Fur­ther from What the Ob­ject Does Not Men­tion

Art On Cuba - - Index - Juan Carlos Betancourt

Diango Hernández (Sancti Spir­i­tus, Cuba, 1970) be­came known in Ha­vana to­wards the mid­dle of the nineties when, to­gether with a group of col­leagues, he founded Gabi­nete Ordo Amoris. After a pro­duc­tive as­so­ci­a­tion, in 2003 Diango moved to Europe. He is cur­rently liv­ing in Düs­sel­dorf.

His in­tense con­cep­tual ex­plo­ration of daily life ob­jects has made him de­velop a fine visual gram­mar char­ac­ter­ized by trans­parency and prag­matic sym­bol­ism. In spite of his in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion and his col­lab­o­ra­tion with prom­i­nent gal­leries, his solo work is hardly known in Cuba…

Talk to me about your train­ing. How did you ar­rive at art?

In 1994 I fin­ished in the ISDI (Ha­vana High In­sti­tute of De­sign). Dur­ing the six years of univer­sity stud­ies (1989-1994) I for­tu­nately found in­nu­mer­able new en­cour­age­ments. New con­tents and many fas­ci­nat­ing per­sons made me con­sider the power of the visual lan­guage and un­der­stand its ex­tra­or­di­nary cul­tural rel­e­vance.

Be­fore, I leaned more to­wards lit­er­a­ture. Since very early my mother in­tro­duced me to the read­ing, the peace and the si­lence writ­ing de­mands. At the end of high school, how­ever, I de­cided to ven­ture and study in­dus­trial de­sign. At the mo­ment, I did not clearly know what it was. What fi­nally con­vinced me was the link be­tween de­sign and in­ge­nu­ity. But only at the end of my stud­ies in ISDI I be­gan to eval­u­ate art as a real pos­si­bil­ity. I re­mem­ber that in fourth year of the ca­reer I al­ready had enough work ex­pe­ri­ence to un­der­stand I was not in­ter­ested in the pro­fes­sional prac­tice of de­sign, es­pe­cially in the con­text of Cuban econ­omy in the nineties.

It was very frus­trat­ing to daily con­front the gen­er­al­ized dis­in­ter­est on de­sign. In most of the in­dus­tries I vis­ited dur­ing my years as a stu­dent, many did not know what de­sign­ing meant. I later un­der­stood how dif­fi­cult it had been for the gen­er­a­tion of my par­ents to un­der­stand the real func­tion of de­sign, which is just to imagine other fu­tures. Al­ready in my fifth year I be­gan to see it much more clearly and, in fact, I be­gan to write and to de­vote more time to re­search which was what deeply at­tracted me.

In 1994 Cuba was a country im­merse in se­ri­ous is­sues, es­pe­cially the eco­nomic ef­fects of 1989 (the year of the break­ing-off from the so­cial­ist bloc), which were alarm­ing. At the time my con­cerns did not have much to do with de­sign, but rather with a much more em­i­nent task in which all Cubans were un­avoid­ably ne­glected: to sur­vive. That was the word of order or, to say it in the pop­u­lar lan­guage of the nine­teenths, “to fight.”

Pre­cisely in 1994, after fin­ish­ing my stud­ies, I de­cided to en­tirely de­vote my­self to re­search thus aban­don­ing all link with Cuban work re­al­ity. This de­ci­sion, which to­day I be­lieve is one of the most rel­e­vant I have taken up to now, placed me in a very del­i­cate po­si­tion, since dur­ing that time in Cuba every work ac­tiv­ity was ex­clu­sively linked to the State. How­ever, it was from that mo­ment on that my artis­tic prac­tice re­ally be­gan.

To­wards the end that year, to­gether with de­sign­ers Ernesto Oroza, Juan Ber­nal and Fran­cis Acea, I founded what at the be­gin­ning was called Gabi­nete Ordo Amoris, a project cen­tered on the re­search of Cuban pop­u­lar ob­jec­tual re­al­ity. We be­lieved we should an­a­lyze / clas­sify / in­ven­tor­ize / ex­hibit the ob­jects of Cuban daily life to thus re­veal their cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

After the search for per­sons and in­sti­tu­tions who would hear and sup­port our project, a friend and also de­signer, Juan Menéndez, talked to us about the Lud­wig Foun­da­tion. It had opened its doors by that time and was or­ga­niz­ing a large ex­hi­bi­tion which would in­cor­po­rate other ex­pres­sions, in­clud­ing de­sign. It was through our re­la­tion­ship with the Cuban Lud­wig Foun­da­tion and its sin­cere sup­port that we en­tered into the world of art. After our first project en­ti­tled Bésame Habana (Kiss Me Ha­vana, Cen­ter of Art and De­sign, 1995), our re­search en­tered into an ad­join­ing field: that so rich area ex­ist­ing among the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines of art.

