Spatial three-dimensional images are the dreams of society”, wrote Siegfired Kracauer in 1930, in his thoughts on the building of a characteristic space of that time, an employment agency. The conditions of society are significantly impressed on the space built and on its furnishing, although this is not all. Every typical space is brought into being by typical social relations that express themselves in it without the interfering intervention of consciousness. Everything denied by consciousness, everything that is otherwise intentionally overlooked, participates in its construction. […] Wherever the hieroglyphs of a spatial image are deciphered, there the foundations of social reality may be identified.” As the place where one waits to be reinserted into the world of work, the employment agency is intended as transitional space, however it is mainly a dead-end street. Furthermore, “apart from the fact that in this phase of stagnation it does not fulfil its objective, it is particularly lacking in brilliance”1.
Identity has always been a question of space, since self-representation is the supreme precept of one’s cultural reckoning. According to Kracauer’s vision, identifying the surfaces of architecture, describing them and critically analysing their presumed static nature, is equal to carrying out the first step in the process of deciphering. If the place is the order according to which the elements are distributed and placed in relationship with one another and therefore is a static quantity, space instead is the temporal, cultural dimension which defines that place. Time that passes here is seen in memories that generate a history which in turn shapes experiences as an integrating part of each cultural identity. The Cuban Diango Hernández, born in 1970 in Sancti Spíritus, is very well acquainted with the fine traces that political and social conditions leave on the constructed space, as in lived space. In his works, he deals with issues connected to everyday life and treats the management of the latter like the microcosm of a whole political system that has, directly or indirectly, permeated all the architecture.
In his work the “hieroglyphics”, some three-dimensional images which come from Cuba – one of the last countries to still declare itself as communist –, are translated into sculptures, installations, and drawings of a Surrealist nature, that take up once again the Cuban “public self-portraits” but above all they reflect the social mark that the individual receives from his country and from its way of presenting itself. These are works which express a complex narration, which tells of the past revolution, with its resolute promise of a better and fairer life, of the pathos of an extensive mythological epic and finally of everyday reality, marked by stagnation and a continual economic crisis. Those works redefine the relationships between inside and outside, between inclusion and exclusion and hint at the connection between individuals and the distribution of social spaces. Even a work like Il mio parco (My park), 2007, formed by four chairs assembled to make up a bench which is illuminated by electric light, makes waiting emerge as an existential way of being. In everyday objects and the pieces of furniture that Hernández uses, the signs of time coating, cracks in the veneer, the faded colours of the textiles and a use which has become dysfunctional are just as relevant as their outdated aesthetics.
The residue of what has passed ends up becoming political-poetic material, a material which goes beyond its historical limits, the boundaries of its time and becomes part of the present. Like going over dreams which have by now disappeared, these works, so full of cultural and emotional contents, open up the access to an unknown world that can exist in the present only as a tale of the past, therefore as a memory.
At the end of the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union had removed the greatest political and economically that Cuba had, in a short time the “better future” proclaimed by the party was transformed into an irretrievable past which had never really come about. Not so much for the nostalgia for that future but rather in the traces of its failure, in its decline, Hernández finds a form of beauty which does not derive from the negation of handed down categories, but rather from giving those same categories a contrary meaning. The implications of those places destined for fruition that belong to the past generate a moment of expectation which is nourished by the perception of an absence and that proposes something improvised to the traditional concept of beauty understood as nostalgia for a lost purity. “It is my aim to seduce people and show them ideas so that they realise how terrible those ideas can be – even when they are truly beautiful”2, Hernández declares. This interrupted reference to the world of real objects is also a recourse to political iconography, an iconography supported by a revolutionary aesthetics that demands the levelling of all artistic expressions, in favour of a common horizon that is free from interference from the present. On the basis of this vision, Hernández’s sensitivity for the most absurd of certain faded revolutionary ideas articulates in spaces and images where the spirit of modernity lives together with the ever present aesthetics of shortage, that generates its own world of objects. His gaze on the present is shaped by a referential image of the recent past which often presents ideological contradictions.
