It is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.
The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?
In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Although there were the usual happy exceptions and interesting new artists, the main exhibition included too many predictable works by artists who seem to gloat on the downfall of Wall Street, condemning corporate greed and attacking every angle there is to be attacked, with the usual (and crudest) tools of political art. Meanwhile, the invited (usually old Marxist) theorists, feeling vindicated by the global financial crisis, spent endless hours describing the apocalyptic corrosion of the world’s contemporary culture, and yet, few offered any new proposals for how to fix the situation. Nicolás Bourriaud was there—one of the few regulars at the Havana biennials—explaining his notion of the Altermodern, which could have led to an interesting debate, but unfortunately, and ironically, the eagerness for many to be in a forum to be heard didn’t allow for any sort of orderly debate of any sort. In these cases, theoretical forums devolve into therapy sessions.
This is why the real show-stealer of the biennial was the side project by the now eminent Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. On one night, Bruguera had a podium with an open mic, offering everyone to step to the podium and say anything they wanted. This simple action has enormous significance in Cuba, where no one dares to speak up for fear of government repression. Valiant Cubans stepped up and spoke for freedom of expression and a myriad of other freedoms-actions that a few days later were rejected by the organizational committee of the biennial.
Bruguera took the opportunity of the biennial to do daily showcases of the work of her students, under the title of Cátedra Arte Conducta. (Art/Behaviour seminar). A project that is described as a seminar of activist art, it blends somewhere between Bruguera’s personal art project and the educational process of a new generation of 19 and 20 year old Cuban students. The works, albeit predictably rough, had a wonderful raw energy and imagination that made the entire biennial pale in comparison. On one night, there was an actual wedding at the gallery: a young Spanish artist, Nuria Guell, held a competition where she would marry the Cuban national who wrote the best love letter in order for him to obtain the EU citizenship. After a jury selected the best letter, the wedding took place at the gallery.
The Havana biennial has always stood in a category of its own, and as such a cultural anomaly it is always valuable to see what it has to tell us. It is produced with a minuscule budget, and anything done there is done against a powerful background of symbolism and—it feels to me—historical resonance. While other biennials feel like spectacles, Havana feels like a cause. But every time I visit I am left both with contradictory hopefulness, dismay, and disillusionment. Hopefulness because art really feels to have a mission and a purpose there; dismay because what flourishes there does so at the expense of repressive state policies and a yearning of freedom of expression. And disillusionment because Cuban artists, while the appreciate the attention, ultimately their aspirations are be in Chelsea, while we outsiders crave for the sense of historical mission hat they have. So, again, is there something to be learned from the remnants of this revolution?