Revolutionary Mum E-mail correspondence between Diango Hernández and Yilmaz Dziewior (published in Diango Hernández. Living Rooms, a Survey. MART 2011)
Diango Hernández: My mother was a high school teacher and later became a university professor. She was specialized in the Spanish language as well as in universal literature. My father was a mechanic and later became a mechanical engineer working in different factories and fields of mechanics.
It was my mother who introduced me to reading and dancing. My family on my mother’s side was a family of popular music dancers and my mother loved and still loves to dance. With her I learnt many things as we all do with mothers but it was especially her who taught me how to dance and how to read a book in a proper way. My parents got divorced when I was five and since then my father was mostly absent. I can’t recall any kind of direct influence of his on any of my cultural interests.
My father’s side of the family and my mother’s couldn’t be more different. My mother’s family was very humble, living in a very simple situation. However, they managed to provide my mother with the best education you could get at the time and they did it with lots of sacrifices. My father’s family was upper middle class, my grandfather was a doctor who had a private clinic and a laboratory together with his brother and my grand-grandfather was the mayor of an important town before the revolution. After the revolution these two models of families were the models that the revolution took in “its hands” to work with. My father’s family would be the evil one and my mother’s family would be the new heroic model. That’s why I grew up in the middle of the classic dilemma of to be or not to be.
All my family on my father’s side has been living in the States since the early 60’s, my great-grandfather left Cuba as a political prisoner and all the rest of the family left as well, together with him or after him; my mother’s family still lives in Cuba.
My brother and I grew up between the house of my mother’s grandparents and my mother’s. Every time we went to either house it was like being part of a different movie. I feel very glad that we grew up seeing at least two different political approaches to the same political situation and two different ways of living. It is funny that when I think about my mother’s parents’ house I feel touched, I feel compassion and I want to go back to that simple life and when I think about my father’s family there is a bitter smell that surrounds my memories I guess it is the smell of the “inconformes” (Dissatisfied).
Y.D.: Your home town Sancti Spíritus is not only known for its sugar plants but it is also a university city. Did you come into contact with students when you were still living at home? Did they appear in the public realm of Sancti Spíritus?
D.H.: Yes, there are several universities around Sancti Spíritus. My mother used to teach in one of them. I don’t really remember being in contact with any students from any university (I am talking about when I was living in Sancti Spíritus that is until I was 15) I was fascinated about studying from a very young age, I remember that I wanted to be an engineer. There was an engineer living in our block who dressed and talked differently to the others, I suppose I was attracted by that but not really about engineering… My mother and her reading culture influenced me a lot. After a really hard working day not only as a teacher but also at home she would still read one entire book during the night. I loved the sound of her flipping the pages and the aroma of the cigarettes she was smoking while reading…
Y.D.: Part of the early history of Sancti Spíritus is the exploitation of African slaves for the sugar plantations. Are there still traces of this history visible in the current population for example? How would you describe the influence of African culture on your home town? (I am aware that for Cuba in general that is a big topic.)
D.H.: My father’s side of the family comes from Trinidad, one of the first towns founded by the Spanish in Cuba. The history of slavery in Trinidad is related not only to sugar plantations but also to coffee plantations. The history of the city is extremely rich in historical events of all kinds. There are many visible traces all over Trinidad about this period of history. The architecture of course is an obvious monument but the most impressive issue for me since I was a child has been to see how ‘pure’ the Afro-Cubans living in this area look. It means that in this area the slavery was so severe and controlled that there was no possible chance of being mixed. The blacks stayed permanently isolated from the whites. They were not allowed to follow their own religion nor any of their cultural rituals. Still, at my aunt’s house, where I stayed for long periods of time, there was a house servant who was born in the same house and this means her parents and her grandparents were slaves. I didn’t know about her story until I was 15. I remember being a kid and thinking she was the only black in the world.
All over Cuba the racial matter is a very current issue. It can only be understood if we pay attention to the history of the island. Cuba (1886) together with Brazil (1888) was the last of the colonies to set slaves free and to abolish slavery. Still after the abolition the sugar cane industry was very relevant, needing a lot of man-power. That’s why at the beginning of the 20th century the Chinese slavery started, which didn’t last long because the Chinese didn’t get accustomed to the hard tropical weather conditions they had to work in.
