Cuba Diary: San Suzie visits the 2012 Havana Biennial.

A 2012 sculpture by Alexandre Arrechea sits in the art deco lobby of the former headquarters of Bacardí Rum, built in the 1930s by architects Castells, Fernandez, and Menendez. (All photos by San Suzie.)

As just about anybody with a Gucci-clad toe in the art industry knows by now, the 11th Havana Biennial opened earlier this month to great fanfare and much speculation about what the month-long exhibit and its accompanying onslaught of American visitors means for the future of cultural relations between Cuba and the United States. Titled Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries, the biennial is an ambitious citywide project that has attracted a host of likely and unlikely collaborators to produce Cuba’s most important collective exhibit in a decade.

As can be expected of anything artsy held in sunny, big-c Communist climes, the week of the opening was lively and crowded. The international jetset-ati parachuted into one of the oldest ports in the Americas to enjoy installations, performances, rum-fueled parties, dalliances with local working girls and a froufrou culinary-art collaboration that would cost the average Cuban a year’s salary for dishes like yuzu sailfish and guava maki. There was also so much frenzied art buying that the city seemed more like Miami Beach during art fair season than a biennial “born in the heat of a strong and vigorous national art movement.” (Or so says the breathy official website.)

A view of Havana from the main biennial venue.

In countless ways, the Havana Biennial is like most others — a bunch of art stuff thrown together in one place — and therefore held few aesthetic surprises. But it rises above the rest for the way in which the organizers have used the city’s sublime historic buildings and urban spaces. Havana was once the most important mercantile port to Spain and later the closest trading partner to the United States. Because of this, and also because the revolution halted the sort of late 20th century glass-tower development that has decimated historic neighborhoods around the world, the city retains a significant number of extraordinary buildings. Ranging in style from Spanish baroque to Art Nouveau, Neoclassical, Art Deco, and Modern, these buildings make Havana something of a living architectural museum of the Western Hemisphere.

The biennial highlights these locales and makes it possible to visit some that are usually closed to the public. There is the 18th century Spanish fortress that serves as the biennial’s main venue, as well as a crumbling Modernist ballet school and the decayed early 20th century neighborhoods used as backdrop by urban muralists. The art is nice. Some of it is thought-provoking — even enthralling. But it’s Havana’s five centuries of historic architecture that is definitely the star of this show.

The Havana Biennial is on through June 11, 2012. Plenty of pix after the jump.

An installation by Cuban artist Diana Almeida in the moat of the San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress, across Havana harbor. Built in the 18th century following the one and only successful British invasion of Havana, the complex is the largest Spanish fortification in the Americas and served as a prison and execution center after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Camagueyan artist Humberto Diaz’s sculpture of a cantilevered, hollowed-out palm tree — also at La Cabaña.

Conga Irreversible, by Los Carpinteros, was a street performance consisting of a carnival comparsa danced backwards, with music by New York-based Cuban jazz musician Yosvany Terry and choreography by Isaias Rojas. It was held on Paseo del Prado, Havana’s oldest historic promenade, which was designed in 1772 by the French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier.

Solve et Coagula, by Meira Marrero and Jose Toirac is one of several dozen installations at Factoria Habana a white-cube art space within the confines of the Old Havana historic district that is the brainchild of Galician curator Concha Fontenla. Meira and Toirac’s piece deals with the installation, destruction, and current restoration of the monument that commemorates the so-called bombing of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. The destruction of the ship was the excuse used by the U.S. for becoming involved in the Cuban War of Independence, or as we know it, the Spanish American War.

Pool party as art: Sueño de Verano is an installation by Glenda Leon at the FOCSA Building. Designed by Ernesto Gómez Sampera in 1956, the building, at 39 stories, is the tallest structure in Havana and one of the most recognizable landmarks of mid-century architecture. Built at a time when concrete structures taller than 18 stories were considered unfeasible, the FOCSA was once a luxury apartment house with 500 parking spaces, ground floor offices, a television studio, a shopping center, and a huge trapezoidal swimming pool. Empty since 1989, Leon had the pool filled for her installation, which consisted of a pool party (for locals) held on top of two banner-size floor coverings that are printed with street maps of coastal Havana and Miami. There was a DJ (of course) and domino tables.

The poolside facade of the FOCSA building.

The Hotel Nacional, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1930, as seen from the deck of Leon’s pool party at the FOCSA.

Because no biennial is complete without some yarn bombing: The crocheted installation by artist Aimee Garcia along the Malecon promenade.

An installation by Ernesto Neto (courtesy of the Cisneros-Fontanals Collection) in the grand staircase grand staircase at the Centro Asturiano building, a social club for natives of the Spanish province of Asturias. It was designed in 1927 by architect Manuel Bustos. After the 1959 Revolution, the building housed the Supreme Court of Justice, and is now home to the European art collections of the Museo de Bellas Artes.

At the Museo: the view just above the Neto.

A detail of Fin de Siglo, 2010, a piece in Carlos Gariacoa’s tapestry project entitled Fin de Silencio. Exhibited previously in Madrid and Venice, this bold work consists of tapestry-carpets that depict the iconic logos and terrazzo pavements in front of department stores in Central Havana — complete with dirt, cracks, and gum stuck to the surface. Garaicoa has altered the texts to convey a distinctly political message. More on the project here.

Another of Garaicoa’s carpets.

A hallway in the ruined Escuela de Ballet by Vittorio Garatti (1963). One of the 5 buildings of the National Art Schools complex, the school is normally closed to the public because it is in ruins. The public was allowed access to see an installation by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco in its hallways and studios — a rare treat.

A view of one of the Orozco installations at the Escuela de Ballet at the National Art Schools. In some cases it wasn’t clear what was artwork and what was trash, but in this space it was pretty clear

…in this space, not so much.

A glass installation by Orozco.

Orozco’s glass install can be seen peeking out on the left, in a floor full of crumbling rehearsal studios.

As far as I can tell, this is all Garatti (the architect) and not Orozco. But the Orozco installs made it possible to view.

A subtle intervention by Orozco at the Escuela de Ballet.

I’m All Ears: An installation by Alexandre Arrechea for Proyecto Malecon: Detras de los Muros.

Alexandre Arrechea at his studio in front of drawings for the Park Avenue sculpture installations he will do in 2013. The drawings and everything else in Arrechea’s studio were snapped up before you could blink.

At a dinner for the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros (that’s Dagoberto Rodriguez, of the duo, at left), I got to have my own personal stare-down with Marina Abramovic (seen above, chatting with artist Humberto Diaz).

Hasta la próxima, Habana. See you on the next go-around!!!


  1. SanSuzie

    Actually, I tried to have a stare down with Marina, but she only wanted to talk to the 20-something artist next to her. Something about the decadence of Havana resembling that of her country… in yer dreams, Marina…

  2. Rose Cull

    So jealous of your dinner with Marina Abramovic and Los Carpinteros, it looks like a fabulous biennial and the architecture is amazing.