Revolution Solo exhibition curated by Adam Szymczyk and Simone Neuenschwander at Kunsthalle Basel

“REVOLUTION – An interview with Diango Hernández” by Simone Neuenschwander


Simone Neuenschwander: The title of your exhibition is “Revolution”. You created a painting for the poster, in which you show this word in a way that is related to the typical aesthetic of socialist propaganda posters of the 1970s from Cuba. This promises a lot… how important will this term be for your show?

Diango Hernández: Usually when I build exhibitions the first step is to create different stories. It is not about choosing works and putting them in a context. It is more like making little comments or phrases which will create many layers of understanding that give shape to an open structure that will tell the whole story I’m interested in. So I chose the title “Revolution” as a starting point for the show. This word has many different meanings above all for those who are not Cubans… but also for the younger Cuban generations. When the economic crisis started in the 1990s –  when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its support – it was important for me not to see the revolution as a social and political breaking point anymore. I was born when the revolution had already happened, but I experienced then the impact of the revolution and the effort of the system to keep the concept of the revolution intact without any changes: as a result the revolution became something regular. I always wondered how such a word with such a precise meaning could become so abstract… how the revolution became ordinary. I started to study the Cuban posters and the propaganda icons from the early 1960s. I liked one of the posters published in the 1970s a lot. It was made after the collapse of one of the first big plans in post-revolution Cuba. The idea was to collect 10 million tons of sugar. The state of Cuba wanted to prove its economic power to the US, sending a clear massage to them: we will produce more sugar than ever under a socialist economy. But this wasn’t possible finally, because the country wasn’t able to afford this economically at the time. After the collapse of this venture the state printed the poster, which showed the Spanish word “reves”, which means literally “failure”. The “V” of the word was illustrated in such a way that it became a symbol of victory. This meant that the system would turn this collapse into a victory. My drawing uses this image, but instead of the word “reves”, I used “Revolution”. The “V” of the revolution is shown in the same way as in the original poster: this produces confusion and you can read it in different ways – my drawing is like a personal thought which changes the meaning of the propaganda that wants to give only one clear message.

SN: You will show, among other works, drawings which refer to works by the still little-known polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski (1927 – 1957). What interested you most about him and how have you got to know him?

DH: An important experience for my generation was the presence of the Eastern Bloc and the other socialist countries in Cuba – it became a fundamental part of our culture. The socialist ideas and ideals were in the beginning something completely new; it started with a new political and economic programme, and with time grew and touched every place, every house, every individual; almost everything. I thought about developing works that are related to this thought, about how a political situation could change your world. When I came here in the autumn, Adam Szymczyk showed me a book about Andrzej Wróblewski and I was really fascinated by his position. I looked at the images and then I found many things that are really close to me. He shared the same things with me for the same reasons. He started to develop his work from 1945 until 1957 in Poland, and it came from all the enthusiasm that brings radical social change. He was involved in social realism, which made a group of artists believe that ordinary socialist life should be presented as a beautiful and glorious thing. Coming from this social-realistic background, he suddenly got inside the different problems of the individual living under a socialist regime. His point of view was a very personal and independent way of saying things, something that obviously wasn’t so important in a socialist country. So I decided to study his work as a way of coming back to that time, seeing my own things. And in this process, I recognised that I was compressing his experiences and transforming them into my own, and then finding a way to talk about the individual: what is the role of the individual in a society like that? What happens so that the voice of the individual is no longer a secret… so that it is not something you have to hide anymore, because the voice of the masses is always more important than yours?

SN: What exactly shows the reflection of yourself that you recognize in Wróblewski work? You come from the Cuban generation who grew up during the failure of the revolution in the 1990s. What are your experiences of growing up in a socialist society like this and how important have they become for your work?

DH: The reflection I recognize shows a person confused and affected by a political system: confused because I no longer know how to judge the system that formed me, but at the same time deformed me. Affected because my sustained and traumatic social experiences damaged something that until now nothing can repair, not even art. The 1990s crisis affected me a lot as it did all Cubans, I guess. Even though the crisis was the starting point for my art and my main research issue for years, it wasn’t the thing that formed the basis of my ideas and artistic language: it was just a climax that became the right tool of my language.