In Trinidad the heritage of the Afro Cuban culture is huge and surrounds the town like a ghost that touches everything. Music is in fact this ghost that travels and “infects” everything. For the Africans music wasn’t only their way of “having fun” but most important it was the way they had to remember their landscapes, their language and what they had lost. Already in the 1890’s their music became a very powerful sign of freedom and liberation also for a selected group of whites. The Cuban ideals of liberation and independence = revolution all derive from the history of slavery and the brutality of colonization. After a year of a fierce war, in 1899 Cuba was finally declared independent, it lasted for a very short time, until the Americans took over in 1901.
When we talk about Cubans, or Criollos as they were called before, we have to talk about a mixture of religions, cultures and races and even though certain families didn’t get mixed we have to see mixed as well. For many people in Cuba this is still something that is not easy to understand. When money can’t make the difference in a country then colour takes the place that value occupies.
Y.D.: After a rather pleasant childhood you went, as was the regular procedure for children of your age, about 13, to a so called “La Beca” a community boarding school in the countryside which was part of the Cuban revolutionary communist educational system. From then on your days had to follow strict rules, which were determined by physical work on tobacco plantations in the morning, classes in school in the afternoon, learning and homework till late at night. Tell me about this time and how it shaped your attitude towards the relation of the individual to the society.
D.H.: I have explained in detail, in some other conversations and interviews, some of my experiences in these schools. The stories about these years are endless; by now my memories are mixed with fantasies and fears, facts are contaminated with the flavour of fiction. What I can say about these schools and these years is no longer understandable as truth. Anyway looking back on any of these particular experiences I could say also the same thing that I am saying now, in that right moment when they were happening they were no longer understandable as the truth. Most of them were so surreally cruel that reality didn’t really exist in any of them; and when compassion abandons reality we are in front of pure fiction; we are in front of a ripped book page that slowly falls into a dark area of our memories.
Individuality and all its possible synonyms and parables was feared by all of us. Individuality stood for weakness; the most powerful and well rewarded of the students were the most social and those most involved in school programmes. You could have been a genius but it wouldn’t really count. A teacher of mine once told me “We don’t need stars, we need revolutionaries”. Now I understand how wrong she was, a star is a revolutionary and vice versa. But I also know now that she meant to say: We don’t need stars we need the mediocre. They always thought that a collection of mediocrity could produce a genial society but instead they produced a society full of mediocrity.
My actual relationship towards the individual was totally formed by those years of hard collectivism I spent in these schools. I avoid masses of people as well as massive commemorative celebrations of any kind. I feel diluted, I have the feeling I am giving something away, which neither unknown people nor politicians deserve to get from me.
My ideas about the individual are very clear and almost invariable. I believe we haven’t yet reached a political understanding of what each of us is capable of doing with our own will and power. I would not even refer to western society as a democracy but as a society dominated by only one side of the individum, the side that creates individualism which also takes away from man the freedom he was born with.
Y.D.: A big relief for you was when you went to study Industrial Design in Havana. Though you were very successful with your studies and got a position in an architectural office you quit this job in order to work together with four other like-minded friends. Together with them you collected “inventions” by people who tried to compensate the extreme shortage of everyday goods by combining found and sometimes otherwise useless objects to create handy everyday tools.
These activities could be seen as the foundation on which you would later develop your work as an artist. How would you describe your development from a designer to a visual artist?
D.H.: Between 1994-95 while working as part of a team of architects in Havana, I felt the necessity to break away from society and start my own way. Working in this architect’s office opened my eyes. Even though this was one of the most important architect’s offices on the whole island the working conditions were miserable, the highly qualified professionals who had been working there since the early 1960’s were destroyed by the time I started working with them, consumed by a system that demanded more and more every single day, giving back just very little. It was unacceptable and disgusting for me. I remember that at that time I was living 20 km away from the centre of Havana where the architect’s office was located. I had to go there every morning by bike because public transport wasn’t really working and as a result I was always late. One day the personnel manager of my floor called me to her office to inform me that I would be punished in public because I was continuously late getting to work. After that meeting I resigned, promising myself that I would never work in Cuba again. In that same year, together with Ernesto Oroza, I put together a group of friends that we also knew were completely tired of their individual situations. By the end of the same year we had formed the Ordo Amoris Cabinet and we were ready to start working.
