The Seventh Havana Biennial (Septima Bienal de la Habana)
November 14, 2000-January 5, 2001
November 17, 2000, arrival, Central Havana
At first sight, the city appears to be an enormous film noir set. Streets are filled with a still functioning fleet of pre-revolution-era Ford and Chevy motorcars that mingle with water trucks and orange pedicabs. Men, women and children spill over broken sidewalks in between picturesque colonial architecture collapsing at a rate of almost one building per day. This leaves a maze of jagged pastel walls and shadowy apertures. Despite all the apparent poverty and physical decay, the Cubans I meet are well educated and robust looking. Compared to other "third-world" nations I have visited, it is clear that the revolution has succeeded in raising most people's living standards. Many also immediately nail down where I am from, leading some individuals to offer me black market cigars and other goods. Nevertheless, I am impressed by the civility of Havana and its residents as well the city's urban vitality, all qualities that are rapidly receding from public spaces in the United States. This in turn makes some of th e observations that follow all the more disconsolate.
November 18, the opening of the exhibitions at Castle El Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
In a city where North American visitors otherwise appear only in diluted concentrations, we join ranks with several swelling battalions of art tourists unloading like occupation troops from buses and cabs onto the bluff overlooking downtown Havana. Armed with palm-sized digital cameras and hygienic water bottles, most have, for this occasion, forgone heat-trapping black on black for cotton attire that exposes un-tanned legs and necks to the tropical glare. Many wear oversized white t-shirts. Some are imprinted with candy-colored portraits of Che Guevara rendered in a 1960's, retro Cuban poster style. Perhaps it is inevitable that 40 years after the revolution, Cuba markets the iconography of what is the last Marxist-Leninist government in the western hemisphere. After all, dealing in the revolution is already an enterprise of Madison Avenue. Perhaps filmmaker and scholar Jeffrey Skoller put it best when he stated that "Guevara and the Cuban Revolution have become upscale icons for the aging boomer market." [1 ] No doubt Gap Jeans and Taco Bell ads along with cigar bars and Salsa music have helped to make this forbidden island if not exactly radically chic, then at least cut-rate exotic. Skoller goes so far as to ask whether revolutionary iconography itself "has become so much cultural baggage, exhausted, now simply nostalgic, preventing the present from rethinking the past critically and imagining the future in new and original ways?"  Meanwhile, like a winding sheet, the still lingering shiver of cold-war politics envelopes Havana in a singular allure, especially vibrant to people who recall the 1960's Missile Crisis, or grew up watching James Bond movies.
Meanwhile, to those of us with obsolescent socialist sentiments, Skoller's haunting appraisal is difficult to shake, especially when confronted with the paradoxes that make up contemporary Cuban life and culture. Yet perhaps more than any other kind of strangeness was the way this beautiful, struggling city managed on this occasion to again play a significant role within the international art world. At the same time it became one more occasion for the affirmation of the curatorial class: that transnational detachment of specialized professionals who manage the global spectacle called contemporary art. Perhaps this is the context in which those exhausted signifiers that Skoller alludes to seemed most in play. While there is still something different about the Bienal de Ia Habana when compared to other global art festivals--more artists of color from the southern hemisphere are represented--the same aura of exotica provides a particular status within the larger cultural tourist landscape. …