At a height of 13 feet, Kcho's skeletal Infinite Columns (1996) filled the first floor of the Barbara Gladstone gallery during his first New York show earlier this year. The two pieces consisted of wooden slats and steel clamps fashioned by the Cuban artist into frameworks of canoes, boats, oars and inner tubes. Arranged in vertical cylinders that practically reached the gallery's ceiling, the pieces played off two very different references; first, to Brancusi's The Endless Column (1918) and second, to the often unseaworthy transport devices concocted in recent years by Cubans attempting to flee the country.
This concatenation of the local and the international wasn't invented by Kcho, the 26 year-old sculptor who has lately been garnering such an extraordinary amount of attention. Such postcolonial Molotov cocktails are common among Cuban artists seeking ways to graft the syncretic qualities of their own culture onto an art vocabulary, and to recast a 'metropolitan' tradition of aestheticising functional objects within the context of a society racked by material scarcity. It was precisely this mixture of Minimalist elegance, social content and political bite that helped the generation prior to Kcho's to put Cuba back on the international art map, and to break with a rather stolid notion of what constituted a proper mode of visual representation within the Cuban revolution.
There are many critics who have argued that this method constitutes Latin America's special contribution to Conceptual art - and looking at the work of, for example, Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Alfredo Jaar in this light could lead to a fortuitous revision of the sclerotic identity politics associated with 'ethnic art'. Among the Cuban masters of the genre are José Bedia and the late Juan Francisco Elso, to whom Kcho is far more indebted than the European giants Picasso and Duchamp he claims as his 'gods'. But unlike those artists who carefully reworked found objects that evoked a connection to the Cuban quotidian, in Infinite Columns Kcho quite clearly sought to distinguish himself from his compatriots by using materials that were fresh off the shelf of OK Hardware. The price tags were left on, as if to flaunt the fact that the work was made in the USA.
Kcho's pieces would appear to defy gravity were it not for the dozens of steel C-clamps holding everything together. They create a sense of precariousness I associate with elaborate hairdos - pull one pin and the whole thing comes crashing down on your head. I got the distinct impression that the artist's talents as a carpenter were supposed to be as meaningful as the link between the pretence of an exhausted Modernist project and Cuba's ongoing obsession with the unattainable. Still, the sculptures' lightness and unexpected grace didn't move me as much as it has the many critics who have showered Kcho with glowing reviews. After seeing Cuban artists rework Arte Povera for 15 years with much more sharply honed messages, I found Kcho's abject symbols of yearning for flight a bit old hat. His boat crafted out of tattered Marxist tracts, Selected Works (1994), exhibited in the downstairs gallery and at the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale, was more conceptually coherent, and less pompous. In today's Cuba, books that once stood for the promise of the Revolution are more likely to be used as toilet paper or kindling: Kcho's metaphorical suggestion that a Marxist education might indeed be the starting point for the desire to escape tropical Socialism wasn't lost on me.
The budding art star may not have invented the genre he's working in, but his boats' landing at Barbara Gladstone without his having had to defect is both a political and economic coup for the Cuban government officials bent on getting around the US trade embargo. Strangely enough, the first ever US gallery show (and forthcoming museum shows) by a favoured son of Cuban Socialism was brokered by a Cuban exile, Chase Manhattan curator Manuel Gonzalez. For all the facile acknowledgement of the sociological dimension of Kcho's work, no one seems to be asking how and why a Cuban citizen can zip around the world with symbols of the breakdown of national unity - which at one time could have landed him in prison - while his government continues to prohibit the very sort of emigration he's representing.
Part of Cuba's appeal to the imagination of the international art world is the idea that its artists are 'organic intellectuals', that their creativity is a form of critical engagement with the political project of their struggling nation. That was the underlying argument of Luis Camnitzer's book New Art of Cuba (1984). The notion that a Third World Socialist country might want to revive the Russian Constructivist dream of the 20s in the Postmodern era has spirited hundreds of critics and curators to the Havana Bienal since its debut in 1984, confirming their solidarity with the Revolution by embracing the artists who live and work there.
