Antuan Rodriguez: How to do Contemporary Art in times of the Global Village

 

 I- Domestic Objects and socio-political critique

 

In 1989, the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall, Antuan Rodriguez opened an exhibition in Cuba called Los Objetos se Sublevan (The objects revolt) for which he was almost expelled from his educational institution. The artist was 17 and was the first time he suffered censorship. The exhibition presented drawings on small and medium size format, telling a story around a world invaded by objects. From the point of view of the contemporary art discourse, that narrative was represented by a neo figurative code, capturing the leading role of the objects over the subjects that produced them.

And this representation presented, precisely, the inflection point, the transgression of the conceptual proposal of the exhibition. Among other things because, normally, in the subject-object relationship, it is always subordinated to the actions, to the gesture of being produced and consumed by the subject. And this is a manifestation of the Aristotelian logic that constitutes the reason of this relationship (subject-object) as the substantial framework of occidental societies and cultures. But in Antuan’s symbolic presentation, instead, objects as boots, cigarette packs, clocks, etc., inverted this paradigm, when they were represented inside a poetic space, where the objects are omnipotent, where they incarnate an omnipotent spirit disproportionate in relation to the subjects.

A world where the objects will be protagonists of their own lives and start possessing the subjects to a point where they start devouring them. This motif, that has a long tradition in the literature and visual arts of the XX century is treated, in its most crude way, in a piece in the exhibition where forks and spoons delight on a human figure served on a plate. This piece, along with two others that showed the same vision, was removed from the exhibition as a condition to be able to show the rest of his work and its author has never known their final destiny.

 

Probably there wouldn’t have been any more commotion if the exhibition had taken place without this piece. Although a vision of the exhibition, from a pop esthetics perspective, offered the treatment of popular cultural motifs like, for example, the consumption of everyday objects or a reference to the habits of consumption, it also had another reading implying precisely the consumption deficit, the shortage of first necessity products that would reach an extreme gravity during the Special Period in Times of Peace. This drawing, the intense narrative acquired by the forks and spoons with the human figure as the “main dish”, was a revulsive of the mechanism that presented the rest of the works towards a critical lecture, whose semantic nucleus articulated a profound questioning of the way of life imposed by the totalitarian revolution.

 

Because of luck, or destiny, in 1996 Antuan travels to France, invited to work at artist Josep Castell’s atelier.  There, while he completed his studies of bronze casting, he got to know the artist’s collection that included among its objects, signed Picasso ties and similar things, he accumulated a great number of symbolic material that would be essential for an important part of Antuan’s artistic production of the late nineties. Among them, spoons and forks that had been used by prisoners in the concentration camps during the German occupation in World War II.

From this period is the sculpture Contradicciones (1996), a sculptural ensemble composed by an iron plate to which, spoons approach from the left and from the right, some forks slightly leaning, both groups following a certain martial order. They form a sculptural ensemble that somehow reminds us of the communist heraldry used in acts and riots to stir the masses during the revolutionary process.  Although this heraldry is devoid of its politic ideology; it seems lacking of the function for what it was created. It is not a symbol of mobilization, of hope or future, it seems, created from these rusted iron spoons and forks, a metaphor of disillusion, of failure, a metaphor of frustration. Its appearance is that of objects in ruins, already deactivated of a human experience despite its proximity to a domestic meaning. This is the metaphorical correlate that leads to other group installations and sculptures created – with spoons and forks as symbolic elements- during the late nineties, among others: Mares de informacion, Otoño, La Masa and Los Pinos Nuevos.

 

II- Objectual Poetic: “Words that kill”

 

It was in Madrid when I first encountered with Antuan’s work. At that time, although his work circulated in international contemporary art circuits, I had only seen a couple of photographs and some installation.

