The Island, The Travel, The Permanence: Notes on An Island Apart…

The Island, The Travel, The Permanence: Notes on An Island Apart…

Yo vivo en Cuba y pernocto donde me agarre la noche.

I live in Cuba and spend the night wherever it catches me.

Jorge Valls

Those who have not lived on an island may not understand the actual weight of this geographical situation on the thoughts, culture, and history of its people. Notions of transience, translation (in the sense of motion), and permanence can take on extreme, traumatic, or utopian dimensions for islanders. For the insular man, isolation leads to misconstrued perceptions regarding himself and the rest of the world. He analyzes the island from every possible perspective, pondering from the deepest claustrophobic anxiety, the impossibility of movement, the chimera of traveling, to the pride of the pretended cultural uniqueness, the air of superiority, and the exaltation of the autochthonous aspects. It is endlessly and variably considered, from the most intense chauvinism to the visceral malinchismo of one who prefers the foreign over the national. The island is conceived of, crossed, and bypassed unceasingly, with nostalgia, with anguish, with pretense, or with resignation. But always there is intensity—such intensity that it can seem that the island is as important as our life.

“To go away” or “to come back” are key notions in the logic of insular thinking, the trip taking on mythic dimension. This ephemeral event—the coming or going—acts as a transit stage of uncertain geographical space that draws forth inevitable change. It provides and takes all. A song of life or a death lament, it can mean salvation or condemnation, success or frustration. Regardless, this journey “to” or “from” the island has an absolute and unqualified power that has shaped the history and culture of a nation whose great events have appeared almost always in the shape of sea-going vessels. This conceptual trip, therefore, is more powerful than a real, physical journey. It is, above all, a mental journey constantly performed by the islanders, whether on or off the island, like a healing ritual or flagellation. Cuba is one and many countries, ranging from the unbearable heaviness described by Cuban poet Virgilio Piñera in La Isla en Peso to the Mundo Soñado (Dreamed World) of visual artist Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernandez). Perhaps Cuba exists with greater intensity in the people’s minds than in reality itself, its power more symbolic than actual, its sense of place more conceptual than experienced. If we compiled all the literature and images generated about Cuba, the result would fill a continent.

The exhibition An Island Apart: Cuban Artists in Exile brings forth such myriad versions of the island. Conceived by Juan Si González and Janice Glowski, it includes the work of eleven Cuban artists, all shaped in some manner by the island. From different generations and with varied artistic approaches, they settled in the United States at different stages of their careers, and together they are part of the increasingly widespread phenomenon of Cuban visual arts in the Diaspora. Their work deals with topics ranging from politics, censorship, and freedom to matters of more existential nuance, issues of gender and identity, and topics related to material culture. The voices gathered in this exhibition, although not explicitly in all cases, show the artists’ varied responses to their experiences of lives lived in a new context. They live the drama of the trip, which includes the condition of insularity and a certainty about the ephemeral nature of things.

Juan Si, soul and initiator of this project, shows two photographs from his Vestiges of the Cold War series: A.B.C. and Victory. A.B.C. is a triptych with each section devoted to one letter. In each case the letters have been drawn carefully with a mixture of honey and poison on a polished, wooden surface. Ants line up neatly around the letters, avidly devouring the sweet substance. The meaning of these suggestive images increases when we learn that the letters refer to Avarice, Brutality, and Control, respectively. González used a similar process to create Victory, a photograph that incorporates a chicken wishbone to form the “V”. The artist addresses topics like contemporaneity, consumption, environment, and especially power. In both cases the images allude to the highly seductive and equally dangerous effects that the terms imply when societies implement them as absolute and beyond reproach. The terms’ connections to the artists’ life in Cuba and beyond are clear; they serve as exemplars of Juan Si’s commitment over the years to using visual and performance art as social commentary and political critic.

Similarly invested in political and cultural questioning, but from the perspective of historical revision, Coco Fusco uses art documentaries to investigate the links between politics and culture in Cuba. These works intend to recover figures and events that mark critical moments of censorship and curtailed freedom of expression on the island. La Confesión and La botella al mar de María Elena, videos that systematically document and reveal the historical events linked to the poet Heberto Padilla and writer Maria Elena Cruz Varela, respectively, show how these intellectuals were victims of cultural policies established by Cuba’s government. Fusco addresses these issues from a place of deep personal commitment and with the interdisciplinary expertise necessary to unearth the historical particulars and generate new narratives. Fusco’s book, Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba, also featured in the exhibition, explores the performance work of several artists in the show, including Juan Si González, Carlos Martiel, Pavel Acosta and Fabian Peña (as part of the collective Enema), and Ángel Delgado.

