GUS­TAVO ACOSTA

COL­LEC­TIVE NUMB­ING OR AR­CHI­TEC­TURE AS THE MEA­SURE OF ALL THINGS

Art On Cuba - - Index - JANET BATET

Pro­tago­ras' fa­mous Sophist phrase “Man is the mea­sure of all things” is one of the most em­i­nent – and at the same time gloomy – ax­ioms of hu­man ex­is­tence. In the his­tory of art, the Vitru­vian man of Leonardo Da Vinci and The Mo­du­lor of Le Cor­bus­ier, are specif­i­cally im­posed in re­la­tion to two es­sen­tial archetypes. While the first model, faith­ful to the re­nais­sance ideal, in­car­nated the per­fect pro­por­tions of the hu­man body, in the case of the se­cond, ex­po­nent of ar­chi­tec­tural ra­tio­nal­ism, we are wit­ness to an an­thro­po­mor­phic scale ap­plied to the ar­chi­tec­tural space, a hu­man­ist ex­pres­sion of the hab­it­able space.

In the case of Gus­tavo Acosta (Ha­vana, 1958), we could agree that the pro­ce­dure takes place the other way around. In­ter­ested in hav­ing ac­cess to the hu­man scale – in­creas­ingly in­ac­ces­si­ble th­ese days, Acosta sur­veys the ar­chi­tec­tural space, breaks it down, ques­tions it, sub­mit­ting it to dis­sim­i­lar sys­tems of anal­y­sis to, per­haps, gain ac­cess to the hu­man. We are thus wit­ness to a sort of ur­ban ar­chae­ol­ogy where ar­chi­tec­ture be­comes, I dare to af­firm, the mea­sure of all things.

Ever since Acosta's ear­li­est in­cur­sions, in which he ex­plored ar­chi­tec­tural ty­polo­gies (train sta­tions, parks, am­phithe­aters) that were run­down or once in ru­ins, even his most re­cent se­ries, In­ven­tory of Omis­sions, the in­ter­est has al­ways been the same: the unraveling of hu­man na­ture based on the in­hab­ited or sec­onded space.

The pro­ce­dures for the de­con­struc­tion of space are dis­sim­i­lar. The mon­u­men­tal scale where the ar­chi­tec­tural colos­sus stands as the an­tipode of the hu­man pre­dom­i­nates in some of his se­ries. In oth­ers, it is pre­cisely the in­ci­sive se­lec­tion of the mag­ni­fied de­tail – as a sort of very de­tailed fore­ground, the clue to new ex­is­ten­tial con­cerns. In all of them, the mas­ter­ful use of color which is an es­sen­tial psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nent con­trib­utes new lay­ers of mean­ing in the de­ci­pher­ing of the pieces.

Lo­cated in the modern city, In­ven­tory of Omis­sions, re­cently ex­hib­ited in the New York Thomas Jaeckel Gallery, re­thinks the ur­ban out­line and the con­tem­po­rary hab­it­able space. The im­ages of ref­er­ence from dis­sim­i­lar places (Ha­vana, Mi­ami, New York, Aleppo) have as a com­mon fac­tor the im­mi­nent sense of dis­as­ter where hu­man be­ings look op­pressed, ex­iled or defini­tively ab­sent.

In­ven­tory of Omis­sions im­poses a fun­da­men­tal his­toric ref­er­ent that can­not be avoided: the ra­tio­nal­ist func­tion­al­ism of modern ar­chi­tec­ture. The move­ment which emerged in Europe pre­cisely af­ter the rav­ages of World War I, char­ac­ter­ized by the for­mal sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, the di­vest­ment of vac­u­ous dec­o­ra­tions as well as the in­cor­po­ra­tion of new ma­te­ri­als like steel and re­in­forced con­crete, the ex­po­nent of a new in­ter­na­tional style, and that soon, with the ar­rival to power of Ger­man na­tion­al­ism, sees a great many of its ex­po­nents mi­grate, con­tin­u­ing their ex­per­i­men­ta­tions in other coun­tries. It is not by chance that Acosta makes such dif­fer­ent coun­tries co­hab­i­tate. Aleppo – an es­sen­tial coun­ter­point – be­comes the sym­bol of con­tem­po­rary dis­place­ment: one of the most high­lighted prob­lems of cur­rent so­ci­ety.

In this sense, the par­tic­u­lar use of color in this se­ries be­comes em­blem­atic. Dis­trib­uted in ge­o­met­ri­cally flat ar­eas su­per­im­posed on the ur­ban land­scape in a sort of con­crete out­line, the color would seem to give back cer­tain struc­ture and har­mony to the des­o­lated places they sup­port. Indis­sol­ubly linked to modern ar­chi­tec­ture, con­crete art is also an ex­pres­sion of the un­fin­ished his­tor­i­cal avant–gardes in Europe due to the rav­ages of the war and whose cul­mi­na­tion took place in the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. This is the es­sen­tial nu­cleus sus­tained by In­ven­tory of Omis­sions.