Since I began studying I’ve been fascinated by research. Research has been a very restricted area in Cuba. No one really likes it when you are researching and asking questions here and there in Havana. I knew that’s what I wanted to do more than anything else. I had a solid background regarding methodology and I was happy to start applying it without being asked to. The social impact of our way of seeing reality was immediate; people loved our project from the beginning. Because it was honest and didn’t have anything to do with the surface but on the contrary it was full of content. However, it was only after a meeting with Helmo Hernández; at the time the director of the newly formed Ludwig Foundation in Havana that we understood that we were not doing anything else but contemporary art. After long internal discussions we decided to enter the art field and to use it as a platform that would allow us to go public without directly exposing the essence of what we were doing. I believe it wasn’t art but definitely a sort of liberating force that could also be presented as visual art.
The way for all of us to learn the specifics of contemporary art was really long but we were open to learning and discussing everything. We soon started travelling, which helped us to understand clearly in which contemporary art zone our work was located.
The mutation from Design to Visual Art wasn’t easy for us, it is confusing how similarly sometimes these two fields can operate, the same thing happens if your mother tongue is Spanish and you learn Italian; they have similar roots but those roots are anchored in a very different land. I believe those years together with the Ordo Amoris Cabinet were fantastic, full of excitement and surprises. We learnt a lot about our country and about ourselves. We took that “broken mirror” from the streets and we placed it into museums. Now not only could Cubans see their broken image at home or in the streets but they could also go to these official temples for “beauty” and have the opportunity to see their broken but beautiful images.
For ten years we created a huge body of ideas and works. I definitely consider these years as the foundation for what I started doing afterwards. The immensity of reality and its relevance for all of us, the poetry that exists in mistakes, the crisis as an aesthetic liberating moment, the power of simple gestures and the love you need to have if you want to be an artist are only a few of the things I learnt during those years. I am happy I created the Ordo Amoris Cabinet and I am happy that I fought so much for the ideas behind it. It wasn’t easy, believe me!
Y.D.: Before leaving Cuba for good in 2003 you were able to accept offers for several artist residencies in Canada, the USA and Germany in the mid 1990’s. I always imagined that it would be very complicated to travel freely as a Cuban citizen, not only due to economic reasons but most of all because of Cuban law. How was it possible for you and how could you leave Cuba finally and are still able to visit your mother in Havana from time to time?
D.H.: For a period of 8 years, since I was 26, from 1996 until 2003, I now and then travelled abroad. At the beginning it was only possible due to the support of the Ludwig Foundation in Havana. They managed to get the right Cuban papers for us to travel without problems under the status of Artists. After a couple of trips we applied for UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) membership and luckily we got it. With this new status we could easily travel abroad without so much trouble from the Cuban side. The real problem for us was money. Every time we travelled we were sponsored 100%, without having even pocket money to travel with. We were 100% dependent on whatever fee the institution in charge would give us. Of course we didn’t have any credit cards, any health insurance or any relatives whom we could call in case of any emergency when we were abroad.
The institutions were mostly helpful but none of them really understood our real situation. I don’t blame them, I think it is still very hard to understand how our society functions and how isolated we are from the rest of the world. I finally got out of Cuba in 2003 with a working contract submitted by the Italian authorities. By that time my brother was already running his own advertising agency in Italy and he provided me with an official working contract. I applied in Cuba as an artist and in Italy as a high skilled designer and this strategy worked out for me, allowing me to leave Cuba in a proper way and to work in Europe in the same way. I knew since I started thinking about living abroad that I didn’t want to leave Cuba using any illegal way because this would have caused a lot of trouble for my mother, it would have been a disgrace for her if I had done so. Now I am married to a German and I have German residency but I am still a Cuban citizen. I will resist as long as I can and I’ll try to keep my Cuban passport at all costs. To own this passport still means a lot to me. I have to travel to Cuba every year in order to update my permit to be living outside the country. This is not a fun thing to do but if you want to do what I am doing you have to go through it in order to keep your Cuban citizenship operational and especially in order to not make your revolutionary mum angry.
