Diango Hernández in an interview with Gerhard Obermüller for "Socialist Nature" book published by DISTANZ

Gerhard Obermüller: In your art you often confront us with historical upheavals. These upheavals are omnipresent and leave behind traces even after events seemed to have passed over them. For you these traces specifically include processes of memory, overwriting, but also official omissions in the process of memory. Socialist Nature here in Linz is your latest experimental artistic set-up with which you set out to remodulate processes of memory.

Diango Hernández: I came across a newspaper article a while ago. Scientists had observed that roe-deer and stags always stopped at the original borders and markers of the former Iron Curtain. The one-time border is therefore still entrenched in the animals’ consciousness. I was highly fascinated by this idea and it inspired me to spin it out. An ideology, in this case the idea and ideology of communism and the revolution, has staked out a terrain, as it were, in our consciousness too—and I am speaking from the experience of my personal history as a citizen of Cuba. This terrain in our minds has remained embedded in us for generations and continues to influence us and our lives. Much of what lies on this map of memory is known and is based upon consensus, but much has been wiped out, overdrawn or simply omitted. I set out to investigate this in Socialist Nature.

G.O: Although your work draws substantially on an examination of Cuban history, you have always refused to illustrate this history. Instead, your aim has always been a subtle deconstruction and interrogation of monuments and symbols of Cuban national identity in many of your works, and above all to uncover blind spots of memory. Recently you have begun surprising your viewers with subjects and objects that very clearly reflect a new obsession with the phenomenon of nature, with landscapes and their moods. The title of the exhibition itself suggests that the concept of nature is extremely important to you for the first time in your work.

D.H: Nature and socialism—what a contradiction! Who even thinks of nature when he thinks of socialism? For some time now I have been occupied by this idea: just how relevant is the concept of nature in the context of socialism? In Cuba I was socialised in a culture in which the sole function of nature was that of agricultural provider in the communist economic order. There was no place for natural beauty in socialism! Nature didn’t exist as a medium of contemplation, as a place of relaxation in Cuba. It was not the done thing to concern oneself with the natural beauty of the island. Nature didn’t feature on the revolutionary agenda either as a phenomenon or as a concept. In Cuba we also imported the imperative of socialist realism as a programme of art. Not nature, but the worker and above all the process of industrial production were glorified.

G.O: You only recently began devote yourself to the phenomenon of experiencing nature. In a different context you talked about how profoundly the ideology of the Cuban Revolution has “marked” the remembrance and memory of your generation too. Isn’t one of these marks also expressed by the fact that you are only now focusing your artistic work on the natural beauty of your homeland, many years later, during which time you have occupied yourself with the iconography of the Cuban Revolution? Perhaps only now are you able to focus on this aspect.

D.H: Yes, it was only in Europe, after living here for so many years, that I came to discover the utopia of nature. About two years ago I first had the idea for the figure of a traveller in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt. What if someone like him had travelled to the communist countries of the 1960s and 1970s? I devised this Eugene von Gundlach figure so as to be able to send him off on journeys, including to Cuba. He is my alter ego, my pseudonym. Why nature didn’t play a role in my work for so long? I was probably influenced by my years in the barracks-like rural boarding schools, the “becas”, where awful, monotonous work in the field was part of our education as students. Only by moving to Europe was I able to see nature and the countryside as an important source of freedom. This heightening of my awareness also changed my journeys to Cuba. Suddenly—on each journey anew—the natural beauty of my home island began to captivate me more and more. All of a sudden I could see how powerful and impressive—in an almost subversive way—Cuban nature is! Most of the information circulating about Cuba has to do with the iconography of the Revolution, with tourist clichés, while other people see Cuba as just another Caribbean beach resort. My fictional explorer Eugene von Gundlach on the other hand—who follows to some extent in the tradition of the Romantics—devoted himself entirely to Cuban nature in the 1970s, filming birds, trees, beaches and landscapes. In a totalitarian world wholly dominated by ideology, he allows himself an unheard-of, private gesture of freedom. Just like Ernest Hemingway, von Gundlach completely disregards ongoing political events in Cuba, indulging in a subjectivity that cannot be absorbed by politics.