Indeed, there was a time when a cultural renaissance flourished and a Cuban version of Glasnost seemed immanent. In the early and mid-80s a group of very young artists did respond to a government call for national culture in ways that few bureaucrats or politicians would have anticipated. By celebrating the ingenuity of the average Cuban, who has no choice but to recycle and repair continuously to survive, artists pointed indirectly to the failure of the Socialist dream-state as provider. The staying power of religious practices that had been suppressed by Marxist-Leninism was brought to light in myriad installations based on Santeria and Catholic devotional artefacts. Paintings full of obviously empty political slogans lampooned Social Realist monumentalism. The state's duplicitous demand for Socialist sacrifice on the one hand and promotion of tourism on the other was underscored in artwork after artwork. Even the art system's obsession with foreign validation was ridiculed in a multitude of performances.
For a number of years, the cultural bureaucracy took advantage of the popularity of this work abroad, recognising that it was giving the Revolution a positive public image as lenient and open-minded. Certain key, ideologically charged issues, however, remained untouched. During the 80s, debates around eclecticism as a constant in Cuban art history broadened the parameters of what could be considered national culture. By stressing that Cuban culture was an amalgam of foreign influences, astute Cuban artists and critics won over bureaucrats who sought to restrict Cuban art to murals, documentary photographs and sculptures of guerrilla heroes and revolutionary 'new men'. However, migration remained taboo because it suggested there existed a Cubanness beyond the island, an affront to a political ideology that relies heavily on nationalism and territorial defence for its sense of identity. No significant work ever circulated publicly, for example, about the 1980 Mariel boatlift in which 125,000 people left the country in weeks. Artists who had gone into exile in the 60s and 70s were often erased from official rosters, their books and artworks disappearing after their departure.
In the United States, on the other hand, Cuban exile painters such as Luis Cruz Azaceta and Nereyda Garcia were dealing with the theme of emigration in the 80s; the recurring boats in Garcia's dreamscapes were ciphers that evoked the experience of emigration as an eternal journey, while Azaceta's more direct references to the Cuban boat people were part of his more general interest in the life of a foreigner as an expression of existential alienation. Before her death in 1985, Ana Mendieta created several body art pieces and earthworks in the US and Mexico that addressed her desire as an uprooted Cuban to reverse her emigration and return to the land of her birth. Very little of this work actually reached the artists on the island.
The cultural panorama inside Cuba changed radically between 1989 and 1991. A wave of censored exhibitions and an economic crisis precipitated the move of hundreds of artists to Mexico, and dozens more to Spain and the US. A tiny gallery run by the Cuban-born Nina Menocal became the hub of Cuban artistic activity in the Mexican capital - a sort of Cuban cultural ministry in exile. This exodus was a terrible blow to the Cuban government: the art stars of the 80s it claimed to have made had left the roost, taking the spotlight with them. In retaliation several attempts to include Cubans from the island in exhibitions with Cubans outside were blocked by the Revolutionary government.
More importantly for the evolution of their craft, the 'low intensity exile' of these artists coincided with a dramatic rise in illegal departures by boat undertaken by Cubans who were not able to wrangle invitations from abroad. In the five years before the 1994 rafter crisis, several thousand Cubans left the island in jerry-built boats and rafts, with nearly a third of them perishing at sea. For years, this slow haemorrhaging was not publicly acknowledged in Cuba. Yet as early as 1992, the painter Carlos Rodriguez Cardenas, then in Mexico, broke the silence with his Monumento a los Caidos (Monument to the Fallen) depicting a sunken raft hovered over by Cuba's patron saint.
José Bedia, also in Mexico at the time, subsumed the raft theme under his broader interest in the migration of symbols from Africa to Cuba to North America. By exploring a discourse of transnationalism, Bedia broke new ground, redefining the parameters of Cubanness beyond the territorial. His bold figures evoking gods and spirits of Afro-Cuban faiths began to appear in numerous paintings and installations, crossing bridges and jumping between mountains, dragging boats, trains and trucks. Interestingly, it was in 1993 that Kcho was sent from Havana to Mexico City to exhibit at the Center for Contemporary Art, just at the moment that the Cuban arts community there had reached the height of its popularity.
