11th Havana Biennal 

Something odd is happening on the Paseo del Prado. Dancers are marching – or rather, sliding and swirling – along Havana's main colonial artery, masks on their faces, feathers on their heads, while musicians trail behind, bugles blaring, beating the rhythm with drums, cowbells, frying pans and anything else that makes a racket. What's odd is that all the performers are wearing dark costumes – not a spec of fuchsia anywhere – and none are smiling, making this procession look more like a funeral than a carnival. It's like a zombie remake of a Día de los Reyes celebration, the kind that has been absent from the Paseo for more than 100 years. Another thing: everyone is moving backwards.

As it turns out, this strange parade is a performance piece entitled Conga irreversible, devised by Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Castillo that make up the mischievous Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros. And it is just the right way to kick off the 11th Havana Biennial – not with a speech in a museum but with a bang in the street.

The most recent manifestation of Cuba's pre-eminent international art fair, which ran from May 11th to June 11th 2012, had the stated aim of taking art to the streets and to the people. Actually, the Biennial's team of curators state their aim a bit differently in the official program: "We consider it appropriate to dedicate this 11th edition to an assessment of the behaviour of the relationship between visual productions and the social imaginary." Whether or not we understand what that means, we can report that (a) much of the art on display in Havana –180 artists, representing 45 countries – was exciting and engaging, and (b) it required a lot of running around.

After the Paseo del Prado zombie parade we visit J.E.F.F., one of our favourite Cuban artists (the initials stand for José Emilio Fuentes Fonseca) in the shaded colonnade in front of the Gran Teatro de La Habana. He is putting the finishing touches on one part of his contribution to the 11th Biennial: a giant metal sculpture of a pink girl with yellow pigtails and black combat boots which looks like a cross between a child's toy and a blow-up sex doll. He has hired vendors, wearing "J.E.F.F." hats and aprons bearing the slogan "Blanco y siempre dulce" ( `White and always sweet'), to sell candyfloss. J.E.F.F. had to import the sugar-spinning machines from Mexico, which is (according to the artist) ironic in Cuba, where sugar has so much to do with the country's history and identity. The artist pointed out that the selling of candyfloss is a comment on the Cuban government's relaxed restrictions on private business, as well as a comment on the necessity for Cuban artists to seek new sources of funding.

One such source is the Havana Cultura Visual Arts Project, recently set up to award grants to emerging Cuban artists. The first artists to benefit from this program showed their work in a group exhibition entitled A Smell that Comes through my Window, which ran concurrently with the 11th Havana Biennial. At the opening of the show in May, a huge crowd of artists, art fans, celebrities and the generally curious packed into the Havana Club Museo del Ron gallery. Exhibits ranged from Alejandro González's compelling photographic portraits of young people he encountered throughout Cuba to Orestes Hernández's sculpture of a hairy biker that looked to have been made from shaving foam.

Back at the Gran Teatro, within the marbled interior of this colonial-era monument, we meet Lorena Bosi, Magdalena Pagno and Fernanda Carrizo, young Argentinian artists making their first appearance in Havana. On one wall is a poster designed by the three women who are known collectively as Mujeres Públicas. The poster asks a question, in Spanish: "If the 8th of March is Women's Day…What happens the rest of the year?" If the poster recalls work by another feminist art collective, New York's Guerrilla Girls, that may be precisely the point: the protesters change, the protest continues.

Over in Vedado, at the intersection of Calle 3 and E, a once-vacant lot has become the site of a group installation entitled Ciudad generosa. Thirteen students from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) worked under the tutelage of their professor, René Francisco Rodríguez, and behind the collective name "Cuarta Pragmática". Their Ciudad generosa project required each artist to imagine an urban utopia. Fidel Yordan Castro, 22, imagined (and built) an hexagonal structure that resembles the cylinder mechanism of a six-shot pistol. He says it's an homage to the hexagons that appear in "Library of Babel," the story by Jorge Luis Borges.

The Instituto Superior de Arte is renowned for churning out generation after generation of outstanding Cuban artists. During the 11th Havana Biennial, however, the ISA campus in the northwestern corner of Havana became the locus operandi for two of the Biennial's headlining international artists. Gabriel Orozco from Mexico recruited art students to help him tidy up what's left of the Escuela de Ballet, the ballet school that was supposed to become part of the ISA complex but was left unfinished in 1961. Amid the ruins visitors are meant to detect patterns carefully delineated by Orozco and the students – dirt swept into ripples on the concrete, broken tiles stacked in a corner, circles of trash arranged to capture rays of sunlight cascading through a broken roof.

