09/17/13 - Harvard Crimson - A Dilated Biography of Cuba and Its Artists
When a human being is born, how does his or her story develop? With a neat
beginning and an end, does it follow the trajectory of a straight line?
Cuban writer and artist Severo Sarduy offered one explanation, according
to a press release on the School of the Museum of Fine Arts' website:
"[B]iography usually happens before birth and then expands (or dilates)."
This angle forms the theme under which curator Jorge Antonio Fernández
Torres brings together contemporary Cuban voices from the art world in an
exhibition that opened on Sept. 9 at the SMFA.
"Dilated Biography: Contemporary Cuban Narratives" is ambitious in
scopeit features the works of 15 Cuban contemporary artists from
different walks of life. While new media and conceptual art constitute the
majority of the works on display, the artistic strategies exhibit a
wonderful breadth of authorial modesfrom the performative (Felipe
Dulzaides' "Ariba de la Bola" ["On the Ball"]) to the
interactive-documentary (Grethell Rasúa's "Con Tu Propio Sabor" ["With
Your Own Taste"]). "The exhibition...represents the coexistence of
different memories [of Cuba]," Fernández Torres said in his curatorial
Fernández Torres, who most recently undertook the mammoth task of
co-curating the Cuban Pavillion at the 55th Venice Biennale with a show of
15 international and Cuban artists, seems generally insouciant about
putting artworks of such diverse hues in direct dialogue with one another.
He hopes that the mere atmospheric resonance amongst them will help
highlight what he calls their individual poetics. "Cubans are eclectic,
even in the way they think," he says half-jokingly. Sarduy, he says,
conceived of the medley of cultures that is Cuba today not as an outcome
of transculturation, but as the result of cultural layering.
San Francisco-based artist Tony Labat, who participates in "Dilated
Biography" with two works conceived around forty years apart, makes a
strong case for this phenomenon. His Californian brand of deadpan
conceptualism is unmistakable among works of other Cuban artists both
living on and outside the island today. This marked difference, Labat
attests, has persisted through decades. "[I noticed it] some time in the
late 1980s when I was invited to an exhibition ironically called 'Outside
Cuba'," he says. "It was the very first time [when I participated in a
group exhibition of Cuban artists], and my work looked strangelyand
beautifullyout of place."
Labat's "Dialectic IV" (1978-2003), for instance, is composed of some 60
loaves of bread leaning against a red-painted wall. It was a response to
his experience of discovering a Diego Rivera mural in the Student Gallery
upon his arrival at the San Francisco Art Institute from what he describes
as a very hostile Cuban exile community in Miami. "Seeing in the Student
Gallery the Diego Rivera mural was... a moment of feeling that was the
right atmosphere for me," he says. "I think I felt at home within the
[counterculture] legacy of San Francisco. I felt as if it was the
continuation of my foundation, growing up with the Revolution.
In retrospect, Labat's ability to think of his oeuvre not as hybrid but
homogeneous, smoothly flowing from Havana to San Francisco, echoes what
Fernández Torres describes as Sarduy's strong Zen inclination to be
harmonious with himself and receptive to his surroundings. This
tendencya declaration of the superiority of inhaling and exhaling over
the restraints of time, space, and identityis echoed by Fernández Torres
when he, through a translator, paraphrases Sarduy's response to a question
on whether he misses Cuba. "For me, Cuba isn't just a place, he says.
Cuba is an attitudemy body. It is everything somatic that exists in me.
Now I am here in Copacabana he continues, and I am looking out at the
Brazilian countryside, this beautiful Brazilian landscape that is
beautiful. And I don't want to be anywhere else... aside from here. That's
also Cuba. Cuba isn't just a place: it is an experience, and it is also an
Staff writer Gökcan Demirkazik can be reached at
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