Heterogénesis - Magazine of Visual Arts- 2006 nr 55-56


Ximena Narea


The Havana Biennial has managed to become as one of the most important and awaited for art events of the Southern Hemisphere. Since the first edition in 1984 the biennial has gone through changes in the organisation as well in the methodology to face the event. From an exhibition practically open to anyone it has an organisation with very defined curatorial projects. The proposed theme of the latest edition was Dynamics of the urban culture, with 130 artists from 51 countries participating in it, besides seven individual exhibitions. The art works were exhibited at Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña, the Cuba Pavilion, Wifredo Lam Center and other spaces in downtown Havana. The Biennial was opened to the public between March 27th and April 27th 2006.

Several of the curators that took part in the event, beginning with Margarita Sánchez Prieto, our guest editor, contributed to this double issue of Heterogénesis dedicated to the Ninth Havana Biennial. The material selected by her includes texts by Nelson Herrera Ysla and Jose Manuel Noceda written prior to the biennial. They analyse the city as a physical and cultural space. On the organisation and developing process of the biennial we publish four texts covering different aspects of this process. Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda writes about the theoretical segment developed at the Idea Forum that focused in historical, sociological, critical, ideological and production mechanisms in urban spaces. Ibis Hernandez goes through the methodology adopted in this Biennial and the perspective from which the Cuban curators worked. Andrés D. Abreu interviews Rubén del Valle Lantarón, director of the Centre of Contemporary Art Wifredo Lam and of the Biennial of Havana, who reflects on the role of the Biennial in the international exhibitions circuit and its future perspectives. Margarita Sánchez Prieto makes a critical review of the intentions and results of the show through the exhibited works.

We thank the Centre of Contemporary Art Wifredo Lam and its director Rubén del Valle Lantarón, and specially Margarita Sánchez Prieto for their support to this publication and for allowing us to present the Biennial from the point of view of its own organizers.


Brief reflections on the biennial
This Biennial is the third edition that I have had the privilege to attend. In the first two (3rd, 1989 and 5th, 1995) I was a participant in the frenzy of the openings, the theory seminars and the presence of the artists. This time I arrived in Havana towards the end of the Biennial and could visit the different places where the works were exhibited with the invaluable guide of Margarita Sánchez Prieto, one of the curators of the Biennial. I also had the opportunity to meet Ibis Hernandez, another curator of the team. During the tour of La Cabaña and other spaces in downtown Havana, both curators expressed their insatisfaction with certain aspects of this Biennial, which is reflected in their texts. Personally, I agree with some of the criticisms but not all of them. I also value the enormous effort made by the Wilfredo Lam Centre to organize the Biennial and give a place to artists who normally do not appear in the international artistic circuits, in addition to the courage of proposing an artistic project from the perspective of the South.

From the beginning the Havana Biennial was oriented to promote and stimulate the art of countries from the so-called Third World. It was an attempt to counterbalance the overwhelming presence of artists of the First World in the international art shows, where the artists of the South were very poorly represented. The first two biennials were a sort of test (1984 and 1986) without a specific subject and with a kind of open invitation. Although in the third (1989) the participation of the artists was more structured, a theme was proposed, and theory seminars and workshops were held as complementary activities to the exhibitions. This work structure continued being developed in the coming events.

The curatorial concept

Curatorial work is an important part of the operating structure of an exhibition. It defines the concepts and the form in which the participation of the guest artists, the seminaries and other parallel events will be developed. The curatorial models that have been tested in other biennials and international events are curatorial groups in charge of a director, and country representation. In the first model artists who work on the proposed subjects are selected, whereas in the second each country makes the selection of the artists. The biennials of Venice as well as Sao Paulo, pioneers in this kind of exhibitions, mix both models, although for the next Sao Paulo Biennial the selection of artists will be under the exclusive responsibility of the curators, which end with the selection by country. The election of a theme limits the selection of the artists to two possible ways: inviting artists to produce and present work on the subject proposed for the exhibition, and the invitation of artists who already are working on the subject to show already produced and exhibited works.

The Havana Biennial works with a curatorial group that has specialized in the geographic areas that conform the so-called Third World: Latin America, Africa Asia and the Middle East. Of practical reasons the Latin American participation has being the most important. Although the show is centred on these three continents, artists from United States, Europe and other parts of the world have usually been invited which in my point of view gives the exhibition a more global character. The curators visit their workplaces to see the art that is being produced on their respective fields and to select the artists who will participate on the biennial. Nevertheless, this time, as Ibis Hernandez points out, the field research were very limited in Africa and none in Asia. The model of selecting pieces has the advantage that the artworks have already been produced, but has the big disadvantage of transportation, for which there is not always enough resources, which is what happened with several works selected for this biennial. The result was that, instead of showing the selected works, they were replaced by video projections or small-scale pieces, normally bi-dimensional. This dominance of two-dimensionality is one of the deficiencies that Margarita Sánchez Prieto points out in her article.

