In the Art of the City

The week before Christmas, Old Havana was open season on foreigners, more of them than ever, who had come to see Castro's Cuba for themselves. Entrepreneurs, ready to pose for pictures, waited by the cathedral to charge tourists for the photos. Pretty young women in frilly folkloric dresses smiled stiffly under their bright do-rags. Rasta-punks sported spiky dreads and piercings, old men Che berets and requisite cigars. Nearby colorful performers, dancing on stilts and juggling, appeared enchantingly carefree, except for the clown with a satchel full of cash who pulled up the rear, her lips curling with rancor as she hissed insults at a group of Americans who dared to pass without dropping a dollar into the kitty.

In Old Havana the few exquisite streets now restored for tourist traffic are like nothing so much as a movie set, an elegant mirage amid the squalor of rotted buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. Each photo, however frivolously snapped, develops as a conceptual work, thickly layered with meaning, joyful memories blurred by a vague but persistent discomfort. In the area around the cathedral, the dignified struggle and easy pace of everyday life in other Havana neighborhoods is supplanted by a parade of absurd encounters between natives and visitors, courtesy of the American dollar.

As in other years, the "Havana Biennial" recently was held here, spread among buildings in Old Havana and in the Morro Castle and Cabaña fortress directly across the bay. This year's edition, which ran from November 17 to January 5, was fittingly charged with the theme "Closer to the Other."

The Biennial, first held in 1984, purposefully showcases artists from Latin America and Asia, in opposition to the Euro- and Yankee-centric art-world mold. The art, by 170 artists from some 40 nations, was overwhelmingly conceptual, socially conscious, smart, and sincere. The Biennial organizers -- a team of administrators at the Wifredo Lam center around the corner from the cathedral -- intend to make the city an integral, inescapable part of the exhibition. And so it is, presenting artists with the considerable challenge of showing work that upstages these potent surroundings. A more effective solution may be to enhance what already exists. The simple word "Expectación," painted by one artist across the façade of an Old Havana building, had the power to reverberate in the mind for days.

Although visitors were supplied with a map of the sprawling exhibition, signage was hit or miss, and viewing hours at different sites were not synchronized. But persistent viewers were rewarded with intriguing works and sublime contradictions, courtesy of the unique context. Viewers entering the stunning convent of San Francisco de Asis could stumble upon a childrens' choir in the chapel that was rehearsing Christmas hymns arranged to a danzón rhythm. Upstairs a class of beautifully groomed students giggled as they filed down the hallway in pairs, holding hands. Finally, in a room at the end of the hall, an installation by the Cuban artist Kcho was on display. A rickety wooden dock floated above a sea of discarded bottles and other castoffs. A tower of wooden dinghies stood nearby. Like a monument, the stack of boats was carefully sculpted and polished, rendered beautiful but impotent.

References to the repercussions of escape and exile, to repression and censorship, to powerlessness and sheer faith have become the language of art for this generation of young Cuban artists. Significantly a handful have gained financial freedom and access to the world through the foreign curators the Biennial has attracted to Havana over the years, proffering invitations for exhibitions and residencies abroad. Consequently their work has been enhanced by a broader perspective and a wider choice of materials.

While there was much to see at the "Havana Biennial," including a worthy show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Cubans reigned because they have learned to maneuver this physical and ideological terrain so well. Masters of metaphor, they easily cushion their pointed political commentary with multiple interpretations. But the work of these artists is consistently affecting because it so well executed. They approach their subject, at once specific to Cuba and universal, with wily humor and disarming sincerity. Even when the ideas seem repetitive or just obvious, the tactile sensibility apparent in the works can be absolutely arresting. Carlos Estevez's tribute to the Malecón featured a prolific selection of wrenchingly poetic drawings accompanied by a display of colorful sea-polished bottles. In an installation by Luis Gomez at the Wifredo Lam center, two spectrally lit heralds' trumpets protruded from either side of the room, almost touching, threatening to deafen each other with conflicting pronouncements. Galería Dupp, a group of students from the national art academy, placed a row of silent cast-iron microphones beside the iconic cannons atop the protective wall surrounding the castle. The artists called the work, which commanded a sweeping view of the city, 1,2,3 Probando (1,2,3 Testing).

The artistic trio Los Carpinteros erected a tent city on a hill by the fortress. The crisp tents, which could be unzipped and explored, were made (by a Los Angeles company) in the form of Havana landmarks: the Capitol, the Hotel Nacional, the majestic lighthouse, all ready to pack and go.

A padlock hung on the door to Tania Bruguera's much talked about piece, which had been abruptly shuttered the first week of the show. The air outside the room was redolent with the strong odor of fermenting sugar cane. An attendant posted at the door claimed the installation featured a smutty video of a naked Bruguera, frolicking with several men. But according to some artists who had witnessed the performance/installation, the video was in fact a montage of scenes of Fidel Castro embracing other men, putting his arm around them, or otherwise interacting with his compañeros during public appearances. The artist had enhanced the footage with slow motion and other editing techniques to make the encounters seem sexually suggestive. ("You really walked out of there thinking that Castro was gay," remarked one witness.) Meanwhile nude men had meandered around the dark room, bumping into unwitting spectators.

The Biennial's biggest crowd pleaser -- and a wonderful site-specific piece -- was Argentine artists Leandro Erlich and Judi Werthein's Turismo. They constructed a photographer's studio set of a ski scene, complete with artificial snow, snowballs, a mountain backdrop, two sets of skis, and a sled. Visitors were invited to pose for Polaroid photos while playing in the winter wonderland. Photos displayed on the wall showed euphoric children, grandmothers, teenagers, and soldiers. Like the foreigners flocking to the cathedral, the island-bound Cubans for once took home photos of their own Christmas vacation, equally exotic and surreal.

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