BY Andrianna Campbell in Features | 21 OCT 15
Featured in
Issue 175

Alphabet of the Revolution

Art historian Andrianna Campbell and photographer Matthew Connors visited Cuba to explore the shifting meaning of political monuments in a new era of change

BY Andrianna Campbell in Features | 21 OCT 15

In the early 1960s, the local government in Minas del Frío, Cuba, erected a stone memorial to Conrado Benítez García, one of the first teachers involved in the country’s literacy campaign, who died a martyr to the cause in 1961. Benítez García’s painted black head emerges from a pink sandstone plinth, which sits on a terrace overlooking the Sierra Maestra. His torture and death purportedly came at the hands of a CIA campaign to undermine the Cuban revolution and the alfabetizador, or literacy, programme at its heart. Could literacy really mean so much? Could words themselves become monuments that complemented the physical material of stone? In ‘Exegi Monumentum’ – the epigraph to his 1836 poem that references Horace’s eponymous work – Alexander Pushkin declares: ‘I’ve raised a monument not made by human hands, the people’s path to which cannot be overgrown.’ The road to Minas del Frío, the ‘bastion’ of the Cuban revolution, is remote, yet most Cubans know of the alfabetizador programme and its town of origin, even if they have never seen it. It may have been the military and ideological birthplace of the Cuban revolution, but you won’t find any pictures of Minas del Frío on the internet.

With online access not yet widespread, Cuba stands on the cusp of the digital age. Locating the country’s monuments before they are photographed and used to promote tourism might help us understand them as art in advance of their becoming social currency for a global network. As Adolf Loos once noted: ‘Monuments and tombs are the only part of architecture that belongs to art.’1 Is it possible to capture the part of art that is beholden to the monument? The ruins of Minas del Frío’s vast educational complexes appear in the desolate landscape paintings of Alejandro Campins, who explained to me: ‘If you want to see the monuments of Cuba, you have to go to the schools in Minas.’ The schools, that is, where all the teachers were taught. ‘In Cuban Spanish, the verb alfabetizar has a particular significance: it means when they taught the teachers how to teach.’2 The monuments of Cuba are legible to those schooled in the ‘alphabet’, as it were, of the revolution.

Monument to Conrado Benítez García, the first martyred teacher, Minas del Frío. All photographs courtesy Matthew Connors

A certain magnetism exists between monumentality, anti-monumentality and art. As the critic Mark Wigley has noted, Pushkin grasped the dual nature of the monument, which depends not only on the concrete, but also on the intangible and fleeting.3 Both are necessary for the monument to speak politically, in Bruno Latour’s terminology – not solely in terms of the content, which demonstrates the ideological framework of the state, but also in relation to the manner of speech, which is indirect and expresses the effulgent needs of multiple publics.4 The writer Robert Musil once noted: ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,’ and it has become commonplace to think of political monuments in terms of indifference, invisibility and loss of cultural memory. Even when we fail to recognize the meaning of monuments, they locate us in space. At times, they may lose their legibility, but they remain visible, retaining the potential to be ‘rewritten’ with the desires of shifting collectives. The artist Carlos Garaicoa explained how these issues became pressing during the Special Period of the 1990s, after the end of Soviet support for Cuba, when artists of his generation ‘started to look around at the half-finished buildings made by workers for workers, the bridges to nowhere, the highway systems without cars and all the unrealized utopian projects. These failures were our monuments to the revolution. So we came to understand the revolution in the language of architecture and failure.’5

