Ordo Amoris Cabinet: Across Havana in a Limosina by Antonio Eligio Tonel
The spark of pedagogic renovation started at the Visual Arts School of the I.S.A. -first in the painting department- around the mid eighties. At that time, that spark was a primary element in the momentum gained by the visual arts in Cuba. The effects of this renovation are still evidenced today. For a long time, the transcendence of the changes inside and outside that school, when trying to identify what was “new” about Cuban Art, forced almost everyone to focus on the Institute and their graduates. That is why, in recent history, there are a few exceptions of artists trained outside of the classrooms of Cubanacán that reached some recognition. Undoubtedly, Ordo Amoris Cabinet should be considered among them. In 1996, they had their first exhibit Agua con Azúcar and La Muestra Provisional at the Center for Development of Visual Arts. In July of 1999, they exhibited in that same space This is a Provisional Fence: Keep Out, their sixth “solo” show consisted of an installation and several “drawings” -folded and marked sheets of paper-. During the time elapsed between the two exhibitions, the duet presented their work in Europe, and in Central and North America. They traveled extensively, received grants, gave talks and -also as a significant detail were invited to a couple of international group exhibitions, in which the selection criteria was not based on the condition that they were Cuban authors.
These exhibitions were The Campaign Against Living Miserably (1998) at the Royal College of Art and Thinking Aloud (1999) at the Candem Art Center, both in London, England. In the Cabinet’s short existence, there is something that constantly stands out: sensitivity, transformed into a collectors’ obsession towards the environment, the universe of objects, of instruments, of machines, of the spaces we Cubans have fabricated, and placed upon us and our surroundings. It is to say that Ordo Amoris does research from art into the fields of environmental and industrial design -although “industrial” must be interpreted with the flexibility of the occasion. The term in this case is applied to handcrafted objects of a small scale production, and to producers who have basic knowledge of the technique and design; basically “uncultured” producers.
It is in these realms that Francis and Diango found an area for keen and unprejudiced reflection on the qualities of material culture in Cuba -the Cuba of the nineties; of the “special period”; the Cuba of the end of the century and of the end the millennium. A reflection from an artistic perspective, to which, motivations of anthropological and ethnographic roots are not alien. Thus, their work resembles a investigative aftertaste of the research, with shades of fieldwork, and an inclination for actions such as collecting, classifying, preserving; next to the interest of identifying, in certain cases, the authors of the pieces -who in accordance with an unwritten tradition, remain in anonymity. It is also because of this, that their work is displayed as a sample room.
All those characteristics are organically incorporated to their work. Therefore the effectiveness of it is never drowned into a stream of didacticism or boring pseudoscientific rhetoric. In my opinion, Ordo Amoris’s more recent exhibition, both confirms those and other characteristics, It consolidates, the place of this duet among the most attractive -that also is, in my understanding, the less predictable- of Cuban Art in the nineties. This text from now on, will be something like an unbasted answer to the stimulus this exhibition supposes in the local scenario of the visual arts.
2. The Cuba of the last decades lives a dilated conflict with its own objects. It is all about an abrupt and distressing relation. Sometimes as one of little conscience and a lot of amnesia. If I were to choose an object to resume the erratic of its nature, I would select the North American automobiles of the thirties, forties and fifties. Those machines play major rolls in dozens of Coffee-Table Books published on Havana and Cuba, not to say of their presence in CD´s covers as well as in Art catalogues. Undoubtedly, they are infallible accomplices of something that we could define as “Buenavista Social Club syndrome”: the hyper-nostalgic image of an ambiguously defined past that (it is supposed) runs, sings, lives at the present. Not very far in time -the seventies, let us say – those same machines, tired survivors of the forges of Detroit, fell into the most secret site of the nation’s junkyard. After passing on all their symbolic capital to vehicles that claimed being instituted as the “Cuban modern thing”; Ladas, Volgas, Moskovichs2, the old Edsels, Desotos, BelAirs, and company had to patiently wait. As time went by, those recently arrived ones get to their non-surprising condition of running junk with which they are ornated today. And only then, (with a lot of tourism and with Ry Cooder in the midst of everything) could those old ones sway at large again and dare to have become what they are today: the owners of the streets, icons invested now with the capacity to be, by themselves, Cuba.
