Arrechea’s homage to New Orleans in the Coachella Festival
The public sculpture by Alexandre Arrechea once again monopolizes the attention of the audience. I am referring to Katrina Chairs, the enormous sculptural complex that was located in the plots of land where the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on the East of Los Angeles is annually held, close to the Colorado Desert. During the weekends of the second half of April in which the event took place, this work became one of its main attractions and, probably, the most broadcasted in Internet and the media. Once again the dichotomous relationship between architecture and furniture he rehearses in his drawings achieves unsuspected reach when materialized in colossal sculptures designed for certain spaces.
Arrechea belongs to the generation that, in the 1990s in Cuba, gave impetus to post-conceptual art, with a strong reflective meaning based on a skillful (well-made) art production. This way of assuming art has its origin in the period in which he studied in the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA), a stage in which he knew the paradigmatic conceptual production of Joseph
Beuys and Marcel Duchamp who, respectively, revealed him the social nature of art and the significant potentiality of the object, among other questions. The methodology of teaching in ISA encouraged the development of ideations based on personal interests and life experience, whether expressing, as in the case of this artist, a divertimento which translated the enjoyable side of his Cuban youth, his reflection on local economy, or recreated the Trinitarian environment of his childhood and adolescence. René Francisco Rodríguez, professor of that institution in those years, also warned him to fulfill an art of social insertion in collaboration with other artists.1 That decade witnessed some transits that would mark his path—first in his work in unison with Dagoberto Rodríguez and, later, together with him and Marco Castillo, in the collective Los Carpinteros—and would later nourish his solo work. Transits that go from the sketch of allegories around national identity and the sociopolitical context materialized in wooden sculptural handcrafted objects, the subversion of disciplinary conventions to renew formulations, to drawings inserted in imagined spaces, open to more universal reflections relative to local phenomena with a world reach as migration, the viability of what is represented, the functionality or not of an idea, at times using real objects from construction, in a wish perhaps to overcome the difficult economic reality the island was going through. By different ways, the attention to the context, the symbolic interpretation of an environment, the blending and mobility to one or other discipline,2 will early appear in his work.
In Arrechea’s work the idea-context connection entered into a process of greater complexity when, in the middle of 2003, he decided to split up from the collective and restart his career on his own. That same year he travelled to Los Angeles, where he remained some time. The experiences in that environment, and later in others in conditions of creative autonomy, encouraged him to make incursions in means and materials unexplored until the moment. The series Reminders, for example, made with magnets, illustrates the way in which he symbolically understood his domestic space in that city, with a material that would connote it and was found in the place. Although in 2000 his interest in video had awakened—a support alien to the work of Los Carpinteros—, when he decided to become independent, not only did he immerse himself in it—in sequences staging situations of confrontation or the duality of possibilities—, but he also came forward for the registry of performances with a self-referential nature, in which the prominence of architectural elements involved an oblique reference to the context. These are tasks with which he set out a more personal aesthetic discourse that would express the meaning that for him has had an environment of life summarized in its materiality, of which architecture is part. It is the case of Elementos arquitectónicos (Architectonic Elements), a series made between 2004 and 2014 in which he is almost hidden when having his photograph taken while supporting wooden planks, columns with constructive blocks, sheets of paper, architectonic fragments and doors. In the interview made to him by Jan Garden Castro3 on his exhibition in 2014 in Magnan Metz Gallery, Arrechea attributes his interest in architecture to the prominence it acquired in Trinidad, where he was born, in which wealthy families built beautiful colonial houses with the wealth coming from the sugar harvested in its valley, during the sugar boom of the 18th century and later. Besides his iconic strength and representing the most visible face of the material and urban culture, architecture has remained in his memory as part of the landscape of the cities in which he has had to live: Havana, Madrid, New York, apart from Trinidad. All this explains why architecture appears in his production, once in a while, combined with other expressions, or symbiotically merged with furniture, where the contemporary, anonymous design pursues allegorizing ideas or situations readable by publics of any latitude, as can be appreciated in some watercolors and in Katrina Chairs.
Although his creative versatility has led him to the mastery of several expressions, his colossal sculptures have given him greater celebrity. Although the icons are recognizable in them, the coupling of architectures, elements and unconnected objects4 in arbitrary scales or reshaped in a new form surprise because of their visual impact and way in which they allegorize criteria, philosophies, utopias, events, dual perspectives and personal experience. International art critic acclaimed the ten sculptures of No Limits—emblematic of the alliance between architecture and power—installed in Park Avenue in New York three years before. However, his famous Katrina Chairs, gigantic sculptures 50 feet high and 140 000 pounds of weight for the Coachella Festival, deserved similar attention and captivated more than
300 000 members of the audience. Four enormous chairs painted yellow, each of them supporting an apartment building, rose as a fabled resource to save a community from flooding. Although architecture is what contains chairs and other pieces of furniture and has a larger size, the artist did not doubt to subvert their dimensions and exaggeratedly enlarging those of the chairs before the imperative of offering a solution—raising the buildings on their legs—to the inhabitants of New Orleans, many of whom, after the flooding caused by the hurricane Katrina, lost their houses abandoned to their luck.