G.O: Visitors to your exhibition at Landesgalerie Linz will be surprised by your unusual installations, how you put them into practice with real tropical fruit. Old historical photographs of opulent, imaginatively laid out fruit stalls and kiosks in pre-revolutionary Cuba inspired you to engage in this kind of artistic handling of fruit. From the vantage point of the iconography and ideology of the Cuban Revolution one might say that by choosing the motif of fruit, charged as it is with so much ambiguity in Cuban culture, you literally reach for a “forbidden fruit” by simply contrasting an example of Caribbean joie de vivre with the visual language of constant political agitation?

D.H: This awakening experience overcame me on one of my last trips to Cuba. I was out and about Havana and suddenly I saw a young boy selling tropical fruit from a mobile stall. “Mangoes for sale, selling mangoes” used to be a common cry in the streets of our towns, for centuries! This everyday phenomenon vanished with the Revolution too. A young boy selling mangoes was behind the times and didn’t fit in with the new hierarchy of desirable professions that embodied social progress in the wake of the Revolution. But now these street vendors, who had long lacked a context and a setting, are back in Cuba! I’m fascinated by that. But you’re right, of course—the motif or the image of “fruit” was a double-edged one in Cuba for a long time. On the one hand it stood for pleasure and tropical sweetness, but also for colonialism, monoculture and exploitation dating back to the days of slavery. The American Fruit Company only made matters worse. After all, the Cuban Revolution wanted to do away with a state viewed by many unflatteringly as a “banana republic”.

G.O: In an interview with Astrid Wege and Andrew Renton, you recently defined your artistic methodology as follows: “I am following a series of links that constantly appear while the story develops”. I recalled this when I was letting your fruit installations speak to me here at Landesgalerie Linz. Your aim is to celebrate the beauty and the playful geometry of Cuban fruit stalls, a piece of fey everyday history. But the fruit in your installation, strictly laid out as if in planetary orbits, will also remind the informed viewer of the ripe fruit theory. As early as 1823, U.S. Secretary of State and later President John Quincy Adams spoke of “political gravitation”. Just as the natural laws of gravity caused an apple to fall to the ground, so too must Cuba by the law of nature and inevitably fall geopolitically to the USA. This momentous remark was often quoted, with the image of Cuba as a ripe fruit that will fall seasonably into the lap of the USA developing great political force. Aware of this ripe fruit metaphor, your fruit installations While falling or The Nature of Corners can be charged with historical meaning. Another cross-reference characteristic of your art that was perhaps not originally intended, but which suddenly appears appropriate and possible? Yes, this is another interpretation that suggests itself. I find your perception of the fruit revolving as if in planetary orbit a very fascinating one. Actually, it was parrot perches that inspired me to choose these particular forms. I call this “object confusion”. What was once a perch is suddenly reminiscent of planetary orbits in the fruit installation. As you mentioned, Alexander von Humboldt, much admired in Latin America, was the inspiration for your Eugene von Gundlach figure. It is a subversive idea to turn a nature enthusiast into a field researcher of flora and fauna in the socialist countries. Von Gundlach seems to be doing the most innocuous thing, and at the same time something highly suspicious in terms of ideology, by devoting himself to nature.

D.H: Yes, Eugene von Gundlach will not let himself be monopolised by an ideology. He observes and researches flora and fauna, treading firmly in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who studied and catalogued South American nature in great detail. I also use my protagonist von Gundlach to describe my own artistic practice. For me, art is always not so much a reaction to something as an unending process of observation and discovery.

G.O: You also dispatched your protagonist to the border region between Upper Austria and the Czech Republic. Armed with a Polaroid camera, he captures impressions of the landscape and nature in the former borderland, what used to be no-man’s-land. What was his mission?