The artist contrasts the significant power of the official images with the principle of ‘do it yourself’, that shapes and models private spaces: the creative “do it yourself” that proceeds in roundabout ways takes the place in this way of the work of specialists, who instead aim straight for the objective. The Living Room, becomes a real vital space where the short-comings of the system are compensated. In the installation Drawing (As a drop I am going out of home), exhibited at the Kunsthalle in Basel in 2006, the artist has arranged some office and home furniture, chairs, domestic objects, records, a television, lamps and paintings, connecting them with iron piping inserted into each element. Therefore all the objects arranged in the space are pierced, with their integrity violated, but recomposed in a new assembly. The improvised piping starts from two industrial tanks and finishes in a tap mounted on a door, which rises freely in space. The complex piping system which winds around the room determines the balance of the space and encloses all the objects into one unit, stabilising the situation although visibly improvised. In this way, the work expresses the art of fending for oneself in difficult situations, but it also hints at the power of state infrastructures occupying every private space and that does not take the individual position into consideration. As a drop I am going out of home. This poetic description is not without melancholy and critical implications. It reflects the logic of memory like that of a loss. Yet the abandoned scenes, residue of the past and witness of the failure of a revolution which faded into a myth some time ago, talk about the possibility for social change.
Hernández’s work has a very direct tangibility; even realistic, certainly not like a representation of reality but rather an appropriation of reality. His works are situated in a present which skeptically observes the attempt to put art on a utopian level and the historical philosophy that echoes through it. However, at the same time, these works do not intend to hold on to the distinction between art and life. Instead of believing in the dream of revolutionary art, according to which the spaces and buildings of the new era will make art itself superfluous, Hernández turns his gaze to another aspect of this aesthetical-political promise and focuses the solution of expedient which has been raised to the rank of permanent condition, the wait and finally the slow rusting of the communist dream which never really came true. Even the private spaces – this is evident in the installation Drawing (As a drop I am going out of home) show that they are social constructions, where subjectivity is threatened, but where some claims for the right to sovereignty are made. In this sense, architecture is intended not only as a conception of space but also as a definition of that same space and the way subjects must behave inside it. It is a place where the protected sphere of private power is transformed into representation, a representation which in turn exercises its effects on the private sphere. In Coming back home this ambivalence embodies itself in a metaphor: from a stylised tank, at regular intervals, a drop of water drains and falls onto a mirror and then ends up in another tank. Just for an instant, the mirror reflects the drop, before it is incorporated into the cyclical course to which it is destined. The twinkle of the water in the moment when the single drop is visible before it returns to being part of that indistinct body evokes the fragmented memory of fleeting moments of the past. Often the materials that Hernández’s works are made from are fragments of household furnishings where the marks of intensive use are left, even like the subjective fingerprints of who has used them. From this point of view, the installations created with fragments of furniture and salvaged objects form a referential system that is subjective but never private, and which recall the various forms of indoctrination of the communist system. In the interaction between memories, stereotypes, official images and private memories, an iconographic world takes shape that rebuilds a fragmentary and irretrievable past, while at the same time it speaks to the future. “The ‘reconstruction’ of the word ‘home’ has been one of my main concerns” says Hernández. “To give a different shape and order to used objects and fragmented pieces of furniture is the way I have to maybe at the end feel at home again”3.
In this research Own and Other form two referential levels that overlap, and unfailingly an idea of identity comes between the two. The issue of cultural identity is therefore placed in a transitional area between biography and politics. Hernández’s works bring out the history and stories of reciprocal transfer between object and image. The feeling of non-involvement as a consequence of emigration, but also as a search for a tie with one’s own past, is shown in a series of sculptural installations and drawings that see the contra-position of different cultural models. It is once again clear how, within the limits of the social hierarchy, identity can be reconstructed only with the (re-)construction of those same conditions it was formed in.
