CARLOS ESTÉVEZ AND THE THEATRUM MUNDI: DESTINY OR WILL?
The thesis about the vision of the world as a theater started with the ancient Greek thinkers, especially in Plato’s thoughts about similarities between human beings and puppets and about similarities between life compared to comedy and tragedy.
This philosophy has leaked through to the contemporary world with the Latin phrase Theatrum Mundi, meaning The Theater of the World. The phrase is attributable to John of Salisbury, a 12th century humanist, reflected in his book Policraticus (o Statesman’s Book) written around 1159, entitling one of his meditations. This document is likewise considered the origin of the slogan of the Globe Theatre[1599–1642], built by William Shakespeare, a venue where he presented his famous plays. At the door of the theater there was an image of Hercules holding a Globe with the inscription Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem (All the world is a stage). Perhaps the popularity of this perception of the world is ascribable to Shakespeare, who immortalized the expression in As You Like It (1599), when one of the protagonists says: “All the world’s a stage /And all men and women merely players…” (Act II, Scene VII).
This notion about the world also inspired Spanish Baroque style writers, such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681), who entitled one of his plays The Great Theater of the World (1655). The basis of this concept was the existence of an omnipresent God, who guided and leaded the existence of human life, so, the world was just a scenario, where human beings lived according to a supreme being.
This is a recurrent topic in Carlos Estévez’s work (La Habana, 1969), who has developed this subject over time. The first installation by Estévez, about the concept of the world as a theater was La Verdadera Historia Universal (1995), exhibited in the First National Hall of Cuban Contemporary Arts, the very same year, and later exhibited in the National Fine Arts Museum in Havana. The piece displays a wooden small scenario replica, and wooden puppets, representing famous personalities from the artistic, the philosophical and the political world from many centuries. This an interactive piece where the stage remains empty and each person can select the “actors” from the puppets, according to their vision of the world. The concept was to draw attention to the repeated manipulation of history. This is an idea of special connotation in Cuba, given its context and the frequent split of historic and social elements during the republican and revolutionary times.
One of the essential and traditional components of popular theater has been puppets, indicating lack of control, since they are manipulated by invisible beings from a superior space. Estévez took the communicative strength of the metaphor to convey the concept of the pre–established destiny. The artist has used the concept through his artistic production and it has visually constituted a trademark for his work. We can mention examples from the early period, in sculptures created by the end of the 1990s, like Designios del Espiritu (1997) and Visionario (1998), representing human beings a puppets, manipulated by strings.
In the year 2001, Estévez exhibited in the Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles, a piece entitled The Theater of Life, the core of the display. On this occasion, he showed a series of black background drawings and the characters were string–manipulated puppets. Different subjects were represented, with vignettes narrating dissimilar stories. One of the pieces, entitled El Juego del Poder (2001), presented two adversaries controlling a chessboard with little figures moved by strings. At the same time, the main characters were moved by strings from above. This might be considered an illustration of the statement by the Persian poet and philosopher Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), who used the allegory of the chessboard to illustrate the existence of fate, a destiny for every human being when born, and the presence of God, controlling persons as pieces. Khayyam stated that those movements in the game resembled life, where all movements are originated if you so allow, creating a false sense of control. In the year 2008, Estévez grabbed this idea once more and took it to a third dimension in El Juego de la Eternidad Ilusoria representing the game of chess, using counters and only one character.
The concept of theater as a scenario and to contain a determined idea, was the basis for a series of pieces between 2007 and 2008, consisting of “boxes” exhibited under the name of Hermetic Garden, in his personal exhibition in the Pan American Art Projects, Miami, 2008. Each was a small scenario, a micro cosmos on a greater scale, representing the total exhibition. Formally, the influence of an artist like Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) was clearly seen, fundamentally his conic boxes containing symbolic recycled objects. Estévez takes this proposal to a new dimension while magnifying these micro worlds in every piece. He adds objects from his vast collection and others dedicated to specific works. On many occasions, he created elements he had not found and he needed to complete his vision. These pieces are relics containing keys to understand the artist and his works, where he mixes elements from his daily life and prior selected elements.
From this group, perhaps Theatrum Mundi (2008) is the piece that summarizes the notion we are analyzing in his artistic production, since the title refers us to the concept.
One of the essential and traditional components of popular theater has been puppets, indicating lack of control, since they are manipulated by invisible beings from a superior space.
We might say he approaches a vision similar to La Verdadera Historia Universal, a predecessor in formal terms for representing tridimensional theater almost literally. However, conceptually he puts aside social and political views to examine more philosophical circumstances, such as the lack of control of human beings over their destiny. This idea is visually represented by six harlequins, meaning the two sides of life: comedy and tragedy, the dual nature formulated by Plato in the aforementioned dialogues.
The thesis about lack of control in life is based on the idea of God as an architect who builds and controls the destiny of all human beings. While exploring this, Estévez presents the philosophical dichotomy between will and destiny, the endless enigma about their existence and about which of them prevails. There are some other works where he tangentially tackles this issue, by focusing on the existence of a God or a supreme being that determines, or at least influences, the functioning of the world.
Probably, El Lado Divino de la Existencia (2008) is the work that visually summarizes the dual nature between destiny and will, or its contradiction, depending on how we approach it, and might be exclusive in philosophical terms. This is one of the boxes for the mentioned exhibition. With this piece, Estévez not only exposes his thesis on the existence of man, but he also inquires about their balance and proportions. This visual proposal could lead spectators to question the philosophical and even the religious principles, wondering if they are facing an inexorable destiny or if they can delineate their lives.
While dissecting the work and its symbolic content, we see he enunciates the human will by deciding his trajectory, including scientific instruments as compasses and barometers. On the other hand, he recalls the divine presence and its power, by presenting a huge hand holding a small figure of a man and strings on each finger, those strings pending from a gear assembly that reaches two human brains. Estévez proposes thinking on how much human inventiveness has contributed to humanity ’s advance, to its progress capacity; and how much was related to divine intervention, how much of it is about destiny and how much is about will.
Theatrum Mundi, 2008 / Mixed media / 56 x 96½ x 3 inches
El juego del poder, 2001 / Water painting and pencil on paper / 30 x 46 inches