Even if the architectonic language of the revolution was not about success, it still functioned as an alphabet for artists’ work, because Cuba is one of the last places where the monument truly can dominate the pictorial landscape. As artist Wilfredo Prieto has explained: ‘Maybe the most relevant fact is that the megalomania from horrible tourist monuments, devoted to marketing or commercial purposes, is not prevalent.’ As a result, they are all the more visible in the urban landscape.6 Consequently, artists in the country often understand art in relation to issues of monumentality and anti-monumentality. Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6, staged for the 2009 Havana Biennial, appropriated the political aspirations of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920) in order to invert the relationship between audience and speaker. In the performance, audience members accessed an open microphone to criticize or praise Fidel Castro’s administration. The Monument to the Third International – which was intended to celebrate not only the Soviet Union, but the Comintern, an international Communist party – has formal and poetic resonance in Cuban art.7

Utility structure, Minas del Frío

Concerned with the way an image encourages ‘apathy and anaesthetization’ in the mass media, Bruguera’s 100-hour performance in May this year, in which she read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), again utilized language as an anti-monumental gesture. On conclusion, Bruguera was led away by police, her computer and books were seized, and she was interrogated on numerous occasions – both at home and in her parents’ apartment. It was there that I went to interview the artist, taking the elevator up to the ninth floor. An older woman, who answered the door, questioned me from behind the barred grate. Satisfied that I was who I claimed to be, she led me to a glass atrium overlooking the seaside boulevard of the Malecón. The setting seemed fitting, since this was a port of us intervention – the sinking of the Maine battleship in 1898 – and a place where Cubans dreamed of escape, with many of them setting sail in an attempt to flee the dictatorial state.

When I met her, the Bruguera looked tired. She had just returned from visiting her lawyer on the outskirts of the city in a bid to obtain her paperwork to leave Cuba. The ongoing weekly protests of the Ladies in White (the wives of jailed Cuban dissidents), held in the Plaza de la Revolución, in which she has been participating regularly, seemed strangely to echo her own performances. ‘Are you critical of the Cuban government while you depend on them to vitalize or activate your work?’ I asked. After all, words gain power when they are threatened with being silenced. Marches in the Plaza de la Revolución matter more when the participants are dispersed. ‘I did not expect such a disproportionate response,’ she replied, ‘but, regardless, my art engages with public spaces in Cuba. Here, monumentality resides in making anti-monumental gestures. Having a small group occupy the Plaza de la Revolución, instead of the millions Castro drew to this space, made us diminished by the grandness of space. The small scale of the march evoked how powerless we feel in the face of an unresponsive government. What the government doesn’t realize is that I also want to claim the mantle of the revolutionary: I don’t want this to turn into the us.’ ‘Why are there no figurative monuments to Castro?’ I queried. ‘From the beginning, Castro’s words were in every Cuban’s mind, whether they wanted them there or not,’ Bruguera replied. ‘This interior monument is the one we need to topple. There need be no monuments. Tatlin’s Whisper was about that: it was about the political act as it encounters the unrealized revolutionary idealism. It allowed people to stand in as Castro. You can go chasing monuments but you won’t find Castro because his words are ingrained in our hearts, as much as we decry the failures of this regime.’8

In Havana, artists such as Bruguera, Campins and Garaicoa discussed the monuments that they knew. Equally, people congregating in the city’s parks spoke about the stylistically indiscernible forms found there. Obviously, experimental structures were meant to evoke Castro’s dictum that the revolution must be avant-garde – both militaristically and aesthetically. As you move east to Holguín, into the Sierra Maestra and, farther still, to Santiago de Cuba, the towns that supplied Castro’s insurgency still endlessly echo his clarion call: not only are there asymmetrical structures built by the state, but also rocks and benches, and unfinished buildings bearing Castro’s words: ‘Socialismo o Muerte’ (Socialism or Death).