D.H: The Polaroid series attaches a special role to the landscape and nature of the borderland in this exhibition. This kind of camera, with which I photographed the landscape, plants and trees in the former Iron Curtain region, was originally used for passport picture photography. Using this camera gave me a sense of seeing nature as an important protagonist. It was, after all, the hermetic seclusion of this landscape that allowed plants and animals to spread and thus find refuge and an undisturbed habitat in a zone inaccessible to human beings. In this way, the political death strip became a habitat. Nature gained sway in an impressive manner in this empty zone between socialism and capitalism.

G.O: You recently mentioned that the power and influence of the Cuban Revolution was such a vast and overwhelming topic that you don’t know if you will ever get away from this event and its consequences. Was your family also swept up by the Cuban Diaspora after 1959?

D.H: It is the story of a momentous, all-dominating loss. As a child at school, I was not allowed to tell anyone I had a grandmother in the United States. She was gone, I had in a sense lost her, but it was taboo to even mention her. I always wondered as a child: why did they all leave, why don’t they come back? Above and beyond purely personal experience, however, our country’s Revolution will remain a legacy in terms of mental history long after Fidel Castro, one which will preoccupy us for a long time to come. I would compare it with the legacy of Stalinism, and with other dictators and their aftermaths. An exhibition in 1996 marks the beginning of my personal investigation of the loss I am describing here. This show is the beginning of all things and continues to define my course even today. Para saber quien soy (To know who I am) was the title of the exhibition at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales in Havana in which I exhibited a collection of objects that once belonged to my grandfather.

G.O: You have dealt with loss and Diaspora in several of your shows, with particular intensity in Losing you tonight, for example, an exhibition whose catalogue you dedicated to your mother. This exhibition was an elegy to what may be seen, in some respects of your life, as a “lost youth” in the collective rural school where you were barracked. Today you return to your country in a completely different way, to an almost mythical dim and distant past. It is a conscious, joyfully elected primitivism—we are confronted with fruit, melons, etc. as sensuous symbols of joie de vivre. You have nullified the harsh language of the Revolution, which you have repeatedly gone against, as if trapped in a state of counterdependency. What does this mean in terms of your artistic development?

D.H: I was in Brazil in May 2014, on an island off Rio de Janeiro. I was incredibly euphoric about filming there, shooting videos. Making these videos was a completely open process, there was no programme, and I just went with the moods, the light. The paintings I made for Socialist Nature are accessible to everyone too, including people who haven’t previously had any particular affinity to my artistic program or my concepts. My mother in Cuba or my grandmother in Miami would love these pictures too, and we probably wouldn’t need to discuss their beauty, let alone get into an argument. I cannot gauge exactly what that means in terms of my artistic development. But in any case, I try to find things that people have in common rather than things that divide them in my art too. That’s something new.

G.O: When visitors to your exhibition enter the Hall of Arms at Landesgalerie Linz, in the first room they see your fictional enactment from von Gundlach’s estate. Paintings in soft pastel shades as a lead-in?

D.H: These are imaginary paintings that von Gundlach may have seen in the La Aurora restaurant. La Aurora served the best fruit shakes anywhere in Cuba, and every Cuban knew the place. Small and demure, the restaurant was situated on the central highway, the Carretera Central, that runs through Cuba, connecting the town of Cabaiguán with the village of Guayos. The fruit in this area is divine. My fictitious pictures from La Aurora form the prologue to the exhibition, bringing a hint of a light summer breeze into the room.

G.O: Amidst all these paintings, you make a three-dimensional reference to the classical museum vitrine. Inside we find coloured sheets of canvas, only their folds triggering associations with maps. What purpose do they serve?

D.H: When we think of a historical or biographical exhibition, the image of the vitrine very soon comes to mind. Vitrines protect historical documents from the inquisitive hands of visitors, in a sense keeping history away from us. They stake out a very clear-cut territory that only our eyes may access. Von Gundlach’s maps are encrypted and he used them to prepare for his travels. He was no doubt careful to the point of paranoia. After all, his plan was to conceal his true intentions and destinations in Cuba. If these maps had fallen into the hands of the Cuban secret service authorities, he could still have said “They’re just paintings, nothing more”.