Ángel Delgado’s work is marked by the tension between artistic freedom and the absolute rigidity of cultural policy that does not allow the slightest political allusion, if it is not laudatory in nature. His performance La esperanza es lo último que se está Perdiendo (Hope is the Last Thing Lost) held in1990 included the artist defecating on a Granma newspaper (an official voice of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba). For this, he was imprisoned for six months. This experience marked his later work, which revolves around the phenomenon of freedom and his experience of deprivation. His prints and drawings on handkerchiefs—a selection of which are shown in this exhibition—characterize Delgado’s work. Handkerchiefs are one of the few materials he could use to make his art while in prison. The pieces incorporate digital prints with images that reference the trauma of confinement or violence. These stand in contrast to the overdrawings of faceless male figures depicted with casual and carefree attitudes. Such juxtapositions create a dialogue between the two representational instances, generating a personalized account of the drama of isolation and captivity.

Carlos Martiel also addresses themes of isolation and captivity in his performance El Tanque (The Tank, 2016), created specifically for the An Island Apart exhibition. Martiel belongs to a generation of younger artists. A graduate from the Catedra de Conducta directed by Tania Bruguera, he has a solid trajectory in working with performance. With a stunning stage presence and a wise use of the genre’s resources, Martiel has successfully walked the shaky ground that today (because of its history) is body performance. As a direct allusion to prison and prisoner realities in Cuba, Martiel’s performance consisted of the artist being locked in a tubular device made of two metal oil barrels, which were welded together once he was inside. Martiel remained encased for more than an hour, the audience unable to see or speak with him once he was placed in solitary confinement. El tanque is Cuban slang for both a barrel-shaped container that holds liquid and a prison. The performance conveyed the dual insulation of geographic confined in a country without borders to other lands, compounded by the stark isolation of a correctional enclosure.

Alejandro Aguilera works similarly speak about freedom, but from a more personal and symbolic perspective. Mapquesting Mandela makes direct reference Nelson Mandela, the great South African freedom fighter. Aguilera states that the piece is part of a drawing series intended to express personal freedom as a complicated map. A prolific and accomplished artist in both sculpture and drawing, Aguilera possesses a personal iconography that uniquely defines his creative practice, and is marked by influences of the so-called “primitive cultures” and the international History of Art. His two-dimensional work has an expressive strength and xylography quality that derives from his prowess as a sculptor. The two paintings exhibited in An Island Apart, Mapquesting Mandela and City’s Monument, depict aerial views of imagined urban spaces, surrounded by architectural elements and characterized by a labyrinthine of paths that intertwine, communicate, and sometimes lead to dead ends. These compositions may be understood as mental maps that describe the channels of life, taken by choice or obligation.

Also an expression of choice, Armando Mariño’s recent paintings displace years of artwork that functioned as cultural and historical critiques of the Island, and move toward an apparently less ideologized emphasis. This work finds its fulfillment in artistic creation, itself, specifically in the pictorial act. Likely a reaction to or release from the widespread understanding that contemporary art should bear a conceptual burden that prevails over the visual result. Mariño’s paintings challenge such long-held tenets of advanced Cuban art schools. This shift in his artistic approach may also be influenced by his encounter with the European and American art scene. Contemplation of the environment and chromatic experimentation move Mariño to create these intimate, moody landscapes of melancholic essences, scenes whose expressiveness and narrative potential invite the viewer to weave stories around its characters (The Young Artist and Lonely Girl), and whose introspective and revealing gestures contribute to the paintings’ magical and intriguing atmosphere.

In another moment, Maritza Molina revisits themes related to identity, gender, and tradition. She focuses most prominently on female identity, creating works that reflect the burdens tradition and culture have deposited on women throughout history, and how such circumstances have shaped their role in society. From a personal perspective, especially marked by the experience of exile and taking her own body as protagonist, Molina develops photographs from near ritualistic, mise en scène performances. Every detail is exquisitely planned. Religions, freedom, and motherhood are the issues at hand, as is the relationship of women to more existential questions of what it means to be female, at all. In Carrying on Tradition # 1, a naked woman crawls on all fours, dragging a cart that holds the weight of six elegantly dressed, suited men. They stand comfortably upright, while six others identically clothed await their turn. In The Test of Purity (And the Discarded Women), a half-nude female kneels in a church pew looking upwards toward the sky. The question burns, “Will she pass the chastity test that so many other women failed, their fallen bodies strewn lifeless on the grass?”

