The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art From Havana explores a longing for change

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At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until April 13

The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art From Havana is a wonderfully evocative title for an exhibition. It suggests the eloquence of the unspoken, the poignancy of the unmarked, and the potential of the unclaimed. Curated by Cuban artist and critic Tonel (Antonio Eligio) and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s Keith Wallace, the show surveys contemporary art from Havana and is intended to convey aspects of that city’s social, political, historical, cultural, and economic complexities—no small task. Some 70 works by 14 emerging and established artists also address what Wallace describes in his illuminating catalogue essay as “the receptive spaces that exist between the artwork and its viewer, the anticipatory spaces between Cuba’s actual past and its imagined future, and the ambiguous spaces between language and its ability to communicate clearly or truthfully”.

Unlike Utopian Territories, the multivenue exhibition of contemporary Cuban art that Wallace helped to mount in Vancouver in 1997, The Spaces Between is loaded with videos and photographs. This new show also includes paintings, drawings, sound works, text works, small installations, and records of community-based projects. Subjects range from licking and stroking the spines of a cactus to growing herbs in human shit, and from pre-revolutionary architecture to post-revolutionary currency.

One of the most poetic works in The Spaces Between is Alibi (be there), a short video by Luis Gómez Armenteros. The camera wanders through rainy-day scenes outside the artist’s studio: a ceramic walkway, a couple of bedraggled little plants, an upended wheelbarrow, discarded pieces of lumber, an old car, a scruffy dog sniffing amid the debris. These images are delivered in silvery black-and-white with occasional washes of pale colour. The soundtrack, borrowed from the 1991 Lars von Trier film Europa, consists of a man’s voice hypnotizing a subject to mind-travel to another world—“Europa”. The whole is a melancholy and beautiful meditation on the isolation of the Cuban artist, and the longing to be in a more stimulating and expansive elsewhere.

By contrast, Juan Carlos Alom’s video Habana Solo is an energetic homage to place, especially to the city’s musical life and the rhythms of the street. The soundtrack is composed of a range of jazzy riffs played on piano, cello, flute, congas, guitar, and other instruments, and the artificially aged black-and-white images of factory workers, pedestrians, dancers, chess players, swimmers, bicyclists, and the musicians themselves jump and jolt and swing around in accord with the music. Along with the immense musicality of Cuban culture, a strong element of surrealist filmmaking informs this enthralling work, especially through the angular soundtrack and the jerky montage of disparate images.

Spaces between language and understanding are explored in a number of works here. Eduardo Ponjuán González paints cartoon-style speech bubbles as white voids, empty of words, charged with potential. He also uses his paintings to appropriate the text and typography of political posters, complicating their meaning and casting their intentions into doubt. In Javier Castro’s short video, The Betrayal of Words, the artist shoots close-ups of a number of tattoos composed of Chinese characters, asks their Spanish-speaking owners what they believe the tattoos represent, and then reveals the actual meanings. For instance, one person believes that the Chinese character inked in black on his arm means “suffering/feeling” when in fact it means “tall”; another thinks his tattoo is the sign of the dragon when it actually means “rotter”; a third’s intended “What do I know?” means “soil”. There’s something both sad and cynical about this work—cultural aspiration compromised by uncomprehending or unsympathetic reality.

The spaces in the show’s title also seem to refer to the gaps that exist between nature and culture, between the built environment and the notion of landscape, and also between the architectural past and present. Ricardo G. Elias’s series of black-and-white photographs, Dry Gold, examines abandoned sugar mills, whose skeletal ruins speak to the radical changes undergone by Cuba’s economy—and its workers—in the last half-century. Through video and photographs, Grethell Rasúa documents the way Havana residents have brightly painted over the peeling doors and window frames and crumbling façades of their apartment buildings. This ongoing work, Covers of Yearnings, examines the economic hardship and dilapidated buildings that characterize much of life in Havana, but also, as Wallace points out, the individuality and pride its residents nevertheless assert.

Wallace ends his catalogue essay by analogizing Cuba’s social and political struggles to our own—and to those of people around the world. The longing for change expressed here is, with the possible exception of Bhutan, a universal.

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