 

The first thing that draws attention in this artist’s work is the profound objectual vocation in his poetic, manifested by two fundamental iconographic elements: the human body and the objects to which it relates in its everyday habitat. Both seen, bodies and objects, in direct relation as depositaries of critical reflections about material history as well as about the spiritual culture that our current world experiences.

 

Antuan proposes sculptures and installations created with everyday objects, as when he uses toilets for the sculptural installation Naturaleza del Hombre (2003). A work that, for its magnitude and its way of articulating his message’s structure, is conceived to interfere the public space. In its display, this installation demands the (re)interpretation of an expressive enclave, a city location (the game with the symbolic transmutation of everyday objects, can also be in a gallery space, as it is with the installation Estado de Satisfaccion, 2003), where the objects in the domestic space become, symbolically, functions and characters of uses that question the discursive rules from which formalize our behaviors in the public space. Another example of Antuan’s objectual poetic in the way of loading the everyday object with new uses and also, new meanings, is the installation Keep your life clear-project (2012), where he employs mops as material and expressive support of the proposal. Mops that are stigmatized with the sphinxes of political personalities as, among others, George Bush, Fidel Castro, Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, Hugo Chavez, Bashar Al-Assad or Rodrigo Rato, whose political actions entail many times totalitarian actions over the democratic will and liberty of the nations they govern or have governed. It is a proposal fully immersed in sociocultural criticism, but displayed from the contemporary art sphere towards the attitudes and manifestations of totalitarianism. Critical reflection oriented not only towards those figures paradigms of regimes that maintain a firm grip on the yearnings of liberty of their respective nations, but also towards occidental democracies, more and more exposed, amid the dictatorship of a post-capitalist market, to the dangerous lack of democratic control over the governments and their institutions, that is, also exposed to the totalitarian actions of their governing class.

 

 

To this iconography, more related to the domestic space, much more enthroned with our everyday living, Antuan adds also a reflection about sports as an entertainment object for the culture of the masses. We can perceive his intention in works like the video installation Bailout (2011), or in the installation Izquierda o Derecha (2004). Although both pieces are discursively linked to sports, the conceptual approach is, nevertheless, different and not only on its formal projection. In Bailout, inside a giant catcher’s mask, two plasma TV display continually images of eyes from different people who look around convulsively. Thus captures a gaze immerse in anxiety, in despair as if constantly watched, as if we were part of the spectacle we are watching. While in the second piece,Izquierda o Derecha, its leitmotiv-object is a series of punching bags printed with photographs of world political leaders. The parody as discursive strategy and, also as expressive resource to represent the political and ideological content that articulate these pieces, have been a characteristic element in Antuan’s work. It is a work where the critical comment about politics, is metaphorically inscribed in the spectacular logic of a popular sport. Here, regardless of how contemporary are these figures, the reflection gets inside en the character of the media game, of a spectacle further and further removed from the will of the citizens, reached by the political practices in the postmodern culture.

 

III- Ready made: “Objects and Words that kill”

 

