The intention of the 12th Havana Biennial, titled ‘Entre la idea y la experiencia’ (Between the Idea and the Experience), was to connect artistic processes to the city. Orchestrated by a group of Cuban-based curators (Nelson Herrera Ysla, José Manuel Noceda Fernández, Margarita Sánchez Prieto, Ibis Hernández Abascal, Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda and José Fernández Portal under the guidance of Jorge Fernández Torres, Director Havana Biennial and Margarita González Lorente, Artistic Director), the exhibition included 200 artists of 44 nationalities. Rather than focusing on specific key exhibition venues, cultural activity was drawn onto the streets through a month-long programme of itinerant performances, collaborative projects and music events that encouraged art to permeate the framework of everyday Cuban life.
Since its establishment in 1984, the Havana Biennial has focused on ‘non-western’ perspectives. In recent iterations, it has shifted towards questions of the global versus the local and this year opened its borders to artists from Europe and America. This alteration coincided with recent developments in US and Cuba relations, which saw the end of five decades of trade restrictions. Mirroring this symbolic reconnection was the collateral exhibition ‘Wild Noise’, which saw more than 100 works from the permanent collection of New York’s Bronx Museum shown at El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: the first international cultural exchange between the US and Cuba in more than 50 years. The biennial matched this response with an exhibition that sought to share transcultural experience between North American and Cuban artists through the exhibition ‘Entre, Dentro, Fuera’ (Between, Inside, Outside). Located at the Cuban Pavilion, a building that simultaneously exemplifies modernist architecture and nationalist representation, Cuban/Canadian artist Omar Estrada presented ¿Y por qué la luna? (Why the Moon?, 2015) an interactive missile-launching game that draws associations between space exploration and the development of ballistic technologies and inserted a level of political topicality within an otherwise benign show.
There was a continuing commitment to represent a large proportion of artists from the Global South. One highlight was the motorized installation of Argentinian duo Leonello Zambón/Eugenia González at Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, who created rhythmic interfaces between city debris and audio equipment to capture the resonant frequencies of objects. This was echoed in the makeshift cardboard sculptures created by Congolese artist Jean Katambayi Mukendi whose pseudo-scientific sculptures merge basic salvage technologies and recycled cardboard to form his own calculation systems that theoretically and practically reveal the imbalanced nature of the world and the forces within it. Spread throughout the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam, Tino Seghal’s performance featured six or seven people initiating conversations with audience members about free markets and whether they should be regulated – questions that may impact Cubans as they reposition themselves (or are repositioned) on the international stage.
The group exhibition ‘Montañas con una esquina rota’ (Mountains with a Broken Corner) took a delicate approach toward mapping the dynamics of the urban metropolis. Located in the semi ruins of the Claudio Argüelles bicycle factory, each work in the show was a minute temporal anomaly, sprouting through the cracks of the building, barely making an impact on the architectural structure. Chicago-based Helen Mirra’s work Half-smiler (2015) appeared to involve the artist cultivating a half smile whilst walking through the city; a gesture that may or may not have happened. Gabriel Kuri relocated a local can collector and recycler to the factory to compact cans, before sending them to Japan to be reprocessed. Kuri retrofitted his compressing apparatus with the Japanese symbol for air, so that each imprinted can could be read by a person on the other side of the globe (Aire, Air, 2015). Berlin-based Japanese artist Shimabuku strategically combined tins with a leak in the rafters of the factory to create a percussive soundwork titled Cuban Samba (2015), its melody filling the vast factory as if the space itself were willing the audience to listen to its beat.A parachute hung listlessly from the rafters, hinting at an unsuccessful invasion or, as the artist Roman Ondák puts it, a ‘failure to fall’ (Here or Elsewhere, 2006). Aside from the military interpretation, the notion of ‘parachuting in’ international artists turned this work into a provocative response to the idea of site specificity.
At the Biblioteca Pública Rubén Martínez Villena, Shilpa Gupta selected 100 books that were published anonymously or under pseudonyms. These were modestly displayed on the shelves in the busy library alongside brief descriptions of the personal and political realities that influenced each author’s need to hide their identity. Only five percent of Cubans have access to the internet, and this is mostly through stringently monitored government-run internet cafes; acknowledging the political limitations of literary expression, Gupta’s piece highlighted the internal constraints of an authoritarian state, without being too overt about its political sympathies. ‘Entre la idea y la experiencia’ felt somewhat disjointed at times. However, it was only possible to get a fragmentary sense of the programme, given that it was spread across many temporary venues and featured a month-long performance programme. The biennial felt inclusive and energetic. Wanting to distance itself from the expectations that normally inform large-scale international exhibitions, it attempted to capture artists in mid-flow, in the process of research, reflecting the manifold and fragmented perspectives of contemporary culture.