Gabi­nete Ordo Amoris was a great school for us all. Es­pe­cially in my case, it taught me to un­der­stand artis­tic think­ing as an in­dis­sol­u­ble part of my life ex­pe­ri­ence. To­day it would be un­think­able, even for my present work, to ob­vi­ate, for ex­am­ple, def­i­ni­tions coined by Ordo Amoris as that of “pro­vi­sional na­ture.” There is some­thing “de­li­cious” in the pro­vi­sional na­ture of the nineties, that day with noth­ing and ev­ery­thing at the same time. A sort of in­tel­li­gent poverty, that still al­lows you to imagine and to cre­ate.

Since your be­gin­ning in the world of art you showed a very strong re­la­tion­ship with ob­jects to the point that they lose their daily pas­siv­ity to turn into sub­jects of your po­et­ics. Can you deepen a lit­tle more into the mean­ing of this re­la­tion­ship of con­ver­gence?

Ob­jects have awak­ened my in­ter­est since I was very lit­tle. I al­ways had many things to do. My mother al­ways kept our free time busy. Sports, mu­sic and house­work were al­ways first. How­ever, when I had time to play, mostly dur­ing the week­end, I loved to play find­ing things. I went to ex­cur­sions with a group of friends and we came back with cu­ri­ous ob­jects that were later care­fully clas­si­fied and or­ga­nized in card­board boxes. This “game”, sim­ply con­sist­ing in find­ing an un­known thing and, even­tu­ally, find­ing what from that mo­ment on would awaken our imag­i­na­tion, was some­thing won­der­ful that has ac­com­pa­nied me since then. Years later, this in­ter­est in “read­ing” ob­jects was what at­tracted me the most in the study of in­dus­trial de­sign. Also the short, but very in­ter­est­ing, sem­i­nar­ies on se­man­tics im­parted at the time in ISDI re­vealed me no end of con­tents and new tools that helped me to un­der­stand the com­mu­ni­ca­tional value of the ob­jects.

Es­sen­tially, an ob­ject is noth­ing but a solved “prob­lem”. It is in this area of ex­treme prag­ma­tism where most of the ob­jects in­habit. How­ever, it would be ab­surd to omit their cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions. That is, all the in­for­ma­tion that could be ac­quired on the ba­sis of the anal­y­sis on the use of the ob­jects, on their re­la­tion­ship with men, their space and their time. In the house where I grew up in Cuba, as in most of my friends houses, ob­jects were not sim­ply “things”, but part of the fam­ily and its his­tory. They were the only proof that some­thing dif­fer­ent ex­isted and was. It al­ways called my at­ten­tion the care with which the ob­jects had to be used. We were banned from touch­ing many of them. We grew up know­ing that when an ob­ject was broken it was sim­ply ir­re­place­able.

In my work, ob­jects or frag­ments of them are noth­ing but a de­mand to think in ev­ery­thing else nor­mally sur­round­ing them and com­pos­ing their most im­por­tant side: their emo­tional value. It is there where I see that ob­jects are ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing his­to­ries, sto­ries and so on; it is pre­cisely there where the ob­jects re­veal them­selves not only as con­tain­ers of val­ues and feel­ings, but become a part of us, our his­tory and our body it­self.

Could you de­scribe me a work by you where that “emo­tional re­la­tion­ship” you just men­tioned can be ap­pre­ci­ated with more clar­ity?

I con­fess I am not a lover of de­scrip­tions of works or con­cepts. I will use as an ex­am­ple a piece that was part of Los­ing You Tonight (2009), an ex­hi­bi­tion where I fully de­vel­oped the emo­tional value of ob­jects. The piece was a small sculp­ture made up of five ob­jects (two black shoelaces, two white ce­ramic hooks and a glass with a

rec­tan­gu­lar form), and each of them comes from dif­fer­ent per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of mine. For ex­am­ple, the pair of shoelaces came from the boots with which I used to work in the coun­try­side in my last high school year. This or any other in­for­ma­tion that might come from the ob­jects was not re­vealed; the viewer had no di­rect ac­cess to any of these sto­ries, only the nar­ra­tive com­ing from the ob­jects at that mo­ment, in that present. But where are the shoes? What are those ce­ramic hooks for? Where is the frame of that glass? Where is the im­age? These and other ques­tions ex­ist and are pos­si­ble be­cause of the ev­i­dent ab­sence of parts of an ob­ject we all know. I “hide” the ab­sent parts in a place where other things ex­ist, per­haps more ques­tions, per­haps more an­swers.

When watch­ing the gen­eral gamut of ob­jects nor­mally sur­round­ing you, how does the process of think­ing on them to make a piece of work func­tion?

