In Conversation with Los Carpinteros (Part II)

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) is an internationally acclaimed Cuban artist collective best known for merging architecture, sculpture, design, and drawing. Through two films and a group of sculptural portraits, Los Carpinteros’s exhibiton Cuba Va!, produces a social landscape of Cuba’s modern history that has been at once utopian and dystopian. As part of the Phillips’s Intersections series, the project is on view through January 12, 2020.

In this two-part series, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović discusses Cuba Va! with the artists. Read Part I about the portraits.

Marco Castillo (left) in front of Comodato and Dagoberto Rodríguez (right) in front of Retráctil at The Phillips Collection. Photos: Carl Maynard

VESELA SRETENOVIĆ: When and how did you start to do film?

LOS CARPINTEROS: We started doing film not that long ago. Our first experience was Conga Irreverisble in 2013, an urban intervention in which performers sing and dance the Cuban traditional dance called conga but in reverse. In conga—which goes back to the festivities of black slaves—musicians lead the way while people march behind, following the rhythm of the drums. By reversing the direction and performing the dance backwards, conga became anti-conga, alluding to the concept of “(ir)reversibility” of truth practiced by many Cuban politicians and the press. We documented this performance by using a camera, and instead of making direct political commentary, we made a video that incited great fun for both the participants and the public, emphasizing joy and happiness over ideological critique.

But even before Conga, we talked a lot about doing a movie. We lived in Los Angeles for a while and learned a lot about movies. We also knew what we didn’t want—we didn’t want to do experimental movies or sound-based movies. Instead, we wanted to do a traditional linear narrative; we wanted to tell a history for people to see and to be seen. We were missing something in our art—a type of narrative that includes a human presence.

VS: But I think that all of your work has a human presence, implied through its absence. Your films are, in my opinion, not that much different than your other works—in fact, I think they are the cinematic version of them. They embody the same kind of poetic yet poignant nostalgia, but unfold differently through moving images so that the storytelling is more direct.

Stills from Comodato (2018). Courtesy of the artists.

LC: That’s good to know. These two films are for us travels in time. Retráctil is based on a true event from the early 1970s, the so-called “Padilla Affair,” when the book of poems by Heberto Padilla, Fuera del juego (Out of the Game) from 1968, was awarded the yearly poetry prize, only to be censored because of its so-called counterrevolutionary content. Consequently, Padilla was forced to renounce his views and publicly apologize. This was a very dramatic event; Padilla was our “Tropical Galileo,” punished in front of the public; his “apology” marked a turning or “irreversible” point in Cuban modern history—a firm disbelief in the ideals of the revolution. We edited down his four-hour speech to 17 minutes by taking some of the most important statements and hired a non-professional actor to play it. In this film, Padilla is presented as an anti-hero having to denounce everything he stood for.

The other film, Comodato, functions as the result of Retráctil—we, Cubans, didn’t become equal despite a large sacrifice. If Retráctil stands as the beginning of the end of the revolutionary ideals, Comodato bears witness to the disillusionment in so-called egalitarianism. For Comodato, we filmed at least 17 houses that detect the deep inequality, hypocrisy, and paradox of our society. It’s a silent, peopleless documentary, a monument to inequality. Cinematically speaking, both videos are rooted in a tradition of Cuban film from the 1950s and 1960s that pays respect to film noir, neorealism, and in particular to the 1964 film Soy Cuba which was done in a single shot and directed by Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov. Retráctil is black and white and was taken as a continuous shot by a single camera; Comodato has a faded-color quality and long takes. This was intentional and pays homage to previous cinematic traditions.

Stills from Retráctil (2018). Courtesy of the artists.

VS: How do you see the portraits in relation to the films?

LC: Essentially, they are all monuments. Retráctil is a monument to a loss of freedom of expression, Comodato is a monument to inequality, and the portraits are monuments to anti-heroes. They are all reflections of our life in Cuba, embodying living contradictions we have experienced. On the other hand, by showing this body of work in Washington, DC—the city of national memorials—we wanted to grapple further with the notion of the monument and emphasize its dual or reversible character: grandeur, power, heroism, but also weakness, failure, and anti-heroism.

Read Part I of the interview about the LED portraits in the exhibition.

Read the full interview in the Los Carpinteros: Cuba Va! catalogue, available in museum shop.