Y.D.: You told me that when you left Cuba you had several thousands of drawings with you on found papers or in notebooks and that at the Cuban border the customs official didn’t mind that you were going to export art but he wanted to forbid you to take them with you because of the written words included in your drawings. This led you to erase and/or cut out the writing in them before taking them on the air plane. Hopefully I do not sound too romantic and naïve but for me this action has in addition to all its cruelty also a moment of relief: starting something new by quite violently leaving something else behind?
D.H.: It was just at that moment when we are leaving that we realized what we were taking with us. This is what happened to me that day I was leaving for Europe from the International Havana airport. For a week I had been stacking piles of drawings inside a big suitcase; I didn’t even check them all. I had been drawing madly every day for the last six years. You can imagine how many drawings and especially notes I collected during those years. Drawing became a big help for me, like a good friend who shares every single moment with you every day; I don’t recall a single day without drawing while I was living in Cuba. My drawings were carried out in absolute silence but in fact they were very loud inside, they contained a great load of my frustrations and also my hopes for a better political situation for my country. I was so excited before leaving that I didn’t think about an eventual airport security check. And right there my name was amplified all over the airport. I felt paralysed, immediately I thought about my drawings, my only treasure. After hours of interrogation they took away about 50 drawings and some notebooks because of their political in-correctness. After hours of stupid questions, their last question was: Why do you hate your own country so much? I didn’t say anything, I didn’t answer the question. Their last provocation exhausted me and also left me with a terrible need to go to the toilet, a request they had been denying me for hours. Since then I have formulated hundreds of answers to that very last question by intelligence at the José Martí airport. Today I can answer with a very simple but meaningful word: Goodbye.
Y.D.: In your first solo exhibition in Cologne without the Ordo Amoris Cabinet in 2003, which was entitled “Amateur” at Frehrking Wiesehöfer you presented 5.000 of these drawings together with objects, which seemed to have been realized quickly and had a precarious status because they were so fragile. Some of them looked like radios or other everyday objects but which were not functioning. Though I am sceptical about heroic narrations postulating that some exhibitions in an artist’s career are more important than others I would say that “Amateur” was crucial for you because it was a turning point in finding a very specific language as an artist. At least that is why I suggested starting your exhibition at MART in Rovereto with a room of these drawings. How do you look back at these drawings after all these years?
D.H.: These drawings are connected with many episodes of my life back in Cuba. They contain a load of personal information. These drawings were my diary, a very particular memory of my everyday observations. When I decided to show them in Cologne I was aware that I wasn’t really showing art or at least I didn’t want to see it that way, instead I was opening a big closet and honestly showing it to strangers. “Amateur” became a sort of liberating force not only for my artistic language but also for my newborn life in Europe. It was my passport to a new artistic practice. Drawing was already a way of living for me and now in Europe I knew I could learn a lot. In many of these drawings there were ideas about new objects, paintings, installations and even new ideas for new societies that I dreamt about in Cuba. My biggest challenge after showing “Amateur” was to develop in a different scenario the fragility that I knew existed in a drawing and to fully embrace it as a way of reflecting. Looking back on these drawings I see them today as examples of what art means to me. They function as permanent reminders of what I am, I don’t really value them as art pieces, they are beyond that, they are fundamental pieces of my life.
Y.D.: And how would you describe the relation of the objects – for example the Box Radio – to the drawings, you exhibited in “Amateur”?
D.H.: These objects were my first reflections about the relationship that a three-dimensional object has with a drawing or better to say with the drawings I was doing while I was in Cuba. I used to believe while putting these objects together that the production time we use to make an artwork defines a very important quality of it; which is immediateness. Most of my drawings were carried out in a very short time; they concentrate inside an urgency, a desperate desire for expression. The sculptures like the Box Radio, Umbrella and the others shown in “Amateur” were titled in the first place “Drawings”. An object can be a drawing if is incomplete, if its precarious process will inspire the viewer to “finish” it once he is in front of it. In this way most of my drawings were commentaries that became all together a sort of plan. That’s why I think the whole body of the “Amateur” drawings together with the objects form a very special kind of Utopia. Of course a drawing can be an object and vice versa but that was clear for me, what wasn’t clear was if this thought would move my ideas and my work forward. At that time (when “Amateur” was being installed at Galerie Frehrking Wiesehöfer) I needed to start opening myself up to my new reality otherwise if not, I could have become stuck between my past and my island. I didn’t want to stay in that place and I knew this body of works would enlighten me up to a certain point but not forever.
