WITH A STARE FIXED ON YOUR FACE: MANUEL PIÑA’S AGUAS BALDÍAS

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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. ƒ

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

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