Diango Hernández. Sitting in the south by Luigi Fassi (published in Diango Hernández. Living Rooms, a Survey. MART 2011)

After meeting Franz Fanon, who was then terminally ill with leukaemia, in Rome in 1961, Jean-Paul Sartre accepted his request to write the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, published by Fanon in Paris during that same year, just before his premature death. This contribution was a sarcastic and peremptory text in which Sartre introduced the book arguing for the necessity to demystify the philosophical dignity of European liberal values by means of a “striptease of our humanism”1 , able to remove the mask of its racist face and to make the “perfect justification for [colonial] pillage”2 emerge, perpetrated by the European culture against the Third World. The injunction directed by Sartre towards the European reader was to listen with lucidity to Fanon’s inspiring words, who in The Wretched of the Earth described the anti-colonial fight for freedom as an agitation which would provoke the disintegrative collapse of the Greek-Latin basis of values which was imposed on the African people by European colonists: “During the struggle for liberation […] All the Mediterranean values, the triumph of the individual, of Enlightenment and Beauty turn into pale, lifeless trinkets”3 .

The final result of the Wretched was consequently a proclamation of definitive exit from European history, an escape with no return from its horrors and its violence, but also from the insidious risk of its millenary cultural fascination. In an almost Nietzsche-like plea in its visionary strength – close to being a real reinterpretation – Fanon in this way invited “starting a new history of Man”4 , up to the point of trying to invent a completely new one by means of a free and imaginative creative force. “We must invent, we must make discoveries”5 , wrote Fanon and he brought this announcement about first of all in terms of writing, of critical discourse, using western values only to then “crush” them and launch new and original ones.

Fanon’s path of resurgence, of ability to freely reconstruct towards the future, aware of the ruins of tradition, is a generative image, an ideal that seems to pass through all of Diango Hernández’s work, sometimes openly, sometimes hinted at to the point of defining its aims and direction.

In an installation from 2009 – Power Pencil – twelve lamp posts from the Primiero Valley, no longer used, but still with their electric wires and porcelain insulators, were recuperated by the artist and put into a visionary installation that radically transformed them into their life as objects. Hernández brought them back to life, transforming them from old leftovers from a use that no longer existed into giant pencils. The lamp posts therefore remained halfway between two worlds and two moments. If the presence of the wires recalls how electricity was a primary strategic element in the infrastructural and political agenda of socialist countries from Lenin onwards, an instrument used for carrying communication, progress and ideological dominium in every controlled nation, the mutation into pencils determines a symbolically decisive temporal passage

in Power Pencil. In fact, in this work Hernández worked on the relationship between ruin and a potential future, between summary of an oppressive power and an escape route towards the future. The ideological past strips itself in a completely lay form like that of the pencil, full of free thought and innovation. Power Pencil is a new demiurgic dimension, an imaginary space released from any constrictions that excessively amplify the emancipating power of a simple pencil. “To sharpen” the posts becomes a silently revolutionary act in terms which are close to Fanon’s, an exit from the history that established them to renew them in the chance of a new mission.

This is a hint of decolonisation of cultural forms which is present in Hernández’s work in multiple aspects, all linked together by a common beginning rooted in the matrix of Cuban history, his country of origin. The reaching out towards a possible future is held by Hernández in the furrow of a path that joins together biographic introspection and historical knowledge, collective finds and fragments of intimate memory. In such a procedure the pedagogical thought appears in more than one occasion as a unifying interpretative key to follow the advancing of his thought, a lens of observation that resists entropic dispersion to which history seems to destine individual experiences. The sculptures of Dining at Eight refer to Hernández’s memories of the Cuban school system, the unease, the psychological violence and the collective isolation in which children were kept from early adolescence to eighteen years of age, away from their close families and every kind of relative.

These educational methods were a decisive experience in Hernández’s development and return as a surreptitious archetype in several works, to the point of characterising a large part of his artistic work as a possible philosophy of education. In Dining at Eight some lamp shades of different styles, era and size are piled up on top of each other to make eight groups on four distinct tables. Almost like organic shapes, these sculptures determine hybrids of an ambiguous and disturbing presence, like a gallery of anonymous portraits, simulacrum of de-personalised control carried out on children by the constrictive Cuban educational models. In symbolic and anthropomorphic terms Hernández builds a metaphor of power and adolescence, of education and learning. In this way it can be understood, in this gesture of criticism, how what might seem a potential closeness of Hernández’s thought to the European tradition of Bildung, is in fact only apparent and instead indicates a radically different direction. If in Bildung, the process of self-instruction elaborated by the European philosophical and literary tradition, the wandering path of individual subjectivity was in the centre, searching for itself and the world in almost epic terms, like in the narrations of Wolfgang Goethe in Wilhelm Meister or of Gottfried Keller in Green Henry, Hernández instead traces a thought which is openly political, marked by the comparison between power and individuality, between ideology and freedom. In this sense, according to the artist, pedagogy and educational planning can be discussed only starting from a critical interpretation of power, that lays bare the active relationships of dominium and subjection in the educational processes. It is an eloquence which is made simple and complicated in another of the artist’s central works, Diamonds and Stones: My Education, a project that probes into the remaining space of individual education in the ambiguous ridge between popular rhetoric and private identity.

