Remembering Cuba

In Cuba the myths fades in the reality, dream in poverty and violence in sensuality. The Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano once wrote: Cuba “is an island, which lightly lays on the water”: it is surrounded more by light than sea. In a drawing by Diango Hernández, it even appears as a mounting floating on the paper-ocean and watching towards the astral space. This almost seems to resemble the unusual religious mixture which blends the Spanish rooted Catholicism with syncretistic cults of Afro Cuban origins.

But in Cuba this happens; everything mixes together and everything influences everything. The Cuban soul is Creole-ized, both on a essential, vital, historical and cultural level. Alex Fleites and Padura Fuentes in their unforgettable “Cuba’s Paths” write:” Watching a popular dance with a likely Nordic blond girl or listening to a symphonic concert where a black plays one of the first violins, taking part in a Catholic mass or the drums parade of the “santerìa”, watching a baseball match at the corner of a suburb or in Havana’s bid stadium, doing shopping at the market or gaining something thanks to the black stock exchange….are all interchangeable actions.”

Diango Hernández himself, recollecting his Cuban years, sees the Havana centre as an “unbelievable blend of races, smells, styles, sounds and fears. At every corner – he goes on – there was a policeman bus also a lot of junk which was going to be collected only at midday.

All this to say that Cuba is first of all its people and there are as many Cubas as its inhabitants. It is an attempt of appropriation, of collective invention, superstition, where the language itself is product of the imagination, in which the Castilian root is enriched with terms from African tongues, English and French. But above all is the cult of the body that gives a magic note to the Cuban way of being: the gestures, the walking with a rhythm similar to the dance, the touching while speaking, without which the conversation appears cut off. Also Diango Hernández recollects with pleasure his strolling among the people to catch behaviors, moods and opinions to transfer then on his drawing papers.

And in his going around, he also meets that incredible architecture, glorified by the visionary writer Alejo Carpentier:” an emporium of columns” where “the style of the things without style” rules. A baroque considered as a mass and a continuous mixture of Moresque and colonial classicism, art nouveau and art déco. Cuba is at the same time a “European and Caraibic, cosmopolitan and isolated, cheerful and melancholic, dynamic and hopeless” country.

Maybe Hernández takes right from here his way of drawing, where objects disappear and reappear, go and come. Maybe his inconstant mark grows from the wavy, instable and widespread lines of the cathedrals and castles, producing a space where every reality begins when you don’t understand any longer what you are doing. (Matisse)

But Hernández cannot either forget he “had to keep his works hidden” and had to draw almost in the dark. This is to say that he fights against a government that used to consider illegal every idea and act not in line with its ideology.

He knows by all means that most Cubans is not against the system, but agrees that fighting to change it will only lead to jail and disgracefulness. And again, he knows how the population of the island is proud of its values, its culture but above all of the real miracle of having coped with the US embargo, etc.

Notwithstanding, he cannot avoid to see the excesses of Castro’s regime, the fact that the Lìder Maximo confuses war with economy, society with life. In this context, he uses the drawing as means of expression and chance to meditation. Even so, he never came to make accusation or fight openly against it.

His drawing remains essential, fragile, and secret. “Mine are subversive works, but in a subtle way” says the artist. They are little stones thrown into a pond, of which you can see just the first circles; you need to keep you eyes open to be able to see it…

Despite all this, when Hernández leaves Cuba, the police stops him at the airport and …the luggage containing more than five thousands drawings (“My treasure, my diary of years”). They ask him to rub all the writing, in many cases just drafted or linked to the image. “Beauty, above all, is a means of seduction but also a provoker idea” goes on Hernández. And the rubbings become open wounds …traces of a system, side signals of a mistake.

Twelve light poles found in Primiero Valley: old poles looking like relics of a devastated and wiped out past. They still have their insulators and their electrical wires, but they are all twisted, as if they were worn remains, waste or mere spoils. Diango Hernández scatters them around the gallery with apparent careless, careful not to make them look like historical evidences, precious ruins, or wreck to keep with special attention. On the contrary he performs on them a careful action of counterfeit, to say it better, a literal alteration of vision and senses by transforming them into huge master builder pencils with their tips painted in black.

It is evident that we are facing a sort of metamorphose. It is a question which we address to the object (though finished, dead), to the instability of classifications, to the roles exchange. Yet, it is a matter of transformation in progress, of a progressive change. The light poles have not lost their identifiably, only they put their existence at the disposal of another existence, of another hypothetical functionality. Only children imagination can picture a twofold reality, a fantastical one. For a child a box can be a train, a couple of bricks can be a house, a broom can be a horse or an airplane. Through the symbolic game he can transform reality into appearance and vice-versa. And Diango Hernández himself said once “I am looking for a fire exit from this world…The real power is the possibility to build your own universe”.

