Home means belonging – and vice versa Diango Hernández in interview with Patrizia Dander
HERNÁNDEZ: To talk about a country is a very difficult thing to do. Any country, even small islands are a too complex net of events to be captured with words; I prefer to talk about “my country” which is not Cuba but “my Cuba.” I left Cuba in 2003 and started a journey that I thought would only last the eight hours of an ordinary intercontinental flight, but it turned out to last almost six years. Since I moved to Havana in 1989 to study industrial design I have been in love with Havana city, which allowed me to see the city, and everything related with it through a pair of sort of kaleidoscopic magic glasses. I didn’t know that the same year I moved to Havana everything related to the ideology I was educated in would start changing dramatically.
DANDER: What you are referring to is the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Eastern block, with which Cuba lost its most important allies.
HERNÁNDEZ: Very soon after the collapse of the Socialist block the Cuban economy started suffering and during my studies it got worse – until in 1994 it reached a severe socio-economic and political crisis point. In 1994 I finished my studies and there was nothing left to do than surviving, a condition I have never been interested in. To survive means to be a victim of a circumstance and in this case it was a political circumstance that had very complex national and international ramifications. I was interested neither in surviving nor in resisting; my interest was focused on creating.
This is how in 1994 together with Ernesto Oroza, a colleague from the Havana Design Istitute, I decided to create a research collective called Ordo Amoris Cabinet (after the Latin words order and love), that was joined by Juan Bernal, Francis Acea and Manuel Piña. My fascination with Havana allowed me to have a different understanding of the crisis and to see it as a moment of liberation, a moment of Revolution. With the Ordo Amoris Cabinet I learned not only about how to create from a critical economic circumstance but I also learned how closely art is related to life.
DANDER: Your first works with Ordo Amoris Cabinet reflected the inventiveness of the Cuban people during this period of crisis (officially called the “Período especial” in Cuba), presenting a collection of “hand-made” ersatz objects for then non-available products such as antennas, lamps etc. They were physical “symptoms” of the crisis. What did they catalyze for you?
HERNÁNDEZ: My early works together with Ordo Amoris Cabinet were specifically related with the research of certain areas of Cuban daily life and different forms of popular creation. Our work was mainly based on two strategies: observation and classification. What I consider now most important from those years of collaboration, though, is the dialogue. The dialogue between the members of the Cabinet, the dialogue with the city, with our history and the dialogue we established with the political power in Cuba. For ten years I was a member of the Cabinet, and after ten years of very intense and continuous work I decided to change the scenario and to start to create a more intimate and fragile body of work. A type of work which required more solitude, a type of work that needed a deeper understanding not only of Cuba, but of the world that surrounds it. Although I was traveling while I was living in Cuba, it wasn’t enough for me. The lack of information exchange on the island is pervasive enough to make you forget, after having been back for only a week, that the world outside exists. I didn’t leave Cuba; I’d rather say I joined the world.
DANDER: Outside Cuba you were confronted with a loss of context – personally, leaving your home country, but also in terms of the reception of your works. People abroad were not able to “read” your works intuitively, as they had no proper understanding of the Cuban situation. They judged works of yours on a primarily formal level, regarding them as curious rather than essential (which they actually were in Cuba). What did that shift in meaning imply for you? How did you react? How did that change your way of working?
HERNÁNDEZ: To grow a large and common ground for the understanding of any art practice takes years and also a lot of effort from many different people and institutions involved in the art system. It takes even longer in the case of the art periphery or is all the more difficult within specific practices inside the art periphery. Showing outside of Cuba especially while doing the collaboration with Ordo Amoris Cabinet was always a challenging process that certainly helped me to understand the relevance of the art language and its role in the construction of an art object. Just to mention one significant aspect: for example there is a big difference between a “Found object” in London and a “Found object” in Havana and the difference between them is so big that we can’t even call the object from Havana a “Found object” because nobody in Havana, besides a rarefied group of intellectuals, knows what a “Found object” is. Issues like this pushed me to create terms and concepts that allowed for a better understanding of our practice. A Havana “Found object” is actually a “Provisional object,” an object that seems to last for a few days instead of forever.