In some cases, like in Arche­ol­ogy News and Con­cor­dia (both from 2016), we are wit­ness to ge­o­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tions in which the artist uses the brise–soleil as a leit­mo­tif. In them, the flat de­tail of the se­ri­al­ized ar­chi­tec­tural mod­ule be­comes a wall and im­pos­si­bil­ity, a ca­coph­ony or sort of pix­eliza­tion of the im­age that would seem to en­ter in frank con­tra­dic­tion with the sense of clar­ity of modern art and the so­ci­ety it in­car­nates. This “noise of the im­age” is reaf­firmed by other pieces in­cluded in the dis­play (The Short­cut, The Temp­ta­tion to Look Back, both from 2017), in which the pix­eliza­tion of the color zones is ev­i­dent. This se­ries of pieces func­tions within the col­lec­tion as flat de­tails ex­tracted from the panoramic views that also make up the present dis­play and which have been care­fully sub­di­vided by flat color ar­eas that es­tab­lish a checker­board com­po­si­tion. This sort of su­per­im­posed grille gen­er­ates a new per­cep­tive dy­nam­ics sug­gested by the stylis­tic and chro­matic treat­ment of each new win­dow that is opened in­side the square in a sui generis com­po­si­tional hi­er­ar­chy.

Auto de fe (2017) is an ex­po­nent of this group. Sub­di­vided into five color ar­eas, the ti­tle of the piece em­pha­sizes one of the zones of the can­vas (lower left), high­light­ing the au­ton­omy of each area. This ef­fect of synec­doche is another vi­tal tool in the se­ries where the frag­ment stands as a sign and symp­tom of a so­ci­ety in cri­sis. The color ar­eas func­tion as fil­ters su­per­im­posed on the can­vas which de­ter­mine the stylis­tic treat­ment of each area and act as a hint of the ex­tended no­tion of the can­vas as a win­dow. The depth – not just of field but of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – has been sup­planted by that “glossy skin” sen­sa­tion ex­pressed by Fred Jame­son. In­ven­tory of Omis­sions – as its name in­di­cates – points to the per­cep­tive ca­pac­ity of a re­cip­i­ent who, over­ex­posed to the con­tin­u­ous me­dia bom­bard­ment, ex­pe­ri­ences a chronic numb­ing feel­ing or what Sianne Ngai de­fines as “Stu­plim­ity.”

While Kant's sub­lime in­volves a con­fronta­tion with the nat­u­ral and in­fi­nite, the un­usual syn­the­sis of ex­ci­ta­tion and fa­tigue I call “stu­plim­ity” is a re­sponse to en­coun­ters with vast but bounded ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tems, re­sult­ing in repet­i­tive and of­ten me­chan­i­cal acts of enu­mer­a­tion, per­mu­ta­tion and com­bi­na­tion, and tax­o­nomic clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Though both en­coun­ters give rise to neg­a­tive af­fect, “stu­plim­ity” in­volves comic ex­haus­tion rather than ter­ror.

The af­fec­tive di­men­sions of the small sub­ject's en­counter with a “to­tal sys­tem”.

The pin­na­cle of ra­tio­nal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture and of con­crete art takes place in post­war Amer­ica. It is also the mo­ment when tele­vi­sion be­comes a land­mark, launch­ing the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the masses. Re­gard­ing this, In­ven­tory of Omis­sions en­closes a clin d'oeil as­so­ci­ated to the no­tion of sta­tus and chimera as­so­ci­ated with the me­dia. In Cuba, dur­ing the 1980s, many homes in the in­te­rior of the coun­try did not have ac­cess to a color TV set, opt­ing for capri­cious cre­ativ­ity: hor­i­zon­tal color bands were painted on the ca­thodic screens of black and white TV sets, from the now ex­tinct so­cial­ist camp, through which the monochro­matic im­ages could be seen… now in color.

Dis­torted im­ages, loss of depth and col­lec­tive numb­ing are some of the most im­por­tant sub­plots that in­spire In­ven­tory of Omis­sions. ƒ

Cat­a­log of miss­ing parts, 2017 / Mixed me­dia / 43 x 43 in / Courtesy the au­thor Auto de Fe, 2017 / Mixed me­dia / 43 x 96 in / Courtesy the au­thor 1. Ngai, Sianne: Ugly Feel­ings (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 2005), p.36

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