Y.D.: As you mentioned earlier your first “new home” was Italy. You started working in the advertising agency that your older brother Rogelio together with two Italian partners opened two years before your arrival in Trento. Then you could realize your artworks only at night. A lot of things have happened since you settled down in Europe eight years ago. Your work has been presented all over the world. You have also exhibited twice in Rovereto at the Paolo Maria Deanesi Gallery. I assume that the exhibition at MART Rovereto – one of the most prestigious museums in Italy – will be loaded with this past of yours and at the same time it means another major step into the future?
D.H.: To be exhibiting a selection of my works at MART has a tremendous meaning for me. The unlimited generosity of the Italians that I got to know while living in Trento helped me to understand lots of fundamental things about ‘my new life’ in Europe and to understand them very quickly. The same day I arrived in Italy my brother picked me up and took me directly to his agency where he had prepared a desk and a computer for me in his office and et voilà, from the streets of Havana a few hours earlier I was now seated in a comfortable Italian chair ready to become a civilized European citizen. My memories and experiences about living in Trento are multiple and intense. The work in the advertising agency became more and more demanding in the weeks following my arrival, I often thought: that’s it, here I am working like a beast, eating better, dressing better and sleeping really badly. Getting to know more about how complicated the whole western ‘apparatus’ functioned the more I panicked. I really more than once thought that I would never be able to exhibit my artworks again. The nights were very long; I kept drawing as much as my energy would allow me to. The most important inspiration that kept me believing that it was still all possible was my mother’s way of seeing life and her brilliant example. To exhibit in Rovereto will have the same meaning for me as exhibiting in Cuba. A full circle will be closed for me and my work after exhibiting in Rovereto this year. The future will be uncertain as always, but nevertheless I am sure some other challenges will come along. A good friend of mine told me once: You haven’t done your “master” artwork yet. It was the greatest compliment I ever received, since I know that “master” artworks are usually followed by “master” clichés.
Y.D.: Let’s talk more about the works you will present at MART. Living Inside My Closet for example visualizes strongly the tension between the personal and the public. The title puzzled me at first because I would spontaneously associate queer issues with it but I could not see how they would be of real relevance to your artistic work. Thinking more about the piece I liked how directly the title describes what one would see (two rows of closets standing with their open doors opposite each other with a small enough distance to see several lamps illuminating the inside). It seems to me that Living Inside My Closet is less about queerness in a specific sense than about marginalization in a broader term?
D.H.: You are right, even though Living Inside My Closet doesn’t have a direct gender identity association; it contains a fundamental link to it. It is especially connected with isolation and the consequent out-casting that gender identity issues can have. This particular closet is the first object I worked with that I was using before as an actual wardrobe, I bought it in Trento and I used it for 2 years. Its transition from my bedroom to the exhibition room meant a lot to me, spotting new processes and ways of dealing with private issues inside my work. Living Inside My Closet also shows my “conformism” as a protectionist strategy; together with this piece and “Revantgarde” which was the title of the exhibition which this piece was in, I published a little catalogue that as its introduction has a little text of mine that says: … I don’t want to be in the front because that is where we can find not only the more advanced people but also the most cynical ones…
Y.D.: There will be several works at MART that play with imagined sound. What I like a lot is that there are different intensities of imagined sound and music. Looking at There are many things in the air and they are all for free one has the feeling of subconsciously experiencing the “white noise” of several radio stations at once. The immense amount of loudspeakers being part of your installation My Birds Don’t Want to Come Back visualize an almost painful ear deafening noise. And then there are other pieces like My Records for You, which perhaps play more with a personal taste of one’s favourite music. Each of these pieces seems to be full of different references and at the same time they all somehow remind me of the strength, freedom and passion something immaterial like sound can incorporate. Please tell me more about these pieces.
