The star power at the 11th Havana Biennale is palpable. With some 180 artists from 45 countries drawing visitors from as far afield as New York’s MoMA and the Tate Modern, the month-long, city-spanning festival which was founded in 1984, and runs through June 11, is drawing its biggest foreign crowds—and biggest-name artists—to date. At Castilo de Fuerza, the oldest standing Spanish fort in the Americas, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov unveiled the seventh iteration of their globetrotting Ship of Tolerance that’s employed children from Siwa to Miami to Havana to paint sails displaying their interpretations of tolerance. Marina Abramovic was in town to screen and discuss Matthew Akers’s documentary, The Artist is Present, about her eponymous MoMA retrospective. “I can’t look at it, I cry every time,” she said in a men’s dressing room backstage at the Miramar Theater.
Meanwhile, some of Havana’s favorite sons—Kcho, Yoan Capote, and the art duo Los Carpinteros—offered up commanding new works, respectively, at Gran Teatro de La Habana, the Pabexpo convention center in the tonier suburb of Siboney, and on the main promenade of Old Havana, Paseo del Prado, where Los Carpinteros orchestrated the festival-opening Conga Irreversible, a line-dancing processional of black carnival-clad dancers that augured in the grave tones prevalent throughout the predominantly dark works at the festival. To wit, Fly Away, a chain-link fence with a cutout of a commercial airliner seemingly flying into the ocean, byHavana-based artist Arles del Rio, cast a menacing pall over the Malecon, the seaside drag where Cubans typically party until the morning hours.
There was major gravitas at the student exhibition at ISA, el Instituto Superior de Artes, which currently has 800 students. The campus once served as the uber-exclusive Havana Country Club, which didn’t even let Fulgencio Batista join after he was president, and played host to a famous post-Revolution twosome—Che and Fidel—before the comrades made it an art school in 1960. On the front lawn, recent grad Wilber Aguilera Echevarria, 24, placed a flock of cardboard sheep titled Proyecto Moraleja (2012) a sort of low-tech version of Lalanne’s sheep. In Aguilera’s version the heads bow with the wind with a simple brick-and-hook mechanism in the paper neck. The flock is situated like an audience before another of Aguilera’s works, Transformer, a ten-foot-tall cardboard replica of a podium with two microphones. “We’re all sheep here, and we’re always asking questions but you never find any answers,” says Aguilera, motioning to the microphones. “And in Cuba the podium is a symbol for change. It’s like a big weapon of ideas transmitting change.”
In one of two student galleries at ISA, Mayté Rondón Martinez, 23, offered a look inside the school’s impressive printmaking operations, where the studio still incorporates 100 year-old printing stones. Martinez showed a series of six human forms made of engravings on acetate. Titled Trujaman (2012), or “interpreter,” the works are offset from six black frames painted on the white walls. There Martinez’s transparent figures lift off beyond the frames in an attempt to juxtapose the balance between corporeal limitations and the boundlessness of human feelings, especially depression.
“The acetate is transparent because I want people to see beyond the limitations of society and their desires,” says Martinez.
Ana Laura Tamburini’s Intermedios installation features an egg-shaped vestibule in which she catalogs the detritus of her student life, from jars of half-used soap bars and unused buttons to curios of cigar stumps and gum packets that lead to a slit of a room containing three folders of still-life engravings. “This is what sustained me to make these,” she said pointing to a wall of maps in the antechamber.
In the other gallery, Orlando Pérez Almanza and classmate Osvaldo Barroso Salcedo took on the art world with Serie Acrópolis, a slick set of photographic prints (and an accompanying PowerPoint display) featuring photo renderings of various top tier art institutions—the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, MoMA, et al—re-envisioned as gold-plated miniature golf holes. “The art world is a big joke,” says Almanza. “But every artist still wants to play and dream inside these museums.”
The show’s lightning rod was He (2012), a hyper-realistic wax sculpture of a recumbent Osama Bin Laden by Havana-based brothers Julio and Alberto Lorente and Manolo Castro. The macabre work has a quiet transfixing power, due to the tranquility of the figure, who lies on a rug with his eyes closed in a dimly lit room. Though Reuters and NBC have both reported on the work, they have not delved beyond the notoriety of the subject, and it is this mediation that interests the artists. “Osama bin Laden is the most famous man on the Internet,” says Alberto. “And many people [in Cuba] don’t believe he’s dead.”