Carlos Garaicoa
Visual artist

Havana is known as a city where history remains remarkably intact, where past and present are indistinguishable, where streets, buildings, green spaces and even motor vehicles seem to be just as they've always been. If you want to venture beyond the postcard image of Cuba's capital, however, there's no better place to start than the artwork of Carlos Garaicoa. Over the past two decades, Havana has served as a starting point for and leitmotif in Garaicoa's thought-provoking and often darkly amusing creations. And yet it would be misleading to say Garaicoa's work necessarily leads to an understanding of "the real Havana", if only because Garaicoa's Havana tends to be a city that has vanished or that exists only in his mind or that never existed at all.

Carlos Garaicoa was born in 1967 and grew up in Habana Vieja. He points out that what we see today of this neighbourhood, which has undergone extensive and controversial redevelopment, bears little resemblance to how it was when he was growing up there. "Everything we see here is an illusion created after 1980," he says. "[Habana Vieja] was totally different before then. There weren't so many plants or cobblestones in the streets." His primary school on the Parque Cristo has vanished. His high school on the Plaza de Armas is gone, too.

When he was growing up, Garaicoa didn't receive any special instruction in the visual arts. He also wasn't schooled as an architect, although his career-long interest in architecture might lead you to believe otherwise. As a teenager he studied thermodynamics at the Vibora technical institute. His father was an avid reader and conveyed his love of literature to his two sons. Carlos had a wide range of interests – writing, poetry, music –and he liked to draw and paint the way most kids do, but he wouldn't study art until he entered Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1989.

Garaicoa's work, which comprises but is not limited to installations, drawings, film, photography, blueprints and sculpture, has been shown at the Venice and Havana biennials; at the Caixa Cultural in Rio de Janeiro; at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; at the Royal Ontario Museum; at Documenta II in Germany; and can be found in galleries, private collections and museums throughout the world. He divides his time between his studios in Havana and Madrid.

If you start at Garaicoa's boyhood home on Aguiar street between Muralla and Sol and you walk two blocks east and eight blocks south, you come to the site of Fin de silencio, Garaicoa's one-man show at the 2012 Havana Biennial. The first indication of Garaicoa's lofty stature in the art world is that his Biennial exhibition is housed within the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam, the institution that has been organising the Havana Biennial since it began in 1984. The next indication is that the second-floor gallery space devoted to Garaicoa is lit to resemble a shrine, and before visitors are allowed to enter this sanctum santorum, they must remove their shoes.

Actually, there's a practical reason for you to remove your shoes. You don't want to soil the seven carpets that constitute Fin de silencio. Each of these carpets reproduces a section of Havana sidewalk with astonishing photographic detail, complete with chewing-gum stains and ghostly shadows. The shadows could have been cast by shoppers from the 1930s and `40s, when the actual Havana sidewalks were new and advertised department stores called Sin Rival, La Lucha or Reina. Today, the stores have disappeared but the sidewalks continue to speak of that bygone era. On Garaicoa's carpets, however, his sidewalks have a more poetic turn of mind, bearing statements like "Fin de silencios", "Frustración de sueños", "Sin miedo", and "El pensamiento".

While Garaicoa's 2012 Havana Biennial contribution articulates a context specific to Havana, many of his previous exhibitions saw him exploring more universal or utopian territory. His rice-paper city in No Way Out (2002) referenced Japan. The silver replicas of prisons he made for The Crown Jewels (2009) confronted the non-site-specific theme of torture. Bend City (2007) was an urban landscape constructed entirely from cardboard. Does Garaicoa see himself as a Cuban artist returning to his roots?

"I think we're always in the process of negotiating the cliché that we are," Garaicoa says, seeming to struggle with his answer. "It's sure that, with a bit more of an international presence, with a bit more prominence in the international art market, people tend to put their cliché off to one side. But the cliché has followed me and you can see it here. Many [Cuban] artists of my generation and of previous generations will always have that on our backs."