D.H.: The absence of sound and lacking in general has been a concept I have and still use to build my objects. Something incomplete is for me completed; this can sound like a play on words but it is certainly not. In the case of pieces like the one you mention their incompleteness is more present, the objects, that conform most of my “sound installations”, like sound boxes, vinyl records, magnetic tapes and radio shells are not only incomplete because some of their parts are missing but because silence became their permanent function. They are not in the space to produce sound but to produce silence, which can sometimes be as loud as a bomb. Articulating and working in general with silence makes me refer to prolonged periods of repression that could exist under dictatorships. In 2006, together with Andi Thoma, I had an exhibition called “The Factory of Silence”, in this imaginary factory “engineers and workers” were producing only silence and instead of selling it were giving it to the people for free. Silencing an object stands for silencing a person. In “Losing You Tonight”, the exhibition where My Records for You was exhibited for the first time, I wrote: Silence is not the absence of sounds but what we keep quiet.
Y.D.: Besides the strategy of leaving things incomplete in order to complete them, at the same time you often use the method of de-constructing (e.g. everyday objects) to construct your works by reformulating the order of the single elements. A telling example for this procedure is Homesick made out of dispersed and de-constructed furniture elements. How would you describe the connection of formal aspects, like the grids and patterns developed by you in this piece, in relation to the content given by the material you used and of course to the chosen title?
D.H.: I really like that you have pointed out the “grids” in relation to my installations. Especially in Homesick, grids and patterns are fundamental inner structural elements. I refer to Homesick as an installation filled with dizziness, in this way the installation takes lots of elements from psychedelic imagination. Many of the Homesick elements are repeatedly floating, turning or fading away. If the viewer pays careful attention she or he will understand that the whole piece seems to be moving in a very “moody” way. We can start describing the collages that are pinned onto one of the walls of the installation; these collages have been done using photosensitive paper, this means that the room ambience light is permanently affecting and transforming their colour. Slowly their backgrounds are getting darker and darker until one day they’ll be totally and deeply dark. What seems to be a staircase, which is the central element of the installation, is composed of the ascending and repeated chair backs that hang from the ceiling from thin transparent nylon cords, that’s why these elements move slowly, they swing with every little air stream that can eventually be produced in the room by the presence of a visitor. The floor fragments that hold the microscopes are permanently turning around which transforms the microscopes into “unnecessary” objects, in this way there won’t be the possibility to take a closer look at what each of the microscopes is holding. None of the other elements of Homesick (chair legs and staircases, wooden balusters) are fixed, they are just arranged/posed, so hypothetically talking they are movable and in fact they’ll have a new disposition in the MART space.
The 100 de-constructed chairs that compose Homesick belonged to a public room from Köln Messe in the early 1960’s. To dis-articulate these public objects and to rearrange them into a new “House” is an important point in this piece. To de-construct and to reuse public elements in order to build a private memory can be a shocking process to admit but I think it is an extremely necessary process to carry out, especially if we are trying to find out the meaning of collective memory and its impact on our personal daily lives.
Y.D.: Going through the list of works you intend to exhibit in Roverto I get the feeling that the motive of the sun is important for you? There are drawings like How to get to the sun or Mother the sun made a mistake as well as installations like Permanent Sunset. One direct but also rather naïve association could once again be your homeland Cuba, where the weather is always sunny at least from my perspective coming from a country where sunshine is more rare. And of course there is the idea that the sun is something that can make things flourishing and destroy at the same time. What fascinates you about this ancient and timeless metaphor?
D.H.: For “Dictators”, an exhibition we mentioned earlier, I entitled a piece Permanent Sunset in which a drawing is intercepting a desk, the drawing literally “cuts” the hard wooden plate of the desk and manages to go through it, a part of the drawing is hanging above the desk and the other is hanging underneath it, the drawing seems to be stuck, without any possibility of going neither up nor down.