The ob­jects and their ar­tic­u­la­tions ap­pear at the end of a process that writ­ing has gen­er­ally be­gun. The short sto­ries I write are the ones that guide me and in­tro­duce me into the ma­te­rial na­ture. In other cases, the ob­jects I find are what awake my in­ter­est. These found ob­jects are part of a more for­tu­itous process I fre­quently prac­tice in my stu­dio/work­shop.

Now tell me some­thing about your more re­cent bi­og­ra­phy. For ex­am­ple, how did you ar­rive in Ger­many and how the cul­ture of a country so far from a “pro­vi­sional state” has in­flu­enced your work? In this change of ter­ri­tory, have you achieved to “re-ter­ri­to­ri­al­ize” some of the Cuban cul­tural iden­tity in your present pro­duc­tion?

I ar­rived in Ger­many in 2007 after hav­ing lived three years in Italy and one in Spain. I had al­ready vis­ited Ger­many in 1998 and it had in­ter­ested me very much. Dur­ing that first trip I re­ally never thought I would one day set­tle here. I re­mem­ber I was very much im­pressed to be in a country where art was part of some­thing greater, with an elab­o­rated and gen­eral in­ter­est. Ger­many, un­doubt­edly, has built one of the most de­vel­oped con­tem­po­rary cul­tural sys­tems in Europe and the world, with an ex­tra­or­di­nary net­work of mu­se­ums and in­sti­tu­tions with di­verse scales and pur­poses.

Liv­ing here and, above all, tak­ing part in a con­tin­ued de­bate on con­tem­po­rary ideas has defini­tively formed me. It is true that there is very lit­tle “pro­vi­sional na­ture” in these places. We may say that the order in which events de­velop here has of­fered me a struc­tural way of think­ing I very much ap­pre­ci­ate. As to the man­age­ment of the Cuban cul­tural iden­tity, I will tell you that I still work, re­search and think very much on Cuba. Per­haps not in the ex­ist­ing Cuba or in the one I was born, but in an­other Cuba.

“In my work, ob­jects or frag­ments of them are noth­ing but a de­mand to think in ev­ery­thing else nor­mally sur­round­ing them and com­pos­ing their most im­por­tant side: their emo­tional value…”

An is­land that I con­tinue in­vent­ing and that I have learned to see, in lit­er­ary terms, as an en­tire fic­tion or, bet­ter to say it as Ger­man writer W. G. Se­bald, as a “true fic­tion”.

I like to work with gen­er­a­tional top­ics, with sto­ries that might be those of my friends, those of to­day and of yes­ter­day. These sto­ries are born of my com­ing and go­ing, of what I have been do­ing since I live be­tween Cuba and Ger­many. I go to Cuba every year and re­turn to Ger­many gen­er­ally after a short pe­riod. Those trips have been ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant for me. It is only through that com­ing and go­ing where many things have been elu­ci­dated for me and oth­ers have sim­ply dis­ap­peared. After hav­ing trav­eled be­tween these so dis­tant points, cul­tur­ally and ge­o­graph­i­cally, I have un­der­stood that this form of move­ment is a very ef­fec­tive way to cre­ate, imagine and con­nect other things and other re­al­i­ties.

Up to what I know, you work or have worked with very pres­ti­gious gal­leries, as Bar­bara Thumm and Cap­i­tain Pet­zel in Ber­lin or Marl­bor­ough Con­tem­po­rary in Lon­don. You have even taken part in collective ex­hi­bi­tions in MoMA and the Hay­ward Gallery in Lon­don, as well as the Venice and Sao Paulo bi­en­ni­als. This speaks for it­self about the so­lid­ity and ac­knowl­edge­ment your work has achieved. Can you talk us of that ex­pe­ri­ence and, in­ci­den­tally, what projects do you have for the im­me­di­ate fu­ture?

Prac­ti­cally from the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer I have worked with ex­cel­lent gal­leries, among the ones you men­tion and oth­ers that have also been very im­por­tant for me, like Alexan­der and Bonin in New York. I have also had col­lab­o­ra­tions with many other gal­leries of other lev­els and reach. They have all im­mensely con­trib­uted to my devel­op­ment as an artist. I never imag­ined that I would have the great for­tune of work­ing with these per­sons that, in my opin­ion, have ex­traor­di­nar­ily con­trib­uted not only to my devel­op­ment, but also to that of many other artists and very in­flu­ent artis­tic ideas.

