WITH A STARE FIXED ON YOUR FACE: MANUEL PIÑA’S AGUAS BALDÍAS
Barren waters that embrace everything with their abundance, with their imperturbable power. Water Wastelands that involuntarily caress and devour a fragment of history. The sea, that great metaphor that seduces and condemns, that displays itself as pleasure and trap all at once, for human contemplation. The sea, our sea—if we could believe it is ours—surrounds us indomitable, in presence, in consciousness.
We are an island; the limit of our steps on earth is water, all water. For some it is a blessing, for others, penance; although there is no shortage of those who look at and assume it with the impenetrable state of negligence. For many it is shelter, resource, a way, means to obtain food—spiritual or material—an answer to uncertainties or pleasures.
These waters populate and appropriate a way of being, a position before art and life. The sea and the Havana Malecón define an idiosyncrasy laid bare both in Cuban cinematography and contemporary photographic production. Expressed from multiple perspectives, most of them with a chronicle or documental attitude, this cosmopolitan seawall and its related waters bear dissimilar postulates in the most serious, coherent and established artistic creation of recent times.
This is what occurs in the photography series Aguas baldías (Water Wastelands) by Cuban artist Manuel Piña Baldoquín (Havana, 1958). Made between the years 1992 and 1994, with the traditional silver gelatin print technique, this sequence of large scale images (the original formats of the fifteen pieces exceed the square meter), makes the notion of the boundary, advocated in the sea and the capital’s seawall, the motive and subject of the works. The sea is presented as a living entity, as the center of a discourse that, rather than establishing coordinates for questioning, erases the stillness of the totalitarian gaze.
Aguas baldías that involuntarily caress and devour a fragment of history. The sea, that great metaphor that seduces and condemns, that displays itself as pleasure and trap all at once, for human contemplation.
It is almost 25 years since the genesis of these images and they still preserve the essence of a visual discourse that ravages.
It is that hallmark of the works of art that makes them flawlessly break through the passage of time, transformed into paradigms and obligatory references. Disparate reasons accompany them, something that has perhaps idly delayed their complete exhibition in the same city that provoked them.
These works go beyond the staunch ethos and revert to the precise individual, not the disconnected (under the garb of the people) that so abounds. They speak of a group of specific people who live and dream in front of the banks of a sea that is theirs through natural inheritance. They are pieces that allude to a history, to a point of geography, to a determined form of existence, although they manage to transcend beyond exclusive postulates and circular reflections.
The theme is combined with migration, the limit, the ideal journey, the utopia; with solitude, the symbolism of the low wall, silence, absence, alienation, the being in itself, redemption, tropes of escape. It does not determine the level at which we would want to locate it, because the relativity of a settlement depends on its assimilation. These photographs can deal with one or all of the arguments at once.
The shot turns its back on the land to delve forgotten into the expanses of a soothing sea, at times calm, at others insurgent.
A closer look at the confrontation between a cold sea and a dilapidated wall that offers scarce seduction of an outburst to direct it. Thus in other readings, political or partisan relativities have been seen. Be that as it may, one of the riches of these images lies in the divergence of their perceptions. Regarding concepts and concurrence the artist himself expressed:
“... it was made at a time when I was in a period of transition in my life... that coincided with a particular moment for society in Cuba. It was a time when Cuba stopped being what it had been... A moment of great uncertainty, of discouragement, of not knowing where we stood. That combination of things influenced the way I took those photographs. It reflected my personal position, but also the position of Cuban society. And on featuring in the Biennial, the reading moved to the political question, and in fact I did not want to exhibit them for some time, because it was too narrow a vision, like it was only a paragraph and not a book.”1
A subjective gaze from land, fixed on a relative horizon, that the presence of the sea saturates. They are 15 monochrome, landscape impressions, where the precision of frames and focuses stands out. Without great experimental formal pretensions, the sharpness in the surreptitious paths of the message emerges from these Waters. A form of portrayal indebted to the best Cuban photo-documentary, a style of approaching reality that distinguishes Manuel Piña from his generation: the search for the detail, the instant, the objective and the circumstantial, set to dialogue with the illusion of the real and the experience/way of life of the recipient. You do not have to look at things as they are in themselves—a phrase of Barthes comes to mind—nor as the speaker or writer knows them, but only in relation to what those who read or those who are listening know, and, I would add, those looking through the lens.
