BY Amy Zion in Reviews | 20 JUN 19
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Issue 205

The Havana Biennial and Its Discontents

‘The Construction of the Possible’ is the uneven result of a clash between artists and the Cuban government

BY Amy Zion in Reviews | 20 JUN 19

In the catalogue for the 13th Havana Biennial, Nelson Herrera Ysla, part of its curatorial team, interpreted the exhibition’s title, ‘The Construction of the Possible’, as a reference to its existence against all odds. It has opened two years later than anticipated, in spite of unprecedented political, climatic and economic obstacles. In 2015, the 12th version opened on the heels of Barack Obama’s diplomatic and economic détente with the Cuban government. Then came Donald Trump, who cut those ties in 2017 and shuttered the US embassy, and Hurricane Irma, which left a wake of devastation. Last April, the government passed Decree 349, mandating government approval for the exhibition of art (it went into effect in December of that year), and as the opening of the biennial drew near, the threat of a US war in Venezuela – Cuba’s main ally in the hemisphere, and main source of oil and internet service (via a direct sea cable) – heightened the usual uncertainty that typifies life on the island. 

Elio Jesús Fonseca, Inside, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Ministry of Culture, Cuba; photograph: Shaldrian Gómez Peña

This year’s biennial occupies 46 venues, from the vibrant and touristic Habana Vieja – where opulent, high-vacancy Obama-era luxury hotels have risen alongside well-tended pre-revolutionary buildings – to more dilapidated areas on the city’s fringes, where Cubans subsist on relatively little. Architecture, ruins and renewal are therefore fitting leitmotifs that loosely link the official programme’s disparate elements, from public projects along the Malecón – the seawall that runs along Havana’s northern edge – to projects, for the first time, in other Cuban cities: Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río and Matanzas. The biennial has also seemingly absorbed a number of peripheral events, including an art fair at the Gran Teatro in Habana Vieja, and the International Festival of Video Art in Camagüey. 

The main thrust of the exhibition can be found at Havana’s Wifredo Lam Centre of Contemporary Art, where a beautiful installation by Alexia Miranda occupies the building’s central courtyard. Soft white sculptures made of a light, stretchy fabric twist into organic shapes that hang into the courtyard’s open interior. Titled Donde hubo fuego (‘Where there was fire’, part of the series ‘Tejido Colectivo’, 2011-ongoing), the Salvadoran artist produced the work in collaboration with diverse groups of locals and tourists she invited to discuss various issues while they worked with the fabric together. Upstairs, in Chilean artist Camilo Yáñez’s three-channel video essay Poética, podredumbre y polyvisión (2018 – 19), voices oscillate in conversation on topics such as hog farming and the history of mycological research, interspersed with pessimistic jokes, as shots of the Andes shift abruptly to close-ups of plants, footage of industrial manufacturing and scenes of political unrest. Such juxtapositions draw oblique yet compelling links between politics and the natural world. 

Alexia Miranda, Donde hubo fuego (‘Where there was fire’, part of the series ‘Tejido Colectivo’, 2011–ongoing), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Ministry of Culture, Cuba; photograph: Shaldrian Gómez Peña  

Works by Cuban artists in the main exhibition, by contrast, mostly side-step political content, focussing instead on formalist abstraction. For instance, Tamara Campo’s Blanco (2019), a room-filling installation of hanging panels of white material and David Beltrán’s ‘Arqueología del color’ (2019) paintings, based on stratigraphic photographs of canvases by artists such as Van Gogh and El Greco, hardly seem to represent the diverse interests and experimentation of artists working in Cuba today.

Nonetheless, the biennial team found other ways to address pressing social concerns. At Casa de México in Habana Vieja, Dominican-born artist Charo Oquet’s mystical, maximalist video installation, Voces de Calibán (‘Caliban’s Voices’, 2019), traces the roots of Rará/Gagá, which the artist describes as an ‘Afro-Haitian/Dominican social/religious ritual/practice’ that takes place during Lent in the sugar-producing regions of the Dominican Republic. Colourful tape and vinyl cover the walls and floor of the gallery, while string-covered bottles containing feathers line its perimeter. Banners run from the walls to a central wooden steeple, beneath which Oquet has piled plastic flowers and ribbon, evoking the inventive bricolage of Afro-Caribbean altars.

Charo Oquet, Voces de Caliban (‘Caliban’s voices’), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Ministry of Culture, Cuba; photograph: Shaldrian Gómez Peña

In addition, five international and 16 Cuban curators were invited to mount exhibitions in tandem with the biennial. An installation of sculptures by Mexican artist Amor Muñoz and a video documenting their production are on view in ‘Intersecciones’ (‘Intersections’) at Factoría Habana, curated by Concha Fontenla. Muñoz’s Yuca_tech (2014-18) is a frame suspended from the ceiling, from which dangles a straw hat filled with a string of lights powered by Photovoltaic panels woven into a swath of fabric hanging beside it. A pair of wooden window shutters furthers the work’s impression of a floating, surrealist architecture. Each component refers to the artist’s ongoing efforts to bring solar technology to rural areas of Mexico.

In forging ahead despite the obstacles, ‘The Construction of the Possible’ must be considered equally for what its curators were unable to include. Frank conversations amongst local artists seem to happen mostly on the biennial’s sidelines. And yet, it is the occasion for the exhibition itself that makes such dialogue possible. The biennial’s structural limitations provide it with a kind of framework, allowing the curators to acknowledge the current political and cultural situation in Cuba. That it lacks coherence might be its intended message. 

La Bienal de la Habana 2019 ran at various locations in Havana, Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río, Matanzas and Camagüey, Cuba, from 12 April to 12 May 2019.

Main image: José Dávila, The Limits of the Possible, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Ministry of Culture, Cuba; photograph: Shaldrian Gómez Peña

Amy Zion is a writer and curator based in New York, USA.