DANDER: Given the familiarity of the objects that you use – everybody knows how to interact with a chair, a table, a cupboard – the works offer direct points of connection. How important is to you that everybody can relate to these objects? Does this relate to an idea of democracy?
HERNÁNDEZ: Any piece of furniture has a very precise and understandable function; here functionality stands for the most international of all languages. For me this is not the preliminary quality of an object but for sure it is something that I am fully aware of while working with an object. I wouldn’t refer to the concept of democracy in this context, but certainly the capacity of an object to be understood sometimes catalyses for a larger public, a fast and effective “reading” of an art piece, and in certain types of contexts this quality is extremely relevant for art pieces. I’d like to go back here to the relation between “reading-misunderstanding-fiction” and to point out that an obvious function creates an automatism and produces expected reactions. To understand an object means to use it properly, but for me to read an object is quite the opposite: it is to see the cultural implications that the object has and in my case it means to create a new form of fiction out of it – to articulate it physically or mentally in a new way.
DANDER: This fictionalisation becomes visible in your works through displacement, unexpected combinations, and misinterpretations of usage. For example: the drawers of a desk are arranged as stairs, a bed is taken apart in a way in which the bare structure resembles a constructivist sculpture, turntables are used for a kind of lampshade ballet. This gives your works a slightly surrealist touch. What is the potential of turning well-known things and their conventional manifestations upside down?
HERNÁNDEZ: There is always a possibility to alter “reality” into what in theory is: something wonderfully strange. I know “reality” is not as ordinary as it seems to be. For many years artists have seen the “reality” of things, they have painted it and given form to that “reality” I am talking about. To me none of my arrangements, drawings or installations seems to be weird at all, that’s just the way I see them in a particular moment and in a precise situation. To me all theories related to a “twisted” reality are difficult to understand, that’s why I don’t believe in the accuracy of terms like surrealism. If we want to be precise here we must think for example where the correlation between chairs, staircases and a lamp contains a chain of infinite situations, situations that are not only physical but also psychological, these situations are as real as the wood or metal from which they can be made.
DANDER: In your works “reality” comes as a complex, often polyvalent thing: a combination of contradictions is recurrent in your works, not only between the political and the poetical, the physical and the psychological, but also between masculinity and femininity. I’ve found that many of your works do combine and outbalance such opposing characteristics. Is this intentional? Are you explicitly working with equilibrium of contrasts?
HERNÁNDEZ: I am not sure if contrast is the right term here but there is a confusing connection in many of my works, let’s say a moment which reveals the fragility of a gesture and the doubt that is contained in any idea – doesn’t matter how important or big it may be. I have avoided in many cases giving too much importance to a single object, preferring to give priority to complexity, a type of complexity that I always seek in any of my thoughts and that is based on the balance between what we see and what we imagine. What is in the space and or what is missing? Most of the time, it is more important to me what I leave out than what I put in the space. The missing elements in many of my works are more relevant than what is there to be experienced. I don’t make any distinction between male or female sensitivity but I’ll perhaps create an emphasis on tropical sensitivities that are engaged with not only the sea but also with music, exotic birds and wonderful fruits; a sensitivity that happens to be “enriched” with a very specific kind of post-sixties modernity: a Socialist Revolution.
DANDER: As we mentioned before, you were a “child” of this Cuban Socialist Revolution. In accordance with communist ideals, as a young boy, you were sent to a boarding school – I remember that you described this as a very upsetting experience. Home became a place longed for, a place that stood for privacy, a feeling of security, and later also for freedom of speech – it was the only place where you could openly say what you were thinking. What was the situation like in boarding school? And do you agree with a biographical reading of your involvement with an idea of home?
