TRAFFIC OF METAPHORS
The transitions Cuba has experienced throughout the last decades may be observed from several angles, but among the social spheres verging with visual arts, the billboards placed in the public space particularly call the attention on the changes that have taken place in the ideological, economic and cultural aspects. Because of that reason, billboards and posters have acquired a substantial interest for more than one artist because of their discursive plurality.
In a first moment, the advertisings alluded to diverse products, with proven market strategies, where the selection of the space in which the billboard would be placed and the careful arrangement of the images—almost always with a Pop visualization that copied the North American models—were taken into account. Later, billboards gave way to the interests of the new political system that has prevailed since 1959. With the expropriation and nationalization of the big companies, which led to the almost absolute disappearance of Market economy, there was no place for the billboards with commercial purposes. The regime elaborated a sort of political marketing which was disseminated through the roads and city spaces where slogans burst into a warning: “Tenemos y tendremos socialismo” (We have and will have socialism), “Aquí no se rinde nadie” (Nobody will surrender here), “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death). The former guidelines gave way to visualization with shades of Socialist realism and greater attachment to graphic arts, in which the vibrant atmospheres of Pop and the elaborated communication campaigns were lost.
The deep changes experienced with the disappearance of the Soviet Union defined a necessary opening headed to the exploitation of the tourism sector. That was how the billboards emerged promoting the beauty of the beaches and emphasizing the “exotic nature” of the island, as a sort of invitation to the foreign visitor. Likewise, a cultural trend on the billboards —where important events were promoted and which were made with the backing of outstanding creators—increased the possibilities in a different sense.
Although this opening had the possibility to mean a new splendor for the poster and the billboard in the public space, that movement did not fit in because of the lack of economic resources and the disinterestedness of the authorities to maintain a regular change of the billboards in the various city thoroughfares and roads. On the contrary, they have become impoverished with the pass of time and the lack of civism which echoes in the entire island, finishing with the destruction of many of them.
The metamorphosis experienced on the billboards has not been an indifferent fact for some artists, who have incorporated them to their creative process because of all the otherness they represent and because of their strategic location. But this does not mean that a movement of “billboard artists” exists in our artistic scene, nor a constant regression to the topic; the reference is circumscribed to a given work or series, depending on the interest of the artist. The connection between billboards and the public space is an undeniable attraction to subvert the speeches of power and establish a critical stance. That is why the approaches to the topic are distinguished by their irony and social contextualization.
Among the artists who have dealt with the topic in a more consistent way it is necessary to mention Félix González-Torres (Guáimaro, 1957-New York 1996), who developed his work in New York. His insistence in cultural activism frequently took him to the use of billboards to call the attention of the receiver or the authorities, when putting them in conflictive places as penitentiary centers, sanitariums or homeless shelters. His work intended to create a social conscience through personal experiences as the loss, acceptance or rupture of the established orders, all this with insistence in a transparent decoding which the viewer would complete; so his billboards acted as detonators between what is private and public. In his work
Sin título (Amantes)—Untitled (Lovers)—, the artist places an empty and not yet made bed as a symbol of the trace of his lover, who had died from AIDS.
On another of his billboards, González-Torres renders tribute to the gay movement, when placing on a black background dates having to do with the fight for homosexual rights. The piece juxtaposes events as the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, one of the first in the defense of their rights; or the scandal in which the famous writer Oscar Wilde was involved when, in 1895, his intimate preferences were discovered. This way, the artist speaks about the importance of maintaining ethics and civic-mindedness in a highly market-oriented society. A preference for generating opinions and reactions, as well as taking the spectator away from his comfort area, is a distinction of his entire visual production.
Other of the artists who have repetitively worked on the subject is Carlos Garaicoa (Havana, 1967), but, in his case, the billboard does not turn into announcer of a specific message; on the contrary, it generates a structure that, in many cases, comes from impoverishment and disuse. It would seem that the artist intends to tell us that void and corrosion also offer the possibility of an effective construction, taking into account that an important part of his operative likes to disarrange the objects, changing their meaning and
The connection between billboards and the public space is an undeniable attraction to subvert the speeches of power and establish a critical stance. That is why the approaches to the topic are distinguished by their irony and social contextualization.
function. The series La palabra política en hechos finalmente (The Political Word Finally in Facts) offers an alternative solution to the growing deterioration and lack of constructive spaces political programs have promised us; that’s why their recreations are based on the futurity, on the postponement of an inexistent improvement.
Also, his preference for changing the composition of the billboards has made him intervene the images with threads, sketching fictional constructions. In this case, his structures are distinguished because of being placed in peripheral areas, because of turning into unfeasible artifacts that only materialize with the delicacy of the thread, thus discoursing on the fragility of all we understand as solid and established.
