CONTEMPORARY ARTIST Carlos Garaicoa has a very particular vision of Havana – one that takes in the Cuban capital’s very diverse and troubled past. To explain this, one first has to understand the city through its architecture. And if walls could talk, the eclectic architecture of Havana would have much to speak of.
The Baroque buildings offer stories of Spanish colonialism. Meanwhile, the neoclassical could recall how French landowners arrived in the early 19th century, fleeing Haiti after a slave uprising. In the same breath, buildings infused with a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco could offer tales from the period when the Cuban capital was once considered one of the finest cities in Latin America. Then, sugar barons rivalled each other to build ostentatious mansions.
But these iconic architectural tropes from Cuba’s colonial and first republic periods also coexist with the ruins of the later social and political projects, frustrated in part as diverse international circumstances saw the country’s economic development freeze, and then stagnate.
“Architecture tells you about people, their needs, their suffering and hopes. In Havana, it tells you a lot about the loss of faith in the future, and also of individual and collective memories,” says Garaicoa.
The 51-year-old Cuban artist’s practice since the 1990s has focused on the disconnect between the hopes and promises generated by the political idealism of the 1959 Cuban revolution and the realities of day-to-day life in a broadly hostile political environment.
Born in Havana in 1967, Garaicoa grew up under Castro’s regime and witnessed the economic impact of the 1962 US financial and trade embargo in Cuba. He was there when the dissolution of the former Soviet Union led to the subsequent Cuban financial crisis.
The multi-disciplinary artist says his country’s political situation has marked his work from the very beginning, when he first took a camera to create provocative commentaries that reflected his frustrations with the crumbling modernist ideal. He used the architectural ruins he saw in Havana as a starting point to reflect on his country’s failing utopian dream.
“As I was raised in Old Havana, I was, of course, interested in the shapes of the ruins, in the idea of that sadly ephemeral city – full of symbols and political statements and at the same time crumbling and leaving empty spaces all around us,” he says reflectively.
While Havana’s streets were the artist’s first subjects, his practice quickly evolved. He moved from documenting in black and white to more creative interpretations, for example using stretched string to simulate the outlines of lost structures.
With the decline of communism in Europe, he points out that the Cuban construction industry has collapsed. The result of the downfall: “Hundreds of unfinished, disregarded, or momentously forgotten buildings,” he says.
“The encounter with these places evokes a rare sensation; they are not the ruins of a luminous past, but of a present of inability,” he adds. “We face architecture that has never been completed, poor in its incompletion, proclaimed ‘Ruin’ before its existence. It is a true image of a ruin by abandonment; I will call it ruin of (the) future,” the artist said in a writing, circa 2002.
In his more recent works, Garaicoa continues to highlight the deterioration of his beloved city by rendering missing buildings in crystal, for instance. Or, he transforms detailed photographs of sidewalks (some with chewing-gum stains) into jacquard-loom tapestries that visitors can walk across.
“There is an intention, a story as you say, behind the materials that I use. There is a search for materials… to answer certain questions… For example, I have chosen different materials such as papers, thread, wax, glass, when trying to speak of fragility, of the idea of crisis,” he explains.
Garaicoa has also extended his investigation of social and political developments beyond Havana. He now splits his time between the Cuban capital and Madrid, where he has a studio. But it is clear his heart is very much in the urban fabric of Havana, his mind and soul intertwined with the inherent societal challenges.
“In terms of new architecture, not much is happening in Havana today beyond new hotels,” he says. “On the other hand, stopping old buildings from crumbling (is) a titanic undertaking,” he adds. He remarks that these buildings tell both “a story of crumbling and resistance (and) a story of decrepitude and stubbornness to stand no matter what”.
“Architecture’s decay sheds light on the (breakage) of society and reality; as well as about the needs of the city to rebuild itself as a new space.”