Impossible to synthesize in few pages the flips of history. The many waves of the economy and society, which are necessary to determine the flux and reflux, the fickle character of that material and physical conglomerate that has identified us as a nation throughout history -and not necessarily essentialist which in addition is healthy and unavoidable. It is about a tour across steep roads, sometimes sinuous, through which we stumble into the facade of a building like the National Capitol -also well-known as Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment- more or less restored, even worthy of a captivating television spot. Majestic construction, impressive, with their jammed double line of old cars parked in front of it, and the other double line of dazzled tourists photographing everything: the National Capitol, the cars, the surroundings…
Ordo Amoris has also seen the National Capitol, the cars and the other things. It is about those “other things” that Ordo Amoris appears to have seen a great deal. Since the number of people willing to score, to rescue, to restore and to promote a part of what is considered valuable in Havana today, has increased, -I refer in narrow terms to the material world- whether or not they are things or spaces blessed by UNESCO; Ordo Amoris pays more attention to the other side, to the other end in the scale of values. They agree with those who with excitement defend the beauty of this city -a beauty, for many unseen beyond the attributes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or at least beyond the eclecticism of the beginning of the twentieth century. Nicanor del Campo? Buenavista? Atarés? Santos Suarez? Time does not come for that City. All of Havana -in fact, all Cuba- deserves to be redeemed from the dust and dross.
All its historical wealth needs to be preserved. And I understand there needs to be somewhere to start from. But Ordo Amoris gets discouraged if they hear of volutes in fences like florid inlay, if they hear of the marble stairways, or of the joinery, or the stucco, or of the cobblestone. Other beauties conquered Ordo Amoris, as their works display, those other flights: the routes of the Metrobus -also called “Camel Bus.” A public transportation means between Alamar and the National Capitol and between San Agustín and Fraternity Park. It is in those far reaching route vehicles and those suburban destinations to places of buildings by the hundreds, where everything (transportation and architecture) has been designed with exaggerated accuracy. It is there, in those stairways made of naked concrete, hand railed with iron bars or welded pipes. In that combination of the Sandino system and the Bajo Costo3 is where Ordo Amoris sees Havana and is moved, and finds inspiration.
We are confronting an artistic practice that compels us to speak of something beyond inspiration. If we try to understand these artists and what their work is about, fascination would sound more suitable. A fascination for a grand catalogue of items, of objects and spaces that seems to have been spelled out of the hypothetical atlas of national design. Pushed aside, or simply forgotten in the last pages of such atlas: unworthy of glossy magazine cover pages, CD covers or the advertisements in tourist guidebooks. Nevertheless, those objects and spaces greatly dominate the urban and domestic ambience. Practically, they monopolize what I would define as “the daily functional” in Cuban reality. I am referring to that dense area.
The stream of constantly renovated material embodied in Kerosene burners. Embodied in the “Camel Bus.” Embodied in the furniture of the ESBECs (boarding schools). Embodied in the orthopedic shoes, the prefabricated construction technique, taxi-limousines, ground soy meat, aluminum tray antennas… If I were to locate in time the instant when the dissemination of that unbreakable and always transforming matter begins; if I were to point out the moment of the “Big-Bang.” I guess I would go thirty years back in time, to the seventies. A digression fits right here. A reference to a certain inseparable matter of all the cultural issues of that decade -it truly deserves an in depth analysis. There is a lot written and spoken about how Cuban Visual Arts -amidst of a cultural climate dominated by bureaucracy and dogmatism- resisted the influence of the most crude and orthodox variants of Socialist Realism at that time. This would mainly be an interpretation with which I identify myself. However, I think that for a long time, those years meant the empowerment of aesthetic norms in other areas of the nation´s culture -not always profitable-, of values and liking. Those values came from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Such norms undoubtedly bloomed in Cuba, mainly in the environmental and industrial Design (not to forget some set of posters from the DOR, and that and other book cover). I refer to the flooded stream of the indispensable imported goods –Meridian radios, Astra razorblades, Orbit fans, Vóstok wristwatches-4 as well as the dominant stamp in our frequently distressing productions.
Going from the Primor shoes to the Radar and Avance shirts, to the extensive family of Girón (Bay of Pigs) buses and even to the whole conception of the neighborhood Alamar. This disgression is therefore a worthy attempt to define, the moment when a consensus for this type of design solidifies in Cuba. It constitutes the unquestionable bases of the visual domain, of the material world and the most common atmospheres in which regular Cubans move today.
3. Generally -and to avoid an extensive summarizing- Ordo Amoris’s work can be located in a trajectory that began in the sixties. With the presence of artists like Antonia Eiríz, Chago Armada and Raúl Martínez, among others (the three influenced by the neo-dadaistic practice of assembling and the collage, and consequently and indirectly by the inherited freedoms of Duchamp´s ready-made). Around those years, Sandú Darié moved in an alternate direction. His peculiar kinetic works had the early virtue of not worrying too much about hiding resourcelessness. In the seventies, that trajectory incorporated, as a more prominent figure, sculptor Osneldo García. He –for instance, in his astronauts- created a figurative kinetic Art, explicitly sexual and with the innovative freedom of the most inspired creations of the ANIR 5. In the eighties, the flux is enhanced between the streets and the domestic spaces on one hand, these two areas understood as reserves of a spontaneous popular visuality, and the gallery on the other, with Flavio Garciandía, Rubén Torres Llorca, Leandro Soto and other young artists as those of Grupo Puré, Glexis Novoa and Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas. It would be in fact the youngest group, from Puré to Segundo Planes, from Novoa to Cárdenas, the ones responsible of consolidating a grimy objetuality in Cuban art after 1986.
