Artists can sometimes be almost casual in their use of historical objects, whether they are using items from a fleamarket or artefacts from a museum. While some harness the aura of these objects, Diango Hernández often treats such miscellaneous elements playfully, as he does with the sheets of pale blue quadrille paper that are displayed in blonde wooden frames in the sixth and final room of his exhibition, ‘Losing You Tonight’. The columns marked on the grids of these yellowed accounting sheets are headed ‘Soll’ and ‘Haben’ (‘Debit’ and ‘Credit’). Applying a rubber stamp of the number zero, Hernández has allowed the blue ink from the stamp pad to pool on one sheet, while on another he has strung numerous zeros together in a row like beads (Don’t Wait for Me, all works 2009). The dancing figures seem oblivious to the printed compartments and lines around them, the debits and credits on which economic systems are based.
Hernández takes a similarly playful approach to the heavy, historical tome bound in red satin that lies open on a school desk. Golden letters spell out the title, La Unión Soviética (The Soviet Union), of a book which now extends several metres into the room like an accordion scroll: the artist has removed numerous double-page spreads from the volume and joined them together to form a long strip of paper, rendering the black lines of text and black and white illustrations akin to a wallpaper pattern.
In his installations, Hernández – who is showing new work in this exhibition as the winner of the city of Siegen’s sixth Rubens Prize – plays with materials that, like flotsam and jetsam, speak of life in distant locations: among them, Cuba, where the artist was born. The show’s six galleries are choreographed in a series of sequential stages: the second, ‘La Lectura y El Sol’ (Reading and the Sun), for example, is set up as a classroom containing second-hand furniture: the lesson is clearly over; the chairs are tidily up-ended on the desks, some of their legs extended by neon tubes. On the wall hang three ‘blackboards’ in a pale shade of grey. The subject here, recounted by Hernández in the exhibition catalogue, is a moment of childhood trauma when a fellow pupil was stabbed to death one night at his boarding school. Rather than anchoring the work’s narrative solely in this gruesome act, however, Hernández examines the everyday life of Cuba’s educational machinery: for Dining at Eight, glass lampshades from various periods are stacked inside one another, making a vessel that stands, disturbingly, like a distorted body on a child’s desk.
Another gallery, titled ‘Don’t Wait For Me’, is framed by wooden speaker cabinets turned to the wall, while a pattern of light is cast onto the floor from their bases. The spaces feel like an intermediary zone in which memories and furniture create an environment that is neither a stage set nor a real place. The worn and battered materials seem appropriate for an artist who spent his youth in Cuba during the so-called special period of the early 1990s – a time of extended economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sentiment adheres to Hernández’ ready-mades: they are closer in spirit to the works of Ilya Kabakov than to those of Marcel Duchamp. Yet, as in My Records for You, the artist smartly subverts this biographical direction. The work consists of a cabinet full of records: hits by German popular singer Heintje Simons sit alongside classical music and big band tracks – no pattern is revealed here, no particular individual taste. The discs stand on the shelves, softened and reshaped into small bowls that look almost as precious as Murano glass. Just as with the propaganda book and the accounting sheets, by working against rather than with the content, Hernández coaxes form from culturally coded material.
The exhibition draws energy from the contrast between these destabilizing moments and an almost literal approach to symbols and metaphors. In Casa, la escuela nueva (Home: The New School) the former boarding school pupil finds a graphic translation for the feeling of alienation: seven slide projectors, placed on tiny chairs, project images taken from an old interior design guide. These crisply rendered scenes present a vision of a comfortable Modernist future. As the projectors light up in sequence, the pictures appear to move. Since each chair is placed a little closer to the wall than the one preceding it, the focus gets narrower, the image smaller, and the physicality of the projector and chair encroach further. The dynamic of this movement is accompanied by the rattling of the slide projectors, evoking a machine in which a steadily growing sense of desolation inexorably runs its course in seven steps.