Thus, the installation “Power Pencil” can not be assimilated to Duchamp’s act of putting an object outside its context, to superimpose it with new thoughts and new names, where the object is still identical to itself, within the fundamental law of identity. Neither it can be put in relation with the “as if” aesthetic by Magritte, a true hunter of dead relations and apparently casual encounters. He wanted to underline the deception of the images and the short-circuit of buildings surrounding that all representations hold within themselves. That of Duchamp and Magritte was a conceptual discourse. That of Hernández is once again a political one. The former two wanted to produce linguistic investigations; the latter wanted to sound out the power strategies.

Power: “It is what is beyond our existence, which can give life both to peace and economy as to mistakes and failures in the same way. It changes our way of being by its choices. Being more and more dependent on the sources of energy, it plays a passive role, forced to follow that technical progress, which it can not either control or lead, but only guarantees”. So says Diango Hernández, underling the importance of alternative energies, able to obviate a development (but also its immediate obsolescence) invading without notice the context of an unprepared society. Pencil: “The pencil at the power” or “The power of pencil”. It is the utopian fire exit, an impossible bet on freedom. It is the symbol of the art that can put down barriers, impositions, ideologies. The possibility of tracing a line, drawing, scribbling makes the artist the creator of his owns life, more and more social and less and less private. Again the artist says: “The light poles cut of and transformed into pencils are public acts, subversive actions, aren’t they?” They represent the overthrow of a surpassed system, the creation of new forms, and the birth of new worlds. In the same way my drawings on the wall, where only the pencil stroke leaps into the foreground, seem to express the same idea: they are scanned and enlarged from normal size, so that the sign can gain a more physical dimension and become matter, almost a project plan, a house plan (even when it is reduced to ruins). As Thomas Eliot said: “From these ruins I will build my cathedrals”.

Talking about drawing

Diango Hernández seems to live in drawing and through drawing. He is like a player obsessed by the combinations of matches, hunted at night by the ghosts of the chessboard or the cards spread over the card mat. Persecuted by images of strategies and by solutions that are more visionary than realistic, his action is always “a insane action devouring itself, nourishing itself, accelerating, self exasperated, hurrying towards the enjoyment and the possession of all we want to see”. Valery said so about Degas’s drawing. Yet, Hernández has not intention whatsoever to create a form (not even a way to see the form) by catching the figure of a dancer in her overflowing acrobatics. His urge of tracing lines comes from the need of creating another universe, a different figure of the world. Those images escape an immediate understanding. Often, they seem to be involved, incomplete, overwhelmed by their same expressive drive, almost abandoned to the freedom and lightness of the first idea, the flash of inspiration.

L. M. -There is something clandestine in these drawings, or else, something potential, hypothetical. Something whose signs we follow, loosing track of them all the time. Yet, those that look like shortenings and visual savings do not reveal a lack of the image, but rather a phase of concealment and secrecy. Your use of water, to give an example, to alter the ink colour stroke and transform it into something different (stains, flaws and shadows) is an act of crossing out and rebirth. The stroke becomes one and numerous, always the same and at the same time different. Was that a way to cherish the mystery of the creative process, the fable of creation or was it, at the beginning at least, a strategy to escape the watches, the repressions of a more and more suspicious and mistrustful regime like the Cuban one?

D. H.- To be honest, I have never expressed a contentious position, but I have rather been a witness of the system. In my drawings one could find the representations of my view point over the crisis. Before the fall of the Revolution (which came together with that of the Soviet system in 1989), Cubans had learned to speak in a low voice, so that nobody that would not live in the island would hear them. They had invented a popular jargon made of broken sentences and absurd gestures. After the fall, we started thinking again. The first indications of freedom were the freedom of thought, and then came the freedom of word and finally that of opinion. Every day life was an adventure again, though carried out through ruins, misery and illusions. In those years we became aware that the Revolution had been a failure. In those same years, I started (together with my mates from the “Gabinete Ordo Amoris”) to collect all those weird objects made by people, full of a grieving beauty. We wanted to build a kind of museum of the crisis and show things nobody would have ever shown. Few years of that bleak high spirit and the power system was back to the most absolute centralism, to the elimination of the smallest space of autonomy. My studio room is in a small apartment on the Calle Esapada in Havana. It is a dark and almost suffocating space that used to be a house for prostitutes. There – in that bunker like refuge, protecting me by any censure – I gave life to my never ending drawing activity, which wanted to be a triumph of the imagination over propaganda, a manipulation of what was manipulating us. The expression of “the desire to see the realities hidden beyond the realities” as the great writer Alejo Carpenter would say.