Would there be a commonality, a link connecting this odd group of artists and Ordo Amoris? The possible connection emerges in the way (or the ways) through the stated sensitiveness of these authors towards characters, situations, atmospheres and relationships of wide presence in the popular-urban environment. From Antonia assembling a device to aid a newspapers seller -inspired in a real life handicapped character from Havana-, to Chago, incorporating in his drawings the fragments of the ceiling of his house in Central Habana, -a ceiling that is falling appart. From Flavio´s work with carnival floats and MINCIN6 store fronts; to Puré´s installation in a gallery a KRIM tv set 7 in front of an in awe audience of plaster made owls. That sensibility always implying, in a way or another, the assembling, the collage, the installation with the object whole, to add fragments of that environment, of those atmospheres of low aesthetic prestige.
Ordo Amoris is inscribed in this wide tradition, but does not get tied up to it. Francis and Diango began early to define a course of their own, a particular place. Since Agua con Azúcar such singularity is expressed, based on the manner in which the Cabinet decides not to fabricate, not to produce new objects neither to modify the physical integrity of the objects that surround them. In a radical maneuver, Ordo Amoris aims at the collector’s apparent passivity. To collect -generally, in an a-systemic way- an important part of everything we would want to postpone as nation or otherwise forget. I speak of course of what is excluded, in a more temporary or more definitive way, of the symbolic representations of the nation, usually fabricated according to decisions of power from a power perspective. Facing this relative will of amnesia -and regarding that to whisk away a part of what we are, for small that it might be, is definitely a symptom of fear of a full self-recognition- Ordo Amoris deploys facts, simple, rough, accumulative ones. Facts and things, useful objects that contain as much as there could be. They impact us like one of the most eloquent sample library ever put together of the Cuban creation (comparable, from a safe distance of course, to the vast compilation, for years anthologized by Samuel Feijóo in Signos magazine).
The collected objects -or the ones reproduced-, as well as the whole neighborhood of Pogolotti, the Jabón Candado villas, or the “Aurika” washing machine suitably readapted by an industrious Sunday repair man, take us to think of an underestimated wealth that flourishes in many different areas of daily life. Areas of creation full with artifacts and atmospheres that certainly we will try to “leave behind” as soon as the chance is at hand. Therefore, those samples of tincan, cardboard, plastic, wood and glass, as well as the pile of furniture from the ESBEC (boarding schools) put together in Reinforced Concrete (1997); The Taxilimosina (1998), the device for bicycle parking, Provisional Art: to park the bicycle, (1998) and the …Keep Out (1999) installation, are from now on the core of a room in the ethnography museum we will never have. Above, I wrote of reproduced objects. After a first stage of collecting, piling and exhibiting what others manufactured, the strategy of the group was to make the objects. To produce them in an act of supreme mimesis, an exercise of complete hyperrealism which confirms the transparent and almost invisible character of most of their sculptures. When assuming this strategy, Ordo Amoris brings up an issue to the local scene.
The issue that Marco Livingstone outlined in the following terms: One of the challenges presented in the 1960s by Pop Art, in a reversal of Duchamp´s invention of the ready-made half a century earlier, was to investigate the point at which a newly fabricated artifact almost ceases or declare itself as Art by mimicking as closely as possible the appearance of the ordinary functional object 8 Livingstone´s reflection occurred in 1991, in the context of his analysis of the work of a North American and British group of artists: (Robert Gober, Julian Opie, Edward Allington, Cady Nolan, et al) who are defiantly producing Art that dare to question its own identity as a sign for a different order of experience by exaggerating its resemblance to things we already know. Many of this works take the form of fixtures and fittings; but other utilitarian objects, drained of their function, may as usefully serve as a reference point for investigations that are at once formal and social.9
Certainly, among concerns of formal nature -selection and treatment of the material, technique and product finishing- in works like Taxi-limosina, …to park a bicycle and …Keep Out, that balance is reached, a rare thing for the Cuban art scene. The scale of the pieces, for instance, is essential: all were produce at 1:1 proportions, as perfect replicas of their respective originals. With the same level of intensity, there it is a decision with transcending consequences for the topics of form and contents, and the whole meaning of the work. In each of those pieces, the Cabinet presents a sculptural construction that stands out as a sign of the times.