In Drawing (Almost falling), 2006, a sloping chair finds its stability only thanks to a tangle of telephone wires fixed to the wall. It is weighed down by roof tiles that rest on the seat and some tiles appear again in a little heap which forms a sort of base for the chair to stand on. Images like these, that talk in a very immediate way about a world which is literally unbalanced and shaky, deviate Hernández’s work from the route towards his native island and move it towards the general context of uniform systems, whether they be political or aesthetical. In fact, there are some subtle references that lead an object like a chair back to the context of a failed system marked by repression. The chair is an important symbol also in the work of the Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski who believed the promises of communism but at his death, in 1957, he was still searching for an artistic form to express the contents of the revolution with. In Wróblewski, the chair was an expression of waiting but also the indication of a place in society, becoming more and more an emblem of the bitter disappointment when faced with the effective conditions of real socialism and its components of oppression and terror.
The fact that Hernández continually uses the definition of “drawings”, even when it clearly refers to three-dimensional objects arranged in the space, indicates the importance that this medium has acquired for him as a notional system. The drawing is the comment about an absurd present that can have some sense only in surreal sublimation. It is the metaphor of the most intimate expression, it is the space for reflection and thought. In drawings new realities and imaginary spaces arise where social change becomes possible. In classic drawings on paper where, with simple strokes, the artist re-elaborates everyday objects but also political propaganda, various materials and techniques can be found: watercolour, ink, ball-pen, elements applied on collages. The artist reacts with subversive humour and a celebration of imperfection to the provocation of a world that lives above all on broken promises, which become the cause for individual commitment. In the drawings that he took with him when he left Cuba, it can be seen how he was still obliged to tear off or cross out some of the textual parts which could be ambiguous. The phase which followed the collapse of the group of states forming the eastern block that Hernández personally lived through and that forms the foundation of his art, was defined euphemistically in Cuba as a period of transition, a phase of new economic orientation. In fact, what characterised that phase was an economic crisis which still exists today. Observing the numerous provisional solutions thought up by the citizens to manage to handle permanent conditions of shortage in every aspect of their existence, works resulted that articulate the need felt by many Cubans, to extract forms of independence in a state which controls everything. Only with the invention of practical solutions, with continuous repairs to that little that is available, it is possible to keep one’s everyday life going, while the state apparatus undergoes an evident erosion. The strong contrast between individual preservation of the status quo and an ideology which carries its ideas of progress to the absurd is at the same time a source of inspiration and the final horizon. In Hernández’s art, the radio aerials roughly assembled with wires and metal components are translated into autonomous sculptures that clearly express the desire for autonomy and the will to escape from state controlled information.
The critical distancing from official propaganda is connected here with a melancholy gaze at past beauty and the appearance of a new beauty in everyday life. In this aspect Hernández is an anti-utopian who does not believe in the “great stories” and the linear course of history and who sets the betrayed promises of a better future against the present life. In this way the artist’s reasoning is of a decidedly political nature. However, one wonders what “political” means in the contemporary art world. Often those works that face reality with a documentarian type gaze or those with an interventionist approach are attributed to the political art category and so they articulate a form of dissent compared to the dominant situation; or those works that answer a representative intent and have an affirmative relationship regarding a reality perceived as political. Often, art which is directly political involves not so much the production of works of art but rather the changing of the world as such, even if only on a micro level. In any case political art knows very well the “regime of visibility” and is aware of the importance of taking part in that space of visibility. Other issues derive from this connected to the sharing of a similar social practice, issues of exclusion, power and hierarchies. Hernández’s art which is founded on a very close comparison with the iconography of the Cuban revolution, with its rhetoric, its slogans, its everyday language and its distillation into images which are easily understood, also penetrated into western mythology, is political also in other aspects. Jacques Rancière placed art and politics in a relationship which does not see them in contra-position but rather as two aspects of a regime that can be described as the distribution of the sensible.