G.O: For you Socialist Nature is also a return to working with videos. The title of these three projections promises us Socialist Hummingbirds. Elements of nature, for example interferences of light and reflections, create a sensuous and yet abstract quality.

D.H: I don’t remember when I first saw a picture by Tomás Sánchez. But it has stayed with me, a floating island in the middle of a blue sky. Landscape painting as a genre was abandoned by contemporary Cuban artists soon after 1959. If nature could no longer speak to these artists, what did get through to them? It was above all political and pseudo-political topics that preoccupied artists in revolutionary Cuba. My videos invite visitors to explore the fragmentary sequence of elements with very different rhythms. So it is the gentle motion of the surface of the water, swaying treetops and palm fronds, and dancing circles of sunlight, not slogans, that have the last “word” in my exhibition.

G.O: Alongside the videos, sharply focused and visible from afar, we also find the series of 63 Polaroids on the wall. As a curator, I accompanied you to the borderland that lies between Upper Austria and Czechia, when von Gundlach, alias Diango Hernández, captured his impressions there with the camera. What was going on inside you?

D.H: Setting out into the Bohemian Forest with my voluminous and conspicuous camera was a real experience for me. This Polaroid camera is an extraordinary object, I could easily have hidden behind it, large as it was. I’m sure this was the first time that this camera had been outdoors, in the countryside. It’s actually designed for use in photographic studios, in studios that made instant passport photographs for travellers in the 1970s. I had been wondering for some time what Eugene von Gundlach might have looked like. He was in any case the personification of his landscapes, sometimes a stag, a mighty tree, or even a mountain. It was very exciting for me to go to the Bohemian Forest on this premiss. Who could have told me back in the 1980s when I was sitting in a Cuban classroom that one day I would be standing on an Austrian look-out tower with a view of the former no-man’sland? Look-out towers in the West, watchtowers in the East, passive and active “control” of people. Towers like these watched over frustrated and alienated people on either side of the border in a very special way, people who did not manage to overcome this natural border to freedom.

G.O: You approach the Iron Curtain, that was for a long time a harsh reality between Upper Austria and Czechia, with a special allusion which you call Orange Curtain. Lines of dried orange peel spirals hanging from a white metal frame make up a curtain.

D.H: Walls and fences put up in various towns and regions of our planet during the Cold War are referred to as “curtains”. What a fantastic image! You can open and close a curtain, but not a wall. Walls, as we know, have to be pulled down. Nevertheless, the massive Iron Curtain was not as monolithic and insurmountable as the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. There may be no better way of studying the Cold War than examining its semantics. The Orange Curtain alludes to another curtain, one which for decades has been imposing on Cubans an inner and outer border that runs through the middle of their lives. Many people who have left Cuba are missed, are essential, even if you think you can do without them. Metaphorically, for me these people embody the inside of the orange, the flesh of the fruit, the essence. What remains is the peel, that slowly but surely dries up.

G.O: The lemon, coconut and orange in your installation Flavor Orbit are particularly open to interpretation in view of its stringent geometry. What associations did you want to evoke?

D.H: During the exhibition opening, I found out from a visitor that the brilliant Johannes Kepler had lived and taught in Linz for a time. As a curator, you immediately associated the initial sketches for this object with planetary orbits. But although that’s a good mental connection, the truth is much simpler. This piece was inspired by design elements for parrot perches. Even if Kepler would have been the ideal historical association for my show in Linz, I had succumbed to the appeal of the parrot perch long before that. Flavor Orbit also serves quite pragmatically as a room divider in the exhibition. The object, situated in the large passage into the second room, receives us as a guide in the second part of the exhibition. But the parrot perch is empty, the parrot has flown, he cannot tell us the story any more. And so we enter and have to find out for ourselves what happened here.