The more abstract the truth you want to teach, the more you have to seduce the senses to it. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 66.
The uniting rival principles in the title of the exhibition reflect this fact. While “theoretical” refers to an abstraction, to “what is possible or imagined”, “relating to the general principles or ideas of a subject rather than the practical uses of those ideas”2, beach, as a “landform along the coast of an ocean or sea, or the edge of a lake or river”3 brings our thoughts back to terra firma, given that “humans … build their institutions on dry land”4 whereas “they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage”5.
The beach as a transit zone between the sea and the land is thus a metaphorical place where the searcher washed up by the sea assures himself of his being: “I had so much presence of mind, as well as breath left, that seeing myself nearer the mainland than I expected, I got upon my feet, and endeavoured to make on towards the land as fast as I could before another wave should return and take me up again.”6 The moment Robinson Crusoe reaches terra firma, he begins to wonder “what was next to be done”7 to establish his “order of things”8 and thus to create a Theoretical Beach with all the things within reach that make up the place: “I resolved to fall to work with these”9 as “[o]rder is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language”.10
Tropical identity “When far from our native country, after a long voyage, we tread for the first time the soil of a tropical land …” – with these words Alexander von Humboldt, who first travelled to Cuba in 1801, unites the familiar with the exotic in his book Cosmos. It seems to him as if the “well-known Earth’s crust” is “surrounded by unaccustomed plants, by the overpowering grandeur of the tropical organizations, and by an exotic nature”. He describes the tropics as “foreign, voluptuous fertility” in which “we are very soon at home in the palm climate of the torrid zone”.11 More than three hundred years after the discovery of Cuba by Christopher Columbus, the palm is regarded by Humboldt not just as a symbol of the tropical landscape. “[I] never beheld such a beautiful place. … There are a great number of palm trees of a different kind from those in Guinea and from ours”,12 Columbus notes in his ship’s log on October 28, 1492, upon reaching the island of Cuba. The Royal Palm has adorned the Cuban coat of arms since 1906. Coconut palms, in contrast, were only brought “to the Caribbean and to the Pacific coast of the rest of Central America” by European seafarers.13
The Spanish word huracán (hurricane) is derived from the language of the indigenous population of the Caribbean, where it denotes the “God of the wind”. While their language has survived in a few terms, the indigenous people have largely vanished, the victims of slavery and diseases introduced by the conquistadors. In the statistical survey of the population, Cuban “tropicality” – a Cuba Libre cocktail of numerous ingredients – was made up of Spanish-born peninsulares; Creoles (from the Spanish criollo – the descendants of Spanish immigrants); slaves from Africa (divided into “Cuban-born, Spanish-speaking black creoles” and “African-born bozales”14); “mulattos” (derived from the Spanish mulato – Afro-European); bought or been given their free blacks (slaves who had freedom); Indians (the indigenous population, primarily people, “whose origins lay in and “mestizos” (from the descendants of Europeans population): “Where are we are in a region, in a at home? If this question more than an abuse of it compels us to assume that world can never be totally trivial.”16 descending from the Arawak modern Venezuela”15); Spanish mestizo – the and the indigenous we when we think that landscape, in a city or of where wants to prove the interrogative word, being in a public, familiar world can never be totally trivial.”16
Beneath a coconut palm on a tropical island beach a sleeping castaway lies sprawling, a bloody injury on his forehead. Dressed in the attire of a seventeenth- century seafaring pirate, shortly after waking he begins to shake the palm until a coconut falls down, hitting him on the forehead and knocking him out; he sinks back into his original position beneath the palm. In Rodney Graham’s video loop Vexation Island there is no escaping the island of discontentment, whereas “in several passages of the account of his travels, Columbus [thinks] that he can identify wooded, fertile regions inhabited by multicoloured birds as the Promised Land”.17
Utopia of modernism
A new aesthetics was proclaimed as a society-changing programme at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Architecture or revolution”18 was Le Corbusier’s credo. “The idea was for a new architecture to change society so that from then on, as Le Corbusier believed, any social revolution would become superfluous.”19 For him “a great era has just begun. There exists a new spirit. There exists a host of works in this new spirit, they are encountered above all in industrial production. Architecture suffocates in routine. The ‘styles’ are a lie.”20 All our “[t]ools and objects are outgrowths of fundamental attitudes to the world. These attitudes set the course followed by thought and action.
