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A report from the Havana Biennale 2015


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At Public Books, Kate Flint reports from this summer’s Havana Biennale, a most unusual biennial which reflected changing social and economic conditions in Cuba. An excerpt:

During the recent Havana Biennale (May 22–June 22), the Malecón was full of artworks: a perfect emblem of the interplay between art and communities that made this particular Biennale so different from other global art shows. To be sure, there were plenty of international collectors, dealers, and curators on the ground. But the Malecón’s pieces were situated within an everyday environment, quite outside of a gallery space. Some were very site-specific, like Arles del Rio’s sandy beach, complete with tiki huts, palm trees, and white sun-loungers. Some combined fun with conceptual provocation, like the American artist Duke Riley’s La esquina fría, a miniature ice-hockey rink, where Cuban children lined up for twenty minutes of skating on a special tropical-friendly substance. It was an installation at once delightfully surreal (as Riley has said, so much in Cuba doesn’t really make sense, and nor does an ice-rink outdoors in the Caribbean), an homage to history (in the 1930s, some Americans tried to establish ice rinks in Havana, including one just a couple of blocks up the Malecón), and a metaphor for the ongoing thaw in Cuban-US relations…

The Biennale most immediately demonstrates the presence of social elements by sprawling all over the city, and beyond. It ignores conventional boundaries between designated art spaces and everywhere else. But social engagement is also very visible on the walls of the more conventionally curated shows, including those in the “Zona Franca.” Roberto Fabelo exhibited a huge cauldron, with workers carrying table forks marching around the rim: a reference, I was told—like his fork-studded piece, Delicatessen, down on the Malecón—to hunger in the Special Period, and the shortage not just of food but of tableware to eat it with. Indeed, shortages persist. The well-known Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote, on May 28th, of a man pulling a fork from Delicatessen, and of speculation that the sand from the beach installation would eventually be given to locals to help repair their homes. The Biennale, Sánchez said, compels us to think in very literal terms about how the material qualities and value of the aesthetic “confirms the collision of art and need…Need marks each work of art of the Havana Biennial. Material need, where screw used in some pedestal could end up in the door of a home, or in a chair or even in the bed where four people sleep every night.”

Image by Kate Flint.