“Diango Hernández: Education, Wealth and Revolution”
by Lisette Lagnado
And who will even attempt to deal with young people by giving them the benefit of their experience?. Experience and Poverty 1933, Walter Benjamin. Whether from sub-Saharan Africa headed toward the Spain-governed Canary Islands, or from China and headed toward the Taiwanese coast, the scenes of the boat people are repeated in the seas, with or without survivors, but always demonstrating the power of borders – one either belongs, or is an “other.” If there is no legal way to leave, an alternative method is invented. Reports like the following one are no longer uncommon in the news, appearing in different versions and settings, involving people whose lives and nationalities embody the spectacle of global reality: “A group of 12 Cubans modified a 1951 Chevrolet pickup, transforming it into a boat, in an attempt to use the vehicle to immigrate illegally to the United States. The pickup was tied to empty barrels for flotation, and equipped with an outboard motor allowing it to travel through the ocean at around 13 kilometers per hour. Using this watercraft, the Cubans made it more than halfway across the ocean from Cuba to the American coastline, coming to within 65 kilometers of the continent. But the US Coast Guard intercepted the craft and repatriated the Cubans: nine men, two women and one child.” Yesterday’s fringe is today’s clandestine border crosser.
Creative imagination is at the basis of the concept of gambiarra, as associated to the image of a pickup truck strapped to barrels for flotation. Now – five years after the text in which I sought to explain the link between artistic manifestations and empirical phenomena of a social nature – I meet up with someone actually born on that island wedged in the Caribbean like a Solaris out of reach of its base, an artist whose discourse on the revolution reminds me that “a man loves what he could lose.” Diango Hernández (1970) thus obliges me to undertake a hazard-fraught analysis of current perspectives in light of my own previous writing. Were it not for the origins of his artistic path, there would be no sense in once again resorting to the device of gambiarra. Frustrated System (2006) articulates disparate elements atop a table, where the faucet does not open to a sink, but to the floor (just one example of the paradoxical situations created by the artist). One should always be aware that the “system” that Diango Hernández seeks to shed light on is not only the political regime that rules the island, but, obviously, the art circuit as well.
Quite apart from its graceful surrealist composition, his work involves the issue of immigration and the urgency of measures for ensuring a homeland. In 2006, the artist was deeply immersed in this problematics, as evinced by the titles of his artworks: Home is Anywhere and If I could Fly I would build a House up there. It is interesting to draw an analogy between “house” and “home,” taking “home” in its association with “homeland,” just as in Homeland or Death or, in a more subtle way, in Please Take me there. This condition can be extended to other fields of existence, the active renouncement of one’s country of birth perhaps being one of the most critical situations faced by humankind today. Anthems elevate one’s country to the status of an inaccessible lover; but what defines the portrait of a nation, what distinguishes a refugee from an exile, how to compensate generations bereft of the fantasy of a birthplace?
This ocean which buoys the current dissidents to other shores is the same as that plied in colonial times by the slave ships, bringing over from Africa the culture that would gave rise to the Afro-Cuban religions. We thus see a miscegenation of cultures, each with its own degree of truth, constituted as a result of maritime translocations guided by geography. The Cuban Revolution (1959) was the pivotal moment in the definition of the island’s national character, rooted in colonial and neocolonial times dominated by international forces – Spanish, North American and Soviet. In an editorial in the supplement Lunes de Revolución, it was established very early on that leftist intellectuals, artists and writers were situated further to the left [italics ours] than communism itself. That is, the political vocation of artists is an intrinsic part of their nature. There is no higher aspiration than the recognition of creative potential as critical consciousness, as set forth by Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) in the text “The Author As Producer” (1934): “I want to show you that the political tendency of a work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct. That means that the correct political tendency includes a literary tendency.”
But this intriguing narrative became more complicated after the installment of the Cuban Revolution. It must be noted that Gerardo Mosquera represents a Cuban modernism bereft of “manifestoes” or “consciously structured schools,” giving rise to a “new art” also characterized by an “absence of proclamations.” It seems almost paradoxical that the foremost socialist nation in Latin America has not managed to organize an artistic vanguard. How should one approach an understanding of this group of factors?
