in Features | 01 OCT 07
Featured in
Issue 110

Wilfredo Prieto

The Barcelona-based Cuban artist was the winner of the Cartier Award 2008 by Max Andrews

in Features | 01 OCT 07

Stand-up comic Bill Hicks used to quip that his act was like ‘Chomsky with dick jokes’. With similar flamboyance Wilfredo Prieto’s artistic routines attempt to forge an alliance of acute commentary and serious intent with calculatedly fatuous yet memorable punchlines. For a week during the Havana Biennial in 2006, for example, the entire hall of the imposing former Convent of Santa Clara played host to a single work of art. Barely visible on entering the exhibition venue and marooned in the middle of the marble floor, a single splayed banana skin sat atop a lone bar of soap, itself resting on a splurge of yellow axle grease. A too-slick visual glissando of ‘That’s All Folks!’ cartoon idiocy? A too-sick gastronomic concoction that even Ferran Adrià would baulk at? All interpretations may slide off and stick in equal measure, and we all may yet come a cropper, as Prieto and his risk-prone sculpture Grasa, Jabón y Plátano (Grease, Soap and Banana, 2006) gambled on amplifying potential meaning by reducing apparent effort and formal investment to an alarming minimum.

More often, however, Prieto poses his equations somewhat differently, by insisting that wantonly resource-intensive incidents elicit blatantly disillusioning results. Likewise, the Spanish idiom ‘mucho ruido y pocas nueces’ – literally ‘a lot of noise and not many nuts’ and equivalent to ‘much ado about nothing’ – doubles as the title of one of Prieto’s works from 2003. Invited to exhibit at a prestigious gallery in Havana, the artist arranged for a water tanker and hefty mobile generator to be parked outside, as though tending to an emergency. Hoses and cables wove inside and through the otherwise empty gallery to a bare room and a straggly pot plant, illuminated by a lone dim bulb and watered with just a steady drip. As though to underline its underwhelmed significance to his programme of bathos, for Mucho ruido y pocas nueces II (2006) the artist manifested the idiom as an installation, fitting out a darkened space at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León with ranks of loudspeakers. Each amplified a cacophony of nut-cracking recordings and surrounded a meagre handful of spot-lit walnuts. Mute (2006), meanwhile, saw Prieto transform a gallery of the McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, into a full-on disorienting disco dance-floor environment, with spinning, flashing and whirling coloured lights yet no audible music whatsoever – a dissociative comedown before the party even started. Conceived for the public art project ‘Madrid Abierto’ the same year, Untitled (Grúa) (Crane) was never fully realized in the city as intended. The ‘purposeless’ sculpture–action was consequently made even more impotent as only the artist and his gallerist were there to see the event: a crane’s telescopic mast was extended, cables were attached to the machine’s own red truck and supports, and, attempting to defy the laws of physics, it tried to hoist itself up. Such works synthesize a grammar and sensibility of high-impact visual comedy: sight gags, pratfalls, shrugs, reveals and plenty of chutzpah. Yet their immediacy, and easy segue into reproduction or basic description, gives way to a slow-burn study of relentless disappointment, dysfunctional bureaucracy, fiat currency and unhinged economies (shadowed by fiscal volatility in his native Cuba, or the unregulated global art market, if you’ll entertain it). Frank Zappa once equated state censorship of music to ‘treating dandruff by decapitation’ – likewise, the tendency towards hyperbole in Prieto’s art often appears to satirize nonsensical suppression and giddy regulation.

Take perhaps his best-known work, Apolítico (Apolitical, 2001). Thirty national flags are hoisted and flown on flagpoles – in Havana, Dublin, Paris and Sienna to date – as though they are welcoming visiting dignitaries, although each design only appears as shades of grey and, leached of identifiable colours, a whole swath of standards are effectively neutered and their national affiliations rendered indistinguishable. Perhaps tellingly, it’s the Union Jack of the UK and the Stars and Stripes of the USA that most noticeably survive this chromatic gagging order. Biblioteca Blanca (White Library, 2004) was con- ceived originally for Galería Nogueras Blanchard in Barcelona and most recently seen at the Latin American Pavilion for the 2007 Venice Biennale. It consists of some 6,000 blank-paged whitebound books that sit on bookshelf stacks, with tables and chairs primed for inkless newsprint browsing. No words, no pictures, no stories. Biblioteca Blanca, like much of Prieto’s output, seems actively to invite accusations of style over substance and of one-liner-ism – usually anathema to sustained ‘proper’ discourse. Yet his works go on defiantly to elicit a strange and nuanced pleasure in the very possibility of our apparently having been artfully conned out of excess content, and each time in a novel way. Like the bitter-sweet satisfaction of a smug heckle being squarely put down from the comedy stage, Prieto’s art trades in rapidly won, mulled-over-later exchanges. As with his 2003 performance Huella (Footprint), though, for which he walked around Havana leaving footprints with a pair of back-to-front flip-flops, with Prieto it is rarely even obvious whether he is coming or going.