b. 1971, resides in Cuba
Between Havana and New York there is much more than a mere synchronicity in time zones, or the existence of a “Cuban Wall Street” with banks and trade centers built in Old Havana. The connection did not end with the Cuban emigration en masse that settled in New York in the 19th century—among whose luminaries were Father Varela, who served as a parish priest to Irish workers, and José Martí, who in fifteen years of exile witnessed the confident yet alarming (to Cuban nationalists) growth of the United States. In the 20th century, emigration to New York continued unabated during the governments of Cuban presidents Machado and Batista, and even Fidel Castro walked with empty pockets through Central Park, before his 1959 encounter with Malcolm X at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem.
This bond with Gotham runs deeper than the Coney Island Park in Cuba’s Marianao Beach, built in the early 20th century; deeper than Conrado Massaguer’s stylish caricatures in Social magazine; stronger than the iron city depicted in the paintings of Carlos Enríquez, José Manuel Acosta, Enrique Riverón, and Mirta Cerra; and further than the impact of Art Deco and the Chrysler Building on Cuban architects, or the abstract expressionism of Julio Girona, or the Buena Vista Social Club shaking up Carnegie Hall—just as the percussionist Chano Pozo had done four decades earlier, side by side with Dizzy Gillespie. Because of this long exchange of ideas, symbols, and human beings, Habaneros also felt the stinging pain of September 11, 2001.
To express the tragedy of New York, Abel Barroso felt compelled to impose upon himself a meticulous thought process and a radical change in technique. At the time of September 11, he was leading the emerging venture of “Café Internet” or Mango-Tech, a mock-cutting-edge technology firm a la cubana, under whose brand he produced numerous computers, PDAs, printers, robots, calculators, and the public bus/flatbed truck hybrids known in Cuba as “camels”—all carved in wood and animated by medieval mechanisms. Engaged since his Superior Institute of Art student days in the deconstruction of engraving—its reproductive fate, its production and basic materials—Barroso took the medium beyond its random (chemical) limits and brought it into the realm of sculpture. It was an attack “from the inside,” in which he joined forces with other artist-printers such as Belkis Ayón, Sandra Ramos, and Ibrahim Miranda, promoters of the groundbreaking exhibition event, La Huella Múltiple (The Multiple Imprint).
Se acabó la Guerra Fría… reveals the gradual broadening of Barroso’s attention from the local scene to the international. In exhibitions such as Las donaciones llegaron ya (The Donations Have Already Arrived, 1995), or pieces like The Rush for the Freedom Land (1997), he had previously brought Cuban reality under the scalpel of an incisive humor. At the same time, he eroded the limits between plate and print, between engraving and relief, unique works of art and mass reproduction, fine craftsmanship and roughly fashioned handicrafts—all by means of meticulously carved and crafted wood works, which were then assembled as installations in exhibition spaces. In his solo exhibition, Video Arte del Tercer Mundo (Video Art of the Third World, 2000), TV sets carved from wood featured mass-media images of the Pope’s visit to Havana, the maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexican border, the Gulf War, and the rapid pace of globalization.
For Se acabó la Guerra Fría…, which is a section from a larger, interrelated set, Barroso has resorted to the chronicles of the post 9-11 world offered by the mass media, as well as Michael Moore’s films and antiwar protests. His intention is to create the opposite effect: an anti-epic, set against sugar-coated visions of the Middle East war and utopian ideas about globalization. The events of 9-11; the invasion of Iraq; the interests of global energy corporations; the horrified fascination that terrorism inspires; childlike lists of “evil” countries; global financial flow; representations of the “other;” and increasingly radical religions are all sociopolitical coordinates that the artist, in his dedication of this piece, terms “the game of terror.”
Such factors emphasize the importance of Barroso’s approach, and the playful, ironic mechanisms that he sets in motion. The idea is to steer clear of both shrill propaganda and melodramatic victimization. Barroso’s appropriation of the do-it-yourself kit, assembled at home by unskilled hands, originated in a Cuban cultural memory that predates the Revolution—and in a fortuitous fact explained by the artist. “I think this piece is really the result of several years of creation,” he recently stated, “a work process where the piece really has to be assembled and disassembled to travel and be exhibited in other locations. The idea of assembling, disassembling, and packing up the composite pieces was a starting point for reflection, and then for putting it into practice in a piece of where these actions would be a primary characteristic” (Mena, 2006).
In Se acabó la Guerra Fría…, the itinerant nature of works of art and the widespread interest in cultural products are implicitly transformed by the piece’s subject and its openness to the participation of its audience. As Barroso explains, “I was interested in flirting with the limits of creation, through pieces that can be assembled by the public and by private collectors—investigating where my work ends and where the work of someone else begins, using the pieces that I provide (Mena, 2006).” The user not only has to re-create the piece with the help of an instruction manual and an image-filled CD-ROM (lampooning home fitness programs), but becomes involved—in the guise of a game—in the construction of an ideological landscape, a universe that starts to make sense screw by screw, wooden fragment by wooden fragment, all of them hand-carved by the artist himself. The carrying case, containing the dismantled pieces of the World Trade Center pierced by the kidnapped plane, would be sent to exhibitors and purchasers (generally in the First World, as the geopolitics of the art market dictate) through a “shipping and handling” method implied in the artwork’s design. It embodies, in a sarcastic vein, not only the circulation of raw material and manufactured goods through international commerce, but also the worldwide distribution of cultural images and stereotypes.
References: Lutyens, Dominic, “Art in Cuba” in Art Review, New York, June-July 2006, pp. 60-69. ArteCubano, 1/2006, illust. p. 73.
—Abelardo Mena Chicuri