Magic realism? Havana in the year 2000 is as bizarre as anything Borges, Garcia Marquez, Kafka, or Philip K. Dick ever dreamt up. It’s a place where time stopped four decades ago. Pink and blue behemoth buses that hold a couple of hundred people each, known as camelos because of their double humps, are a suitably postapocalyptic touch in a crumbling city of decrepit grandeur. The average worker in this strange workers’ paradise earns less in a year than a table of five tourists spends for one dinner. Eating lobster is against the law: it’s reserved for foreigners. Elián T-shirts, however, are strictly for cubans.
The art crowd from New York, L.A., San Francisco, New Orleans, and the rest of the planet, which has descended like locusts for the seventh Havana Bienal (through January 5), barely notices. Drooling over disintegrating facades and tail-finned vehicular carapaces, they’re oblivious to local anxieties of grinding to an irreplaceable halt. Amid palms, surf, deprivations, and faded billboards in praise of Socialismo, the permanent revolution has become an eternal fiesta. The people party and clean their wounds with antifreeze on this entropic island that seems both more spirited and more hopeless than any Soviet satellite state ever was. You get the feeling that they humor Fidel’s oppressions as if he were their dotty uncle.
In the artworld, a weird delusion of normalcy holds sway. A special exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works on paper, sent from Buenos Aires, is in two museums, Casa de las Americas and the Museum of Rum. Brazilian conceptualist Helio Oiticica’s multisensory art of the ’60s and ’70s fills the Centro Provincial de Artes Plasticas. Much of the work by the 170 artists from some 40 countries in the Bienal is in a vast succession of barrel-vaulted halls in the historic fortress and prison at the Morro-Cabaña complex. The rest sprawls through the city in 37 other locations, along with urban interventions, performances, symposia, and a benefit auction said to be Cuba’s first.
The Havana Bienal, whose first incarnation was back in 1984, is no third-world Johnny-come-lately, but a model for the younger biennials that now counter the Euro-American art establishment from the peripheries. The three continents it focuses on aren’t North America, Europe, and Asia, but Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. This year its title is “Closer to the Other,” its theme is communication, and its works are loaded with metaphors—elusive, obvious, ironic, sometimes unfathomable. Like Cuba itself, the Havana Bienal harbors odd contradictions.
With smart works by artists from South Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Suriname, Jamaica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Paraguay, and elsewhere, it’s an answer not only to the exclusions of Documenta and Venice but to the exoticisms of the last Lyon Biennale. In Havana, the few European artists are tokens, not stars, and Nicaraguan Patricia Belli’s strung-up stuffed dolls outclass Annette Messager’s.
Packed with artists mostly unfamiliar in the north, this biennial has more than its share of memorable work. The surprise is that the best art is Cuban—and most of it is political. The Cuban group Los Carpinteros erected a tent city that beckoned from across the harbor, and won a well-deserved UNESCO award. Up close, the 10 nylon buildings—you could unzip the doors and enter—include nine Havana landmarks (the Capitol, Hotel Nacional, the prison that once held Castro) and a high rise that a guard identified as Nueva York. An artist and his students who call themselves Galería Dupp installed a breezy indoor/outdoor intervention with shadowy microphones, titled 1, 2, 3, Probando (1, 2, 3 Testing), along El Morro’s ramparts. Gabinete Ordo Amoris, a duo, did a spare installation with two antennas. Abel Barroso created a Third World Internet Café with carved wooden computers.
International art star Kcho’s installation in an airy room in the convent of San Francisco de Asis is breathtaking. The Cuban-born artist’s centerpiece: a big old dilapidated pier adrift in a sea of liquor and IV bottles, festooned with stray tires, hats, and other debris. Off to the side, a vertical flotilla of 11 stacked plywood rowboats stands by. On a grand colonial banquet table lies the carcass of a leviathan, woven from tropical fronds.
One highlight is the installation by recent Cuban art school grad Esterio Segura, whose sculptures were in the film Fresa y chocolate. His three-part installation on the ramps of El Morro starts with a life-size plaster man (asleep? drowned?) on a bed of birdcages, dreaming of airplanes, and ends with a similar figure on bundled newspapers, dreaming of typewriters. In between, other figures—one locked in a winged cage—blare silently through megaphones. Also effective is Carlos Estévez’s display of 100 bottles, each with a numbered existential image and message, and the unspoken metaphor of the proverbial shipwrecked survivor. Like William Kentridge, whose shadowy video procession of silhouettes (coming soon to the Times Square Astrovision screen) is in the Bienal, Estévez puts outdated stylization to new use.
The Bienal also served as a playground for curious local kids. Children as well as art aficionados sent Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas’s styrofoam airplanes soaring and crashing across Havana’s old plaza; the headsets loaned with the planes played black-box crash recordings. And everyone from kids to military men posed with snowballs and skis in Argentinean couple Leandro Erlich (his thunderstorm was in the last Whitney Biennial) and Judi Werthein’s installation Turismo, an artificial snow scene in a photographer’s studio. Each received their own souvenir Polaroid, not a small miracle in a place where photos from abroad are confiscated from mail.
But Tania Bruguera’s performance/installation in a pitch-black tunnel—abruptly de-installed the day after it opened—was the most memorable piece. Treading blindly for what seemed aeons in oppressive darkness on an instable mush of fermenting sugar cane stalks, nearly overcome by the sickly sweet smell, you approached a faint ray of hope: the dim glow of a TV hanging overhead. On it was a video collage of Castro’s life. And as you turned back, all senses on total alert, you faintly perceived the presence of bare living bodies, endlessly rubbing their mouths or slapping their thighs. Some viewers saw a man and a woman, others insisted there were four males. Like Cuba itself, it was a total sensory experience—contradictory, illusive, and hard to fathom. It summed up the invisibility, the toxic presence, the history of exploitation, and the heart of darkness. “It’s like Cuba,” said the Cuban artist. “It’s sweet. It can be dangerous. It’s intoxicating.” As an afterthought, referring to the video, she added: “And I know your ideas about who he is.”