This work is an almost cinematographic selection of images concerning Cuban history from the revolution in 1959 onwards. In this work Hernández concentrated on the beauty of iconographies which when observed decades later could betray a sense of melancholy emotions but which instead are held back from this threshold, on a colder, more analytic level. Scenes of schools and work in the fields and industries alternate with newspaper cuttings, television news programmes and the expression of mass media populism in Cuba. Image after image the triumphant self-celebration of the Castro revolution reveals itself in the degradation of its dictatorial aims, the utopia becomes dictatorship with military parades and the hope for an alternative in Cuba is written off in the grotesque choreographies of the regime. In this work each frame is assembled and set by Hernández into the geometric shapes of diamonds and precious stones. Here the shape, cut and faceting of the stones become constrictive processes that limit the full vision of the images and put in doubt the rhetoric of collective progress that has innervated the educational projects of the Cuban revolution. The diamonds reinstate a shattered historical conscious, the image of a prismatic and fragmented individual self, and their closed shapes, composed in strictly geometric forms, become metaphorical figures of the educational process as an ideological practice that determines the character and personality of who is being educated.

The Cuban iconographic genealogy reconstructed by the artist thus resists the temptation of a nostalgic aestheticism of the past and enacts the manifesto of a political, moral and pedagogical crisis. If we wanted to find in Hernández a conceptual analogy with the European philosophical tradition in this context, we could think about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pedagogical ideas, about the negative dialectic that characterises the philosopher from Geneva’s revolutionary thoughts on education, able in his Émile: or, On Education to bring back the sentiment of respect for the age of infancy and adolescence that had been missing for centuries in Europe. “Prejudice, authority, example”, wrote Rousseau at the beginning of Émile, in clear contrast with the institutions of traditional education, “stifle the nature in him”6 and this is where his proposal for a free education started, completely lay, without any punitive and patriarchal aspects. However, even in historical terms Hernández complicates his narration of crisis, hinting in Diamonds at the history of colonialism, at its capitalist matrix and the search for precious goods that started off the European expansion engine, leaving its mark on Cuban history.

Colonialism, revolution as the desire for self sufficient independence and its degeneration into an oppressive ideological apparatus of the state, are all elements which are insinuated by the artist. This critical open-mindedness to an epochal prospective of historical crisis spreads into other works by Hernández up to the point of becoming one of the decisive conceptual cores of all his artistic work. In 2009 Hernández had carried out No Tea, No Sofa, No Me as the result of meditation on the idea of crisis of free thought in Cuba starting out from the role of three products in the recent history of the country, the sofa, tea and the book. Sofas were forbidden in 1959 and were cast out and banned by the revolutionary culture as the image of a bourgeois and individualist life style, alien to the beat of collective life hoped for by the Castro revolution. For the same reason also tea has no longer been imported and obtainable for domestic use since 1960 and since 2005 also electric light bulbs – potential space for operative autonomy – are no longer allowed. Besides all this, publishing houses belong to the government and consequently the list of titles which cannot be found makes it impossible for the private use of books as an intellectual tool for meditation and growth.

From the sofa to books, all the equipment which has become almost an example of the European culture of Enlightenment, celebrated in the drawing rooms of the Parisian philosophes has been examined by Hernández in relation to the revolutionary culture of Cuban socialism. In this way his work is not only Cuban but desperately European too, No Tea, No Sofa, No Me, represents the intellectual worthlessness used by the ideological choices of the government of Havana, presenting the shape of the broken frame of a drawing room armchair, the structure of a light bulb that cannot be used and a tea cup dangerously balanced on the edge of a fragment of a desk. The presence of books is evoked by their complete disappearance, only a spectral latency remains, all the more evident due to their absence. The objectively most common related articles of intellectual life are therefore shown in the ideological collapse that they have been subjected to under the Cuban regime. What space is left for individual thought? How can we try to give back free thought, in a time of impediment and censorship, at least the heroic strength of a philosophical consolation , like in the timeless appeal by the treatise of the same name by the Latin Severino Boezio? Reference to the author from the late Roman world is an impressive evocation if we consider the diachronic vision of Hernández’s work, which moves on different worldly levels that are intertwined.

