|Luis Fernando Valencia
There exists no doubt about the importance that the Havana Biennial has acquired since its first edition in1984 up until its most recent edition, the Sixth Havana Biennial, that was inaugurated on May 3, 1997. The deserved interest that the international art community gives the Biennial was reflected by the large public congregated at the Plaza de la Catedral and the fervor with which they received the warm greetings from the Biennial's director, Llilian Llanes. It is likewise a tremendous satisfaction for the Biennial's organizers from the Centro Wilfredo Lam to realize an event that is already a fundamental coordinate on the worldwide map of contemporary art's principal manifestations. The Cuban spirit remains enhanced, enterprising and persistent, without sentimentality or tragedy, by its decisive contribution to art at the end of this century.
It is necessary to state as introduction, that the quality of the current Biennial leaves much to be desired. Three factors have been decisive for the existence of an endless number of works of no interest: 1. The theme: »The Individual and Their Memory« was favored for works without elaboration that fell within the obvious: fading portraits, evanescent atmospheres, and, in general, remissions to the past literally confronted, without the transformative strategies inherent in artistic production. 2. A precarious third-world rhetoric proliferated with the use of poor materials, discarded items, and obvious elements that in an attempt to prioritize the problems of identity from determined regions (Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Carribbean), on the contrary created an open concession to the cliched idea of »how they think of us« from the centers. And 3. With the facade of political art, a visual and expressive mediocrity is being legitimized that could create a worrisome image for future biennials since this type of art work is not transcendent like artistic facts and is outlined like political ideas.
Each one of these three points places different aspects in crisis that are necessary to consider. The first point, the theme of memory, creates various problems that are absolutely notorious in this Biennial. A curator, or in this case a group of curators, can select a theme to theorize, endorse, unite, or convene the works that a number of artists are creating that focus towards a determined horizon. The selected theme is not being criticized, for it is itself opportune and important; however, the curators did not find (and this is the mistake) the artistic aggregrate that would demonstrate these excellent ideas. Paradoxically, there was an extensive group of artists that detracted from the theme's merit. When a biennial is so openly thematic, the curators should have clear what actual artistic facts were utilized as a basis for their theme and select a rigorous group to represent it. In this biennial there was not rigor in this manner because the theoretical ideas took such precidence that they had been adopted as the artistic facts they represented. In this second aspect, the curation of the Biennial suffers from an evident problem.
It is necessary to make clear that the theoretical work, and the catalog provides magnificent testimony of this, is strong and well coordinated; the divisions of »Faces of Memory«, »Interior Enclosures«, and »Collective Memories« was a consequence of general planning, as was clearly expressed by Ibis Hernandez in response to unjustified claims in this regard. What did not function was the selection which was overly lax and permissive, with a large quantity of work that could even be refused in regional salons. The theoretical team as an idea did not find in the art as reality the artistic combination that would give them the hoped for quality. The time that is invested in the theoretical study of an event requires time in each country for the selection process and can not be resolved in one visit that depending on accident connections could create a catastrophic whole. The lack of relations between Havana's ideas and the countries' actual creations was a determining factor for the analyzed situation.
The second point concerning the third-world rhetoric contains a paradoxical result: demonstrating our independence from dominant trends, creating for us what we have designated »identity«, and resulting in the appearance of what eurocentric thinking desires from us: exoticism, barroque arte povera, and resourceful curiosity. Consequently, from every angle indefensible, the qualifier of »Latin American Art« is used to name an extremely heterogenous group. The Cuban texts have this tendency which is likewise a concession to hegemonic centers that, having no other way to describe us, invented the undifferentiated term »Latin American Art«. (Gerhard Haupt, during his stay in Havanna, expressed himself clearly in this respect.) It is particularly telling that only one work, that of Cuban artist Alexis Leyva (Kcho), successfully surpasses the demagogy of materials from the periphery in order to construct a work of forceful presence in which it does not matter whether it is made of marble from Carrara or with discarded objects. Making the military space of the Castillo del Morro his own, Kcho's work does not find to accede to the »mainstream« within the parametres of »universal history«. It makes his own path, creating a possibility described by Hans Belting as the »new geogaphy of art history«.