L. M. – Yet, the peculiarity of your drawing lays in its capacity of eschewing everything: it remains, waves and goes adrift between the desire subtly leading your hand and the leave-taking from all desires of possessing and seizing a sense of reality, though hidden. Even when some projects for architectural structures or hydraulic devices pop out of your notebooks, one has the unmistakable feeling to be in front of impossible, useless, incomprehensible and raving machines, “bachelor machines”, which are not defined by their functioning dynamic but – on the contrary – by their non sense and breaking process. One just needs to look at the draft of “Il mio parco” (My park), winner of the 2007 Verona Art “Icona” award: an old light pole on which are placed some chairs without legs. At the back a screen with the writing “Aspettare” (Waiting) made of the electric wires coming out of the pole itself. It is the breaking of every kind of logic. The every day object, mutilated of any chances of being used, transfers to the writing the information on its usability (that of waiting, in fact).

D.H. – Carpentier meant exactly that, when talking about seeing the usual as stranger, unknown and remote. He was not referring to the act of looking for what is alien within the exotic, but to the impossibility of seizing it within our familiar space. In his manifesto in fact, “Il real meravilloso”, he would say that walking around the streets of a popular quarter of Cuba was sufficient to discover that those poetical, casual, fabulous encounters so long searched by the surrealists can take place in a window-shop. Only, in that same street, one could also experience un unbroken check, a Revolution that had destroyed all sense of history and nation, a dream that had become a nightmare and a present that seemed to become eternal and immutable. I have translated the word present with the word “aspettare” (waiting), containing the idea of desencanto but also that of laziness, sluggishness, fatalism, typical of Latin American people. Still, all my drawings, full of imperfections and mistakes as they can be, want to be a “promise for a future”, a potential project, a kind of resistance, like that of Cubans, who from one day to another had to re-invent themselves and rebuild their life.

L.M. – Thus, do you rely on drawing as if it was reality; even more than reality, as something that would transcend it, becoming a source of meditation, research and imagination?

D.H. – Drawing in its abstraction is more fertile than a real thing. It transforms itself every day, it develops, grows, converts itself in a field of undecided forces. Every drawing takes you to the following one, not through the artist’s imagination but through the drawing’s own imagination. There is always to learn from that congestion of suspended, slander or frayed lines, which replaces it. Somehow, it sets free the creativity that the observer cherishes within himself.

L.M. – Thus, the fragility of the materials (water colours, pencil or ink) does not imply a fragility of expression in your work. Your drawing has lost all characteristics of a transitory image, of a pure meditation on a will-be work of art. It is no longer planning but it is rather investigative and speculative, displaced next to the tensions inherent the reality and the language.

D. H. – Surely my drawing is not a mere support base, a note pad (though it is really a pad or a small diary), or a small piece of paper for scribbling some measures or sums.

I do have a model to achieve. My models are my ideas. Their transfer on the surface is careful, well thought ought. In my last works I have introduced a kind of experimentation on the drawing itself. I start from a form, from an idea. Then I destroy it by the water that same idea. I started developing that kind of intervention for the show “Revolution” (2006) in Basil, by presenting a set of identical drawings, whose unique singularity was that of having been deformed in a different way. To me it is like producing a linguistic swerve, a very strong critical category: that of the disorientation and mistake. By depriving a clear-cut stroke of its rooting, I make it both alien and recognizable. I do not destroy the stroke, I subvert it and make it visually multiple.

L.M. – Do the tools you use influence your discipline and the way you create the image?

D. H – The only thing that matters is that my tool allows me certain speediness, maintaining the dynamical of the idea. I only avoid the use of the classic writing pen as the outcome is too recognizable. It is good for writing, thank to its instantaneous read, while I like to touch the poetic puzzle of the metaphor, the parable and the absurd. I have to confess that I like the blank paper, because it makes me think. When I see it I feel more like a child than an artist. It gives me the impression to be facing the symbol of the artistic making in itself, in both its sense of final and extreme achievement and of insurmountable obstacle: Absence. Perhaps the creative activity is nothing more than controlling and managing the blank.

L.M. – We keep on talking about drawings, chasing their matter, dimensions, meaning. Yet your name is strictly linked to big installation (from the uprooted light poles in “Palabras” at the 2005 Venice Biennale, to the plate roofs transformed into walls in “Cri(is)home” at the 2006 Sidney Biennale or to “We are unfinished drawings” at the 2006 Saint Paul Biennale, and so forth..)