The shapes that imply the production of a public space have been an important part of Antuan’s work. Let’s consider, for example, Naturaleza de Hombres, that immense column made up of human figures seated over toilets, its verticality reminds us of Brancusi’s sculptures, or in Estado de Satisfaccion, a large number of toilets filled as plant stands with soil and plants that can be spread in the horizontality of a public space or in the enclosure of an art gallery. This corpus of Antuan’s work (and in general in all his artistic production) seems to discourse conceptually around structures if formal opposites: the natural and the artificial, the object and the subject, verticality and horizontality. Structures of formal opposites through which, he articulates an expressive semantic that crosses profoundly all his poetics in his sculptures and paintings. And it is within that expressive semantic that his work makes curious transitions, from poetic tropes really post conceptualists to others situated under the post minimalist spectrum. Regarding the conceptual language I think of the piece Testimonios, that develops a textual corpus of reflection where the author, from a series of questions to Aids patients, investigates the psychosocial influences that motivate the behavior of the subjects within the socio cultural space.  Behaviors marked by a deficit in communication, by the separation from human affection compelled by the rest of his fellow beings. Attitudes motivated many times by prejudices and exclusions they suffered caused by taboos and false beliefs implied in the sociocultural practices towards Aids patients. But in his work he also discourses in the minimal expressive syntax when, inspired in Duchamp’s ready mades, he (re)introduces everyday objects (toilets, punching bags) in places of artistic legitimation. An eloquent example of this practice is the sculptural installation Palabras que Matan (2012). This work, at first sight, looks like a microphone with a stand as can be found in a recording studio. But looking closely the spectator perceives that the microphone is in reality a projectile casted in bronze with an exquisite gold finish, its head covered in tiny perorations precisely as a recording microphone. If we think that the society and occidental culture in the 21stcentury have become what is known as the global village, we also have to think that it is fundamentally due a type of society that defines itself by the production and consumption of information. The microphone comes to symbolically reproduce, the way that in Modern Times, for example in the 20th century, the word, be it the code wording of a political discourse or the poetical code, to put two examples, was transmitted to society and culture.  Palabras que matan, within the strategy of semantic collisions carried out by the language mechanisms of Antuan’s objectual poetic, configures a pair of formal opposites structures whose meanings are essentially opposed. On one side the microphone, icon of the word, of the dialogue, whose function within the socio cultural space, is the search of mutual understanding and consideration. On the other, its opposite, the projectile, symbol of the absence of the word, therefore, expression of the inexistence of dialogue, that is, failed attempt of understanding and consideration, whose translation, in its darkest version, is the violence in any of its manifestations. Thus, Palabras que matan, has that poetic aura about human sensitivity, about desire and the potential of its spiritual expression but, at the same time, also implies, as a Damocles spade, the omnipresent violence, the feeling of failure that has surrounded from beginning of times, the history of humanity.

 

IV- Applied art and money. Metaphor of our times

 

 

The discursive strategy of expression articulated from the structure of opposites acquires an even greater  potential of socio cultural expression when it manifests itself in the interiority of the public space with work that question the dispositions of objects, its uses and meaning within the architectonic and urban scene of the mega polis. This grade of conceptual reflection and formal execution relates, in a way, Antuan’s work with that of Rita MacBride, in the direction in which MacBride, articulates scenes where she articulates a dialogue between the design of objects and their critical immersion in the urban and architectonic space. Let’s imagine the immense column made out of human figures melted in the shape of toilets, although we could also see it on the opposite way, as toilets melted in the shape of human figures. If we imagine Naturaleza del Hombre outflanking a public space, we can perceive that the expressive enclave created with this intervention questions the categories of use and meaning of the objects. In the same way, interrogates us about the perceived assumptions regarding what could be considered, or not, specific behaviors or social ways, which have to be associated to specific social uses. In essence, this work questions the logic under which the social space determines the use and meaning that we have to give to the objects and things, describing a process where consumption has displaced communication as a way to relate in the inhabit with our fellow beings. In a context of cultural post modernism, the work of this author describe the disjunctive between industrial production associated to protocols of efficiency and quality, and that of a metaphoric artisanal trade that implies an applied art. They are pieces of applied art, impeccably done and it comes to my mind that that was precisely one of the objectives of the cultural utopia of the Cuban revolution: creating socially useful art, art that would help people live better, art that wouldn’t divorce the everyday use of the object with its artistic meaning. If it works as art, then it is art, a functionalist would say, but Antuan’s work attempts, besides investigating about the potentialities of art within the social space, that the work  serve as a revulsive for the transformation of reality itself.