In the present series, Diamonds and Stones: My Education (2008), Diango Hernández lends continuity to his project of exposing the contradictions and paradoxes of the Castro regime’s persistence in power. This time, he literally places education on the defendant’s bench. This would not work so well if he had chosen another emblem of the Revolution, for example, the health system or agrarian reform – the two other top priorities for the committee that advises Fidel on strategic subjects. Numbers can be very effective for showcasing national progress – for example, the striking decrease in Cuba’s infant mortality due to congenital malformations (which dropped from 3.8 to 1.3 for every 1000 live births, a better rate than that of some European programs). Measuring freedom of expression is much more complex, in light of the fact that already at the 1st Congress of Education and Culture, homosexual intellectuals became the new “target of persecution.” The cause became notorious due to its violent methods, even though it cannot be said that the so-called democratic countries have solved this question in their own internal affairs. As early as Cris(is)Home (2005), Diango Hernández had already written on the how education is defined in the absence of freedom of expression: “Cris(is)Home explores the surviving of the individual freedom in certain kinds of political crisis and presents education as a process of indoctrination…”.
It is interesting to investigate how the artist adds complexity to a country’s educational mission, overlaying the further level of culture. The series presents images of the revolutionary ideology, which made education the apple of its eye. Without “education,” the masses would remain subject to manipulation. That, at least, is the official version. Strictly speaking, education – which figures among the basic rights set forth in the United Nation’s 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” – involves the question of schooling, and this is accessible and free to the island’s inhabitants. Its success can be measured by way of a quick look at the literacy rates, even though there are exiled Cubans, speaking from the bull pulpit of committees organized in universities situated mainly in Miami, who complain about the payment demanded in the form of “social services” (notably, work on farms) This presents a difficult task – the balance between the objective achievements and the limitations imposed by popular power, but here there also enters an official state propaganda and, outside the trenches, a neoliberal rhetoric of empire. Education without freedom is a recurring theme well known to Latin Americans, and Diango Hernández intones: “The government has kept the whole educational system under strict security.”
In this sense, the question of schooling is only a part of what is understood by “education.” The artist sets up a kind of documental biography; because he adds the voice of “his” own experience, we should understand that it is the education of the individual which is at issue – which is consequently a bourgeois value, even if it is a mere mention of the unavoidable learning that takes place within the family setting. “My mother is more avant-garde than me, she gave her life to build a new society, I am just doing art.” The possessive pronoun “my” preceding the word “education” suggests an ideological claim for a right also announced in the first person. Contrary to the doctrine spread by totalitarian regimes, the emphasis on the individual maintains a parallel concern for the public sphere. These images presented to us are not depictions of intimacy, but rather of the development of marches and collective manifestations: the construction of a sovereignty as a historical goal.
As he has been living since 2005 in Düsseldorf, the capital of the painting academies, it is natural that the artist from the island has incorporated some resonance of Germanic tradition into his work. There would be no use in dwelling on the wide chasm separating the political and collective ideals of the Cuban Revolution from the markedly subjective reflection of the Bildung process. It is obvious that the past being re-elaborated is not German romanticism, but youth. The shift to the heightened patriotic feeling of a people is ultimately justified by the fact that the Revolution became stagnated in its heroic features. In Bild (of the image), we have three paradigms of revolution: the French, the Russian and the Cuban. However, Diango Hernández, without a trace of nostalgia, multiplies the relations of ambiguity with the model (Vorbild) and the archetype (Urbild) furnished by “his” island. Here, a proviso may be introduced in regard to the artist’s condition on the European continent. It is known that his move to Europe was due to a personal choice, linked to a desire to make contact with art collections inexistent in his country of origin. It can be stated that, in a certain way, his move was motivated by the search for a certain notion of “education.” It was therefore not due to political persecution. None of this, however, precludes a person from harboring a feeling of exile. From the moment the possibility of emancipation lies outside, a sense of separation and distance sets in.