Actually I am not interested in the sun itself or in its mythological connotations, I have been interested in the task it performs every day. A “stuck” sun, which we one can see in photographs, doesn’t move, it is frozen in time. In “Dictators” I refer to this hypothetical moment in which the sun is permanently frozen in the sky and I assumed that this moment could last forever. I want the sun to keep moving, I want to see the night and its stars shining in the dark.
Y.D.: The Dark Day Parade is striking not only for its enormous format with a length of over five meters but also the way you positioned its different elements which, according to the title, seem quite concrete. At the same time they are abstract. How do you deal with abstraction and realism in general in your work and what role do they play in this specific piece?
D.H.: I did this drawing in a moment of “revenge”. You know drawings, just like some other media confront us with the topic of scale. For instance, how big are the walls in Canaletto’s paintings? Or how small are the hands in Grünewald’s small drawings? I wanted to do a big drawing about something that I deeply detest: official political parades!
In this drawing multiple “undefined” objects occupy a large surface and they seem to be moving; are they coming or going? And if so, where from or where to? In many of the drawings that I started doing when I moved to Europe you can see various systems of precarious elements that try to become a construction. This is a recurrent motif that I insist on drawing again and again, they are precarious constructions “built” by inaccurate and wet ink lines that somehow try to stand up and resist the impact of the viewer. From my point of view these constructions contain a fundamental doubt: are they falling or being erected? Perhaps it is thinking about this dilemma that we could find helpful thoughts about a possible middle point in between “reality” and “abstraction” but I have no intention of redefining this relationship. I hadn’t thought previously if the art I wanted to do was “real” or “abstract”.
This drawing is perhaps a good example where we can see formal content giving structure to a narrative. I like to think more in these terms not only about this particular drawing but also in general. I am convinced that any form or kind of language is helpless if it doesn’t help us to communicate.
Y.D.: Let’s get back to what you called earlier your “revolutionary mum.” I could imagine that titles of works you will present at MART like Mother, the future was a political lie…, Mother we can hide the lamp but not the light or Mother tell me they are not coming again not only refer to her as a concrete person, but to the symbolic meaning of mother as the origin we come from and in this way also the country? “Mother” in these titles combines for me the personal and the political.
D.H.: You are right. I would just like to add here that introducing the word “Mother” into an artwork wasn’t such a “cool” thing to do. The spectrum of words and contents of the contemporary art world doesn’t really include the word “Mother”. You’d more likely find provocative words or highly intellectual ones in Contemporary Art. The word “Mother” belongs more to the vocabulary we can find in narrative forms like literature or cinema. When I started introducing “Mother” into my titles I did it precisely because I wanted to link my works with personal stories and with autobiographical matters. In this way “Mother” will lead the audience to a more intimate area, perhaps that area where feelings are stored. “Mother” will also allow me to articulate not only objects but also the dramaturgy of some exhibitions like for example the “Spies”, exhibition I had at Alexander and Bonin in NY in 2006. “Mother” in the end doesn’t only stand for the person or land we belong to; it also relates closely to the idea of belonging, for me “Mother” means home.
Y.D.: In general titles are important for you. Not only the titles of your works but also of your exhibitions. For example in the same year you did “Spies” at Alexander and Bonin in New York you had two exhibitions before that; one at Pepe Cobo in Madrid called “Traitors” and the other with the title “Dictators” at Galerie Frehrking Wiesehöfer in Cologne. All three were followed by your solo show at the Kunsthalle Basel, which you named “Revolution”. What a great climax! Were the exhibitions also connected through the artworks you presented in each of them? Was there something like a combining narration for all three shows? How did you come up with these four very contaminated and meaningful titles?
D.H.: I used to write a lot of commentaries and notes on my drawings, as you know some of my early drawings contain double narratives that are established on one hand by written words and on the other by the vocabulary of a simple drawing, these two elements sometimes support each other but not always. I thought when I started using this way of “drawing” that people would spend a little longer in front of a drawing than they usually do. I wanted people to read the drawings, to read/scan not only the iconic and recognizable language of the ink but also the traces of use that each of my found papers had. Since then I have been fascinated about the power that written commentaries, phrases and word constructions have in combination with lines and areas of colours, what they can trigger in our imagination can be huge.
