ON HOW TO REDEFINE OUR NOTION ABOUT LANDSCAPE
IPart of the obsession I will share here arose several years ago, to be exact on a 2005 morning, while preparing myself to paint doors in the air along the Havana sea wall (Malecón), an action that brought about Finisterre, an eleven–picture sequence work documenting my actions on the wall and that I later digitally “painted” on the computer. In that process I realized I was painting “landscapes”, an expression approached at present from varied interdisciplinary lines, in multiple spheres of sciences and humanities, while there is not yet an understanding in the arts sphere—obviously more comprehensive—beyond its traditional use.
I remember by December 2011, months before the 11th Havana Biennial, I had no idea about what to do. I was in my second year at the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA) and I had to submit several projects for the Environmental Sculpture Workshop taught by
Jose Ángel Vincech, a context that generated Paisaje itinerante and Reconciliación, then conceived for spaces in ISA and subsequently exhibited in public spaces in the capital.
By then, the Shitao’s (1642-1707) painting treaty had made it into my hands, clarifying much of my inner turmoil:
(…) Fifty years ago I did not recognize myself as part of mountains and rivers (the landscape), not because they were less valuable, but because they existed per se. Now, the landscape (mountains and rivers) is asking me to speak on its behalf, landscape has been born in me and I born in it. I have relentlessly looked for extraordinary peaks, I have made a thousand drawings and sketches, until the landscape has met my spirit and its trace has metamorphosed in me such that, finally, it is reborn in me.2
This brief writing is first of all a manual, a set of recommendations to better perform as a painter, with unquestionable ethical implications, provided with a metaphysical position. Although the treaty that revolutionized Chinese painting can be seen applicable only to painting, it sparked in me the willingness of an “encounter” with a landscape beyond painting. Mainly stemming from this fortuitous dialogue with “Bitter Gourd”
Monk Shitao, it emerged the idea of generating artistic works like Paisaje Itinerante (Traveling Landscape), to be part of the Series Estructuras Sensibles (Sensitive Structures). While this piece had an exhibition purpose, my intention was to take the space in the Biennial to experiment with two different types of interventions in landscape.
Reconciliación (Reconciliation), on the other hand, was created to mix with the urban landscape. This was a standard streetlamp that illuminates opposite directions of a street, with the usually straight, extended arms of the two lamps intertwined to form one. The two lights used were public lamps from Cuba and the United States.
Perhaps it was when the piece was placed in San Rafael Boulevard, at the entrance of the by then existing Collage Habana Gallery, that it took on real life and started to co–exist with the rest of the overhead lines in the Boulevard, and the eclectic pacing up and down of people. Later, the piece of art was placed in Trianón Theater, venue of the Teatro El Público company that has maintained ties with locals and foreingers on stage. It seemed to me a good place for the streetlamp to end its tour of the city. Curiously, on December 17th, 2015, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were reestablished. One year later, just before the visit of President Obama, the manager of the mentioned theater, who I often talk to about the status of the lamp, shared some comments from visitors and passerby when they see the piece. One phrase made me think about the circumstances:
“Hey bro, was this lamp placed here because Obama is visiting?”
In the year 2015, I launched the call for collaborations for the Árbol de Luz (Tree of Light) that partially reads:
We invite you to create a sculpture. It is a street light combining lamps from different parts of the world, a utopic gesture for the reconciliation of all nations, ethnicities, religions, political systems, societies and cultures. The Tree of Light starts with your contribution; every lamp we receive shall be a branch. The key is to send lights from different spaces to be assembled in a unique luminary. Your lamp shall join others in the creation of a common space, revealing the multiple aspects of our Cultural Unconscious.
When we think about the street lamp as an object, despite different designs, we find something—in my view—totally deprived of symbolic meaning, precisely as it is considered everyday to the passerby. It is incredible how these elements that coexist alongside us in the city, cease to exist as they become normal and everyday. The purpose of the luminary, its functionality, everything that makes it everyday, implies a strong and beautiful metaphor…. Why not? It is the ideal object to create a space of communion and sense. The pieces in this series are penetrable, their transformation occurs at a scale of sensations in the space lit by the lamps—where we include the spectator—and the hieratic of the structure, merged into the city. Because you do not begin to ocupy the piece when you are under it, but when you perceive its light.
The idea of the Tree of Light appeared in the series Estructuras Sensibles, even before Reconciliación. The logic in the year 2012 was that the second piece—according to logistics and costs to obtain the lights—would be much simpler to make. By then,
I was in doubt over the aesthetic background of the piece and for some, the worn–out rhizomatic meaning. Nonetheless, we cannot play along with self–censorship. I found that the process of the work, the call to put lights together and all the relations between collaborators and spectators (sometimes they are the same), went beyond the purely visual experience. This is, beyond the shape, the material or the size of the Tree, a work of collaboration.
The Tree, together with other ideas from the same series, waited for a budget or for the opportunity to be made. Then, in 2015, for the 12th Havana Biennial, I saw the chance to dust it off, on being invited to the second edition of Detrás del Muro.
The site selected for its location was La Punta, in the intersection of Malecón and Paseo del Prado (Prado Promenade).
The call for collaborations was launched months before, sent to email addresses, and published on social media. Initially, there was great uncertainty for those working on the project. Some lamps from different nations were in Cuba, most sent by persons who wanted to cooperate from their home countries. We gathered lamps from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, the United States, India, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Vietnam. The piece was sponsored mainly by the FCBC and AHS4, supported by friends and collaborators.
The location for the piece, added to the public influx caused by Detrás del Muro during the Biennial, turned it into a place for meetings and constant movement. The light irradiating from the fifteen sources of light made the venue a “spotlight” on the Malecón. It was usual to see spectators try to decode the origin of each light, ether sitting next to or walking around the lamp, participating in a cycle that started with the shipment of the lights.
Once the Biennial had ended, we pleasantly learnt that
Eusebio Leal, historian of the city, had appointed a place for the permanent exhibition of the Tree of Light. With the collaboration of the Office of the City Historian and the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund (FCBC), the art work was donated to the city and positioned on a mound especially built for it in front of the Museum of the Revolution, diagonal to the Fine Arts Museum on the corner of Monserrate and Aguacate, in Old Havana.
Precisely during the Biennial, we started negotiating the possibility to place a Tree of Light in Miami, upon the request of philanthropist and collector Jorge Pérez. A couple of years later, at the beginning of 2017, the layouts and drawings of that Tree started. The layouts were sent to the United States to work on the structure, and a new call was launched for those wanting to participate in the Miami Tree of Light. So far we have received some shipments, many are interested in participating and we hope we can put together lamps from seventeen countries.
Before long, the artwork shall be permanently installed in Miami, in a public park on land donated to the city by The Related Group.
I don’t believe it is by chance that the Tree of Light is “planted” in the two sites where the lights used for Reconciliation came from. Those places are still pretexts to embrace and unite wills, to generate light in spaces where there is darkness. There, where the intimate scene between the light cast by the piece and the spectator is produced, our notion of territory is transformed.
The landscape changes, refracting all colors, as in a prism.
1. Rafael Villares, Estructuras Sensibles. Sobre como redefinir nuestra noción de paisaje. ISA Bachellor Thesis, 2015
2. Shitao: Frases sobre la pintura del monje Calabaza Amarga. P Ryckmans, republished by Hermann, 1977
3. The call for collaborations can be found at www.rafaelvillares.com 4. FCBC: Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales. AHS: Asociación Hermanos Saíz.