They appear naked, mainly to the less distressed spectator by the contingency of the context where the work of art is from. They appear relieved from the most anecdotal social historical burden. They can be admired as bent and welded iron; as ingenious assembling of car parts; as diverse textures of wood or Masonite, as volume, texture, color… Another distinctive element of Ordo Amoris’s work is the explicit disposition to deal with the social and historical topics in the Present. In one way or another, this happens while Cuban art is continuously immersed in the past. And it is from that past, from that connection with it, that present times are referred to and commented on. This trend of (apparent) nostalgia, sometimes with enough ironic efficiency, sometimes sprinkled with sweetness and romanticism rather reveals a not anticipated detour towards simulation.
And that is one of the singularities conforming the predictable character of contemporary Cuban art. Ordo Amoris breaks with that blueprint, when plunging into a more detailed observation of the same reality. They know how to keep distance from certain common places, from certain topics instituted as achievements in Cuban art during the second half of the eighties, achievements that subsequently lead to the most unrecoverable banality. I would enumerate, among these ritornellos: the admonitory tone; the narrative excesses; the pamphlet temptations; the simplistic treatment of the sociopolitical anecdote; and the tasteless gimmicks with parody and “appropriation.”
While examining reality, Ordo Amoris appeals to much more penetrating tools -more in accordance with the current times-: the indifference; the documentary demeanor; the indifference of who gathers evidences. The duet assumes the morose attitude of somebody who gives a speech without passion, with the mere will of collecting facts, of -maybe- to give an order, an opportunity to what is factual. The facts -or their perfect imitation- once gathered within the always-interested art space, in the gallery or the museum, will demonstrate a deafening eloquence.
The duet attitude has a transgressive meaning, since that attitude implies the questioning of the performance of art institutions and of how they are established as discriminatory mechanisms. When they sanction canonization of certain artists and therefore of certain productions. What is transgressive comes from using those spaces to force the norms into the imposed usage. Mainly, in an epoch given to the exaltation of the craft, the management of the “technique”, the excellence of the manufacture. Such supposed truth are questioned by introducing an aesthetic norm in those institutions, a liking, a kind of production that otherwise would be confined to the national back store. Thus the “good manners” accepted in the “aesthetic sanctuaries” that our galleries and art centers are, are put to a test. When making these sanctuaries into deposits of the most “difficult beauty”, productions of the type of “industrias locales”10 or the ones by the “merolicos”11 which often are more pathetic than nice, Ordo Amoris with an almost minimalist impassivity makes ridicule the recent emphasis on the so called good painting. At the same time they invite us to reconsider the statutes of our current Avant-garde, and of some of its “transgressions”, that by contrast, are suddenly revealed as mellow exercises, as conservative variations, pulled out of a repertoire of artistic practices with an edge that seems to be increasingly dull.
In the existing continuity of the processes of the Cuban Art, from “Volumen Uno” to the post-”Metáforas de Templo” climate, there is somewhat of a cyclic movement. Somewhat of an art with dynamics that reach the fast pacing stability of a vicious circle, of an Art, perhaps, too absorbed in the accidents of its own bellybutton. Ordo Amoris is one of the possible breaking points of that cyclical dynamism, if we understand that they are venturing into a road less conditioned by the previous artistic accumulation. Better yet, their work is not as much made of the closest art- and rehearses a perspective that is not clung to the impoverishing safety of what is already established.
In some way, Ordo Amoris’s experience is one of the most authentic experiences in the horizons of the end of the century, due to its level of correspondence with the present, because of the intensity of the dialogue that establishes with the social historical space where these works are conceived. It certainly is very organic art with our historical era, with these nineties, with the “special period in peace time”.
1. See: Antonio Eligio (Tonel), 70,80,90…maybe 100 impressions on Art in Cuba», in Cuba Siglo XX : Modernidad y Sincretismo, Centro
Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, 1996 (pp.281-301) and Tree of many beaches: about Cuban art in movement
(1980-1999)», in Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival in the Utopian Island, ASU-Delano Greenidge Editions, New York, USA, 1999
(pp.53-66). Next to Francis and Diango, Raúl Cordero is another graduate of the Superior Institute of Design with a notable participation in Cuban
art of the last years. An important number of graduates from that institution have carried out a significant work in graphic design, mainly in
posters. All of them -and others as Eduardo Rubén, Sandra Ceballos, Ezequiel Suarez, Pedro Alvarez, Kcho- they are exceptions that confirm
the rule that, during the last twenty years or so, we have lived the Age of I.S.A»
2. Many of the goods manufactured in the Soviet Union were imported to Cuba during the seventies.
3. Names of two of the construction systems in the urban development programs for housing implemented by the government.
5. Innovators National Association.
6. Ministry of Domestic Commerce.
8. Marco Livingstone, Objects for Ideal the Home», in Art & design. Pop Art, Academy editions, London, 1992 (p.91)
9. Marco Livingstone, op.cit. (p.94)
10. Neighbourhood local factories that render goods for the community.
11. Street vendors, small manufacturers, little and small local industry.