“Art is not political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys, neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent social structures, social or political structures, ethnic or sexual identities. Art is mainly political due to the fact that it creates a spatial-temporal sensorium due to which some particular ways are determined of coexistence or separation, of inclusion or exclusion, of contra-position or participation. Art is political because it brings about a distribution in a determined space and time and for the fact that the objects that animate that space and the rhythms inserted in that time determine a specific form of experience, which agrees or contrasts with other forms of experience”4. This kind of art does not represent, rather it makes certain experiences accessible and wants the observer to share them. In the rusty things, in the disintegration of the surfaces and the general decline, the time that passes in the rectification of the relationship with space meets up with the past. In a context which is dominated by a philosophy of history that considers tomorrow as the horizon of acting today, the insistence on history itself, on the passing of time, is like a decided counter-project that negatively shows what is being proclaimed: change. The works that Hernández places in the space set up a different rhythm, and give birth to a different experience from that which is apparently familiar. The fact that paradoxically makes this art “political” is just that lack of information on the powers that acted, of a clearer explanation about what has made this situation come about. The core issue is not knowing the reasons that have produced a certain way of living but the tension between a given situation and the attempt to critically evaluate these conditions of life.
Some works explicitly refer to Fidel Castro’s rule. Years (2008), a rusty steel construction that seems to form a dividing element, presents a sequence of numbers that have an almost ornamental effect, decreasing from 2008 to 1959, that marks in reverse order the period of time that has gone by since Castro became president up to when he handed over his position to his brother Raúl (2008). For the way in which it is placed in the space, Years is like a filter through which the other works must be observed: the history of the country, from the victorious revolution onwards, conditions everything tied to that history. Also The only book (2008), where the first edition of Guerilla Warfare by Ernesto (Che) Guevara, published in 1960, is presented in an iron bookcase without any shelves and does not contain any other books, very eloquently expresses the emptiness that the collective utopia left behind after its failure.
Other installations seem to have been taken from a somehow private environment, yet they show traces of the subtle forms of indoctrination that they insinuate. School desks or radio receivers of various kinds transformed with stylised aerials, record-players or telegraph poles, all hint at the pervasive matrix of the single party and its ideology. In Dining at eight (2009) the scholastic policy of the Cuban regime echoes once again: various glass lamp shades of different origins are piled on top of one another, so as to form fragile bodies that rest on the children’s desks. It is an art that wants to restore the image that has been impressed like a memory and through individual moments and everyday situations, tries to trace the portrait of a society completely permeated by subtle forms of oppression. We can’t celebrate, composed of half a chair whose back is connected by an electric wire and to a bottle of champagne that stabilises the rather precarious structure, is an image full of this difficulty with no solution. The lack of unstable conditions and improvisation would inevitably lead to the collapse of the whole system which rests on an equilibrium so carefully constructed. It is just the frozen condition of something which is going through a phase of change that brings Hernández’s work closer to the territories of contemporary allegories: “I am attracted to the idea of decadence […] Decadence is a marvellous phenomenon, a situation in which the pre-established future no longer exists”5. In the transformation of the everyday relics into allegorical images, the artist turns not so much to the traditional iconography of the countryside which is now in ruins but rather to the representation of a petrified anxiety, of a ferment frozen like the expression of the ambivalence of being and the antithetical tension between construction and destruction, between reality and fiction, between hope and disappointment.