HERNÁNDEZ: For me art always exists in absolute relation to autobiographical matters and this doesn’t mean that I read or understand art pieces as biographies or some kind of tales but it means that every artist, including myself, is part of what we create. Art works are extensions of our experiences and our specific life events. Certainly there is an autobiographical line in my work that can be read. I often recall experiences during studies at the Cuban boarding school’s programme (from the age of 12 until I was 18) as the most relevant of all experiences I had until today. For some reason I was a boy that liked to be at home and at home I always felt protected and loved. When finishing the primary school with 12 I had not other choice than going to a boarding school. I’ll make a description here about some details of the schools configuration; this structure was common to all of the schools all over the country.
– Location: very distant from the city, in the middle of nowhere, no highways or important roads close by, in most of the cases surrounded by plantations.
– Architecture: three big blocks of reinforced concrete, elevated from the ground approximately one meter, forming a big “H”. The east side of the building were dormitories, in the left wing the boys, in the right wing the girls; the central block was the dining room; and the west side of the building were the classrooms.
– Dormitories: there were eight dormitories each one with seventy beds and 70 closets, no divisions, no rooms, just one big space dominated by two huge lines of tropical windows at both sides. The shower rooms were without divisions; five to six pipes coming out of the concrete were the showers.
– Daily timetable: 6:30 wake-up call, 6:30 to 7:00 gymnastics, 7:00 to 8:00 breakfast. After breakfast all the kids would be standing in martial lines in front of the director at the central square; one kid would read the most “relevant” news, the director and some professors would give some reports about internal incidents. After this ceremony half of the kids would go to the countryside to work on the fields until 11:30 and the other half would go to the classrooms until 12:00. Showers followed for the kids that were working on the fields. Then lunch for all the kids together after which the kids that had been working in the morning would go to the classrooms and vice versa. At 5:30 all kids would have sports until 7, then again showers and dinner at 8. The time between 9 and 10 would be considered spare time – only for the kids that deserved it. The rest would be back to the classrooms. By ten o’clock all kids would have to be in bed.
– Visiting home: for most of the schools it was mandatory to be in the school from Sunday afternoon until Friday morning. Buses would take us home Friday afternoon and we’d stay with our families Friday night and Saturday, then leaving for school again on Sunday afternoon. In case that you’d have failed any of the “fundamental” tasks during the week, your trip home would be cancelled.
Reading that list you probably can imagine how much I missed my home. But after the first year of being there, the school started to be home and then my home started to be just a strange place, my friends were my family and my family was a big I don’t know what. There was a musical theme played in the school every morning that said:
“Ésta es la nueva escuela,
ésta es la nueva casa,
casa y escuela nueva
como cuna de nueva raza.”
(“This is the new school,
this is the new home,
home and new school
like a cradle of a new race.”)
DANDER: What you describe is quite hard to digest. On the other hand it gives a distinct idea of how important education was to the Cuban government. They treated it as a kind of showcase for their achievements. Is there anything in the educational system you’d say you profited from in a positive way?
HERNÁNDEZ: It is interesting to hear that every time I talk to someone from abroad about this school’s programme, they perceive the story as hard or sad and oppressive. When you are living through such an experience you believe the whole world is like that. We didn’t have any means in our hands or in our minds to fight the system; everybody believed that all this was good for our formation and further “integration” in society.
They were explicitly “creating” the “new man,” that same “new man” that many dictators before wanted to create. I have asked myself many times why they wanted to create a “new man,” if, in fact, we were already new men, already a new generation. I can tell you many good things about my education. I believe it was a precise formation, oriented towards functioning in a new kind of society – that would finally never exist. In the end they taught me that the most important thing in life is “the man” and I still believe it to be so.
DANDER: In this context it might be interesting to discuss your general thoughts on drawing(s). Many works of yours – actual drawings, but also sculptures, installations or videos – are termed “drawing” to define their imaginative, or more precisely their Utopian potential. How do you define this potential of drawing?
