Ruins of the Future
For Carlos Garaicoa, the failure of political ideals is articulated most clearly in architecture. From the early 1990s, he has been investigating architecture in his hometown Havana and in projects around the world as a mirror of social developments. With his series of photographs and installations, he develops a critical archeology of cities. Achim Drucks on Garaicoa’s works in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||La Republica, La Epocha, El Arte—the old department stores and shops in Havana had illustrious names. These historic buildings, captured by Carlos Garaicoa in his black-and-white photographs, speak of the heyday of the Cuban capital. From the beginning of prohibition in the US in 1919, Havana was a popular destination for tourists from the US seeking pleasure in the numerous nightclubs. And as an important exporter of sugar, Cuba belonged to the most prosperous states in Latin America, and the magnificent buildings in the former "Paris of the Caribbean" are evidence of this wealth. The decades between Cuba’s liberation from Spanish rule in 1898 and the victory of the revolutionaries around Fidel Castro in 1959 were also an era where colonial suppression continued in a different guise: at first, the US occupied the island and installed a pseudo-republic, and later the dictators Machado and Batista ruled.
The shops in the photographs show not just "the ancient glories of Cuba’s luxurious and ‘consummist’ past", explains Garaicoa. The buildings also stand for the "tough contrast to the less fortunate lives surrounding them." But the works from the ten-part series Frases/Phrases (2009) that is on display as part of the new art presentation in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, are much more than just photographs reminding us of past times and at the same time documenting the current desolate condition of these buildings. Garaicoa amended the names of the shops with words of his own, using almost transparent letters, as if by a ghost’s hand: la epocha is extended into "a miseria/es igual/esta/la epocha" (the misery/is indifferent/to/this epoch), and Loceria La Republica, the name of a shop for kitchenware, he transforms into "Groceria La Republica/Vulgaridad/La Independencia/Cinismo/La Libertad" (The rude republic/vulgarity/independence/cynicism/freedom). Terms with political connotations like "revolucion" are present, but also "o un suave beso" (or a gentle kiss). Garaicoa’s Frases seem like condensed poems that reflect the history and present of his hometown, as well as his private emotions.
Garaicoa, born in 1967, grew up at a time when there was little left of the optimistic mood after the revolution. The only socialist state on the American continent was, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, in a difficult economic situation, to which the US embargo contributed. The loss of their most important trade partner in 1991 led to an economic crisis that continues to this day. The sad state of many buildings thus seems symbolic of the failure of a communist ideology and its dreams of a better and more just future. These "landscapes of ruins" that also exist in similar forms in other (post)socialist states are the point of departure for many of Garaicoa’s works, including his documenta project Continuidad de una arquitectura ajena (Continuity of Somebody’s Architecture) (2002). These drawings, models, and photographs deal with the buildings of the "Social Microbrigades", construction groups that built houses on their own initiative in order to counter the ongoing housing shortage. But due to the economic situation, many of these buildings, which would have countered the opulent colonial architecture with a demonstrative modernity, were never completed.
"In Havana, as well as in other Cuban cities, idyllic and nostalgic ruins from the colonial and first republic periods coexist with the ruin of a frustrated political and social project," explains Garaicoa in his artist’s statement about this work. "The encounter with these buildings produces a strange sensation; the issue is not the ruin of a luminous past but a present of incapacity. (…) I call these the Ruins of the Future." These "collapsing new buildings" and the desolate state of many historic buildings counter the state ideology of social progress with the bitter reality of the factual. In the documenta project, Garaicoa’s concern went beyond an engagement with a failed utopia. As an artist, he wanted to counter reality with something hopeful. He looked for old building plans in the archives and "completed" the projects: he had models built that were based on the original plans. And on the photographs of the real buildings, he placed small nails and connected them with thin threads that overlay the photograph like cobwebs and complement the building parts that were not realized. The architecture and its history is continued and completed in the imaginary.
This technique also lends a unique aesthetics to many of his photographic works. The thread floats directly above the picture and creates delicate shadow lines on the photographs. This three-dimensional element, which depending on the beholder’s perspective is sometimes almost invisible, creates a second level of meaning between pragmatism, politics, and poetry. On some photographs, the thread simply adds what once existed—for example when Garaicoa reconstructs the original state of destroyed historical buildings. Or the thread stands for something that was never realized, like for example with the buildings of the "Social Microbrigades". In his untitled works from the series Pájaros/Birds (2006), which are also shown in the Deutsche Bank Towers, they connect the silhouettes of birds circling over a garbage dump near Madrid. The threads form geometrical patterns reminiscent of astrological constellations, lending the series an almost cosmic dimension. And that is the largest possible contrast to the garbage over which the birds fly.
Garaicoa is like a flaneur who moves though urban areas, reacting always anew to his impressions, which then find their way into his works. His focus, and the repertoire of the media he uses, have expanded continuously. The works he made after graduating from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana in 1994 addressed initially the situation in his hometown, and here he worked mainly with photography. During a visit to Cuba for the Havana Biennale, Holly Block noticed the artist. At the time, she was the director of the Manhattan exhibition space Art in General, and in 1996 she curated his exhibition project When a Desire Resembles Nothing (Cuando el deseo se parece a nada). In 2003, she also organized the show Dreamspaces / Entresuenos in Deutsche Bank’s Lobby Gallery in New York, where Garaicoa participated. The exhibition brought together more than twenty works by Latin American artists, whose works deal with cultural identity, urban architecture, and utopian forms of society. His project for Art in General addressed what Havana and New York have in common. Since then, Garaicoa has participated in numerous important international exhibitions, such as documenta XI (2002), directed by Okwui Enwezor, Venice Biennales (2005/2009), and the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial (2008). Engaging with urban space and architecture remains central to Garaicoa’s work.
However, he keeps developing new formal approaches. For the 9th Sonsbeek Public Art Exhibition in Arnheim, curated by Jan Hoet, he realized Let’s Play Disappear (II)—a model of this Dutch city made of burning candles, which melted away in the course of the exhibition. The work, installed in a church, was a memorial to the city’s bombardments during the Second World War. Garaicoa also addressed the gradual destruction of architecture—in his contribution to Gerardo Mosquera’s exhibition El Patio de mi casa, where international artists like Cai Gou-Qiang and Nedko Solakov created site-specific works for historic inner courtyards in Cordoba: a city made of sugar was gradually carried away by the ants living in the patio. His "buildings" made of Japanese rice paper, and illuminated from inside, from the series Nuevas arquitecturas (2003) are immensely pleasing aesthetically—fragile lanterns forming a utopian city.
Beauty and horror, construction and destruction, history and the present—in Garaicoa’s work, the city seems like a seismograph that records social developments and states. Here, ideologies and the utopias of modernism collide with a reality that is anything but ideal, not just in Cuba. Architecture has here for Garaicoa special significance as “a discipline that has played one of the most important roles in society and that has inflected politically, ideologically, and socially all the changes and events that have marked the course of our lifetimes.”
Translation: Wilhelm Werthern
Carlos Garaicoa. Fin de silencio
May 14 – August 28, 2011
Centre d’Art la Panera, Lleida
Penelope’s Labour— Weaving Words and images
June 4 to September 18, 2011
Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice
Weavings from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini Collection shown alongside new woven works by Azra Aksamija, Lara Baladi, Alighiero Boetti, Maurizio Cattelan, Manuel Franquelo, Carlos Garaicoa, Craigie Horsfield, Grayson Perry and Marc Quinn