D. H. – Installations are made in the same way than drawings – that is the thing. I do not proceed according to a project. It is all a matter of improvising and verifying how an idea becomes reality. By drawing you can give shape to what is unattainable and inconceivable, to what would never be concrete. Well, I want to do the same with real objects: producing reversals and swerve of meaning able to question the contours of habits and to transform the ordinary profile of things. It is pretty much what I am trying to do in this exhibition called “Power Pencil”. I recycle, as if they were lost objects and mere archeological items, twelve light poles with their broken electric wires and I make them into huge paradoxical pencils. You can see very well that it is not about making an inventory of the déjà vu, opening up a collective memory. It is more about recovering from the mines of waste some out of fashion things, a kind of sign from beyond. Even when an object is deprived of its functional characteristics and it is out of its context of use, it can still send signs of its subversive potentialities. W. Benjamin said that we have to be aware of the revolutionary energies inherent to old things. I want to bring to the territory of art the reality, though with unusual and unexpected valences, I want to make the silence of history speak and reverse all its codified charters.

I had done a similar operation with the installation “As a drop I am going out of my home (at the Kunsthalle in Basil 2006): a space made up of everyday objects (televisions, tables or armchairs) crossed by an hydraulic system starting from a tap and finishing in two tanks. It was clear that those objects were broken down and became part of that nonsense pipe system. It was an unstable and paradoxical structure, with reference also to the social and political situation in Cuba, where industries are rare, the hydraulic system is destroyed, sewers and waterworks are dismissed and where the individual has invent some emergency solutions. It is a bit like showing “the power of imagination”, the revenge of impossible situations. Yet, every time I had finished a work, I take my pencil and draw it again and again, to understand it better, to investigate all its angles, to receive confirmation of the departing point.

L.M – You often do that with the paper as well. I have got here under my eyes a kind of illogic labyrinth, with no entry or exit apparently, but only a slow and progressive of plans. “You get lost, and it is not because you can not find your way. It is because that place gives you the feeling to be defined by a load of interventions, until it becomes a small autarchic universe, a fortress built by the constant returns on the motive.

D.H. – I often go back on a drawing, especially if I perceive that there is something beyond its first appearance, if I perceive that it could be transformed into a different shape. Sometimes they are only scribbles, fragments. Sometimes I like to leave the drawing as it is, like a draft, a starter, thus demolishing its possible future. Yet, I never follow an identical modality ore gesture. I do not have rules on how I can use my hands. In fact most of my drawings are without title or signature; following the idea that we do not need necessarily to finish things and that we can set the paper free from forced spins.

L.M – Still you often insert some very incisive words, such as “mistake”, “ruin”, “goodbye”. In Twombly for instance you let the writing drag, run or rest lazily at the side of the drawing. Similarly, in other drawings you mix a kind of verbal mishmash: English, Spanish, and Italian. Still some verbal splinters manage to escape and make itself heard not only seen.

D.H – Sure, they are not just observations over the images. They are not preaches, rather they are mental speeches. They are “hypothetical” writings, to say it better, they are denied writings. Denied with the regret of those who know that they are important, who do not know what is beyond, who can not set themselves free from them, and like a drug addict who has experiences the pleasure and can not give it up. They are denied with that love and hate struggle belonging to our deepest thoughts.

L.M – in 2003 you left Cuba. Have you been drawing those painting inspired by the street world, like interpretation of that utopian struggle for survival, after you arrival in Europe?

D. H – In Cuba they had more of a documentary character. They were observations on what I could see and hear. Now my drawings can enjoys a larger autonomy. It is not dependent on the comprehension of a given economical and social context. It can express itself in a different way. Still I can not detach myself from my past. On the contrary, the past has become like a wardrobe from where I can take out memories and experiences to re-analyze or re-elaborate. Like Joseph Beuys after his tragic accident: all his operations and objects come from this trauma.

L.M.-Why didn’t you try to get politically involved like other artists did after the failure of the Revolution? You have been saying that the real revolution is art, and that the artist is the true revolutionary. Why not lifting up the heroic and romantic shield of art against those who are destroying Cuba?

D. H – I left because I wanted to know more, learn and do more. I believe our own freedom is more important that any other kind of freedom. Then, I was never interested into political struggle: revolutions do not exist, as they originate from destruction rather than change drive. I will never be away from my homeland. She is in my art, in the draw of memory with which I produce my works.

Perhaps in the end, Diango will repeat the prophetic words of the writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. “Cuba, that gloom, unhappy and noble island will still be there after the last native and after the last Spanish, and after the last African and the last Russian, and after the last American and the last Cuban. Surrounded to all the wrecks and for ever lashed by the Gulf current: beautiful and verdant, eternal and everlasting”. A tragic and mysterious vision is that, like every drawing made by Diango Hernández.

Catalogue: Text published in “Power Pencil”. 17 x 10 cm , 150 pages, 100 color illustrations, hardcover, Published and Produced by Paolo Maria Deanesi. Text by Luiggi Meneghelli.