In Conversation with Los Carpinteros (Part I)

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) is an internationally acclaimed Cuban artist collective best known for merging architecture, sculpture, design, and drawing. Through two films and a group of sculptural portraits, Los Carpinteros’s exhibiton Cuba Va!, produces a social landscape of Cuba’s modern history that has been at once utopian and dystopian. As part of the Phillips’s Intersections series, the project is on view through January 12, 2020.

In this two-part series, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović discusses Cuba Va! with the artists. 

Los Carpinteros at The Phillips Collection, in front of It’s not Che, it’s Felicia (2017). Photo: Carl Maynard

VESELA SRETENOVIĆ: This project has been four years in the making, and we went through a number of revisions. Meanwhile, last summer, in 2018, Los Carpinteros dissolved, and you, Marco and Dago, decided to pursue separate careers but also to show your works that were conceived and produced as a collective. Together, we agreed to move forward and complete what we started years ago and make this exhibition happen. In this sense, its title, Cuba Va!, is emblematic not only of Cuba, but also of Los Carpinteros now, no?

LOS CARPINTEROS: Cuba Va! is an ironic title because the situation today is the opposite—Cuba is not going anywhere. Cuba is no longer a revolutionary, progressive place, but a place of stagnation, a place to be and survive…On the flip side, the exhibition title sends a message of hope for the future, for both the country and for us, the collective. Los Carpinteros will continue to showcase and publish artworks in order to preserve its legacy—26 years of collaboration—for posterity.

But back to the title itself. Cuba Va! derives from a popular song from the early 1970s written and produced by the Experimental Sound Collective. At the time, it was an experimental and emotional song in terms of both melody and lyrics. The sound is very repetitive, somewhat inspired by the rock-and-roll of the Beatles, but mixed with salsa, while the words echo hippie optimism, the pop aesthetic and spirit that were positive at heart and promising of “a new man” that is the new social order.

Left to right: It’s not Che, It’s Simón (2017); It’s not Che, it’s Eusebia (2018); It’s not Che, it’s Alfonso (2018); Cachita (2013). Photo: Carl Maynard

VS: Let’s start with the portraits. Seven are on view: Cachita, René, Isabel, Eusebia, Simón, Felicia, and Alfonso. Cachita, along with Emelino, were the first ones created, in 2013. They were very personal—Cachita was made after Dago’s mother and Emelino after Marco’s grandfather. Then there was a gap of a few years between them and the rest.

LC: The idea behind the first portraits was to tackle the notion of heroism, or rather to question what constitutes heroism and who are the real heroes. Here we focused on the generation that aged with the Cuban revolution itself, including our relatives. At the same time, we made portraits of internationally renowned political figures such as Angela Merkel, Noam Chomsky, and artist Santiago Sierra, who were all critical of high capitalism. The recent portraits created for and presented in this exhibition return to the original idea of portraying ordinary Cubans who carried out the weight of the daily struggle in Cuba and who are the real heroes. Now many of them live in asylums and nursing homes where the care is very poor; they fought for the ideals of equality only to be forgotten in poverty—very sad!

VS: What were you looking to capture in these portraits?

LC: Aged faces, a map of wrinkles that trace hardship but also beauty. They are heroes not of the revolution, but of life, endurance, and survival.

VS: And how did you come up with their titles: It’s not Che, It’s Isabel or It’s not Che, It’s Simón, etc.?

LC: We were first using only the names of real people, but then we realized that that’s not enough, that we were missing the link to the concept of heroism. The idea came from an article that was referring to the Merkel portrait, saying, “It’s not Che, it’s Angela.” We read this while we were in Greece exhibiting our portrait of her. And that was it—something clicked right then!

VS: Tell us more about how you made them. Was it an elaborate process?

The process of rendering the portraits based on photographs by Leonardo Feal. Courtesy of the artists.

LC: Yes, we tried to follow the steps of Enrique Avila, author of the sculptural portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos located in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. He worked from the famous photographs of Che taken by Alberto Diaz (Korda), so we called Leonardo Feal, a contemporary Cuban photographer, to work with us on this project, thinking of him as the Korda of our time. We went together to visit old people’s homes, nursing homes, asylums, and also places where they would congregate, like the May 1 parade (International Labor Day). We amassed a large group of photos from which we selected seven. Feal’s photography has the great power and sensitivity in conveying facial expressions that we were looking for and it served as a basis for developing our sculptural portraits. From there on, we alternated between hand-drawn and digital processes in order to simplify the photographic image.