 

I then reflect in the paradox that arises from Antuan’s career. As a contemporary artist he had to break with an education and a country. To do reflexive art, committed with the investigation and the questioning of reality, as requested by the revolution’s cultural policies, this artist, paradoxically, had to abandon Cuba. Curiously, to express strongly the dimension of his critical thought with an anti-system tinge (his critical anti-system thought?), has used (??)some mechanisms of the art market, that the artistic utopia of the revolutionary project would have seen as a betrayal to the “real revolutionary art”. But it has been precisely from all those circumstances that Antuan’s work has conveyed the poetic energy, spirit of investigation and language intrepidity needed to stay immersed in the spirit of an artistic contemporaneity committed with a critical reflection about reality. This has always been the signature of his work. To think the action, the art fact as a force that calls us to release our critical sense of reality and, at the same time, an esthetic joy with a strong dose of poetry and utopia.

 

Bio:Dennys Matos

Dennys Matos Guantánamo, Cuba, 1966 Art critic, independent curator and essayist. Studied journalism at the University of Havana School of Communication (1988-1990). Bachelor degree in History from University of Havana (1990-1995). Moves to Spain in 1995. Divides his time between Miami and Madrid, where he lives and works since 2012. Periodically publishes essays and articles on contemporary art in specialized magazines, catalogs and publications such as ART.Es, ArteAllimited, ArtNexus, ArteAldia Internacional and Input Magazine. Art critic for El Nuevo Herald. His most recent book is Paisajes. Metáforas de nuestro tiempo. Linkgua ediciones. Barcelona, 2008.
Among his most important projects as curator are “Abstraction and Constructivism: Continuity and Breakdown of Latin American Modernity” , Durban Segnini Gallery (Miami, 2015); The Avant-Garde Latin-American Photograph: Poetic and Discourse of the Modern Gaze. Kronfle Collection, CCE (Miami, 2014); Occupying, Building, Thinking: Poetic and Discursive Perspectives on Contemporary Cuban Video Art 1990-2010, CAM (Tampa, 2013); Havana: Enigma de la ruinas, Fototeca Nacional de Cuba (Havana, 2013); Actos Heroicos, Mateo Mate, Sala La Gallera, Consorcio de Museos de la Comunidad Valenciana (2011); Iberomérica Global: Entre la Globalización y el Localismo, Casa de América Madrid and SECC (2007); and, BerlinTendenzen (La Capella), Instituto de Cultura de Barcelona and the Federal Ministry of Foreign Relations of Germany (Barcelona, 2006). Residency in the Visitors’ Programme Goethe Institut (Berlín, 2005) and in Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst Salzburg (Austria, 2006).

Dennys Matos (Guantánamo, Cuba. 1966) es crítico de arte y curador independiente. Se licenció en Historia por la Universidad de La Habana en 1995; ese mismo año fijó residencia en España. Desde entonces ha estado colaborando como crítico de arte en revistas especializadas como Arte y Naturaleza, Art.Es, ARCO Especial y CityScape. Es colaborador habitual para el periódico CubaEncuentro y la Rev. HispanoCubana.

En 2002, en calidad de Subdirector Artístico de la editora de artes gráficas Arte y Naturaleza, concibe exposiciones colectivas como ‘Imagen y Representación’ (2004), ‘World Mouse’ (2005) o ‘Citadinos: Sociedades’ (2005), donde aborda problemáticas en torno a la cultura de masas en tiempos de la Aldea Global. En colaboración con Casa América Madrid (2006-2007), realiza los siguientes proyectos expositivos: ‘Arte, Sátira, Subversión: 5 visiones Iberoamericanas’ e ‘Iberoamérica Glocal: Entre la Globalización y el Localismo’ (2007). Ambos proyectos visualizan críticamente  lo “local” y lo “global” como tópicos identificados a falsos conceptos de lo universal y lo singular.

En ‘BerlinTendenzen’ (Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona 2006) y ‘Actos Heroicos’ (Sala La Gallera, Valencia 2011), Matos explora la sensibilidad estética y discursiva que habita en el arte y la cultura postcomunistas.

En 2009 se publica su libro ‘Paisajes. Metáfora de nuestro tiempo’ (Linkgua Ediciones, 2009, Barcelona).