The ruinous fragmentation and lack of prospects shape the thematic horizon of classical allegory but hope can never be missing. Allegory permits the saving of the past only at the cost of the destruction of the organic and living world – according to the description that Walter Benjamin gives of this so important figure from a philosophical point of view of history – but turns a nostalgic gaze towards the world that it has destroyed6. In his works Hernández approaches catastrophe with an attitude which is anything but fatalistic: with melancholy humour he gives a new elegance to the bulky pieces of rubbish that have become relics, visual witness of the revolution and its disappointed utopia. Composing the salvaged objects he gives each of them a new unity and by taking apart the preconceived sets destroys the potential aesthetics of a political system that has betrayed its promises. The ease with which he carries out this process, the precise arrangement of contraries, the aspect of these constructions which is vulnerable and monumental at the same time reflect our world in all its fragility, a fragility which is a condition of being, apart from a specific setting in a determined local or political context. The fact that we can understand these works, even freeing them from the connection with Cuban everyday life, is due to that condition of fragility which we know well and that can be found in various contexts. Not least, the fact that these works always revolve around the context of homeland – countered to that of the home – insinuates a disturbing factor into our mental world, like something which is familiar but sinister at the same time. The concept of Unheimliche (Uncanny), analysed by Freud referring to the advent of modernity and its effects, indicates what is opposed to this modernity, intended as an attempt to carry out a world project that aspires to a universal validity, and that elects functionalism as a dominating principle. All that remains, excluding fatalism– dreams, nostalgia, desire for individuality, yearning for an identity-making history – find its expression in this connotation of the concept of Unheimliche. Therefore it is not about the effect of an ever identical spatial condition of nature but about an idea projected onto that situation, that also includes everything connected to that situation.
It would also be possible to go further, following the architect Mark Wigley, and analyse the moment of existential alienation regarding the idea of home: “The mask of the familiar is a primitive shelter, a house, or rather a pseudo house, which veils a fundamental unfamiliarity. The uncanny is literally a ‘not being at home’, an alienation from the house experienced within it”7. The concept of Unzuhause (literally “not being at home”) developed by Heidegger in Being and Time, hints at the increasing uprooting of the individual that gives this latter a sense of alienation, which can however be overcome: “That kind of being-in-the–world which is tranquillized and familiar is a mode of Dasein’s (Unheimliche) uncanniness, not the reverse”8. Homesickness will therefore always be a condition of being, the condition of “not being at home”. Diango Hernández takes up this idea in his own way. If one’s home can be anywhere, then it should be possible to live in different places without ever looking back. However, his art evokes the idea that perhaps we are already very homesick before leaving the place where we were born. A coating that fills our memory is deposited on every moment we have lived, every place we have been in. Feeling the presence of that coating, following its traces, keeping it alive, is a way, perhaps the only way, to overcome our existential uprooting.
1 S. Kracauer, Über Arbeitsnachweise. Konstruktion eines Raumes, Schriften 5.2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1990, p. 185 and following.
2 Diango Hernández quoted in Losing you Tonight, The 6th Rubens young Artists Award of the City of Siegen, http:/museumfuergegenwarstunstsiegen.de
3 Diango Hernández quoted in Golden Times, published for the exhibition of the same name held at the Haus der Kunst inMunich, 2010.
4 J. Rancière, Die Politik der Kunst und ihre Paradoxien, in Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen, edited by Maria Muhle, PoLYpeN, Berlin 2006, p. 77.
5 Diango Hernández in P. Tillet, Diango Hernández, exhibition catalogue (Les 21èmes Ateliers Internationaux du Frac des Pays de la Loire, Carquefou 2008), quoted in Golden Times, published for the exhibition of the same name held at the Haus der Kunst inMunich, 2010, p. 11.
6 Cf.W. Benjamin, Central Park, trans. L. Spencer andM. Harrington, New German Critique, no. 34 (Winter 1985), p. 41.
7 M. Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt, First MIT Press Paperback Edition, Cambridge 1995, pp. 109-110.
8M Heidegger, Being and Time, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford 1962, translated from the German Sein und Zeit (seventh edition) by permission of Max Niemayer Verlag, Edition Diskord, Tübingen.
This text was published in the catalogue Diango Hernández. Living Rooms, a Survey. Exhibition curated by Yilmaz Dziewior, MART, Rovereto, Italy. 19th November 2011 to 26th February 2012. photos: Anne Pöhlmann
Diango Hernández. Living Rooms, a Survey at MART, Robereto
Curator: Yilmaz Dziewior, Veronica Caciolli
Texts: Yilmaz Dziewior, Luigi Fassi, Vanessa Joan Müller
Formato: 24 x 28
N. illustrations: 122 full color
Published by Silvana Editoriale
Italian / English