It is necessary to return to the standpoint of “my education.” Like the entire population of Cuba, the artist extracts energy from fragments or things that have fallen into disuse. We have seen previously how, unlike what happens in disposable culture, a piece of scrap can one day be placed once again into use. Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) renunciation of manual intervention on the artist’s part, gambiarra implies intelligent manipulation. Gambiarra therefore operates at the border renounced by the readymade – the large crypt into which nearly all the noteworthy 20th-century artistic initiatives were eventually committed – in structural, cultural and sociopolitical terms. I suggest suspending the automatic application of the readymade concept in countries that attempted to link up at the border of capitalism and its market economy. Strictly speaking, we are so far removed from the aesthetic “neutral” espoused by the French artist, and the speed of the artwork’s institutionalization is such that little meaning subsists beyond the appropriation of an industrialized object. Dawn Ades referred to a relevant fact: “collage and montage, the always potentially subversive use of real objects and materials, have been used to expose the structural relation between the poverty of the ‘Third World’ and the technology of the ‘First World.’”
The problem of this type of reading lies in defining the procedure based on an “outside,” as though there were a constituent internal logic that the word “poverty” does not capture, and which the “diamonds” make infinitely more rich. This Diango Hernández is no longer the same as that of Ordo Amoris Cabinet, having perhaps perceived the equivocation that arises when precariousness becomes an aestheticization (and not a criticism). The stone’s cut and polished form evinces the artist’s view concerning “…how our future in Latin America is always linked to a form of the past, and this circle of history is describing a precise geometry that maybe will also be applied soon to Cuba and its tropical utopia. Because they are pictures that live inside a complex geometry, a crystal prism that also transforms the light into color.”
Struggling against the systematization of all objects within the category of the readymade helps toward a better understanding of the partial and transitory combinations among affective links and the absence of a terra firma where they can be consolidated. Mosquera points out that the “acceptance of collage” is the “decisive result for our Continent.” At this point it is best to split the analysis along two paths, diminishing the effect of stylistic influences. When, for example, Diango Hernández and his colleagues founded the Gabinete Ordo Amoris (1994–2003), the imaginary museum was a museum of crisis (“to collect all those weird objects made by people, full of grieving beauty”). The wide range of materials allows for a decomposition of three-dimensional space, whose central critical thrust is concerned with the Cuban nation: “You have to build your own system, you have to build your own gas, water or electricity system. This is something we all have in our places in Havana. It is an alternative, provisional system that is there because you do not have water or electricity every day. The infrastructure that is supposed to be conceived by the government is built by our individual.” The glaringly obvious similarity with Hélio Oiticica’s (1937–1980) lemma da adversidade vivemos!”[we live by adversity!] makes it seem as though history is frozen in time.
According to a rather combative perspective, Diango Hernández’s installations – and, especially, his drawings with their masterfully expressive lines – offer simultaneously poetic and conflicting, optimistic and brash views of a place that knows the weight of frustrated liberations (the “betrayals”…). Certain analogies remain despite their belonging to a bygone era: music is a weapon, drawing is an incomplete though vital project, by a person or by a government. The edges of the pages in the progressive manual are smudged by water, socialism and democracy do not rhyme; words overflow from notebooks filled with an adolescent’s feverish writings. A notable characteristic in Diango Hernández’s oeuvre is how the title generally complements the artwork (even the “untitled” works are generally accompanied by a lateral comment). A prime example of this practice is a previous artwork entitled Drawing (living inside my drawers) (2006), which directly refers to the artist’s house and activity, thus infusing the notion of homeland. It often seems that the artist favors Spanish – his mother tongue, and possessing a musicality more suited for the expression of feeling – for statements concerning the ideals of equality, while more violent statements are often expressed in the language of the enemy (“stop mother fuckers,” “spies,” “traitors,” “guns,” “ruin makers,” “underdevelopment”). An element of one of Fidel’s most celebrated sentences, “waiting” symbolizes the Cuban condition: “history will absolve me.” This phrase dates from 1953, yet it continues in effect even though the winds have inverted sky and earth. “The waiting” becomes an experience akin to a play by Beckett, embodying the Revolution’s existential wear and tear, indicating successively postponed, constantly renewed and forever unfulfilled deadlines. There will always be a counter-revolutionary élan to be repressed in anticipation of the arrival – of light, of development, of the present.
