Ka­t­rina Chairs

Ar­rechea’s homage to New Or­leans in the Coachella Fes­ti­val

Art On Cuba - - Music And Arts Festiva - MAR­GARITA SÁNCHEZ PRIETO

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. ƒ

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 at the end of May in Galería Ha­bana, where it was ex­hib­ited un­til July, 2016, with draw­ings and in­stal­la­tions.

3. Gar­den Cas­tro, Jan: “Con­tra­dic­tion is my logic. A con­ver­sa­tion with Alexan­dre Ar­rechea”. In: Sculp­ture Mag­a­zine. Vol. 33, No 9, Washington DC, page 56.

4. In con­ver­sa­tion with the au­thor of this ar­ti­cle on his ex­hi­bi­tion

El ob­jeto sac­ri­fi­cado (The Sac­ri­ficed Ob­ject) in Galería Casado San­ta­pau in Madrid, 2013, Ar­rechea re­ferred that he gath­ers fur­ni­ture, ob­jects and ar­chi­tec­ture since they co­ex­ist in hu­man life just like that.

5. Vives, Cristina: El es­pa­cio in­evitable. The in­evitable space. Turner,

Madrid, 2014.

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