Subverting the discourse of the billboard and ironizing it is part of the efforts by Antonio Espinosa (Manzanillo, 1974) in his series Para que el enemigo no regrese (For the Enemy
Not to Return) and Paisajes ideológicos cubanos (Cuban Ideological Landscapes). In the first one, the pieces study the ideological predisposition through the visualization of the billboard. The works were conceived in woodcut technique and the preference for portraying the contextual dynamic is perceived in them. In a metonymic relationship, the artist subordinates the landscape to the graphic, to exhibit its void of contents and the suggestion those structures create in the environments they are placed. The series Paisajes ideológicos cubanos appropriates the semiotic of the billboard and sets the compositions in barely recognizable places in the city; areas conditioned by the presence of ideological propaganda, allusive to representative figures of the Cuban Revolution. These works are characterized by the ironical reference to the immobility and ineffectiveness of the slogans, repeated until they are empty of meaning and purpose.
The series El peso de la sangre (The Weight of Blood) again retakes that subject since, from the specific image of the billboard, the artist looks for a word allusive to it and restructures it ostensibly changing its meaning. The pursued result is to exteriorize the truculent nuances existing in the concepts and symbols established as official. This series manipulates the billboard as a privileged communication phenomenon, but it does it from the game of signs generating its variations, demonstrating the duality and susceptibility of ideology.
On the other hand, the creative duet Liudmila and Nelson1 also warns the ironical character of the billboard in their photographic series Habana Jam Session. In this case, the structures are extracted from their original environment and recontextualized in winter landscapes, where they appear as anachronisms bursting into a strange environment. The artists place the color billboards in grey and inhospitable environments, as if political propaganda were an incomprehensible circus show, precisely made to be obviated. That is how the public nature of the billboard and its communicative function are questioned.
The slogans the group of images retake seem assigned to be disregarded by an inexistent receiver, since information continues to be a waste ground in political matters. The pieces show another facet of the billboards, linked with its ineffectiveness and how alien are the slogans they present. In that way, the artists maintain the interest of their work on scrutinizing the Cuban reality from dissimilar angles, detecting the failures of utopia.
To traffic with metaphors is a useful resource to alter the senses and evade prohibitions, but taking art to the billboards in the city should be understood as a form of raising its communicative status…
Young artist Jesús Hdez-Güero (Havana, 1983) proposes a work that mimics the billboard, linked to the sensitive topic of censorship. In his piece Subpaís (Under-country), with an investigation made on the organizations and political parties of the so called Cuban dissidence—not acknowledged or officialized because of the single-party system of the nation—suggests a sort of alternative territory, which fluctuates without place or acceptance of the State, but even then exists and has the same social logic of a country.
Hdez-Güero declares in his statement: “The work creates a variant in the geographical area that the Subpaís would physically occupy, through real calculations of the percentage of persons who integrate these organizations and resistance groups with regard to the number of inhabitants existing in
Cuba and the square miles this percentage occupies within the Cuban territory.” Subpaís was exhibited for the first time during 2010 in the Liverpool Biennial in the United Kingdom
and has never been able to materialize in Cuba. The artist chose a neutral ground to present his hypothetical nation. The billboards or large posters that he dispersed on various points of Liverpool exteriorize the names and acronyms of almost unknown entities, most of them characterized by the label of “independents”. That is how Hdez-Güero continues analyzing phenomena that are being masked, approaching the spectator to uncomfortable issues and showing a conflict underlying in the realm of the questioned.
The approximations to the billboard as a pretext in Cuban art are not only circumscribed to this group of creators. There are others that have also besieged the topic and next generations will surely do it as well. But, in my opinion, even taking into account projects of former decades generated from the institutions, the intervention of the billboard in the public space, and not only as photographic documentation or anonymous insertion, continues to be a pending subject.
To traffic with metaphors is a useful resource to alter the senses and evade prohibitions, but taking art to the billboards in the city should be understood as a form of raising its communicative status. The risk of socializing the works, although they may generate conflicting attitudes and opinions, should only be questionable for those who prefer to look elsewhere.
From the series La palabra política en hechos finalmente, 2009 Mixed media
Courtesy the artist
Grandes causas requieren sacrificios, 1997 From the series Para que el enemigo no regrese Woodcut on paper
31 ½ x 44 inches
Courtesy the artist
JESUS HDEZ-GUERO Subpaís, 2010
Intervention in Liverpool, 20 posters, 2 maps and territories Liverpool Biennial, 2010, UK Courtesy the artist
LIUDMILA & NELSON
From the series Habana Jam Session, 2015 Digital print
Courtesy the artists
1. Liudmila Velasco (Moscow, 1969). Nelson Ramírez de Arellano (Berlin, 1969).