Regarding the third point, no one can negate the relationship between art and politics. However, this should be based on the art itself rather than another's discourse. The return to an art of pamphlet-propoganda and ideologically outlined as theory, has long since been debated and overcome. Art may take openly political stands, that is certain, but within its visual and formal parameters; and, similar to an investigative process, art's intrinsic characteristic as a visual problem is always placed at the forefront. With this point, only one work shined beyond its markedly political accents with a clarity about what an investigative process in the plastic arts is. The »Mares of the Apocalypse« by the Chilean collective Pedo Lemebel and Franscisco Casas, offered through their action at the outside patio of the Centro Wilfredo Lam, an unique mix of private attitudes with public implications. That is to say, an art that entails politics although personal, in order to in this manner initiate attitudes openly political, to no longer denounce, but to generate reflection over the the despisable acts of the Chilean dictatorship and the archetypal »sequin« we have named »neoliberalism«. To the public and the private is also added the basic ingredient of a certain theoretical freedom that justifies its explosive name.
From the 40 artists at the Castillo del Morro, in addition to the aforementioned Kcho, noteworthy is the disquieting work of Pablo Conde (Uruguay), the hermetic installation of Moshekwa Langa (South Africa), and the sobriety of Oscar Muñoz (Colombia). Yet, the one who with excellence best represented the Biennial's theme with a poetic work, evocative and clearly invoking the platonic cave, was Christian Boltanski. In an enormous space in the Castillo, a small projected figure was encircled by the walls creating a temporal circularity and spatial suspension. With technological projection, and without pretense, Boltanski sumerges us in an extended landscape of memory that is difficult to visualize without resorting to the commonplace. By some strange coincidence, a Roman Empire coin, that a local vendor offered to passersby, conveyed in its unused surface, a silhouette similar to Boltanski's, and which in a some way propitiated the same moving effect.
Of the 58 artists exhibited in La Cabaña fortress, with its spanish military architecture, the work of Ignacio Iturria (Uruguay), in consonance with the theme of the Biennial, surprises by its capacity to turn the graphic into the pictorical and by his ability to relate painting and space through pieces of furniture of expressive workmanship . Two Colombians also made a forceful presence: Ana Claudia Munera and Delcy Morelos. »Dressed as a Bride« by Ana Claudia continues her series of explorations of the quotidian and brings to the surface humanity's paradoxes, in this case through the splendor of ephemera. Delcy, with her austere language, appropriate for our exagerrated country, knows the sobriety that should preside an art that alludes to our daily life: violence in Colombia. Some splendid photography by Martin Weber (Argentina) of quotidian personalities, who face the camera to express what they most desire to have or to be in life, rescued the photography (along with Ennadre and Sato) from otherwise remaining unnoteworthy.
In the Historical Center, of the 73 artists, the emotive performance of Flavio Pons (Brazil) develops an admirable control of space with his Cuban children dressed in school uniform creating a polysemic visual discourse: written culture, trace culture, and evocative allusions to infancy. Drawing also made a rare and vigorous presence by William Kentridge (South Africa). The photographs of Havana by Tokihiro Sato (Japan) displayed a spectular arrangement with its architectural surroundings and conveyed a technical and historical discourse- a significant contribution to this event. In addition, another photographer, Touhami Ennadre (Morrocco) created from his seemingly documentary photography a forceful artistic vision. Edith Arbeláez (Colombia) constructed a space, in consonance with the architecture that contained it, with a cloud of photographic rings that floated in the violent and mass-mediated space of Colombia. Teresa Serrano (Mexico), through video projection, obtained a hypnotic and nostalgic presentation of the nomadic. Lastly, the work of Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba), completed in a deserted part of Old Havana, was an important mobile strategy for the »demuseumization« and limitless extension of art into unknown territories.