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.

Ranjani Shettar: Making Earth Songs

This spring, the Phillips is excited to present Ranjani Shettar: Earth Songs for a Night Sky as part of the Intersections contemporary art series. In February 2019, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović visited Ranjani Shettar at her studio in Karnataka, India, to look at and discuss her work and inspiration.

Join Ranjani and Vesela for a conversation at the Phillips on May 16 at 6:30 pm.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Let’s start with the title for your upcoming Intersections project, Earth Songs for a Night Skywhere does it come from?

RS: My titles mostly happen toward the end. At the beginning I have a general impression of the show and as the works are being made the vocabulary develops slowly and the title comes from there, gradually. In this case, the title came from my daily life, my surroundings, the jungle and the sky, but it’s also universal in a sense that when you live in a remote place like I do, you experience things in solitude, more vividly and closer to their natural habitat. Here I wanted to create something light, melodic, and joyful, something like when you sing a song with your heart and you are happy! Of course, there are so many things that are not right in this world and I do want to take them into account, but I am a person full of hope and I want to emphasize the state of hopefulness and the positive aspect of things.

VS: “Songs” in your title brings to mind Kandinsky’s Klänge (in English Sounds), his 1913 book of poems and woodcut illustrations. Your works seems to me like a dance to Kandinsky’s “sounds.”

RS: Perhaps, but Kandinsky calls for sounds, and I call for songs. For me, sounds and songs are different things. A sound can be anything, while as song is about synthesized sounds; in other words you chose sounds to make a song. And then you sing a song! Kandinsky’s words and images are sounds, they are simple and I love his visual poetry.

VS: Your creative process is extremely laborious, and you love it. Earlier you said that the meaning is in the process. How so?

RS: Well, so much happens in the process of making; there is a lot of practice behind a concept, and it is this ongoing engagement on a daily basis that is the most fulfilling, more so than the final product. The slowness of making and exploration of materials matters greatly, and what comes out of that is a slow growth, which is what interests me the most.

VS: And where does your process start? with sketching? drawing?

RS: It starts in the mind, but parallel with the material. I think of it as two-way. As a sculptor I am attached to my materials but also to the form, something that wants to come out. My mental image is projected over a material and the process connects the two. The hardest part of the process is when I am not doing anything physically, when I am thinking and getting ready to start. But once I start working it is the happiest time and I don’t want it to end. There is a lot of problem solving and decision making during the process of making, some are conceptual, but most are technical problems. I enjoy the hands-on, trial-and-error aspect of the process very much.

VS: Given the interconnection of process and materials, tell us more about your choices of materials?

RS: At the beginning I would try out everything that I could lay my hands on. I would hop from one material to another, always learning something new. But with time I realized that the wider my choices were, the harder it was to be ecologically sensitive and responsible. I used paper, plastic, industrial materials, glue, just about anything. Now I have narrowed down my choices and work primarily with organic materials such as wood, fabric, treads, pigments, and beeswax.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Where does your work come from? What motivates it?

RS: My work comes from a need to express what I imagine rather than what I see or feel—it is about imaginable possibilities of the physical world and its moving forces. I think what motivates it is three-dimensional form. The form usually comes from within the mind but also from the natural world and surroundings, like geometric forms which I then try to transform into more organic shapes. I am drawn to things that can stretch and bend, that are pliable or mutable. Subsequently, this elasticity informs the final form.

VS: Were you always drawn to abstraction?

RS: No, I started with more representational forms but slowly broke away from that. My training was in figurative art but I was never interested in objective renderings. I was drawn to pure form more than anything. And I have always loved sculpture—three-dimensionality, materiality, volume, space—rather than flat surface.

VS: Your versatility of techniques and craftsmanship is impressive.

RS: I love learning different crafts and new skills. I love design and making nice looking objects. I don’t like to have assistants—the pleasure is in the making and I want to keep that pleasure to myself.

VS: And what happens when the project is done? Does it feel empty?

RS: You see, emotional connection to my work is also very important to me. Over the years I learned to always work on multiple works at once and leave some works incomplete. That way I have something to return to—an emotional anchor!

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

VS: Let’s talk about the Phillips project . . . still in process as we speak but coming to its completion soon.

RS: When you invited me to visit the site in order to propose the project, I spent some time walking around and found the galleries in the historic house very intimate, domestic, cozy, and I liked that feel very much. And the wall that divides the two adjacent galleries on the second floor was very interesting to me. Then I thought to create a works that wraps around it—thus responding to the specificity of the architecture—directing how one navigates through the space. That particular piece, comprised of many parts, is made of stainless steel, muslin fabric, and indigo. But instead of dying my fabric, which I have done in the past, here I use indigo as paint for the first time. Being at the Phillips I saw clearly in my mind that the piece ought to be in blue; indigo blue presented itself as a great contrast to the monumental 19th-century architecture with fireplaces and their wooden mantels.

VS: But then, next to this fluid multi-part work in fabric and indigo, we have dense, wooden sculptures, beautifully carved. How do they relate to each other?

RS: For me, it is about a spectrum. If you are a singer singing in three different octaves, you read the notes together to strike an emotion and create harmony. So it is about spectrum or the “whole” made of parts.

VS: Speaking of the whole and the parts, the third part/octave of the project is a small installation made of thread and wax. Tell us more about it.

RS: Well, the three parts—fabric pieces, wooden sculptures, and thread-wax installation—are deeply interconnected. They all deal with balance and precariousness yet in different ways. They all embody volume and lightness, movement and shadow . . . they all occupy our living space.