What really had a big impact, not only on me but on my whole generation, were the countryside schools, called “La Beca” – a programme developed by the revolution in the early 1960s. This “innovative” educational  system was based on a former Marxist idea of combining study with work and was developed and actually implemented by Fidel Castro. This premise should be shared by hundreds of kids of different ages, living all together without privacy in the strictest collectiveness and very far away from their families and cities. The years I spent there (from age 13 to 18), marked and changed everything in my life. What I saw and experienced during those six years was similar to that in many other life situations, but with the difference that we were kids and had no chance to change the situation. I am still wondering if I will one day be able to leave these stories behind me, or whether they will leave me behind instead. What I am doing as art is not about the history of art or about what I should study. Above all I look for a way to use those personal stories for my art, which were real once, but have been growing so much that I no longer know if they really happened to me – at least I prefer to think in that way.

SN: Which images of the individual in Wróblewski’s work have impressed you the most?

DH: Wróblewski often worked within a structure, which you can see above all in his images of families. He was doing this series of paintings where people are standing in front of walls or facades, they are obviously outside their homes and they are waiting for something, but you never know exactly for what. Wróblewski was also working with the subject of the chair. I was fascinated by how he revealed the idea of “enchairment”, as he called it,  an empty chair that is a substitute for the human being, becoming a symbol of hope and loneliness. The waiting is something that really belongs to the nature of socialism. It is something that is supposed to get better and makes you believe that it certainly will.

In Wróblewski’s late work you can see a certain kind of study, in which he is drawing just one individual or self-portraits. Basically I will refer to one of his drawings that shows a man who is twisted, and instead of having only two hands he has a third, which is coming out of his back and disturbing him. He is desperately trying to avoid it because this unknown hand is touching him, beating him. For me this is an impressive image, because how can you have somebody else’s hand in your back, against which you can’t even fight? It belongs to something that is breaking your peace and you can’t avoid it. Is it the hand of the government, of official structures? Or is it a hand implanted by your own fears – an expression of paranoia? I decided to do a handmade “mass production” of this drawing. But each drawing will be different because each will be affected by water drops that will dissolve different parts of the drawing.

SN: In your installation you will show a water system: there are arrangements of household objects that are in a way “penetrated” with pipes. I see there a connection to this third hand of Wróblewski’s drawings…

DH: The installation refers to a specific real context: when the infrastructure of a city is unable to supply things like water or gas – the official and institutional, public structures which collapse – then 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 an individual. Thereby the failure of the system becomes a possibility to create that part of your everyday life individually and to develop creative, innovative forces. I will show a tube that goes from a couple of tanks and passes through many pieces of furniture and objects from a flat. This structure is like somebody looking at everything you have, your personal things in your intimate room. It is like a control, an observation, which runs through everything, but at the same time it gives the things a fixed structure, so you can’t move the objects anymore.

SN: In the second room of the show you will present a chair, fixed with wires, which is almost falling. How will this piece close and open at the same time the story of the individual you would like to tell?

DH: This piece is a good image to explain the concept of the show. It is a chair that is almost falling, but is not falling because it is in a perfect balance, because it is tied by many telephone cables that stop it from falling. In front of the chair there is a provisional and chaotic structure. This is for me the image of the future, which is a complex word with many different meanings. If you start to cut the threads, the chair will fall back. If you decide to leave the threads you will be in a perfect balance, almost falling back but still standing. You have to decide whether you want to cut the threads or to leave them. It is always in this suspended state of falling. “Can we cut the threads?” The balance is a fake, produced by a number of commitments, things that hold and keep you within it, and when you start cutting the threads it is because you want to be yourself. The most important question for me since I have been here in Europe has been: what is going to happen after the revolution in Cuba, especially when Fidel Castro dies? Because obviously everything seems as if it is held together by tiny things that are really fragile. I wonder especially what will happen to the good things we have done during all these years, the good things that have made us believe that we are no longer just a big tropical casino. I don’t wonder what will happen to the political mistakes, because the mistakes are obviously mistakes that are always ready to recur again and again in different guises. The big challenge for each one of us in any case will be to become single drops.