VII Bienal De la Habana

By Israel, Nico | Artforum International, February 2001 | Go to article overview

VII Bienal De la Habana

Israel, Nico, Artforum International


Since its inception in 1983, the Bienal de La Habana has tenaciously promoted itself as an alternative biennial--less cookiecutter-commercial and more genuinely representative of the art of the developing world. And yet as Cuba's economic situation has changed--dramatically even in the three years since the last biennial-so have the aspirations of Cuban artists and the ambitions of the exhibition's curators. The discreet charms (and harms) of globalization, it seems, are hard to resist. The theme of the seventh installment, "Mas cerca uno del otro" ("Closer to the other"), was designed to allow "a reflection on communication and dialogue among human beings," a proposition that suggests a fuzzily defined conceptual zone between old-fashioned liberal humanism and information-age "communicative action." In fact, this biennial dealt equally with the poetics of miscommunication, partly because of maladroit organization and frequent technical glitches and, more important, because of different local and internationa l presumptions about the function and meaning of artistic expression. Still, as a showcase for Cuban and other Latin American art, the biennial was, in its own peculiarly proud, gutsy cubano way, a triumph.

Funded by various European foundations and the cash-strapped Cuban government and organized by the Centro Wifredo Lam, this biennial was remarkable for its deft utilization of Havana's urban landscape. Because of ongoing renovations to the exhibitions' usual location, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Havana's equivalent to, say, the Prado), they occupied not just the colonial-era Castillo de Morro and La Forraleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, both of which have been used in past years, but also buildings throughout Old Havana, a public walkway along the picturesque Malecon seafront, and small venues in less frequently visited neighborhoods. The Miinster sculpture show was suggested as a purported model--which in terms of both logistics and curatorial sophistication is a bit of a stretch.

Thankfully, though, Havana is so much more alive than sleepy, stuffy Miinster: The city I saw had as little to do with the charming decrepitude of Wim Wenders's romantic Buena Vista Social Club as with the vast, grotesque prison house portrayed in julian Schnabel's powerful Before Night Falls. Havana and its people were animated, warm, funny, and inspiring.

Given the presence of busloads of European and American art tourists, walking around the exhibitions during opening week sometimes felt a bit reminiscent of that scene in Godfather II when a group of '50s American gangsters on a yacht greedily cuts up a cake meant to signify Cuba. Such was the not entirely benign air of hunger and anticipation. In the evening, the bar at the still glamorous Hotel Nacional was packed, and during the day the streets of Old Havana were filled with fashionably dressed US museum "gold circle" members armed with Bienal badges and dollars with which to buy art (or pledge to do so). But after all the charter flights went home, visitors, along with Havana's always curious citizens, could actually look at the exhibitions.

Among the featured artists was JeanMichel Basquiat-a predictable choice given that the idea of the "Caribbean artist embraced then abandoned by money-driven art world in cahoots with cruel, racist system" might still have currency in Cuba. But because of wrangling on both sides of the blockade-plagued Gulf over shipping, insurance, and legal minutiae, most of the work shown was unimpressive--studies, drawings, sketches, and the like--and with the scarcity of the offerings, galleries were reduced to exhibiting photographs of Basquiat smiling with Warhol and other celebrities. Helio Oiticica's retrospective fared much better. His conceptually driven tactile and participatory work influenced a generation of Brazilian artists, and here it was easy to see why. On a table at the entrance to the exhibition were the artist's collections of Bijos, little plastic bags filled with shells floating in water; nearby were buckets of dirt you were invited to touch (through rubber gloves) and smell. …

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