12th Havana Biennial (2015)
Between Idea and Experience

Havana Biennial 2015

There’s a sense of pleasant agitation in the Cuban capital on the eve of the official kick-off of the city’s art Biennial. The event HQ in Old Havana is teeming with artists, students, volunteers and curators joyfully prattling away or busied with last-minute preparations — for instance, opening humongous transport cases under the baffled stare of customs officials.  The marked presence of foreign collectors and journalists is just another symptom of world’s fever for all things Cuban after the announcement of normalized relations with the United States six months ago.  

Just a few blocks away, artist Humberto Díaz is putting the finishing touches to his project, Alta tension. Often cited as one of the Biennial’s most audacious proposals, the installation consists of a high-voltage tower whose base has been installed in the courtyard of the colonial building that houses the Center for the Development of Visual Arts and with a peak that surpasses the structure’s rooftop. The catch is that nothing in the edifice could be altered to accommodate the installation due to its historical landmark status. Spectators will be exposed to the actual sound of a voltage tower, generating a sensation of uncertainty and danger.  

Not far, at the Plaza de Armas, bystanders gape as a travestied man makes a solemn entrance into a cage, where he will be confined for 60 hours documenting his surroundings on cotton sheets. Entitled La Perla Negra, this performance by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra ponders on Cuban isolation, whether interpreted from a geographical, economic, cultural or political perspective. 

On the other side of the square, at the public library, the young Argentinian artist Eduardo Tomás Basualdo has enlisted a group of people to take turns at reading out loud passages from works from the library hoping to stumble upon the word utopia. “This is a sort of office for the search of a utopia,” explains Basualdo.   

One evening early into the event, a stylish crowd takes over the National Museum of Fine Arts for the opening of Wild Noise — an exhibit resulting from an exchange with the Bronx Museum of the Arts featuring ninety works dealing with a number of international, social and cultural issues. Holly Block, director of the Bronx Museum and curator of the show, maintains that, despite their lack of contact, Havana and the Bronx share a number of common features — urban landscapes, alternative cultures … — and stresses the importance of improving knowledge about American contemporary art in Cuba.  

At the Plaza de la Catedral, on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, an expectant crowd of locals and visitors watches as a flock of ordinary Cubans hoisted on stilts forms the Persian symbol of infinity , in which a new space is created by two adjoining circles while making a rattle with percussions. They’re witnessing a performance by one of the most awaited figures at the Bienal, the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. According to Pistoletto, this performance, entitled The Third Paradise, acquires a special meaning in Cuba— a country faced with the dazzling challenge of reconciling diametrically opposing views. “The real revolution needs to become an evolution,” he says. 

More peripheral, French visual artist Daniel Buren’s intervention at the quaint town of Casa Blanca consisted of renovating the Hershey train station with vertical, 8.7-centimeter-wide stripes. He also stamped his signature on the portals of derelict buildings in Centro Habana as a means of inducing a fresh perception of the city’s architectural heritage, obscured by its current state of disrepair. “People will be forced to walk to discover these portals and, by walking, it’s the city you discover.”

For those with a particular interest in Cuban visual arts, the city’s fortresses, El Morro and Cabaña, host a parallel macro exhibition called Zona Franca (“buffer zone”) featuring works from the last five years by over 200 contemporary Cuban artists. Arles del Río’s installation, La necesidad de otros aires (literally: “the need for different airs”), consisting of dozens of snorkeling tubes dangling from the ceiling, seemed to get special attention from attendees.  In the group exhibition En el centro, three artists — Adrián Rumbault, Camillo Villalvilla and Julio Ferrer — experiment by superposing iconography and symbols from different ideological, cultural, geographic and economic contexts.  

“There is traditional contemporary art along with more controversial pieces—very critical of the system— that I wouldn’t have thought would be allowed here,” says a Colombian visitor before concluding: “Such an interesting biennial.” 

In terms of popularity among the locals, the hands-down winner is the Detrás del muro — an open-air exhibition taking up the length of the Malecón. All Havana seems to be there at the inauguration and children are not only allowed but encouraged to climb and touch many of the installations while the adults put their smartphone cameras to good use and enjoy improvised jazz concert. “It’s like a big block party!” exclaims an American tourist. “We put ropes around everything — you can’t get close!”

All pictures by Clémence Ferrara for Havana Cultura