Every problem, every picture, every invention, is founded on a specific attitude, without which it would never have come into being. … Movement, movement in all its form … a central concept of our epoch: Movement.”21 Which also implies movement of political systems. A radical break with all traditions, and the consequences of such a break, is proclaimed in the sociopolitical discourse of Cuban revolutionaries: “And we will then conclude that almost everything we thought and felt in that past epoch should be filed away, and that a new type of human being should be created. And if each one of us is his own architect of that new human type, then creating that new type of human being – who will be the representative of the new Cuba – will be much easier”.22
Ernesto Che Guevara promised this shortly after the successful revolution in 1960 in a speech given to a group of medical students, health workers and militiamen. Cuba then assumed its position in the middle of a power-play between the USA and the USSR, and thus between opposing economic systems. “This extreme deterritorialisation of the modern finance-driven capitalism is the reason that social countermovements operate socio-territorially, i.e. make the territory their own.” 23 “Patria o Muerte, Venceremos!” (Fatherland or death, we shall prevail!).24 Or: “Cuban poets no longer dream (not even at night) … and the world flows over their mouths, and the eye must only see, see, see.”25
“The realisation that language and thought are intimately linked is a comparably modern realisation.”26 In ancient philosophy Aristotle described the contents of consciousness and the conceptions that human beings formed of things and of the world as universal; that is to say, the same for everyone. The sound, the linguistic sign, only denotes things after the fact, expressing the universal thought in many different languages. “The view that language is attributable to an arbitrary agreement of human beings (Sophists)” contrasts with “the other view according to which language is naturally given (Stoics)”.27
Paradoxically, the experience of linguistic difference would only later shatter the European understanding of language, an understanding that no longer works “when Europe comes into contact with profoundly different languages, i.e., when it comes to terms with the experience of America by thinking”.28 The independence of language from thought was a long-standing dictate of Aristotelian philosophy. The almost shocking realisation of the independence of thought from language also draws attention to the bodily existence of speaking. “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tips of my words.”29
Thinking about the origin of language implies fathoming ourselves. “Invention of language is therefore as natural to man as it is to him that he is a man. Let us simply develop these two concepts further: reflection and language.”30 Language is not solely a means of communication but rather, “according to recent language theory, is ingrained much more deeply and more dangerously in human beings: more deeply as it … is thinking in itself, and more dangerously as this thought connected with language is not rational, scientific thought but ancient, wild thought that additionally differs from language to language.”31 This profound difference of wild thought becomes a challenge when it comes to translating from language to language, from language to body, from language to sensation, from language to image, from language to sculpture, from language to space, when translating texts into wave pictures: “To turn the symbolizing into the symbolized, … is the tremendous and only capacity of translation.”32
“Languishing desire”33 is the definition given by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their German Dictionary of the concept of yearning, that was understood in Middle High German as a “malady of painful desire, lovelornness, love craving”.34 “A (classic) word comes from the body, which expresses the emotion of absence: to sigh: ‘to sigh for the bodily presence’.”35 “If she was in this city I’d have seen her. You take a man that likes to walk, a man like me, a man’s been walking in the streets going on ten or twelve years, and all those years he’s got his eye out for one person, and nobody’s ever her, don’t it stand to reason she’s not there?”36
“(But isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent? – This isn’t the same languor: there are two words: Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himéros, the more burning desire for the present being.)”37
I live in Cuba. I have always lived in Cuba. Those years of roaming the world,
of which much has been said,
are my lies, my falsehoods.
As I have always been in Cuba.38
The desire for the object goes from the human being to the world, to the place, to arcades. Not the here, but the yonder is the starting point of desire in Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem of yearning:
… My heart became inflamed in my body,
and I thought secretly to myself:
Ah, if only I could journey with them …39
Standing by the window, gazing upon the world, the lyrical self yearns for unattainable and vague faraway parts. In the vagueness of yearning the romantic finds the equivalent of the notion of romantic universal poetry, that was “searching rather than finding, striving rather than fulfilment”.40
“The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.”41 So too revolution: “I really wish that, with today’s experience, I still had the youth of the early revolutionary years. In these difficult times, that require such great efforts, I wish above all else that I had that youth.”42
“What I possess seems far away from me, And what is gone becomes reality.”43 “The empty wish to overcome the time between the desire and the acquisition of the desired object is yearning.”44 “Oh night, night, return! I can no longer bear all the light and love!”45
“[U]nde in hominibus non solum est memoria, sed reminiscentia” – Therefore in men there is not only memory but also reminiscence.46 In the creative process or in the act of perceiving the artistic works, remembering becomes an active act and cognitive operation of the subject. Remembering by no means involves passively falling back on stored memories.
“Memory does not [depend] on the past, but rather the past gains identity first and foremost through the modalities of remembering: remembering constructs present past.”47
That happens now, right at this moment when all my senses are awake. “Nights when we have slept as if they had never been. The only ones that remain in our memory are the ones when we couldn’t close our eyes: night means sleepless night.”48
Remembering “forces the past and present, proximity and distance into a point that is forced out of linear and narrative constructions of time”,49 it “presses into the realm of metaphor. In this context images play the role of figures of thought that mark out conceptual fields and direct theories”,50 so too the Theoretical Beach, where we find memories that “[exist] in no other place and at no other time than in the cognitive system”.51 “I have assumed, for my practice and myself, that art is nothing more than transforming and exposing individual memories.”52 And what then does forgetting mean? “Is forgetting a discrete process or simply the complement of remembering?”53 “What does ‘thinking of you’ mean? It means: forgetting ‘you’ (without forgetting, life itself is not possible) and frequently waking out of that forgetfulness.”54