Organized by a team of six local curators affiliated with the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam, including its director, Hilda Maria Rodriguez Enriquez, the eighth Bienal de Habana faced difficulties on several fronts--political, financial, and conceptual. After the Cuban government arrested seventy-five Cuban intellectuals in the months prior to the exhibition and the biennial failed to distance itself from the government's actions, the organization found itself severely compromised, as key European foundations withdrew their support. A statement by the president of the biennial's board in the exhibition catalogue sweepingly condemns the withdrawal of funding as "part of the wave of hostile actions carried out by the European Union against Cuba." The biennial struggled as well in trying to maintain its role in relation to the growing number of other recurring international art events. As Uruguayan artist and critic Luis Camnitzer writes in his contribution to the catalogue, rather than partake in the "system that defines art at a given moment," the Havana biennial has traditionally aimed to "underline the ethical context within which that definition occurs." Inscribing the exhibition into a discourse that favors moral judgments over aesthetic ones, and local authenticity over global intelligibility, Camnitzer iterates a position often assumed by "peripheral" biennials that claim an advantage derived from geographical (and economic) marginality. With this installment, titled "Art and Life," the Biennial attempted to perpetuate its ethical prerogative while simultaneously aligning itself with the history of the European avant-garde and the Cuban revolution. The hybrid agenda was an awkward one. Referencing artistic practices of the 1910s and '20s as well as the climate of cultural and political change in the 1960s, the exhibition merged the current trend toward reengaging historical utopian propositions with Cuba's grandiose postrevolutionary rhetoric.
Camnitzer, while not among the exhibition's curators, went on to provide lucid guidance as to how the exhibition's theme might be understood: "If Art and life as title of this Eighth Biennial pretends to be more than a purely anecdotic theme, the election of the phrase revives two main hopes that go hand-in-hand: the blockade of the temptations of mercantilist artistic tourism, and the maintenance of a forum for discussion of the ethical contexts that to such great extent go beyond the mere making of objects." Here, Camnitzer confronts the most paradoxical aspects of contemporary art in Cuba head-on: For as art in Cuba is less policed than other goods (it's not embargoed either), artistic production has become a tempting prospect toward participating in the world market. And while the desired discussion of ethical contexts beyond the mere making of objects would be a more radical conceptual proposition, it would require a culture of tolerance and openness incompatible with government censorship.
The biennial brought together works by 150 artists and artists' groups and was largely concentrated in three venues, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, an eighteenth-century colonial fortress across the bay from the historic city center; the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam; and the Pabellon Cuba, a '60s modernist trade-fair pavilion. Several smaller projects were scattered throughout the city, and a range of additional exhibitions coincided with the main event. There was also a three-day forum for discussion, which complemented the organizers' interest in exchange and debate. But while the symposia addressed theoretical issues raised by the biennial, as well as current curatorial practices, the exhibition itself remained largely disconnected from the debates. Rather, the correspondence between art and life seemed to be confined mostly to works that engaged with aspects of everyday living, such as domestic environments. …