HERNÁNDEZ: A drawing seen as a vision of the future can be a very strong tool; drawings are mainly composed by simple fragile lines and dots, elements that could awake giant interests in a person about perception and fantasy. I haven’t found any other medium more effective when it comes to define the complexity of our minds and visions than a drawing. Last year I have made a drawing exercise that changed my perception of what the functionality of a drawing could be especially in the context of history. I decided to make technical drawings of historical buildings; this is the way I found to go back in time and to try to start again from “the” or “a” beginning. While doing this exercise I understood that drawings are not only connected with the beginning of things but also with the future of those things, to be more precise here I would say that a drawing is the point where past and future negotiate the present. A drawing is a moment of doubt and at the same time a defining moment.
DANDER: I’m surprised that you connect an idea of Utopia – which for me is related to affirmation – to a moment of doubt. Just to make sure that I get this right: is this notion of doubt connected to the drawing’s relation with the present, or is it for you also part of a prospective vision?
HERNÁNDEZ: I have understood in conversation with several European intellectuals that for “westerners” Utopias are indeed more related with affirmations and big statements. Nevertheless it is important to remember that a real Utopia must always carry failure as an intrinsic component. It is only through failure that a “relevant” idea can transcend and become visionary. In this sense I think doubts play a fundamental role, they are impressive elements that create friction and give shape to ideas. Talking more specifically about drawings or let’s better say “plans” – seeing the drawing as a “planning instrument” – I would say that the drawing itself is the first visual element that appears while constructing an “object”. The drawing is permanently exposed to doubts and it is permanently under modification and analysis. The drawing allows us to change, to make mistakes and to permanently question. I see drawings as a revolving door that takes us in and out, from doubt to statement, in a continuum.
DANDER: At this point we should start to talk about the studio situation you are exposing in the book. I believe many of the processes you just described are firmly rooted in the studio space. At the beginning of our conversation you mentioned that after your collaboration you decided for a kind of work that “requires more solitude”. That sounds like if you were looking for a place where you could take your time and answer your questions at your own pace and according to your own logic and rules. Maybe even a place where doubt would play a more central role? Is that what you find in your studio?
HERNÁNDEZ: When I decided to move to Europe I wasn’t thinking in any particular place where i could eventually start developing my work, at that time I didn’t have in mind a studio, but a different scenario where I could start all over again. I knew from my former short trips abroad that it wasn’t easy for European artists to give a permanent continuity to their practices and I could guess that an artist’s life over here was extremely complicated. My priority number one since I arrived in Europe was oriented towards finding my own freedom and to dedicate 100% of my time to my art work. I knew that a studio would give me the possibility to expand my thoughts – albeit not my time. It took me a year and a half after arriving to Italy to fully reconnect with my everyday artistic routine. During this first year in Italy I was working at home and only during night-time because during the day i was busy working for an advertising agency. I knew from Havana that working at home has a few great advantages; it is a type of work that develops in a very intimate way and carries a lot of invisible life traces. And also whatever you’ll do in a space where you also live contains the scale of living and not really the scale of working.
DANDER: It is interesting to hear that last sentence, as your work until today is very much connected to the realm of living. Nevertheless you were looking for a way to move on from working at home, and thus to fully embrace the “scale of working” in your practice. What is the advantage of that?
HERNÁNDEZ: In 2004 I found a “little piece of freedom”: it was Pepe Cobo’s generosity and his huge understanding of what it means for an artist not to do anything other than art that allowed me to start with my art fully again. I moved from Italy to Spain and started working every day on my ideas and projects. It was the first time ever that I had a studio of my own. After half a year of living and working in Seville I decided to move forward and to reconnect with Germany, a place that had fascinated me since my first trip to Aachen in 1998. I moved to Germany in 2006 and I had more than one good reason to do it, I was in love with a German woman and also I was absolutely curious about the German art system. The same year that I moved to Germany I started to look for a studio and in a short period of time I was lucky enough to find one that I liked. Between 2003, when I arrived in Europe, and 2006 many wonderful things happened to me and by the time I rented the studio I was ready not only to use its space but also and most importantly to fully occupy it with ideas. The studio since then has been filled with objects of many kinds; I usually take them there without having a second plan for them, I buy them because I like them for what they are but not because I want to build something different out of them.