At exactly the same time, the Cuban government was exerting pressure on Mexico to force most of the better known Cuban artists residing there to leave, which resulted in their being compelled to request political asylum in the US. Wilfredo Lam Center director and fervent Kcho promoter Llilian Llanes chose that moment to make a strategic move designed to co-opt the aesthetic discourse of those Cubans artists outside the island. Masking her intentions as lip service to the reigning postcolonial chic, she declared that Immigration would be the organising theme for the 1994 Havana Bienal. Though ethnic minority artists from everywhere trotted off to Cuba to show their stuff, no Cuban immigrant was allowed to participate. Even Mexican artist Lourdes Grobet's photo-text piece about Cuban artists in Mexico was censored.
The recent graduates from Havana's art institute that comprised the Cuban contingent responded to the call by producing dozens of references to the Cuban seafarers. The Bienal's centrepiece was, of course, Kcho's Regata, a legion of small boats and rafts that wowed the foreign guests who read it as testimony to the largesse of the Cuban system. In the months that followed, while 30,000 rafters were trapped in camps in Guantanamo and other parts of the Caribbean, serving as pawns in a tug of war between Fidel Castro and Washington, the Cuban cultural ministry accelerated its export of raft art. Two years later, Cuban juries are still handing out awards to artists and poets who wax eloquent about the rafters, Cuban nationals win grants to study emigrant communities, and Cuban filmmakers are suddenly keen on making movies about the once reviled Cuban exile community. The entire enterprise reeks of diplomatic manoeuvring.
I'm inclined to believe that when its comes to as delicate a topic as Cuban emigration one must have a sense of the real nightmare rather than a glitzy simulacra to grasp the dimensions of the tragedy. Bedia's installation, Naufragios (Shipwrecks), first created for the 1995 Venice Biennale and then adapted for the Rubell Collection in Miami, is an evocation of the crisis so wrenching that to walk through it is to hear the cries of souls stranded at sea. In turning upward an actual raft made of a bed frame and tarpaulin, Bedia transforms it into a large scale Eleggua, god of the crossroads in the Santeria religion. Below it lies a raft that functions like a shadow of the first. Inside this second raft of cinder blocks (commonly used for all sorts of constructions in Cuba), is strewn the clothing of those who braved the voyage. On the surrounding walls are renderings of the spirits that accompanied the travellers, as well as reliquaries filled with sticks, miniature boats and animal heads, echoing the references to the rituals celebrated in order to gather strength before the fateful sojourn.
There are hints of Joseph Beuys' arrangements of accoutrements from performative actions in Bedia's installation, interwoven with allusions that give his evocation of the present crisis historical depth and a crucial spiritual dimension. The piece's title cites the account of Spanish colonial history's first known transcultural subject: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who, shipwrecked in 1528, was captured and 're-educated' by Native Americans. Here, emigration stops being the news topic of the moment and becomes a chapter of a larger chronicle that, in becoming legend, allows the universality of a human drama to become intelligible. Bedia's memorial to the inheritors of this legacy is made even more poignant by the fact that the piece's humble components, and most importantly, the the religious articles among them, are precisely the symbolically charged vestiges of 'home' of which the rafters are unceremoniously stripped upon their arrival in America.
The Kcho phenomenon involves a marriage of interests that speaks to the current state of relations between the centre and periphery of the art world. The Cuban cultural ministry has thrown its weight behind an art that, as Cuban critic Osvaldo Sanchez puts it, 'dispenses its radicalism in convenient doses: it is experimental but not too unsightly, somewhat politicised in ways acceptable to the powers that be, conceptual without being overly dense, somewhat avant-garde but not glaringly Postmodern, a little exotic but not stereotypically "national"'. 1 On the other side of the Florida Strait there is a capitalist art market that, because it can't digest the more visceral work from the early years of multiculturalism, prefers what Stuart Hall calls a 'bit of the other' without any of the bite. Kcho's floating rafts are a perfect morsel of Havana Lite. His lightweight boats have been emptied of a massive human drama that is his people's deepest wound.
1. Osvaldo Sanchez, 'Los Ultimos Modernos' (The Last Moderns) in Cuba: La Isla Posible, exhibition catalogue published by the Centre de Culture Contemporanea de Barcelona and Ediciones Destino, 1995, p.108