As already in Diamonds also No Tea, No Sofa, No Me is in fact, a vaster meditation on European and Cuban bourgeois culture and on multiple historical echoes in the history of the Caribbean country. If this work shows the frustration due to the impossibility of an intellectual life which can be carried out sheltered from the state apparatus, Hernández however seems to suggest how these objects, which are symbols of Enlightenment reasoning, were brought to Cuba by that same bourgeoisie which made colonial history and slavery possible on the island. The broken frame of the sofa, deconstructed and de-functionalised, balancing dangerously, is therefore a sign of contradiction, the mental and reflexive space that generated the Enlightenment model of freedom and criticism of tradition but at the same time the history of exploitation and slavery. In this paradox there is once again the message that runs through Diango’s work, the sign of decline and uncertainty about the nature of utopia that multiplies the idea of crisis, identifying it not only in Cuban social history but also within the European thought which sanctioned the progress of free thought but at the same time affirmed its contrary by means of the logic of colonial violence. Therefore the crisis is here – still in a possible echo of Fanon – the European man, in his historical and philosophical inheritance on the two sides of the Atlantic.

However Hernández’s question shatters also one of the unresolved points of XX century philosophy, put forward in Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences during the totalitarianism of the 1930’s, a theoretical and existential manifesto in which the German philosopher questioned the reasons for the failure of the humanistic culture in Europe and its having lost the ability to plot a guideline by which to lead and accompany all the other sciences of man. Hernández’s work inherits such a phenomenological interpretation of the idea of crisis, covering the historical spaces between dictatorship and revolution, Europe and the Caribbean, Enlightenment reasoning and revolutionary socialism. From the twentieth century to the new millennium, the question seems to be the same and the synthesis of this is given by one of Hernández’s striking drawings taken from his graphic work – an imaginary archive that is like the compass of all his artistic work. In a watercolour scene from the Amateur Series carried out in the 1990’s we can read an appeal made by the artist: Stop The The Progress I Missed Something. The appeal has a special meaning, like an emergency signal, of a search for a way out in a particular historical moment characterised by the end of a trajectory, stretched ambiguously between progress and decline. Cuba is, in fact, incumbent in the background, like A Landscape of Mistake7 , as the artist states, but also a country which is protagonist of the decolonising prospective, a hope which was affirmed together with another twentyeight countries at the Bandung international conference in 1955 in Indonesia and later launched once again in 1961 at the congress of the non-aligned countries in Belgrade. In the 1960’s there was the hope for a third alternative, decolonising and progressive, beyond capitalism and communism, this hope was smashed in the dictatorial and populist movements of many of the non-aligned countries and the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989 marked the peremptory end of Cuban progressive ambitions and at the same time a dramatic collapse of the quality of life of the citizens of the country. It is precisely this event that is hinted at by Hernández in Years (2008), a rusty metal construction, like a fragile gate, whose structure is made up of numbers that compose the years from 2008 to 1959, presented in reverse order, as if in an inversion of the chronology from the present to the past.

This year-book covers the period of time of Fidel Castro’s governing in Cuba from 1959 until his partial retreat from public life in 2008. Almost like a screen through which it is possible to read Cuban history backwards, Years is the calendar of an unfinished event, a register that marks the boundary between a before and an after, questioning the present in the light of a controversial political and social experience, that of the Cuban socialist revolution, not yet over and able to continue in determining the future, holding the present suspended. It is this crepuscular discourse between the completion and utopian prospective of history that offers a hermeneutic opening in Hernández’s work, which seems close to the thought pronounced by Hans Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method on the relationship between experience and temporality: “Real experience is that whereby man becomes aware of his finiteness. In it are discovered the limits of the power and the self-knowledge of his planning reason. The idea that everything can be reversed, that there is always time for everything and that everything somehow returns, proves to be an illusion. Rather, the person who is situated and acts in history continually experiences the fact that nothing returns”8 . The recent history of Cuba, that unravels itself year after year in the rusty metal of Years, in this way appears in the artist’s reflection almost as a memento mori, a summing up of what has happened and what, perhaps, could have been different. In Drawing (As a drop I am going out of home), a work carried out for the Kunsthalle Basel in 2006, the artist made direct reference to the uncertainty caused in Cuban society by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the economic support that had been given to Cuba. In that dramatic and sudden upheaval for the vital prospects of the inhabitants of Cuba, the government and the state showed that they were unable to continue supplying the citizens with essential primary services, like the supply of gas, water and electricity.