The spaces
Certainly, the proposed subject was appropriate for interventions in the urban space, street performances and large installations in different places of the city. Havana City is the biggest art gallery in the world, as Nelson Herrera Ysla writes, and he is right. The city has many urban areas of interest: the historical centre, the Vedado area, the New Vedado, Miramar and many other places with a history of their own and to which the artist can interact. With some few exceptions (Fa+ and Mariano Molina, among them) the open spaces were not used. Fa+ brought intervened street objects, wrapping them with gold leaf, and Mariano Molina made a mural consisting of shades that blended with the shade of the branches of a tree.

The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, built in 1763 as Spain’s biggest military enclave in America, lodges a museum and the other buildings are holed the Book Fair and Tourism Fair, among others events. The main part of the biennial was exhibited in this area. The area occupied by the biennial consisted on pavilions with small rooms on one side and bigger ones on the other crossed by a second corridor. Here the works had the necessary space to be perceived, an important factor in the exhibition of works of art.

Dynamics of the urban culture

The theme of the Biennial allowed a wide range of interpretations, even more considering that three culturally distant continents were involved in the project. In the first place, the spatial solutions of the city, the functional and decorative objects, the use of the public space, the private spaces, the way of solving the problems they present and their use, the means of transportation, etc. Each aspect of the city was expressed in itself and in opposition to the rural world: culture versus nature, incorporation of elements of nature in the urban area, influences of other cultures. In short, the possibilities are infinite. Some of these aspects were portrayed in the Biennial.

The dichotomy countryside-city was expressed in the windmills made with the tops of three of those brandishes found at the entrance of subways of Edgar Hechevarría (Cuba). The bars were in the front of the space, and the mills, projected onto the bottom wall, gave the impression of being the shade of those tops, preventing the access to the room. Also along that dichotomy was the work of Javier Camarasa (Spain) showing through a video projection how a computer game image is quickly eating up the natural landscape, turning it into residential and tourist spaces. The signboards of different kinds we see around us in contemporary large cities were present in several works: C. Jankowski’s AGUA WASSER project (Mexico-Germany), which should have been displayed in full size but were shown as scale models I very little dimensions and Chinatown of Rosalía Maguid (Argentina), with peculiar signboards of Chinese immigrants in Buenos Aires. On migration between cities in the same country, was the work of Sue Williamson (South Africa) in which various persons talked about their migrant experiences.

The seven special invited artists presented different aspects of that urban dynamics: Antoni Miralda (Spain) with his work inprogress Tastes and Tongues: La Habana, for which he invited the public to create an image with a plate. Carlos Saura (Spain modifies pictures of groups of people in street cars or waiting rooms with wax pens. Anne and Patrick Poirier (France) construct a futuristic city with sugar. Shilpa Gupta (India) intervenes the bridge at the entrance of La Cabaña with yellow plastic ribbons. Jean Nouvel (France) covered the walls of the Centro Hispanoamericano de Cultura with pictures of their projects for several cities. Spencer Tunick (USA) showed a series of photographies of naked bodies as part of the urban landscape taken in different cities, images that have become their personal trademark. A dimension of the urban culture that could be seen as different from the West culture showed Shirin Neshat (Iran/USA) in her video Zarin. Although the work was about woman’s dilemmas in the Muslim culture, at the end the history of a prostitute who was tired and sick of his situation run away to the outside world without been able to be part of it is not that different from what women in other parts of the world. What makes the story different is the presence of women in black mantles, a view people living the West culture are not use to see.

The balance of an exhibition as wide as the Biennial is always positive, for the organizers as well as for the artists, who gain in experience, and the public, who has the opportunity of seeing works of artists of different countries. After each edition a critical evaluation is necessary to overcome weaknesses and to introduce new aspects in the future. Certainly, the lack of resources limits the projects to a high extent, and imagination is sometimes exhausted, but the display of strength that the Biennial has shown until today allows us to think that the dissatisfaction observed in the texts published here will be overcome and that new ways of development for this project will be found.


Parallel Exhibitions
Finally, in this issue we have included images of the exhibition Manual of Instructions that, although not being part of the Biennial, was an interesting show that fitted well in the category of urban culture expressions. In the exhibition, consisting in making all kind of interventions to refrigerators, 54 artists of various disciplines were invited.




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