August 29, 2011

If Buildings Had No Inhabitants

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Architecture is art, a point of political struggle, a means of poetic expression and much, much else in Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa’s exhibit La enmienda que hay en mí and Making Amends, on display now at the Johnson Museum.

Photos of Garaicoa’s native Havana line the walls of the exhibit. There are images of isolated and decrepit billboards stuck by an empty road; shots of sidewalk and aging buildings suggest a bustle that no longer exists. It is Havana itself, its streets and its shops and not the people who live there, that serves as subject to much of the exhibit.

But on these images there are also the human messages scrawled across billboards or whitish storefronts: not advertising or graffiti, but poetry that Garaicoa placed over otherwise barren photos. One series, ‘The Words Transformed, Part 1,” a collection photos transposed onto light boxes, features imaginary billboards marked out in black tape sprawling over the landscape of Havana. Words appear in giant and emaciated red letters that offer messages like “No no no no no no puedo seguir mas”— an emphatic “I can’t go on any longer.” Another says, roughly translated by a proud high school Spanish student, “Without a doubt the city is sure of its own unease.”

The messages are meant to be vast poems of urbanity, anxious shouts rising from a static architecture. The light boxes illuminate otherwise dark, black and white photos, as hidden meaning and struggle is revealed on structures unseen in the day to day.

These poem signs parody the advertisements normally seen on a billboard. Socialism and its implications for Cuba, at the level of the ideal and the real, enters frequently in these pieces and others throughout the exhibit. The difference between the two can be significant — certainly these bare facades we see are a long way off from an envisioned socialist utopia.

A somewhat similar group of photos, ‘From the Series to Transform the Political Word into Facts,” Finally II,’ works towards addressing that issue. Again we see an empty urban landscape with modifications overlain. Mounted on metal and stucco, silver lines run through the photos where Garaicoa carved a fantastic architecture climbing out of Havana. The silver buildings imagine what could be, like ghosts of a distant future. They imagine the success and wealth of a socialist dream forgotten in the original photo. But which do they mark more strongly? What could be, or what is not? There is a recurring ambiguity to that question.

In addition to social and political discussion, absurdism also pops up in the exhibit. For instance, in one exhibit several syringes stand out of the image of an arm. The arm is only one part of a collage of separate images arranged on a long table named ‘The Word Transformed, Part 2.” Each individual image is composed from adhesive tape, metal and other objects attached to artists’ cutting mats— gridded mats of various sizes in greens and blacks and greys. There is no unifying subject amongst the various creations, but rather they bring out themes common to the work. Yellow, bloodied fingers drip on one mat. On another towers burn. The brilliant colors and weird subjects create absurdist images formally different from many of the black and white images on the walls of the exhibit. But at the core, the absurdist images touch on same problems through suggestive symbols such as flags, which hint at the political, or even the arm full of syringes, which invoke personal and emotional conflict in a person’s environment

In the entire exhibit there are few if any examples of a person as the work’s object, but it is hard to imagine any of the pieces without people — not physically perhaps, but as emotional beings inhabiting these various locale. Garaioca gives life to the architecture of Havana by giving it expression through written word or fantastic, hopeful images. In one photo this means creating string outlines of irons that fly around a storefront, a whacky image that turns an empty business into something very human. It is the aspect of humanization that turns buildings into our companions through daily life and suggests our own presence beside them.

When the humanity is taken back and we again look at the construct dispossessed of emotional, we are left with a cold metal bulk. ‘The Crown Jewels” is a series of silver miniatures that attempts to remind us of that inhuman quality. Alone amongst the present works it presents an architecture without elaboration, without fanciful words or images added. In glass cases on tall black pedestals sit several replicas of famous and obscure buildings known for political surveillance, repression and control. Guantanamo Bay, the KGB Headquarters, the Pentagon and other sites in South America and across the world all appear as architecture isolated from a humanizing element. The metal figurines, constructed only from information available online, are international symbols of political power that themselves are lifeless and empty of emotion.

Humans’ interaction with their surroundings is essential to the quality of that place. It certainly defines that place. But what Garaicoa shows us is that we give life to our surroundings through our emotional struggles that exist within them, the pain and love felt daily in our own cities. Alone, architecture can become a symbol of political and social power. When filled with human vigor, architecture becomes a place of fantasy and art.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber