Alexandre Arrechea
Visual artist

Alexandre Arrechea made his name as part of Los Carpinteros. Which is to say he made his name disappear along with those of his fellow Carpinteros, Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez. The three artists began working behind their collective moniker back in 1994, and they became phenomenally, and anonymously, successful. The New York Museum of Modern Art, which acquired several of their drawings for the museum's permanent collection starting in the late 1990s, describes Los Carpinteros as follows: "Through collective authorship, the group members engage in labor that is itself opposed to…the ideology of individual artistic genius."

So when Arrechea decided to leave Los Carpinteros in July 2003, the question was: How do you set out on your own after you've spent a decade opposing the ideology of individual artistic genius? Answer: it isn't easy, but if you work hard enough things will start to fall into place. Arrechea's first solo project was "El Jardin de la Desconfianza" (The Garden of Mistrust), an epic installation in Los Angeles that required two years (2003-2005) from conception to completion. The central piece of the work was a whitewashed aluminum tree whose branches were outfitted with video cameras — "surveillance cameras," as Arrechea saw it —which recorded spectators and broadcast them on the Internet.

"Mechanisms of vigilance and control" that's how Arrrechea describes the major focus of his solo work up to and including "La habitación de todos" (The Room of All, 2009), his project for the 10th Havana Biennial. The timeliness of this piece is astounding. It's a sculpture of a house that expands or contracts according to, respectively, the rise or fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Index. "Each point of rise or fall of the Dow Jones Industrial will reflect in greater or lesser spaciousness of the rooms of the house," Arrechea explained in an email shortly before the Biennial got under way. While his work typically resonates with contemporary meaning, it can also be amusing. Or alarming. Or both at once. Like the giant wooden hand grenade he made with Los Carpinteros. Or his photograph of a black man struggling to carry a load of white bricks that hide his face and obscure his identity.

A good example of just how far he will go in search of relevance is "Mississippi Bucket," a 32-by-28-foot sculture he installed in a New Orleans public square in 2008. "This piece is a large-scale bucket carved in the shape of the Mississippi River made out of local driftwood from the river itself," Arrechea explains. "It is a metaphorical reminder that what happened in New Orleans [the levee breaking and Hurricane Katrina] affected the world and relates to all of us."

Alexandre Arrechea was born in 1970 in Trinidad, Cuba, and graduated from Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1994. At the time of our interview he was shuttling between New York —where he is planning an ambitious public art project involving video projections on buildings —and Madrid, where he lives with his wife, Cuban art historian Madeline Arrechea and their two small children, Dalia and Arturo. During the Havana Biennial Alexandre was showing his paintings (yes, he paints) in a Vedado apartment situated about 10 blocks from another apartment where he and his family eat and sleep when they're in town.

As busy as he was during the Biennial, Arrechea seemed to be in fine spirits every time we ran into him, always quick to flash a warm smile. In contrast to the icy topicality of his best conceptual work, Arrechea has the sunny disposition of someone who has worked hard to make things fall into place, and who is now fortunate enough to watch them do just that.