A drawing after life. Simone Neuenschwander in conversation with Diango Hernández for "In hazard, translated" Diango Hernández solo exhibition at Kunstverein Nürnberg
Diango Hernández: The Latin root of discourse is discursus, which means “running to and from”. I love to think that what I do as an artist is precisely that — discourse clearly includes two main spatial concepts: origin and destination. In that context, discourse can be seen as a trajectory that develops while moving back and forth between a departure and an arrival point. Since 2003 when I left Cuba, I have been traveling there both physically and mentally, and during those trips I have collected many objects, some real and others (the majority) imaginary. The value these objects hold for me is how they keep me reflecting over unspoken accounts, mostly on personal stories that no one has “seen” but me.
But how could I tell these personal stories, and most importantly, how could people read them? With “In hazard, translated” I finally decided to grant space to my ideas about the concept of translation in which equivalence plays a large role. With this exhibition I offer different perspectives on translating and its importance, especially in regards to “alien” cultural and socio-political realities. It is only with a good translation that the point of departure can become the destination in itself — in other words, it’s via translating that we are able to realize that the “alien” stories of mine are in fact the same as yours. As English poet and literary critic John Dryden observed, “translation is a type of drawing after life….”
SN: In your work the drawing, and more specifically the “line”, seems to occupy a crucial position. Your drawings trace existing objects, models or architectures and condense and abstract them into an alternative form that brings an idea or vision into real existence. In your exhibition, you present different drawn lines that refer to the paths of the hurricanes that regularly strike the coast of Cuba. The shape of the lines point to the real historical incidents; at the same time, they possess a symbolic meaning, recalling the violent force of tropical storms that results in a paralysis of social life for a certain time, while simultaneously reinforcing the fragility of the individual when faced with uncontrollable situations. How did your initial interest in the translation of hurricanes develop, and how is it associated with your concern for speaking about different cultural realities?
DH: You are right; simple lines attract me — the presence of a line suggests the shape of a body that can be attached to it. I prefer in most cases to present only “naked” lines, which in my opinion potentially open up a larger spectrum of bodies that we can imagine to “dress” the lines with. My interest in lines comes from my fascination with Structuralism, especially the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. I like to think that if we find the line that exists underneath the body of things, we can easily determine what makes us similar to one another.
The hurricane tracks are simple diagrams in which we can easily perceive the hurricane’s trajectory. In the end what we see is a simple line that has been produced using a coordinates system that traces, step-by-step, the movement of the hurricane’s eye. No sign of emotionality is present within any of these diagrams, they are representations of “data” that produce a universal object, a type of drawing that everybody can read. I have approached this “universal quality” of structural drawings before, and I have realized that such drawings are tools — in fact elements of language — and as such, they help us build different possibilities. For this exhibition I have drawn hurricane tracks directly on the Kunstverein walls. The lines, once isolated from their original coordinates, automatically lose their “universal” quality; they become an abstraction.
The challenge for me created by the hurricane track is how is it possible to translate a huge cataclysm into such a simple form? The “integration” of a hurricane track with this particular building has massive connotations for me. Huge events can be indeed translated into simple lines, but can we experience in a line the full implications of a catastrophe? On one of the second floor walls in the interior hall of the building that hosts the Kunstverein Nürnberg can be found an almost invisible mural. Though the wall has been painted over and over again, we are still able to see some remaining lines that help us piece together the complete mural: a scene from a farm that depicts a happy, productive work day. On my first visit to the Kunstverein Nürnberg I immediately became interested in this object. We later researched it but couldn’t find out its complete story: certainly it was made during the 1940’s, though exactly when and by whom remains a mystery. The discovery of that mural is the reason I am using the actual walls of the gallery space.
A natural cataclysm is by itself not related with any form of ideology; it happens due to natural forces and can only be predicted up to a certain extent. Besides all the calamities brought on by events like hurricanes, they can also produce positive outcomes — one important one is how they bring people together. Under their devastating influences, people understand each other’s circumstances and problems and are willing to contribute and help out without asking for remuneration. The spirit that a natural catastrophe sparks is unique and transcends people’s political or ideological differences. For a few days after the passing of a hurricane, living in a city makes sense again; after those few days are gone is when “the real hurricane” called ordinary life hits us again.
There is a schematic image that gathers all the retired Atlantic hurricanes that have been registered until today, and this image is quite troubling as you can hardly see the island of Cuba. It’s hidden underneath hundreds of lines: indeed hundreds of hurricanes have past by the island, leaving behind only misery. The figure of the hurricane is already a recurrent topic in my work, especially in my writings — often I think that the Cuban revolution is nothing else than a hurricane that decided to go nowhere else and stay inside the island forever.
