CITIES AND THE SKY
By Andrew Maerkle
All images: On How the Earth Wishes to Resemble the Sky (II) (2005), metal, wood and lighting. Installation view in “The Marvelous Real: Contemporary Spanish and Latin American Art from the MUSAC Collection” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Photo ART iT.
Born in 1967 in Havana, and now based between Spain and Cuba, Carlos Garaicoa creates sculptural installations, maquettes, photographs and works in other media that examine the city as both a historically determined topos and a speculative, idealized site of conflict and projection. His works often have a disarming simplicity, such as the installation Now let’s play to disappear (II) (2002), which conjures a cityscape out of an arrangement of lit candles. Currently on view in the exhibition “The Marvelous Real: Contemporary Spanish and Latin American Art from the MUSAC Collection” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, the installation On How the Earth Wishes to Resemble the Sky (II) (2005) is made by punching patterns of holes through a low structure of boards spanning a darkened room. Illuminated from below, and viewed from a platform above, these patterns glowing in the dark suggest an urban landscape viewed from the air at night, or an inverted night sky.
ART iT met with Garaicoa in Tokyo to discuss the ideas and inspirations that feed into his practice. “The Marvelous Real” opened on February 15 and continues through May 11.
ART iT: Your work is inspired by and reflects upon cities and the idea of urbanism. One thing that I was thinking about in advance of this interview is that, roughly corresponding with your career as an artist, the past 20 years present an interesting period of time for thinking about changing concepts of urban space, because they coincide with the commercialization of the Internet at the start of the 1990s and the emergence of the social-media society that we have now, as well as the rise of budget travel and programs like Skype which have made international communication more convenient than ever. To begin, could you discuss your views on urban space and how they have changed over the course of your career?
CG: I think my original approach, and even the approach I still have today, is that of an artist’s approach to the city. When I began to work with cities, in my hometown of Havana, it was based on photography. I was interested in how documentation is used in art practices, how it performs and can become something like a fiction in itself. At the time I considered myself to be a “naïve architect.” I was focused on the superficial, on what I could see and touch. This led to a new interest in my practice that was influenced by conceptualism and post-conceptualism, using writing and language and photography, and the language of the institution, to approach art.
So for many years, even up to around 2002, I didn’t notice that I had been creating a language that touched so deeply upon architecture and urbanism. Looking at my work from the 1990s, even though I was drawing as an architect, or taking photographs of buildings, or making models of the city, or directly addressing the city, it was more coming from a fictional approach, trying to create a parallel world. At the same time, in Cuba, where it was very clear what we received from the social structure in terms of ideological discourse, I was interested in activating this situation and creating a new language of the city as a portrait of reality.
Then, in the early 2000s, I started to rethink what I had been doing, and I began to feel that the practice of an artist who approaches architecture is sometimes limited, in that we are always identified as the “utopian people” who are not talking about reality, only fiction. People think that architects are the serious ones, while we are just playing. This mentality is of course based on the materiality of art and its lack of function, which is very clear in many artists’ practices. But I wanted to develop a more serious practice with more functional works, so I started to rethink the urban landscape with architecture.
As you point out, the change from the non-digital world to the digital world made me more conscious about the language I’ve been using, and how quickly we can approach cities now with all the information on the Web. I remember in the 1990s, I always thought about traveling as a way to approach another city and to think about other cities. Today we can go straight to Google Earth to do our research.
ART iT: How has your relationship with Havana changed, do you see it differently now?
CG: I have to say that, in terms of the landscape, many things remain the same in Havana, where I grew up. Of course, a lot of my practice comes from the collapse of both the political and ideological apparatus in Cuba, and of the structure of the city itself. In the 1950s it was a beautiful, urbanized city, but this changed and started to decay, almost to be destroyed, due to neglect and the lack of an efficient economy. There is a parallel with politics and ideology, in the way that the concepts of modernity and communism have been discredited since the Soviet Union collapsed, while capitalism is so strong now. I’ve been using Havana as a metaphor for all these changes.
The city is changing again, very slowly, as the economy gradually opens, and people can invest, buy houses, and do other things that belong more to the capitalist system. It’s interesting, because the economic input has started to give some impetus to real estate. People are buying houses for the first time, and now they are renovating and taking care of the buildings. Probably the biggest change will happen in the political system rather than the city itself. But as Paul Virilio always says, new inventions also contain the invention of new kinds of accidents. Maybe the neoliberal economy is ultimately necessary to save the city, which is a bit of a contradiction, because there are many things in the social structure of Cuba that are wonderful and work beautifully. I am afraid that many of these things will have to be sacrificed in order to save the whole thing, because the neglect has been so deep for so long.
ART iT: You made a work in 1996 called When a desire resembles nothing, about the circulation of objects between Cuba and the US. It is a terrible irony that Cuba is so close to the US and yet the two are isolated at the same time.
CG: The relations between Cuba and the US seem to shift every eight years or so. In the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, there was a relaxation of travel restrictions and artists like myself could develop their careers in the US. I made this group of pieces as a project for Art in General in New York, addressing all the parallels between Havana and New York, both of which are islands, and how each regards the other. For example, I took a picture of a man with a tattoo of the Twin Towers on his arm standing in front of the so-called “Twin Towers” in Cuba – a Socialist architecture type of building – to explore the parallels between the desire to be somewhere else and the idea of physical pain. I also developed a piece about the Chinatown neighborhoods in Havana and New York.
At the time I was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I wanted to create a situation whereby you could see the city as a desire, as a map, as a counter – all these little things I took from the book as a way to write New York – but also I wanted to talk about immigration and the difficulties of going from one city to the other. The project was about desire. Everything in life is about desires, anyway. It’s about what we want, where we want to be, how we want to be, how we want to be seen. Such desires determine how we live. The piece was very poetical and political at the same time.
