TRAF­FIC OF METAPHORS

Art On Cuba - - In This Issue - MAEVA PERAZA

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. ƒ

CAR­LOS GARAICOA

From the se­ries La pal­abra política en he­chos fi­nal­mente, 2009 Mixed me­dia

Courtesy the artist

AN­TO­NIO ESPINOSA

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).

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