LIKES BY JOSÉ MIGUEL COSTA
José Miguel Costa (Las Tunas, 1971) is an atypical case among the contemporary art made in Cuba during the last century.
He did not arrive in Havana mad keen on entering the Higher Institute of Arts. He did not dare to climb on a raft and cross that line called the horizon. Much less did he succumb to the collective enthusiasm, the common “state of mind” in villages where “nothing ever happens” beyond scheming, committing crimes or tempting fate in prohibited games.
Costa was far from being an adventurer who would abandon his family in order to establish himself. Nor was it an obsession to follow a strategic path to his promotion. Costa declined to join the invasion of the nineties, which took advantage of the stampede of the eighties avant–garde. They were young people hungry to become prominent in the artistic scene, open to institutional flirtation following a corrected cultural policy.
Although he is passionate about baseball and football, José Miguel Costa refused to assume his artistic vocation in win or lose terms. For him, waiting did not mean giving up on gaining early visibility, a frequent and almost generalized concern among emerging creators of Cuban art. Something similar to those children who aim to rival their, also artist, parents.
On freeing himself of the identity neurosis, palm trees became jilted brides, while patriotic symbols (shields, flags, machetes) were appropriated by a generation lost in the homogenization of the insular cliché. A cautious trendsetter, it could be said that Costa stalled in flirting with the capital, that great prostitute that every man wants to conquer, before taking her to travel the world.
Whether he was born on an island or on the continent was irrelevant to a man who doesn’t consider himself to be a draftsman, painter, sculptor, video or performance artist. Costa gives the impression of enjoying his free electron status, in order to move between the margins of action that offer him limits predetermined before his birth.
As a social actor beyond the ideological or commercial game, the relationships between visual medium and idea flow as the creative process advances. The consistent feature of his work is the irony of a dramaturgical perception, ready to modify the sense of the staging as initially conceived.
Sketching the landscape of the quest is the starting point that marks the series Troyanos I (Trojans I, 2012). While Joseph Fouché declared that information is power, Costa translated the founder of modern espionage into a network of micro–powers, sufficient to abolish the boundaries between mass and hegemony, speed and slowness, the artisan and the technological. Therefore, he devoted himself to extracting websites and email addresses, to configure freehand an uncapturable social portrait.
Troyanos I did not exploit the calamity of subsisting on the margins of technological advances and information highways. Based on the great architecture that is the Internet, the artist compiled a number of useful data and tracks that he himself couldn’t take advantage of; while others would not even know what to do with.
Before these pieces, one recalls the uncertainty of the former captive: “And now that I have my freedom, what will I do with it?” Single tracks lead social losers to make the error of clinging to the impossible; whereas broad and foreign paths distract or mislead those who boast of choosing their fancies.
Moving from the relatively highbrow to the supposedly popular, Vapor es 23 (Vapor is 23) concentrated on the relationship between numbers and their meaning. This series became another psychosocial kaleidoscope; now the “lucky ticket” of La Charada (Cuban lottery system) awarded illicit vice the rank of majority obsession. Here there is no ethical/moral distinction between the people involved. Luck is the hope of the dispossessed.
Vapor es 23 captured the human will to aspire to move from the shadows into the light. Vade retro: It’s win or win! “Life is risk or abstinence,” wrote the suicidal Reinaldo Arenas, before succumbing to bad luck on risking it all. The consolation of the Cuban writer was to go without having to endure the insult of old age.
The Vapor es 23 series was not the product of the cold calculation imposed on choosing the right themes at the right time. It is a tribute to the artist’s father, who used to play this number in La Charada and even came to win it. This manuscript, as an informative guide, sought to provide a glimpse of the clandestine nature of the illegal bustle that reigns in the country’s daily life.
Neither as calculating or as intimate, Costa’s work prefers to avoid sterile dualities. A healthy measure that allows him to delight in the “all mixed up” that the poet Nicolás Guillén proposed, against the “anything goes” of postmodern vacillation.
Más de un millón (More than a Million) was the title of the solo exhibition that José Miguel Costa presented in the Carmelo gallery (April–May, 2017). The exhibition was formed of pieces making up Troyanos II and Vapor es 23, for a late but sure debut in the Havana circuit.
Why was a hint at a number chosen to link the two series of apparently unrelated content? The answer may lie in the
superstitions of those who trust in numbers for magic redemption and the chimera of attempting to trap contemporary dynamics with obsolete technology.
Whether in the learned or popular view, more than a million is an indication of success, or a phenomenon of failure. It is no secret that cunning or luck unite or separate those who shed their skin, on leaping above an unending zero option.
Just how many people surf the Internet at the rate of a tired castaway? How many enter sites controlled by hegemonic servers, as producers of servitude. How many have failed in La Charada, having invested their savings in a miracle that would enable them to caress their fifteen minutes of financial glory.
Erasure, as historic rewriting, or with a desire to cover something up, constituted a discursive ploy turned into a formal and recurring wink in Troyanos II and Vapor is 23. In this way, the concrete was transformed into the abstract, by virtue of information that reveals the tip of a blurred iceberg on any world map.
The unique aspect of this way of experimenting with drawing outside its traditional framework was to break the academic mold, as to the link between figuration and abstraction. This was proved by the conversion of a primary resource such as pen– writing into an unfinished diagram; at the same time as absurdly interrelating something as local as La Charada with something as global as the Internet.
Another misunderstanding stemmed from the interrelation between form and content. Thanks to the operation of “complicit opposites,” Costa illustrated this ruse where the form neutralizes the miniaturized content. A Baroque calligraphic style that would overwhelm those who avoid the simple means, to suggest a complex and inconvenient end.
This conceptual adventure resulted in a sobering nod to subliminal advertising, as a longstanding tactic of domination, rather than becoming a contemporary attempt to investigate the unexplored universe that virtual reality and its impact on third world survival represent in the Cuban art context.
Más de un millón did not manipulate the pain of others, nor did it show personal complaints of those who would swallow everything they wanted to discover in life and in art. This gesture synthesized a handful of nightmares. Hopefully some will dawn turned into dreams come true, when the most skeptical of sleepers would least expect it.
Certain mainstream observers believe the polarities between center and periphery, local and universal, arts and life, to have been surpassed. Más de un millón confirmed the veracity of this suspicion, intervening on the walls of a minimum white cube, located in the former Havana Lyceum. There where José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera exchanged blows, in what is remembered as the “patio fight.”
Centinelas, from the series Troyanos II, 2017 Ink on heavy paper
59 x 79 in
Untitled, from the series Vapor es 23, 2017 / Ink on heavy paper / 59 x 79 in Untitled, from the series Troyanos II, 2017 /Ink on heavy paper / 27 x 39 in