DANDER: All these things that you gather in your studio from flea markets or eBay, like old accounting books, magazines, records, furniture etc., seem to function as a kind of physical archive. Do these things get you going? Do your works start to exist from the things that surround you? Do you always work on one thing at a time, or is it rather a process of keeping different things in motion?
HERNÁNDEZ: I usually try to work on many different things at the same time. This perhaps comes from the way I read books: it can take me years to finish a book because I start to read a different book, magazine or newspaper every day and I just read a little bit of it. To work simultaneously on many different things allows me to focus on wider issues rather than on a factual result. In the end, every single piece is connected through time and reactions. In this sense it is very important for me to have enough elements around; books, furniture and found paper are extremely necessary when I start my day in the studio. The studio (i.e. what it physically contains) and the inherent studio rhythm define an artist’s ideology. All the progressive forces in an artwork come from the way and the circumstances under which the artwork was made and not from the artwork itself. It is that untold story that carries all the information needed to change maybe the lives of many unhappy workers. In the studio I find most of all the possibility to develop a very personal understanding of what work means, and also a distinct sense of efficiency. To observe and object, to think about it, to move it from one place to the other, to observe it and to think again means efficiency to me. There is a very fine line defining the artist’s studio. Once this line is broken the studio could easily become a small factory, a little school or a boring office.
DANDER: I know that you really protect your studio space as your most personal realm. Why is it so hard for you to share that space – to make a small factory or office out of it – after such an extended experience of sharing everything with Ordo Amoris Cabinet?
HERNÁNDEZ: The studio for me is still a secret place, a place where I practice my solitude and where the exchange of ideas can only exist in-between the ideas and me. We can see ideas as voices without bodies. After three months of being in the studio an artist colleague moved to the studio next door. There is a window in my space from which I can see him and I guess he can see me as well from his. I was very surprised when I saw him spending more time looking at a painting than actually painting it. It is here that observation establishes a dialogue with ideas. Since I have the studio I have had very few studio visits. I try to avoid visitors by all means; my studio is a very chaotic place full of things, dust and cigarettes on the floor. I am not proud of all the mess I have and certainly I don’t want to personally show it to people. I am used to sharing things but the studio defines me, it is my working space, which is even more private than the place I live.
DANDER: But at a certain point the interiority of this dialogue between you and the artworks, the privacy of the site of production needs to be made public – at the moment when you decide to exhibit a work. How do you deal with that?
HERNÁNDEZ: After this whole process I never know if something I have done is finished – which is a great advantage for me. When something carries unfinished qualities primary questions and doubts emerge again in the object, exposing it to a greater fragility. Everything that goes out of my studio is unfinished and it needs to be finished by the stranger that one day in a different space will look at it.
DANDER: Does that also imply that you return working on pieces that you’ve already been showing?
HERNÁNDEZ: I definitely return to many “unfinished” objects and ideas. You know I compulsively make drawings in my sketchbooks; these drawings contain mostly ideas about how to ideally articulate multiple elements. What is interesting is that many of these drawings will never become “real”; they will never occupy a space as a three-dimensional object. But many of them will be the objects of my revisions. Here we go back to the connections between drawings and time(s) that we were talking of before. I just want to remark that what in the beginning wasn’t more than a fragile construction of unstable lines can become through time – something that attracts and challenges me to the point that I want to bring that drawing to “reality”. I keep thinking a sculpture, a drawing or whatever I do in a non-permanent way. That’s why it is so dangerous for me to reinstall a work: I will probably change something, I know it is not finished and it will never be.