SN: In your show the motif of the hurricane is also closely connected with the figure of the tropical fruit, the image of which seems to allude to the historical and often colonial perception of Cuba as a “tropical” island, a place of desire. The utilization of fruit in your work reminds me of the Latin American “Tropicália” movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the assimilation of ideas from one culture into another is not a haphazard process of copying but rather generates new and subversive translations. Why was it important for you to take up the image of the tropical fruit and why did you decide to present them here as real objects?
DH: I have decided to include more ‘tropical elements’ in the conceptual scheme of the exhibition in order to examine them carefully. The “tropical fruit” represents multiple meanings. Some of them are very complex, like the one connected with The Fruit Company, Inc. in which we can trace the history of monocultures in relation to early 20th century American capitalism, and from that point on we could deduct the origin of the “Banana republic” and its clear connection to Latin American dictatorships.
It is true that we have extraordinary fruits in Cuba, and it is also true that they have been used for centuries to illustrate the uncomplicated and wonderful life of the exotic tropics. In this sense many clichés have been produced mostly for colonial or post-colonial purposes. On the other hand, before all these clichés were created and exploited, fruits were already “venerated” by the locals and used in many different contexts, from Afro-Cuban cults to various manifestations of art. Fruits, palm trees, flowers, birds and the sea have been objects of obsession for many Cuban artists. Entire generations have painted and written about them with passion, believing that mango or royal palm trees, for instance, are not just elements that belong to the “tropical” identity, but in fact constitute a way of being. After many years living in Europe, I feel ready to bring that form of tropical “being” into my practice and to show a “translation” in which life is rather a joyful event.
Fruits will be presented in ‘In hazard, translated’ as such; they won’t be painted or cast; they will only be rearranged and exposed to the climatic conditions of the exhibition space. Naturally, after a month they will rot, and some of them will even fall from their arrangements to the gallery floor. The transformation of the fruits from tasty and seductive objects into rotten shells relates to the process of decomposition that I believe artistic ideas suffer once they have been exhibited. The decomposing ‘fruit sculptures’ will enter into dialogue with Granite, a larger installation placed in the building’s entrance hall. Granite consists of a series of three-dimensional drawings of tombstones that all together create a very suggestive spatial drawing.
The “Tropicália” movement, like some other Latin American movements, has dealt extensively with national / continental identity issues. These matters have occupied decades of debate in many peripheral contexts including that of Latin American — in my opinion without any resolution until today. Recently the “art world” has discovered the Latin American concrete artists from the 50’s, and they have rapidly been welcomed and valued, but back in the 50’s nobody in Latin America or in the world acknowledged them. At the time, in the eyes of Latin Americans, they were too ‘European’, and for the Europeans they were too ‘Latin American’. Thus the debate about what can properly “represent” a cultural context is pointless. We live in a world where specific cultural references are no longer frontiers; they are instead bridges.
The fruits I am using for “In hazard, translated” have likely been grown in Costa Rica or South Africa, and I have bought them in a German supermarket. If we understand that operation properly, we can clearly see that we live in a world were the object has been detached from its cultural origin; therefore, it can become a common reference that we can all ‘consume’ without having any cultural prejudice about it.
SN: You talked about the process of decomposition that artistic ideas are confronted with once they have been exhibited. It seems that exactly this transformation is a source of inspiration for you: existing things and ideas that can be changed into another presence, into another materiality. Your works often present an altered representation that is different from their initial idea. In this way, they not only look back to past events, but also feature the need to read into the future. Could you tell us more about this temporal shift within your translations and about their ability to take a glance toward future developments?
DH: In previous texts I have described that process of transformation as a chain of changes that is often triggered by questioning a “reality”. The art object inherently contains within itself a particular time compression in which the three dimensions of time are visible at once. In other words, the art object is created in the past (the artist’s studio), exists in the present (the exhibition) and from that moment on needs to claim its presence in the future (art history). A valid artistic idea embodies transformation, and as a result, inanimate objects become animated; they are alive. The very moment at which an art object of any kind is exhibited, it becomes “contaminated” with different elements, some related to perception and others to interpretation. This is not necessarily a negative process, but we should be aware that in exhibiting an object we expose it to non-controllable elements that eventually transform it into another thing.
In a recent text about my work, Timotheus Vermeulen talks of the need to acknowledge the multiplicity of our time; in doing so we can construct multiple understandings and expand the possibilities of something that appears to be a single and isolated event. My ideas are fragmented per se, uncompleted and unfinished; there is something absent and broken in my unfolding. Often the stories behind my objects can’t be read because they are either floating or buried: they live somewhere above or under the objects you see in the exhibition space. But what I can tell you for sure is that these stories are there and they are real.