Frank Guiller, like Molina, also employs photography. However, his work serves to chronicle contemporary society, particularly cityscapes and the people who live in them. From this perspective, his work also generates poetic and critical commentary on contemporaneity and its operating mechanisms. The pieces displayed in the exhibition, Not Walked_NY and The Big Eye_NY, are examples of his work in this modality. Black and white snapshots captured in one of the world’s most popular cities—precisely the environment that inspires Guiller the most—show the power of his artistic processes and visual documentation. Its composition reveals the geometric harmony in the city’s forms, and incorporates an intriguing atmosphere that indefatigably relates to the contemporary condition. The Big Eye_NY, for example, remarks on the controversy and omnipresence of surveillance systems in today’s society, and how they affect the life of individuals. As an artist who grew up in and later left a government and social system organized around dynamic of constant observation and vigilance, Guiller brings particular sensitivity to this issue in his photographs.

It is no coincidence that Fabian Peña’s art in An Island Apart also features the watchful eye, hidden this time behind a white, crackle coating of eggshells. Peña’s pieces are characterized by the use of scatological materials and the symbolic connotations they bring. He usually uses organic matter, such as roach wings (in previous works), eggshells, or mashed black flies, as found in the current exhibition. His working process clearly involves labor-intensive materials collecting and the meticulous and obsessive articulation of his vision necessary to achieve the final results. Horizontal Portrait and the diptych Black on White & White on Black are exquisitely made, and feature the fortunate conjunction of a collage covered with the aforementioned animal waste. Dealing with issues of the veiled and the obvious, the mechanisms of control by power, or the disclosure of ideologies by individuals, Peña uses such unusual materials, giving way to something new or previously unknown. In one of these works, one eye watches the viewer, while in the other a face built by fragments encourages us to identify the person represented.

As in Peña’s work, the aesthetic of fragments is a key element in Pavel Acosta’s art, which assumes the act of “stealing” as its conceptual center. Theft, which is a method of survival in Cuban society given the scarcity and precariousness of the economical situation, led Acosta to incorporate such a discursive strategy into his creative process. At first, Acosta stole paint chips from the crumbling city walls, repurposing them into pictorial compositions. After immigrating to the United States, the gesture of “stealing” became symbolic, and was redirected to the walls of major museums. In his recent works, the artist chooses well-known paintings that are part of the art historical canon and reproduces (steals) them. For this process Acosta uses small portions of white acrylic wall paint, previously dried and cut, to exquisitely emulate the original artwork’s brushstrokes and textures. Beyond reproducing the art, the artist “steals” the overall context; each piece includes the sheetrock and wooden wall studs on which the paintings are mounted, original frames are also represented. Two of the most recent results of his exploration are shown in this exhibition: Portrait of a Woman by Rembrandt van Rijn and Woman in Waves by Gustave Courbet, both from the Stolen from the Met series.

Also exploring the symbolic relationship between contemporary society and the material culture it creates, Jairo Alfonso develops drawings that show objects of all types and sizes crowded into a delineated space. We find myriad items in his compositions, everything from a mid-century sewing machine to the latest model of iPhone; from a coffee can to a Roman bust. The artist carefully renders each object, one by one, according to its actual size. His works inventories the material universe of contemporary man, and shows us at a glance the archaeological strata of the future, when civilizations dig the earth looking for our legacy. The simulated world of accumulated and collected objects in his drawings is Alfonso’s strategy to preserve the material elements that identify his present. Perhaps it is an inherited bi-product of a society like Cuba, which compels people to accumulate—indeed horde—material goods due to the scarcity of resources. Or, perhaps it is a healing exercise of the mind for an emigrant, subject to the nomadic conditions that force one to leave all material wealth behind, even if he cannot let go the emotional burden that entails.

This group of Cuban artists, perhaps not surprisingly, approach creative work in unique and personal ways. The condition of displacement, however, unites them. Each artist reoriented their artistic practice out of necessity, as they face new cultural contexts that operate in completely different ways from the island nation of Cuba. In implicit and explicit ways, they all confront the inevitable, fugacious nature things. This irrefutable fact is punctuated by their nomadic condition and their physical and symbolic journeys from an exponentially isolated enclave, from an island of another world to which they are, nonetheless, inescapably connected and that they still watch from the distance, even as they spend the night wherever it catches them.