoric with each individual´s poetic and visual vocabulary; Virtual Reality, by Pablos, was a diminutive photograph of himself with a line drawing of the iconic Martí portrait superimposed on the picture glass covering the image, such that the two faces lined up when looked at head-on, but were misaligned when seen from even a slight angle. And »Espacio Aglutinador«, perhaps the first private gallery to assert itself into the picture several years ago, continued its ongoing commitment to present the most risky new Cuban work.

As usual, the exhibition organized by the Instituto Superior de Arte was lively and a key element of the Biennial panorama. This school, at which the majority of the country´s artists study, has been the primary source for both the talent and the controversy which have characterized Cuban art for the past decade. The student work this year displayed both a strong familiarity with the most recent currents in contemporary practice and also a continuation of the kind of ironic and critical work which has come to typify much Cuban art since the mid ‘80s. Among the more impressive works were Saidel Brito´s satirical portraits of the artist as painting cow and Duvier del Dago Fernández´ monumental Allegory.

In softening its original rhetorical position, the Havana Biennial may be losing the edge which has given it such long term importance in favor of an easier fit with the current international discourse. It could be argued that now, with the proliferation of biennials, Havana is in danger of becoming simply another chapter of this emerging global Rashomon syndrome, narrating much the same story (of the end of the century/millennium, of global migration, of shifts in traditional identities, of re-valenced relationships between self and gender and other and history) as the others. Its organizers have proved that a convincing global position can be developed from outside the usual circles of power; their task now, one fears, is to defend their achievement from its own success well enough to preserve its voice and distinctness - a problem of middle age. On one level, the Havana Biennial remains a strong and valuable statement just by virtue of its perseverance and the extraordinary fact of its reappearance time and again, despite Herculean obstacles. Still, the Biennial´s own decelerating momentum combined with significant changes in the surrounding environment raise compelling questions about the future. Of course, the »what will happen next?« game is an old favorite among Cuba-watchers, but the question seems to have particular import as the Biennial struggles to redefine itself, its audience, and its position in a growing family.


1. The nationalist dimension of the biennial project stands in interesting contrast to what many cultural critics now term a post-national reality, in which a metropolitan identification supercedes the national.
2. For reasons of brevity, I am not taking into consideration the various other »margin« biennials, such as that in Ljubljana, which have ocurred over the years, both because their ambitions seem to have been more circumscribed formally and because they never really weighed in to the large international market and critical circuits in a significant way.
3. As Havana Biennial Director Llilian Llanes points out in her introduction, Biennials are proliferating not only in places which have traditionally been marginalized (i.e. Istanbul, Johannesburg Dakar), but also in the secondary cities of »mainstream« nations - - Galicia, Lyon, Rotterdam. In either case, the idea has been to use the old formula of the biennial to recapture attention for that place.
4. In 1991, the bienal even began inviting artists from the US and Western Europe, identifying them as connected to the bienal´s project by virute of race or ethnicity rather than natinality (most of them were black or Latino).
5. The economic and logistical difficulties endemic to this period have apparently made it impossible to keep the biennial scheduled at two year intervals.
6. The pre-1989 economy, which was based on subsidized sugar sales, has dropped by more than 30%. Additionally this year´s harvest is likely to be a bad one, damaged both by Hurricane Lily and by the continuing US sanctions which impede the purchase of fertilizer, herbicides and other supplies.
7. One recent fiscal innovation has been the permissibility of Cubans owning and doing business in dollars. A new monetary issue of pesos convertibles is tracked directly to the dollar´s value.
8. This term was recently coined by Arthur Danto.
9. La primera y segunda bienales no tenían tema.
10. Even in past bienals, however, more than one venue has been used. The difference this time was that there was not one central venue around which the other displays were constellated.
11. Havana has no budget to pay for shipping, so it was up to the individual artists, or to their home countries, to get the works to Cuba.
12. It was also rumored that a happening orchestrated by a Argentinian artist (and assisted by many others) during the opening ceremony, inwhich small slips of paper printed with quotations by authors including and exiled Cuban were scattered into the air overhead, may have given the authorities the idea that the bienal was in need of reining in.
13. It appears that such enterprising spirit is discouraged, in the arts and elsewhere in the economy, to prevent a private sector from growing into real competition with the State. Private restaurants (»paladares«), for example, which have become ubiquitous, are subject to constantly shifting tax rates and regulations which effectively prevent them from settling into stable entreprises.

Rachel Weiss: Chair, Arts Administration Program, School of the Art Institute, Chicago.