Alain Pino Hernández
Visual Artist

In an art gallery in Havana's Vedado neighbourhood there's a big, dangerous-looking, silver-painted missile. When visitors to the gallery come near it, they unknowingly activate a motion-sensor that brings the missile to life, causing it to swivel left and right, taking aim. A nervous smile is the usual response.

"It has to do with the idea of paranoia," says Alain Pino Hernandez, the artist responsible for "Perimeter," as the missile sculpture-installation is called. "It's also about the idea of chance. You don't know if the missile is aiming left or right. There's a lot of ambiguity in this work, and in my work in general."

More ambiguity: In the same gallery are three big (107cm by 81cm) portraits of women looking heroically skyward ("Time Passes"). The women have long eyelashes and white, shaving-foam beards. Beards are a potent symbol in Cuba. Hernandez, 30, trims his into a neat goatee. Asked to explain his bearded-women pictures, he says they refer to a particular cultural icon – Santa Claus: "It's an allusion to time. Christmas is a moment we think will never come, so we wait. We wait a year, a century, a new generation, but in the end, things are never what we expect them to be. We also have shaving foam as paradox, as ephemeral element, as temporal allusion. That's what interests me most in this series of photos."

Hernandez, it seems, is an artist interested in paradoxes who likes to speak in paradoxes. He grew up in the central Cuban city of Camagüey, graduating from the Escuela Profesional de Arte. He has lived in Havana since he came to study at the Instituto Superior de Arte here in 1995. Over the past few years his conceptual installations, usually having a strong component of political or social commentary, have been winning him accolades from galleries and collectors in Havana and abroad.

"I work with the idea of limits, borders, as much for the individual as for society," says Hernandez. "My themes tend to be political, often with a relationship to migratory problems, problems that are not totally local, but international."

In his "Confusion" series, shown at the 2006 FIAC art fair in France, Hernandez eliminates the gender-distinguishing features in his portraits until his subjects seem to be mathematically equal parts man and woman. And in a perfect instance of form following function, the confusion extends to the medium itself: the portraits are equal parts painting and photography. Hernandez applies a photo-sensitive emulsion to his canvasses with a brush. The application of the emulsion and the "accident" of the resulting image turn the photo into a one-of-a-kind artwork.

As an influence, Hernandez cites the work of Mario Merz (1925-2003), the Italian artist and Arte Povera pioneer. Merz was instrumental in expanding the notion of painting to include non-art materials such as glass, mud and industrial metals, and he occupied gallery and museum spaces with sprawling installations involving photographs, neon lights, and – most famously – various forms of igloos.

Hernandez's work is less rambling than that of Merz and seems more intent on delivering a message, even if that message has several layers of meaning. "It's difficult to arrive at a consensus about the nature of my own work," Hernandez admits. "I've made a few pieces that have brought me some attention and have made a good impression with people who like art that makes you think. I've been fortunate that people seem to get the ideas. I hope my work will keep evolving, and that I'll be able to keep living from my work so I won't have to do anything that takes me away from it."