Months before holding the Coachella Festival, Paul Clemente, its artistic director, had been in Havana and visited Cristina Vives, the author of the monographic book5 on the artist published by Turner in Spain. Impressed by his work, particularly with the watercolors made after the Katrina disaster, Clemente visited Arrechea in his studio in New York and suggested him to materialize, in sculpture of large proportions, the watercolor
A few days before Katrina to exhibit it in the Festival. The image reproduced two chairs facing each other supporting on their seats a horizontal building, whose ends rested on the chairs, as a bridge rising over the waters. After the usual technical consultations reported certain constructive problems, Clemente requested Arrechea to reformulate the piece and the building be supported by only one chair. The result leaves him enthusiastic and he asks the artist to replicate it. This is how the project Katrina Chairs comes to life, materialized in four chairs with their respective buildings.
This would not be the only work that the effects of Katrina inspired in Arrechea. Katrina’s winds, 127 miles per hour, devastated the southern coast of the United States in 2005.
Three years later, in 2008, the same year in which Arrechea produces A few days before Katrina, he was invited—among a total of 81 chosen artists—to take part in Prospect 1, Biennial of Contemporary Art of New Orleans, an occasion in which he made the public work Mississippi Bucket, in reference to the flooding caused by that hurricane. The piece, conceived as an intervention for the Plaza of Good Fortune, described the silhouette of the Mississippi river made with pieces of timber recovered from its bank—possibly from the houses that were destroyed—, which he assembled to simulate a sinuous bucket, as the river, to contain the waters. In 2003, a book on the overflowing of the Mississippi waters (because of the break of the dikes caused by the hurricane in 1927) had fell in his hands. Although this publication had familiarized him with the consequences of the phenomenon in New Orleans and the media were in charge of disseminating the effects of this type of disaster, there are no doubts that his experience as a migrant has been sharpening his sensitivity towards the world events and reality and, in particular, towards events that he is familiar with, as the hurricane.
But as Mississippi Bucket allegorized a functionality—to prevent the waters of the river to overflow—, Katrina Chairs added another function, further away from the contemplative and reflexive that every work usually has when exhibited in a gallery or museum. In the Coachella Valley, during the day, the enormous chairs gave refuge to the participants, who took shelter under their shadow before the inclemency of the sun; a functionality that, according to the artist, became one of its greater attractions. And in the night they shone brightly under a scenographic work of color lights that made possible that the chairs changed from yellow to blue, then to violet and later to pink, and in this way they became a substantial part of the show in the Festival. The audience wandered about among them, as the tiny characters of the Gulliver story, impressed on their surreal size, with a sensation mixing aesthetic enjoyment and satisfaction. The famous North American dealer and curator Jeffrey Dietch—who until 2013 managed the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles—, the graphologist Shepard Fairey, among other hundreds of persons in the world of art—artists, gallery owners, collectors, musicians, celebrities—and common people came to this event of arts and music and were stunned by the Katrina Chairs.
Apart from reformulating the original project, Arrechea took the piece to a large size—in common agreement with Clemente and the collaboration of his team of architects from Havana— with the intention to approach the real height buildings usually have, although I think he never imagined it would be done in such a gigantic dimension. Apart from the budget, the colossal scale became possible thanks to its presentation being made in an opencast plot of land, in the same conditions in which architecture raises in the city. Thus, interacting with the Katrina Chairs, the multitudes perceived them as architecture and, at the same time, as sculpture, excelling a notion more than the other if they were placed at a distance, in a close place or resting sitting under them: a dual perspective that puts into practice the erosion of the boundaries between both arts, which is today a highlighted topic. Its monumental size and weight demanded to make a skeleton of steel beams—later covered with marine plywood—, hoist its parts with cranes and embed the legs on the ground as with an architectonic or engineering work; a production worthy of public art in great scale. The intense yellow as from Van Gogh, chosen taking into account the greenness of the natural habitat of the place and the flashy that color is, gave completion to the piece.
Liberated from the contaminations and significant links its location on the urban space would have added, this enormous sculptural complex located in the Coachella Valley entrenched its contents per se. There were no reinterpretations of any architectonic referent, or winks at other artistic marks, only the evocation of an event that had taken place in a geographical space nearby.
All the attention was centered in the idea that inspired this sort of symbiotic piece in minimal lines and Pop gigantism. Although many art critics hierarchize the sophistication of his production as to its ideo-aesthetic configuration, its materials and the way these materials are treated, it also highlights how it dimensions a physical, episodic, urban, cultural, subjective, social, global, domestic, geographical or contextual space. Katrina Chairs is a work dedicated to New Orleans which grew when locating next to the context inspiring its creation, although its architectonic aesthetics, appreciable in any city, induces to think on the ubiquity of this type of disaster. The Festival offered it a splendid stage, an abundant public and invested it with a festive tone, without losing its human and social intention at all, a meaning it will always have. It is a decisive contribution of this artist from a public art illustrating how architecture should be conceived according to the geophysical characteristics of a city for the shelter of its life.
Interacting with the Katrina Chairs, the multitudes perceived them as architecture and, at the same time, as sculpture…
1. We find marks of his teachings in the work Para usted (For You), made by Dagoberto Rodríguez in a cigar factory. 2. This change in the disciplines and setting outs was obvious in his solo show Jerarquías negadas (Denied Hierarchies), inaugurated...