Detail of the monument to Che Guevara and Cubans who died in Bolivia, located in Bosque de los Héroes park, Santiago de Cuba

In a courtyard in Holguín stands a pyramidal geometric monument depicting Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Castro in conversation. (During our visit, the city was threatened with quarantine: cholera and dengue fever had infected hundreds of citizens, meaning that we were forced to depart quickly.) Clearly influenced by the Soviet instructors who came to Cuba in the 1970s, the humble materials and asymmetry of the monument on Holguín are a rejection of the traditional neo-classical style of the monument. In this, the only sculptural effigy of Castro – according to a list of all the monuments in Cuba, given to me by The Ministry of Patrimony – his bearded head is caught in the act of speaking to Guevara. Alongside Castro, Guevara appears multiple times, striding confidently over jagged concrete posts topped by stars. The figures of Guevara and Castro exist in a troubled symbiosis: one still living; the other, since his death, become a concretized idol. One could not survive without the other. Castro is in the act of speech, his outstretched finger touching Guevara as he makes his point. The fact that reading aloud could be powerful as an anti-monumental strategy seems predicated on the monumental place of language in Cuban society. As Prieto mentions, with regard to billboards, they exist in Cuba not for commercial products, but as platforms for Castro’s words. Words can then monopolize public space, acting monumentally – inasmuch as they crystallize political speech – and aggregating social values, while constantly being repainted and refreshed.

At Minas del Frío, Pushkin’s words seemed especially potent. For, despite the boastfulness of the arch, the ruins of this educational compound bear few plaques of commemoration. Yanko – a truck driver and unofficial guide to the Sierras – said his father thought it was because Castro was still alive: the revolution did not need monuments yet. In Havana, the metal and stone busts to leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Vladimir Lenin glistened pristinely. Monuments to the heroes of the Cuban independence movement and the ubiquitous tributes to the revolutionary writer José Martí were immaculately kept. In Minas del Frío, as in so many towns we passed through, the site was in disrepair.

In Las Mercedes, two of Yanko’s childhood friends passed white rum around in the street, waiting for a bus. ‘We have never met any Americans. What will the opening of the us Consulate mean?’ The 25 year old said: ‘I want to travel. Swoooop … To go up in the sky and land in New York. Up until now, we have never been able to travel.’ It would be hard to blame Yanko and his friends, living in a prison of idealism, for wanting more, when they see the rest of the world moving into a new digital era without them.

A few months ago, Cubans got wi-fi hotspots in a number of parks in each city. In Santiago de Cuba, in the Plaza de Marte, the ‘liberty cap’ of the French Revolution was suspended from a pole. At night, young Cubans sat facing the pole, their faces illuminated by their mobile phones, which they could only operate in the park. This was my first glimpse of a monumental park doubling as a hotspot. Few people approached the pole, but their bodies were turned towards it. Monuments synchronize the body in time and, here, a languid temporality unfolded: the monument abutting Cuba’s nascent digital age.

A famous monument traffics in its imageability, the meaning of which can be unstable. In 2003, for the 8th Havana Biennial, Prieto installed Apolítico (2001–03) in front of the Complejo Cultural Morro-Cabaña. The work features 30 flags, their colours turned grey-scale, belonging to countries recognized by the United Nations, of which Cuba is a member. The work reveals the arbitrary nature of nationhood and therefore of the embargo. In 2009, the Castro administration installed 138 sombre black flags dedicated to Cubans killed by us aggression. The us Interests Section, as the newly re-opened us Embassy building was known, had a scrolling digital feed of foreign news. The black flags blocked what the Cuban government had deemed was propaganda. Because another artist had joked about the coincidence, I asked Prieto if the government architect copied his piece. He explained: ‘These are the kinds of coincidences, or references, which are very common in design, advertising and even the art world.’9 Perhaps the Castro administration understands that the monument belongs to art and art could belong to it: the manner in which they speak is similar, even when their content diverges. Rather than query the ontological basis for monuments in Cuba – which were built as composites of a Soviet post-war style with local historical and ideological concerns – a far more pressing issue is the monument’s relationship to the public. The last 30 years has seen a shift from the collectivism of the revolution to an increasingly fractured society, accentuated by a two-tier system that has elevated service-industry workers above skilled professionals, such as doctors, and allowed capital to determine class rather than bureaucratic or professional status. The service workers – taxi drivers, touts, hotel staff, restaurateurs – cater to a pre-determined experience predicated on the image of Cuba as a tourist destination.