DANDER: I find it very interesting that you say the studio defines what I do, and then even connecting this argumentation with the term of an artist’s “ideology”. This is a clearly materialist position. How comes?
HERNÁNDEZ: Really interesting point! Philosophy was an important matter for me; I didn’t miss a single philosophy class ever in any of my years of studies. We started with philosophy in the 9th grade when I was 15, first with classic philosophy and right after that with Marxism-Leninism, which lasted until I finished university. Especially the Capital is one of my favourite books, it is a book full of brilliant ideas that I have read first because I had to and many other times because I love it. Of course the way we work, seeing it as the binomium of space and organisation, defines how we do things and I believe it can also define what we do. We can see that clearly if we consider how the artist’s studio has changed and developed. I wouldn’t isolate any of these changes from the development of modern economy and politics, but definitely the development of the studio itself has contributed extraordinarily to the development of many art strategies that nowadays are the fundaments of what we all do. Listening to Robert Morris last summer at the Museum Abteiberg in Möchengladbach, when he talked about American modern artists, I realised that visual artists were the first that occupied “abandoned” factories and transformed them into “cultural factories”. Since then the scale of working, the artist’s tools and their materials have changed. The artist became more and more a builder that was occupied with questions about space more than with questions about content. As Morris said, referring to some American positions back in the sixties, the “big gestures” grew bigger every day.
DANDER: What you say is true for the early days of Minimalism (and in some cases also for these artists’ later work). But just a very short time after, towards the late sixties, with Conceptual art the concentration on content became articulated in a way it had never been before. That said, this “the bigger the better” attitude was questioned immediately. A studio became the space for concentrating on the crucial questions of how to define the content of the work. Maybe one could say, that around that time the variety of approaches and therefore potential self-definitions of artists grew: e.g. builders, bricoleurs, and bureaucrats. Where do you position yourself in this context?
HERNÁNDEZ: I agree with you, right after these early days of Minimalism the world changed and content took an important role inside many artists’ practices. Nevertheless the artist’s studio or the place where the artist was operating kept playing an extraordinary role in the development of the art ideology and agenda. Just remember how the artists transformed cities and public spaces into their own operational sites, how streets became studios and in many cases everyday life was transformed into a very efficient brush. I have tried by all means to keep my practice inside the limits of my capacity, which means to keep working to a personal and individual scale. By now, I could perfectly need an assistant or a studio manager – which nowadays is a very fancy title for artists with certain success. I rather prefer to keep thinking, producing and delivering my ideas without delegating. I know it becomes harder every day for me to keep track with everything I am involved in. Nevertheless the results are always more rewarding when I follow my work in a personal way. In this sense my practice, production processes and my studio are guided and controlled by certain accidents, surprises and curiosity. Since I have started to develop my own independent work I have abandoned all possible strategies. My work is dominated by a continuous flow of events that I push by myself. I see myself as an individual that is performing his work inside a big ongoing network of people and ideas; but I still would like to see myself as a poet who doesn’t need anything more than a pen, a piece of paper and a couple of good words to work with.
DANDER: One last question: in the beginning you said that your journey leaving Cuba lasted for almost six years, that would be until last year. Does this mean that you’ve finally started to feel at home abroad?
HERNÁNDEZ: All these years in Europe have been intense for me, years charged with strong emotions of all kinds. I have learned innumerable things that I could have never learned in and from Havana. I am full of gratitude for all the friends and colleagues who helped me through the years to understand this part of the world better and faster, to understand all of the contradictions that exist here. I often talk about memory as a large closet, which has many drawers that permanently change their order and size. There is a moment when this closet disappears and memories dissolve into every moment, every day. I have reached that point now; I have completed my “journey” and I have arrived, but I honestly don’t know where I’ve arrived to.