On the other side of the ISA complex, a different kind of art is happening out on the rolling green lawns. (Before the Cuban Revolution, the ISA campus was the site of the Havana Country Club.) Hermann Nitsch, legendary progenitor of Austria's actionism movement, has prepared a performance with the help of students enrolled in the ISA's music program. On the makeshift stage, the students plunder a pig carcass and smear the entrails on their naked bodies as loudspeakers blare music that may or may not be meant to give the performance some kind of religious significance.135 Aktion, as the performance is called, is less a feast for the senses than an assault on them (rotten fish may also have played a part).
Along the Malecón, we find fresh air and some better-smelling art. Nearly three kilometres of installations, stretching from one end of the seafront to the other, have been curated by Juan Delgado Calzadilla and the Cuban Arts Project. The theme here is "Detrás del muro" (`Behind the wall') but, as you'd expect, interpretations varied wildly among the 30 mostly Cuban artists who participated. Duvier del Dago, one of Cuba's most interesting emerging artists, has built a papier-mâché replica of one of the old American cannons you see in the Morro fortress across the bay. Duvier's cannon has been painted to evoke an anatomical cross-section of a human body. Further along the Malecón we find Rachel Valdés Camejo's installation, Happily Ever After No. 1, a large rectangular mirror facing the sea.

Across from the Hotel Meliá Habana, in an outdoor space between two office buildings, Jorge Luis Santana has installed a blue periscope protruding from the sidewalk. A plaque on the periscope's side tells us the work is called Perspectiva (2012) while a mirrored eye rotates as if it could be looking for someone in particular.

Next we head over to the opening of Glenda León's Sueño de verano (el horizonte es una ilusión). The exhibition takes place in the FOCSA building, which was once a luxury apartment complex and which is still the tallest building in Cuba. We find Glenda León poolside with her installation which consists of a Miami street map on one side of the pool and a map of Havana on the other. Standing at the "Havana" end of the pool, we decline the artist's invitation to jump in and swim to "Miami".

For a change of pace we head over to see some Biennial art in an actual museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and we're not disappointed. Abel Barroso's Cuando caen las fronterasfeatures cityscapes, pinball machines and birdhouses all made from light, easily breakable wood. His point seems to be that a national border, no matter how rigid it may sometimes seem, is in fact a pretty fragile construct. In Sandra Ramos's Puentes show, we find a bridge covered with photos of clouds, with an aerial photograph of Miami at one end and a similar shot of Havana on the other. The 90-mile divide between the United States and Cuba may have been a source of tension and suffering over the past 50 years, but it has given artists much to contemplate.

If there's one place in Havana that can be thought of as Biennial headquarters, it's the Centro Wilfredo Lam in Old Havana. For the most part this is where curators and their staff hunker down to take care of Biennial business while the art excitement happens elsewhere. As it happens, though, one of the 11th Biennial's must-see shows is taking place right here in the building's second-floor gallery. We take off our shoes and tread carefully onto a floor covered with Carlos Garaicoa's trompe-l'oeil carpets. There are seven of them, each replicating a section of Havana sidewalk, complete with cracks, chewing gum stains, and logos of long-forgotten department stores.

At the Pabexpo complex, better known for trade shows and business conferences, we find a particularly convincing argument in favour of modern Cuban art and its practitioners. All the big names are here: Alexandre Arrechea, the brothers Capote (Iván and Yoan), Los Carpinteros, Liset Castillo, Raúl Cordero, Roberto Diago, José Manuel Fors, René Francisco Rodríguez, Carlos Garaicoa, Aimée Garcia, Kcho, Glenda León, Reynier Leyva Novo, René Peña, Carlos Quintana, Niels Reyes, Esterio Segura and many others, about 40 in all. We particularly like Roberto Diago's "ocean" of glass that crunches under your feet as you walk on it.

"The Havana Biennial is a big party this time around," Diago tells us even though we've already figured that out for ourselves. Carlos Garacoia reiterates: "I don't think art is only about exhibiting. It's also about throwing good parties."

One of the Biennial's best parties was the Havana Cultura show at the Salón Rosado Benny Moré (aka, La Tropical). Some 2,000 fiesteros packed into the legendary outdoor concert space to hear the Havana Cultura Band—composed of Roberto Carcassés, Danay Suárez, Alexey, Edrey and Osdalgia and DJ Simbad—while Gilles Peterson, Edgaro and Wichy manned the turntables.

Now that the 11th Havana Biennial has drawn to a close, we're looking forward to seeing how the next edition will measure up. This increasingly important international art fair clearly broke new ground in 2012 – by moving the art outdoors and into some unexpected corners of the city, and by demonstrating again and again that contemporary art in Cuba can easily hold its own against the best art from any other place on Earth. Which artists will make good on the promise they showed in 2012? Which will emerge and make new strides in 2015? Those are questions for the hard-working organisers of the 12th Havana Biennial, and they have a good three years to come up with the answers. – Randall Koral