If the Havana Biennial is a test of rapprochement, U.S.-Cuba relations might be cooling on the diplomacy front, but the big chill remains where it has always been: freedom of expression.
As the art world descends on the city to revel in works like the artificial ice skating rink set up by an Irish-American performance artist, and a stretch of the famous Havana seawall turned into a beach with sand and deck chairs, there is a grimmer reality.
Young graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado is serving prison time for the anti-regime content of his art. He named pigs he intended to use in a performance Fidel and Raúl.
Internationally-acclaimed Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, a previous biennial favorite until she fell from grace with the apparatus after a daring open mic performance in 2009 that mocked Fidel Castro, has been under what she calls “city arrest” since Dec. 30. She’s awaiting trial for attempting a Havana Square version of her Tatlin’s Whisper performance after the historic change of U.S. Cuba policy was announced.
The artist — who obtained years ago U.S. resident status under the exceptional talent category — had her passport confiscated and is not allowed to travel outside Havana or leave the country.
And the Cuban government, through its official censors in the Ministry of Culture, is still the curator in charge of who gets to participate in this 12th edition of the famous biennial — and who doesn’t.
Artists and curators who aren’t perceived to “provoke” the Cuban government with their works — or who at least obfuscate their artist statements enough to fool the censors — get to participate. Those who don’t abide by the rules — or aren’t afraid of the political limelight and openly criticize Cuba’s lack of freedoms — are visa-less in Miami, Chicago, New York, etc.
So what’s different this year?
A herd of giddy American art collectors, Cuban-Americans, and first-time Cuba visitors feeling empowered by President Barack Obama’s relaxed rules on travel and spending — and the hope that dollars and contact will bring about change.
“We are the virus and we have now infected — and it’s going to change!” Jeff Gelblum, a Miami collector and member of the Art Basel Miami Beach host committee, told me on Monday after returning from a long weekend trip to attend the biennial’s opening. “The government is done. It’s finished. It’s the conclusion of the Revolution.”
What he saw in Havana, he says, is a state of “gorgeous dilapidation,” and “a very interesting society where artists live in big houses at the top of the pecking order.”
Also at the top of that order: American travelers.
“It’s good to be an American because we have invincibility — and we can act,” he said.
In that spirit, he and some friends “tracked down” Bruguera at her house at 214 Tejadillo (one block from the Museum of Fine Arts), where the artist bravely held from a lone chair propped in her living room — and with the door open — a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
“We went there to support her,” says Gelblum.
The petty and intolerant Cuban government tried to block her reading by sending workers to drill the street in front of her house so that people could not hear her voice. Security agents were posted at her house. On the Internet, government bloggers worked around the clock to try to diminish her international track record, which spans continents and includes shows in top museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Tate in London. She also was denied entry to the National Museum of Fine Arts, where she had been invited to the opening of an exhibition by master Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez, who lives in Costa Rica.
Gelblum says he used his little Spanish to engage with Bruguera’s neighbors. “Esto es muy caliente,” he told them. Wink, wink. They seemed supportive of her, but he also got to hear from people such as his multilingual tour guide — who has never stepped outside of Cuba, was grateful for his education, and said he was supportive of the regime.
Gelblum, who photographed Bruguera’s reading chair and made a video of her testimony and posted both on social media, is optimistic that Americans can bring positive change to Cuba.
“We are a good virus, I hope.”
To counter the censorship, Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada announced his own performance in support of Bruguera, asking everyone “ABC” (Anywhere but Cuba) to flush their toilets at 3 p.m. last Friday, the biennial’s kick-off, and post it on social media.
I didn’t see a lot of flushing.
Cortada attributes it to “Cuba fatigue” and the “eagerness to [engage in] reconciliation without the basic understanding that there can be no real reconciliation without truth or justice. … Perhaps attending is a willful surrender, hoping that things change.”
Some American, Cuban and international artists are boycotting the biennial, which runs through June 22, in support of Bruguera. But for many Cuban and Cuban-American artists the silence has been, as one put it, “the price to pay” for being in Havana now — and for the privilege of shuttling between a house in Havana and an apartment in Miami Beach.
But what’s a biennial without the presence of freedom of expression?
A fake — a lot like a skating rink in the tropics and a beach on concrete.