The Plaza de la Revolución in Havana by day and night, with portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

We faced a lot of technical problems because digital design tends to generate cold-looking images and we wanted revealing faces. Therefore, we went back and forth numerous times until we achieved a desired appearance. Then, we had to work on the grooves where the LED light cables were going to be placed and balance that with the drawn lines that capture the personality of the portrait. This was another big challenge that we had to work out with our fabricators. After many lighting tests, we finally got our glowing portraits. For us, they function like domestic monuments; they are personal and commemorative, humble and heroic.

Stay tuned for Part II of the interview about the films in the exhibition.

Read the full interview in the Los Carpinteros: Cuba Va! catalogue, available in museum shop.

The Warmth of Other Suns: Memorials for Migrants

In The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Displacement, many artists have created memorials for those who have left home, many of whom perished in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and other bodies of water. Through sculpture and video, artists Adel Abdessemed, John Akomfrah, Meschac Gaba, and Runo Lagomarsino tackle our long, complicated relationship with the sea.

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view of Adel Abdessemed, Queen Mary II, La mère (The Mother), 2007, Metal, Private collection

Queen Mary II, La mère by Adel Abdessemed (1971, Constantine, Algeria; lives in Paris, France) seems like a restrained if grim take on an aspiration shared by many around the world. A tin model of the luxury cruise liner, Abdessemed’s boat paradoxically makes reference to inexpensive materials with the battered metal from which it is composed. The work’s title references the “queen mother” but also plays upon the French homonym of “mere” and “mer,” mother and sea, evoking both the sentiment of nostalgia and loss that comes with leaving one’s homeland—and, perhaps, mother—as well as the risk of sea voyage, which for many migrants crossing the Mediterranean is a harrowing and potentially tragic experience.

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view of John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, Three-channel HD video installation, 7.1 sound, color, © Smoking Dogs Films, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery, 48:30 min.

Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (1957, Accra, Ghana; lives in London, UK) creates parallels between the sea and migration, migration and whaling, and Moby Dick and slavery. Like the sea, the film’s aesthetic calm is interrupted by scenes of death. A bird dives swiftly into the water, spearing a school of fish. A man standing with his own spear is engulfed in the carcass of a bloody whale. Radio voices and archival footage narrate the voyages of Nigerian migrants, Vietnam War refugees, and victims of a 1781 slave ship massacre; none would have known each other, but all faced a similar struggle for survival at sea. Though the scale of the installation evokes a sense of despair, violence, and history, the film may be seen as a memorial that challenges the notion of the sea as a politically neutral space where only nature governs.

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view of Meschac Gaba, Mémorial aux Réfugiés Noyés (Memorial for Drowned Refugees), 2016, Blankets and 3 electric lanterns, Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

In Mémorial aux Réfugiés Noyés (Memorial for Drowned Refugees) by Meschac Gaba (1961, Cotonou, Benin; lives in Cotonou, Berlin, and Rotterdam, Netherlands), a pile of blankets and lanterns propose a simple memorial and reflect a common ritual that is performed in Benin when a loved one or family member has drowned at sea: the bereaved leave blankets and lamps on the shore for the spirit of the person lost, creating a beacon for his or her soul and ensuring that the spirit is kept warm. In sharing this tradition by way of his work, Gaba calls to mind not only the thousands who have died in attempting this passage, but also to the many thousands more who survive them and are left to mourn their deaths.

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view of Runo Lagomarsino, Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), 2016, Neon, Courtesy of the artist and Francesca Minini, Milan

Mare nostrum (Our Sea) by Runo Lagomarsino (1977, Lund, Sweden; lives in Malmö, Sweden, and Sao Paulo, Brazil) consists of the Latin phrase mare nostrum spelled out in neon, with a single shifting letter repeatedly leaving the viewer instead with mare mostrum. Mare nostrum (Our Sea), once the Roman name for the Mediterranean, resurfaced as fascist propaganda for Mussolini’s naval campaign as well as Italy’s recent “Operation Mare Nostrum,” a short-lived effort to rescue migrants across the Mediterranean. Mare mostrum (Monster Sea) is the artist’s formulation; this simple shift references the constant danger of crossing the Mediterranean by boat. Lagomarsino’s alteration of language illustrates how these two ways of representing the Mediterranean—the essence of European cultural heritage or a threatening barrier for migrants—are nearly interchangeable linguistically and visually, yet enormously different in their significance.

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22.