CAR­LOS ESTÉVEZ AND THE THEATRUM MUNDI: DESTINY OR WILL?

Art On Cuba - - Index - Irina Leyva–Perez

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. ƒ

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

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