Further from What the Object Does Not Mention
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…”
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
Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Capitain Petzel, Marlborough Contemporary, Nicolas Krupp Gallery / Photo: Anne Pöhlmann