Fountain dedicated to José Martí, a figurehead of Cuban independence, and the revolutionary leader Abel Santamaría, Santiago de Cuba. All photographs courtesy Matthew Connors

After the revolution, monuments to Americans, such as Theodore Roosevelt and the 1st us Volunteer Cavalry (the ‘Rough Riders’), were stripped of their identifying plaques and left in disrepair, while those of Cuban leaders with strong ties to the us, such as Estrada Palma and José Miguel Gómez, were removed from the Avenida de los Presidentes. Only the bronze feet of Palma remain, although the monument to Gómez was reinstalled in 1999, prompting the question: why did they hold onto the statue for decades?

Here, the monument becomes a kind of rebus or cipher. The government is speaking a monumental language and the populace assumes it is an allegory that has to be decoded: behind it lie unspoken political motives that can only be intuited from the repositioning of the monument itself. As Cuba opens up to capitalism, monuments are less dangerous – not because of their invisibility, but because of their legibility as images.

On my last day in the country, the us Secretary of State, John Kerry, addressed an assembled body of Cuban government officials and an international diplomatic corps. Promising freedom of information and wi-fi hotspots, his language, couched in altruistic terms, implied a future for Cuba as a new market. Even though it was a momentous occasion, the cynicism of our age reminded me of Graham Greene’s sentiment in Our Man in Havana (1958): ‘They haven’t left us much to believe in, have they – even disbelief?’ I watched Kerry’s speech on TV with Aleida, a former economist for the Castro Administration, who had gone to the Soviet Union before the Special Period. Her reaction was conflicted. ‘If this means Cuba will be able to trade, it will be good for us. If it means that Cuba will be a banana republic catering to North American desires for sun, women and rum, then it will not be good.’ Her caution was not shared by younger Cubans, many of whom were celebrating living in a moment of ‘potential’. What the artist and writer Coco Fusco refers to as the ‘subcontinental dream’ of the left has always been threatened by the repressiveness of the Castro administration, and not just by us subversion.10 However, now this ideological battle, to quote a 24-year-old from Havana, is ‘the fantasy of the old people’.

Monuments, in all their ambiguity and allegory, merge fantasy and reality in order to respond to the needs of shifting audiences and, right now, the whole visual language of Cuba stands to be rewritten and recoded.

1 Adolf Loos, ‘Architecture’ in Y. Safran and W. Wang (eds.), The Architecture of Adolf Loos, London,  Arts Council, 1985, p.108 
2 Author interview with Alejandro Campins, August 2015, Havana 
3 Mark Wigley, ‘The Architectural Cult of Synchronization’, October, vol. 94, Autumn 2000, The Independent Group, pp.31–61 
4 Bruno Latour, ‘What if We Talked Politics a Little?’, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 2, 2003, p.146 
5 Author interview with Carlos Garaicoa, August 2015, Havana 
6 Author interview with Wilfredo Prieto, August 2015, New York, and via email 
7 Author interview with the artist Kcho, in which he discusses his allusion to Tatlin’s monument. Kellie Jones, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, 2011, Duke University Press, Durham and London, p.138 
8 Author interview with Tania Bruguera, August 2015, Havana 
9 Author interview with Prieto (as above) 
10 Coco Fusco, ‘Cuba: The Fading of a Subcontinental Dream’, e-flux, 1 August 2015, Matthew Connors is a photographer who lives and works in New York and Boston, USA. He is chair of the photography department at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Boston, and his first monograph, Fire in Cairo, was published in 2015 by SPBH Editions.

Matthew Connors is a photographer who lives and works in New York and Boston, USA. He is chair of the photography department at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Boston, and his first monograph, Fire in Cairo, was published in 2015 by SPBH Editions. 

Andrianna Campbell is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA.