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.)
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.