The uncertainty transformed into a sort of spontaneous activism on the island, which saw the Cuban population committed to building a system of autonomous services, replacing the state. The breakdown of the systems in the country became the opportunity to activate some unexpected and creative possibilities in everyday functioning and Hernández’s work returned metaphorically to this event in Cuban history showing a series of domestic objects transformed into supports for a system of pipes that cross space and the objects themselves, from a wash basin to two bins. It is a domestic landscape distorted by an improvised and precarious functionality, a sign of individual resistance opposed to social, political and economic collapse of the Cuban state. The system of sofas, armchairs, lamps, furniture and televisions is held up by a precarious and uncertain balancing but, perhaps, still functioning. Halfway between the dramatic violation of the private, transformed into instrumental functionality and a proactive resistance created from the bottom, result of a self-sufficiency of individual ingeniousness. Here Hernández places in the forefront the relationship between the Cuban revolutionary utopia and the collapse after 1989. Drawing (As a drop I am going out of home) expresses a movement of thought that generates a decisive criticism of the revolutionary ideological apparatus, presented here in terms of implosive degradation.

The collapse of the revolutionary utopia in its contrary compared to the conditions of anti-colonial liberation, that is a suffocating and repressive authoritarianism, is verified by Hernández in the terms of a recursive mechanism of decadence that reappears in his work. Analysing the epistemological collapse of the types of knowledge as organised by the modern European, scientific and humanistic culture, the American philosopher Lewis R. Gordon coined the formula of disciplinary decadence9 . When a cognitive system, a discipline or an ideology (in the positive sense of inspirational idea) loses its progressive gnosiological function and an effective relationship with the real world, the result is the rigidity of the discipline itself, its absolutism and its sheltering in sclerotic and self-referential forms, far from the authentic rhythm of life. Disciplinary decadence is therefore a regressive movement, authoritarian and disastrous, destined to drain itself of the discipline it needs, up to the point of making it lose sight of the movement of its own horizon, together with the prospects and urgency that had seen it rise. Hernández’s artistic work echoes this reflection on the processes of crisis emerging as a diagnosis of the forms of intellectual, material and political decadence that have passed through the recent history of his country, and more generally, the prospect of progress and civilization of the modern world. The dramaturgy of decadence that Hernández shows is however presented not in static terms, but reactive, stretched between the extremes of the moment of stalling of a process and the search for a new liberation. As if decadence could be the starting point for a new dialectic of creative autonomy, of humanistic revival of life – individual and collective – beyond any impediment caused by discipline, systems and regulations.

So memory and past history are not only limitations and impediments, but rather carriers of opening of new roads and prospects. Hernández spreads the future possibilities in various works like in Drawing (My Birds Don’t Want To Come Back), a sculpture constructed by assembling a series of old, empty and almost destroyed musical amplifiers together in a rather precarious wall. In the narrative transformation carried out by Hernández the hollow and rectangular shapes of the containers lose every relationship with their original use, creating the virtue of a new imaginary space, that of living space for the birds evoked in the title. In fact, the work recalls the activity carried out by the artist when he was an adolescent, that of looking after birds and pigeons, trained to return to their cages at the end of their games and flights. Here the cages seem empty and abandoned, entrusted only to the wonderworking of memory and the work betrays a sense of abandon and migration, the concluded event of a Diaspora or an exile which has driven away from the homeland. In this way, Hernández hints at different times and spaces, his own childhood, his present life far from Cuba and a whole generation of dissidents and migrants who are far from the island. No sound comes from the amplifiers any more, no chirping or twittering, and these remain metaphoric images of human voices that have been silenced or that have taken shelter elsewhere. Drawing (My Birds Don’t Want To Come Back) is also an ancestral calling to the naturalistic memory of Cuba as a tropical island, as a place in the south, kingdom of the artist’s childhood but also a proposition idealised by a southern geography, different and prophetic, bearer of a possible future.

The idea itself of the south is one of the underlying crossroads of all Hernández’s work, a geographically revolutionary influence that, in a metaphoric form, accompanies and innerves it. In a recent work, I Can’t See The Earth (2011), the artist has set an upside down globe – with the two poles reversed – under a small chair, used in the past in German primary schools (out of use today as they are considered too shaky and dangerous for the children). Who uses the chair would find himself sitting in the south, near the regions of Africa, Latin America and Australia. With a minimum gesture full of desire, Hernández overturns the rules of perspectives of modern European geography that by means of cartography has sanctioned hierarchies and geo-political perspectives, relegating the south of the world to a marginal role, repressed by the neo-liberal rhetoric of underdevelopment. In the centre of Europe, (the artist lives in Düsseldorf), on a German school chair, Hernández cancels out these conventions in a moment and rewrites history proposing a very personal liberating escape, moving from the very solid utopia of desire. It is sufficient to say one phrase: I want to sit in the south.

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
Curator: Yilmaz Dziewior, Veronica Caciolli
Texts: Yilmaz Dziewior, Luigi Fassi, Vanessa Joan Müller
Formato: 24 x 28
Pages: 216
N. illustrations: 122 full color
Published: 2011
Italian / English