If we see titles (no matter if they are from pieces or from exhibitions) as ‘external elements’ I believe we are wrong. Titles belong as much as a colour can to an artwork. They form an essential part of art pieces, closely related to the dialogue that exists between the artist – his or her time – and the viewer.
2006 was a great year for my work, as you mentioned I had a lot of international exposure. I had the opportunity to develop a series of exhibitions in really good art venues together with people who understood what I was doing and fully supported me. Revolution/Spies/Traitors/Dictators – The Factory of Silence; this chain of exhibitions was meticulously connected. The most complicated one was “Revolution”; I was working on it in Basel for two months before the opening. The Kunsthalle Basel kindly offered me the possibility of a studio in Basel and I took it. I thought that to work on-site would bring more clarity into my thoughts. I also wanted to get closer to the way Adam Szymczyk was developing his exhibitions and ideas. I thought that we could develop an intense dialogue, especially on such topics as history and socialist culture in the modern western world. And in indeed we did, those two months in Basel were extremely positive and really enriched my ideas and points of view. Nevertheless “Revolution” developed into a very difficult thing for me to do. The complexity of the topic became greater as I started working on it, I started having tons of ideas that confused me and drove me to a creative mess and a subsequent blockade. I learned in Basel the hard way of cleaning and purifying my thoughts and ideas before or while processing them. In the end this exhibition was definitely a massive starting point for me to understand my working process better. The connections with the following exhibitions are multiple but I would like to remark that in this tetralogy written words became more invisible and hidden but titles took over, becoming sort of monuments.
The use of domestic objects in these exhibitions also became really important for me. I started introducing them more, I started speaking more in my works from the inside of the “house”, something that furniture and house fittings would allow me to do.
The words “Revolution”, “Spies” and “Traitors” are in the first place very familiar words or concepts to me and to my generation. All three of them have been repeated, printed and amplified millions of times by the Cuban officials. When we approach such concepts we can certainly find inside and around them a lot of space for speculation and also for all kinds of manipulations; I wasn’t really interested in these qualities when I decided to use them as titles. I wanted to take these big monumental words into my hands; I wanted to domesticate them. In Cuba printed or amplified politics can be only stopped if we shut our front door and switch off the radio and this is somehow what I did with these series of exhibitions; I finally moved from the streets to my living room.
Y.D.: “Living Rooms, a Survey” the title for your exhibition at MART may seem at first glance less emotional and politically charged than “Dictators”, “Traitors”, “Spies” and “Revolution”. Though a second look will most likely reveal that the works in this exhibition do combine the very private and intimate atmosphere usually associated with the living room of one’s house or apartment (or to quote, what you mentioned earlier: “that area where feelings are stored”) with the public realm of politics. How do you imagine these two aspects in your show at MART?
D.H.: After having our meeting in Bregenz I felt calmer. You know it is the first time that a consistent body of existing works of mine will be shown in a major institution. Even though artists think often about this moment, and I have done it as well, I would say it is not an easy fact to be confronted with. The notion of art history gets closer to us with a retrospective or a survey of artworks as well as the judgement of history does. I will be confronted for the first time with a “revision” of my ideas and it subsequent “update”. Are they still valid? Do they carry enough relevancies to be unfolded in such an institution? Will I be happy to see them again? Would they inspire me as they did before? These are only a few of the questions I would have to answer myself after the exhibition is fully running. Nevertheless the way we have been talking and conceiving this exhibition is very interesting to me. We have carefully selected a coherent body of works that I believe once placed in the right spaces will produce content and complexity, two concepts that I always consider very important when I am putting an exhibition together and besides that we have been guided by the meaning that “Living Rooms” has.
In my latest works and exhibitions “home” started playing a fundamental role. Home is no longer a physical container nor a shell but a complex political construction. For Rovereto the emphasis will be placed on this particular construction that home implies. Some exhibition spaces will be overloaded with works and some others will be mostly deserted. It is precisely this relationship between occupied spaces and non-occupied that defines for me the social friction that exists between public and private spaces. If we could accelerate this “friction” I believe social changes could eventually take place; “Living Rooms, a Survey” could offer the audience the possibility to read my work as a moment of change, a moment of revolution. This is something I think is important to practice daily, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do.