The series Diamonds and Stones sets up an opposition between the moral instincts of the Revolution and stored-up material goods (which are also connotative of exchange). While these goods fluctuate aimlessly before returning to circulate among people, the diamond, the symbol of timelessness, aims to be “forever,” like the sole political party governing Cuba. It just so happens that the scenario of diamond mining involves entirely artificial campaigns aimed at the formation of cartels. Reality cut in the shape of a faceted gemstone is no different from the type of material used in the electoral propaganda, but then the artist’s self-irony sets up a sort of smokescreen: “It is maybe a ‘bridge project,’ an attempt to link societies, to ‘visit’ different scales of diamonds. I have followed a line of research since I have started working and this line guides us through many reflections about strategies of validation of ‘our beauty’ or the beauty that emerges from permanent crisis situations like the one we have had in Cuba for almost 20 years now. In the diamonds this is very present because I am using the diamond as an icon that again will be used in a transaction, but this time as an art transaction.”
The “diamond” is able to embody the entire list of myths relative to destruction, by way of fabricated truths. “Ruin makers” are part of the landscape of various drawings, but what are they? The valorization of “creative” work is a fetish difficult to overcome. Increasingly aligned with the status of artists, the conscience of the workers tends to reproduce a similar model: the social division of work is being gradually diluted and allowing for hours defined by the individual’s own time management. In contemporary society, the combination of various temporary services (another meaning for gambiarra) attests to a means of survival well known to illegal immigrants, together with a lack of professional training and under-the-table employer/employee relations. Diango Hernández’s education strays from the orthodox agenda. This generation which grew up amid rumors of plans by the CIA to kill a president, came to doubt the humanist purport of the historical left. There is a thin line separating the ode to the Marxist attempts and the criticism of the Castrist revolution.
Nearly completing a half-century in power, Fidel Castro personified the melancholy of the “ideology-less” people, of contrary but not mutually exclusive tendencies. The feeling of a lack of utopia was widespread in post-1960 youth culture. In Brazil, Cazuza (1958–1990) and Roberto Frejat synthesized this feeling in a pop song: “meu heróis/ morreram de overdose/ meus inimigos/ estão no poder” [my heroes/ died of an overdose/ my enemies/ are in power] (Ideologia [Ideology], 1988). This reference illustrates unfoldings unthinkable by part of the mythological figures. Distressing examples have appeared everywhere, notably in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Indeed, it was from Eastern Europe that Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov raised the question that chafes all forms of government: Are the artists the “spies”? The artists whose “education” was fed by “leftist” thought (note that the word “leftist” is currently losing its original meaning) have a huge responsibility in relation to the achievements. If the files were opened…
In Portuguese, a gambiarra is literally a fraudulent electrical installation, made with only a light bulb and a wire, generally tapping into a neighboring electrical power line. In colloquial usage, the meaning of this term has been extended to any work done by an unauthorized technician – its meaning is therefore akin to the English term “jury-rigged” or “makeshift.” Developed based on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s reports in La pensée sauvage [The Savage Mind] (1962), the concept of gambiarra – in the sense of conserving (in a latent state) a stock of leftovers from previous constructions – has already provided the basis for other essays on contemporary art. Far from commending laziness or something done sloppily, the notion is predicated on a keen grasp of the issues involved, though it should be made clear: conciliating precariousness with sophistication is not an aesthetic operation. Ideas developed based on correspondence between Rivane Neuenschwander and the author on 27 July 2003. “O malabarista e a gambiarra,” [The Juggler and the Use of Gambiarra] online magazine Trópico, www.uol.com.br/tropico, São Paulo, 3 October 2003.
1 Solaris, Tarkovski, 1972.
2 “House” and “Home” are the central questions in the work of Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli, who participated with Diango Hernández in the 27th Bienal de São Paulo, under my general curatorship, co-curated by Adriano Pedrosa, Cristina Freire, Rosa Martínez and José Roca.