Gen­er­ally, work­ing with gal­leries has of­fered me a bet­ter fol­lowup and con­ti­nu­ity. The col­lab­o­ra­tions with gal­leries are much more per­sonal projects that, also, ex­tend in time, while in­sti­tu­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions are gen­er­ally short and at times im­per­sonal. It has been very im­por­tant for me to have col­lab­o­ra­tion ex­pe­ri­ences with gal­leries of di­verse eco­nomic and cul­tural back­grounds. Not ev­ery­thing is the same. Since many times what you do is re­flect­ing re­al­ity, I con­sider it im­por­tant for every artist to ex­pe­ri­ence other en­vi­ron­ments and learn to cre­ate in and from var­i­ous con­texts.

I'm cur­rently work­ing on sev­eral projects. The last solo show this year will be in Novem­ber in the cen­ter of arts MOSTYN, in Wales. I have al­ready started to work in my per­sonal projects for 2016. On May, the Mors­broich Mu­seum, in Lev­erkusen, Ger­many, and Bar­bara Thumm, in Ber­lin. I have other com­mit­ments for group ex­hi­bi­tions which I also con­sider very im­por­tant, be­cause they al­ways of­fer con­text to the ideas. As you know, this is what is pos­i­tive and, at the same time, neg­a­tive of liv­ing here: work never ends…

You are a Cuban artist. How do you carry this at present? Also, in this sense, do you still have some pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion with the is­land?

Although I per­fectly un­der­stand the need of some to main­tain this type of clas­si­fi­ca­tions, I re­ally do not value them or con­sider them nec­es­sary. Yes, I am Cuban by birth and I feel Cuban, what means that I am emo­tion­ally tied to all I saw and felt in the is­land. This is some­thing tremen­dously im­mense that would be ab­surd to deny. I do not find it nec­es­sary to be a “Cuban artist” or clas­si­fi­ca­tions of that type and I think they are not even true. I rather con­sider them fool­ish. Art is univer­sal by it­self and all artists should con­trib­ute to make this def­i­ni­tion become clearer with every pass­ing day. Art with fron­tiers and as geopo­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion is some­thing very sad. It not only goes against the most beau­ti­ful prin­ci­ples of art, but also against our­selves as hu­man be­ings.

I have no con­nec­tion at all with any in­sti­tu­tion or art pro­fes­sional in the is­land. How­ever, I main­tain a good re­la­tion­ship with the Cuban Lud­wig Foun­da­tion and with other col­league artists there. Ac­tu­ally, dur­ing all this time no­body from Cuba has ap­proached me. This is very cu­ri­ous, not to say sad. When I see my Ital­ian, Span­ish, Ger­man, etc, friends nor­mally par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cul­tural life of their coun­tries, mak­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and ed­u­cat­ing, I think some­thing fun­da­men­tal is not well in my country. How is it pos­si­ble that after be­ing in­tensely work­ing with in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions no­body in Cuba is in­ter­ested in what I do? Un­for­tu­nately, I am not the ex­cep­tion. There are oth­ers, not only artists, also great pro­fes­sion­als in every field, who have the right to par­tic­i­pate, to be in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in Cuba. This is a very wide topic which should have an­other type of de­bate.

Imagine that the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts de­cides to hang a work by you in its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Where do you think they may put it?

I would like to be next to the Gi­tana Trop­i­cal (Trop­i­cal Gipsy), in that same hall, in that same time, by it­self, sur­rounded by ochre palms. When I wrote a text for my ex­hi­bi­tion Los­ing You Tonight

I talked about the Gipsy… “La Gi­tana Trop­i­cal is the por­trait of a pre­sum­ably Cuban dark-haired, young woman. Her dark eyes in­sist on telling you serenely and ab­so­lutely, “I am beau­ti­ful,

I am happy”. I would have given ev­ery­thing to lis­ten to her voice! I would have given my years, my city, my sea. But I also think that her beau­ti­ful si­lence is worth all of that. Maybe the Gypsy never ex­isted. Maybe Víc­tor Manuel in Paris, sub­merged in a sub­tle melan­choly, painted her not with his brushes but with his mem­o­ries…” ƒ

Vero, ver­i­tas, 2015 / Lack on MDF and wood

Cour­tesy of Alexan­der and Bonin, Ga­lerie Bar­bara Thumm, Cap­i­tain Pet­zel, Marl­bor­ough Con­tem­po­rary, Ni­co­las Krupp Gallery / Photo: Anne Pöhlmann

Years, 2008 / Welded iron

Cour­tesy of Fed­erico Luger Gallery, Mi­lan / Photo: Anne Pöhlmann

Folded Tiger, 2013 / Wood, iron, mir­ror, book page / 59 x 55 x 15

¾ in

Cour­tesy of Alexan­der and Bonin, Ga­lerie Bar­bara Thumm, Cap­i­tain Pet­zel, Marl­bor­ough Con­tem­po­rary, Ni­co­las Krupp Gallery / Photo: Anne Pöhlmann

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