ART iT: More recently, you did a piece called An Oriental Minute in Occidental Music (2008), which maybe incorporates a similar idea of contradictory desires, or in this case, intersecting ideological structures, coexisting in the same body.
CG: That piece was made for the first exhibition I did in China, at Galleria Continua in Beijing. In the exhibition I tried to read China, read Beijing, and read Chinese culture in general from my Cuban background. For many people in Cuba, China is a communist country. We know some of its history already and in many ways it is connected to Cuba, while, on the other hand, it’s also a country that is constantly associated with numbers, quantity: everything is big, it has a millenarian culture, millions of people producing millions of dollars every day, mass production. I titled the exhibition “Revolution or Rhizome.” I was thinking about how communist revolutions develop in a linear way, while the rhizomatic ideas of culture grow randomly.
With that specific piece, I thought about how the structure of traditional occidental music is tonal and mathematically precise. It’s exponential. It’s a simple structure in a way. On the other hand, the atonal sound of oriental music – compared to European music from the 17th century to beginning of the 20th century – breaks up that structure and grows in more random ways, which reminded me of what happens in occidental music in the first 30 seconds before a performance, when the orchestra is tuning. So when you put on the headphones, you listen to these first 30 seconds, and its chaotic and random. Many of the other pieces there were also based on mathematics and systems of growth and games. I also made a documentary about Chinatown in Cuba and how it has grown and decayed, investigating the Chinese presence in Cuba and how their descendents see the development of China today. This was another way of reading Chinese culture for me.
ART iT: How do you see the changes in the international circulation of contemporary art over the course of your career? Do you think there is still potential for a new approach to international contemporary art, or do you think it has become codified within a specific politics of circulation?
CG: I think we can say that the system has become more democratic, thanks to the increased movement of information, and that’s good, especially for young artists. I remember in the mid-1990s, in order to send information to Japan, I had to put the slides together and send a packet by post, while now you just email a PDF document and it’s done.
At the same time, the art world is very codified, and will legitimize what it wants to legitimize. Nor can we escape the idea of the market. Over the past century we can see how the market has grown increasingly stronger as an art institution. Today, the consumption of culture flows through money in a hierarchical system that is determined by the relation you have with certain markets. Many of the most visible artists now are making pop art. It’s strange how, after so many years of new intellectual discussions about art, we still consider someone like Takashi Murakami to be a great artist. I think he has some good moments, but we cannot say he is the ultimate. Nor can we say that Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons are the ultimate.
That gives you an idea of how the art world is still fixated with this idea of pop art and competing with the mass-media star system. According to the values of this system, you have to be a star architect or star artist or star musician. Singers like Lady Gaga want to compete with Marina Abramovic and everything gets confused. Ai Weiwei does a rock band. Then everything is a bit too much. But most people who are dedicated to art know it’s not about that. You’re not a rock star. You’re somebody who probably spends most of your time in your house and your studio, working and thinking and trying to create something.
But the democratization of the system has brought a lot of new people acting in the middle of that, and brought with it a lot of freedom as well. Now artists don’t even need to rely on the structure of the museum or its curators to be visible.
ART iT: To conclude, could you discuss how you think about time and speed in relation to your practice? I think this is an unseen aspect of what a maquette or a photograph or even urban structure can convey. Although they often appear to be timeless, they are all strangely time-based mediums.
CG: Time and speed are very important to me. You can see it specifically in my works dealing with the movement of time. After 20 years of making photographs, I now have my own archive that I work with, and I often go back to it and find something that has new meaning today. Or, in other works, you can see two moments, like the time that has passed between one photo and another.
I also think time and speed are important in that, working in art, we are supposed to make something of lasting significance, but we do everything on a short time span. We are always pushed by the art world system to be present, to make something today that we should really wait to finish tomorrow. We need 20 years to do something that we end up doing in 20 minutes. What you start to realize after years of practice is that you want more time to do things. When you are younger, you want to do everything now. But art is about time, and this itself is a deep concern of my work. How can one make a model of a city that is timeless, how can one speak about politics and the real situation of society while being timeless? That’s a bit problematic. I believe that art has to be a critical part of society. Not only critical in that you create new languages and invent new approaches to reality, but also in the sense that you comment about what happens around you. That is the only way to be part of the contemporary world and society, by giving your point of view. This is a contradiction, because your point of view today is about something specific, while art is also a place where people want to be set free from this relation to the present. This contradiction is a part of general human reality. As an artist you want to reflect on your past, but how do you put your past, your present, and your future – all the possibilities – into the same piece of art?
For me it’s about space as well. It’s about how you can have space to do something and be filled in a space that you share with your contemporaries. For example, a piece like the one on display here is probably a reflection that exists outside of time, but I also believe that when I make a work, I make a portrait of something that is a specific reality in that moment. Behind this work, there is the idea of an abstract city that is always changing, so that when you look at it you can see Tokyo or Los Angeles or maybe some city in Europe, but at the same time it’s a reflection on the past, the dream of humanity and how we often look to the sky, or to God, for answers. The idea is to have something that looks like it could be a specific city and combine it with a non-related idea or historical and existential questions. That’s a big challenge for art.
Day by day, I become more and more specific. It’s important to talk about context, to go to a place and “touch” its context. But that’s difficult. How you can approach a context, how you can be clear without being literal? It’s important to try to do it. It’s a powerful exercise, to try to not live all the time in our minds. How to be timeless within time, real time? That’s a big question.
Carlos Garaicoa: Cities and the Sky