3 Cf. Publicações 27a Bienal de São Paulo [Publications of the 27th Bienal de São Paulo], 2006, “Como Viver Junto” [How to Live Together] and “Seminários” [Seminaries]: the Bienal Foundation has not yet published these two books at the moment the present essay is being completed (March 2008).
4 Cf. Lunes de Revolución, encarte semanal [weekly supplement] n. 3, Jornal Revolución, Havana, 06/04/1959. Editorial “Una posición. Haciendo lo que es necesario hacer” [A Position. Doing What Needs to Be Done.] p. 3. The sad end of this publication is analyzed and documented by Sílica Cezar Miskulin in Cultura Ilhada: Imprensa e Revolução Cubana (1959–1961) [Island Culture: The Press and the Cuban Revolution (1959–1961)] (São Paulo: Editora Xamã, 2003).
5 Translated from Portuguese by John Heckman.
6 Cf. “El nuevo arte cubano” [The New Cuban Art], in Arte y Política, Pablo Oyarzun, Nelly Richard, Claudia Zaldívar (eds.), (Santiago: Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, 2005). Notwithstanding the interpretation by Luis Camnitzer, who considers that oil-on-canvas painting cannot be unlinked from colonial ideology, many authors refer to a “Havana School” in pictorial terms (early 1940s). The graphic arts stand out in the 1960s, giving voice to an essentially popular support.
7 Statement by the artist, 2005.
8 Artist’s correspondence with the author, 24 December 2007.
9 Artist’s correspondence with the author, 1 January 2008.
10 In 2003, Diango Hernández went to Trento (Italy) and, the following year, to Seville (Spain), before moving to Düsseldorf (Germany).
11 Cf. Dawn Ades, “História e Identidade” [History and Identity], in Arte na América Latina. A Era Moderna, 1820–1980 [Art in Latin America. The Modern Era, 1820–1980] (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 1997), p. 285, concerning the work by Antonio Berni (1905–1981). Later on, however, the author discovers the need to resort to the concept of the readymade in connection with the “refusal of the pre-Colombian civilizations to develop the technology of the wheel.”
12 Letter to the author, 28 February 2008.
13 Cf. Gerardo Mosquera, Cozido e Cru [The Cooked and the Raw] (São Paulo: Fundação Memorial da América Latina, 1996). The title of this article refers to the book by Claude Lévi-Strauss Le Cru et le Cuit (Paris: Plon, 1964).
14 The members of the Gabinete Ordo Amoris: Ernesto Oroza and Juan Bernal (until 1996), Francis Acea and Diango Hernández. Cf. Power Pencil, book accompanying the artist’s exhibition, conversation with Luigi Meneghelli, Ed. Paolo Maria Deanesi Gallery, 2007.
15 Cf. Power Pencil, Diango Hernández. Trento, Italy: Paolo Maria Deanesi Gallery, 2007.
16 Cf. “Esquema geral da Nova Objetividade,” Rio de Janeiro, 17 December 1966, at Programa HO, www.itaucultural.org.br.
17 Cf. Fidel Castro, speech offered in self-defense, 16 October 1953. The first clandestine editions began circulating in 1954.
18 Artist’s correspondence with the author, 24 December 2007.
19 Cf. Lunes de Revolución, encarte semanal [weekly supplement] n. 3, Jornal Revolución, Havana, 06/04/1959. Editorial “Una posición. Haciendo lo que es necesario hacer” [A Position. Doing What Needs to Be Done.] p. 3. The sad end of this publication is analyzed and documented by Sílica Cezar Miskulin in Cultura Ilhada: Imprensa e Revolução Cubana (1959–1961) [Island Culture: The Press and the Cuban Revolution (1959–1961)] (São Paulo: Editora Xamã, 2003).
20 For more information, see Métamorphoses du travail. Critique de la raison économique [The Metamorphosis of Work: A Critique of Economic Rationality], André Gorz (Paris: Galilée, 1988).
Catalogue: Text published in “Diamonds and Stones: My education”. Format: Hbk, 7 x 9 in. / 320 pgs / 270 color. Publisher: Damiani