The author, although approaching the documentary, glances at the environment with exploratory rather than narrative boldness, whether at icons, the city, its nodes and spaces of coexistence, as in later series (Manipulaciones, verdades y otras ilusiones / Manipulations, Truths and other Illusions; De construcciones y utopías / On Constructions and Utopias; Monumentos / Monuments). The traditional verisimilitude of the photographic image is displaced by the interpretative and transformative possibilities offered by direct photography, sought in the street. A status that began to take hold in our context in the nineties and given the emergence of new artists, mostly self-taught, who, directed towards local reality, avoided univocal messages, to make way for the polysemy of the discourse and experimentation at conceptual and aesthetic levels.
Returning to Aguas baldías, from this inaugural series the preference of a style can be traced; that mixture of iconographic brevity with the orthodoxy of the message—what for some critics is the indifference in the works—and the search for events, attitudes, overshadowing or segmenting the subject in the scene. An ontological discourse where the being is present but does not decree.
Only in one of these works does the presence of the human figure dominate, that of the young bather ready to jump from the wall, in a critical moment of escape to the sea. In the rest of the series the subject emerges twice, from the fragment (the legs walking along the wall, towards the left edge of the image), and the symbolic diminution of the figure (an almost dispelled, engulfed presence, on the brim of the water).
The sky is another active element in the image, which establishes the allegorical relationship with the sea. At times counterpoised, in others integrated, the piece of sky that always accompanies the sea matches the dramatic atmosphere of the photographs. However, in the aforementioned image of the young man “trapped” in the impulse, it only comes to emphasize that polarity between the three natural elements. The body that hangs between sky, water and land, records more than a choice, an antithesis. The paradox of permanence, the body suspended over the waters, an almost infant body that threatens to get lost in a sea of sterilities under the hot sun of the island. As in those verses of Virgilio Piñera: “bodies devouring waves of light, return like sunflowers of flame / at the crest of ecstatic waters, / bodies, afloat, drift seawards like extinguished embers.”2
Expressed in its gradations, the liquid body seems to monopolize the signifiers. It dialogues from analogies, whether captured close-up or omitted. Appreciated in sequence, the images stitch together the story. At times the sea emerges majestic, dilated, surrounding in its ostentatious calm; or sectioned by a breakwater, undaunted with its demarcation. At intervals, it is a seditious sea that bites into the wall to mark its space, reaching the sidewalk. It becomes a frugal, watchful being, detained in its advance before the expectation of a confrontation, relegated to a second position. In the end it is a subject inferred by the lens, stopped before the coarseness of a gigantic bare wall.
1. Manuel Piña, Conversaciones. La Mirada. Photography in Latin America Today, (Zürich: Edition Oehrli, Daros Latin America Collection, Volume II, 2003), 74. The years Piña refers to are the early nineties, when the socalled Special Period intensified, and one of the huge migratory waves of Cubans to Florida occurred (August, 1994). The Biennial mentioned was the 5th Biennial of Havana (1994), on that occasion dedicated to the theme of Migration. Five large-format pieces photocopied in a blue tone were exhibited.
2. Virgilio Piñera, “La Isla en peso,” in: López Lemus, Virgilio, Doscientos años de poesía cubana 1790 - 1990. Cien poemas antológicos, (Havana: Ediciones Abril, 1999), 271.
Camina, from the series Aguas baldías, 1992-1994 Silver gelatin print
47 x 71 in
Sangre, from the series Aguas baldías, 1992-1994 Silver gelatin print
47 x 71 in
Courtesy of the artist
Salto, from the series Aguas baldías, 1992-1994 Silver gelatin print
47 x 94 in
Courtesy of the artist