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Until recently their work was characterized by the nudge nudge wink wink of the surrealistic absurd.

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Los Carpinteros' Ciudad Transportable (Transportable City), at the 7th Havana Biennial.

The Transportable Cuban City

by Kelly Cogswell

MAY 30, 2001. Joining in the cultural reconquista of America with the Buena Vista Social Club, and the ubiquitous rum and mint mojito, is the up-and-coming collaborative Cuban art group Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters).

Working together since 1991, the trio of Alexandre Arrechea, Dagoberto Rodríguez, and Marco Castillo hit on their name in 1994, partly "to circumvent the prevailing climate of vigilance," escaping censorship by misdirection. The name also suggests their affinity with unpretentious craftsmen, though it's hard to imagine more self-conscious artists.

Until recently their work was characterized by the nudge nudge wink wink of the surrealistic absurd. At the 6th Havana Biennial in 1997 they exhibited a huge inverted umbrella with an outboard motor. Two years ago in Arizona State University's exhibition, "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island," curated by Marilyn Zeitlin, their entries were laden with po-mo irony.

"Nouveaux Voyage aux Isles de l'Amerique," was a colonial-style drawing of an imaginary surveying tool made from sugar cane. The shape hints at a gun, while the rockers supporting the contraption suggests a swindle in the making by the colonial surveyors who can shift the tool to suit their purposes.

In "Flying Pigeon," you have a carved wood relief of a train engine attached to a painting of an Afro-Cuban man peddling a "Flying Pigeon," a brand of Chinese bicycle imported in huge quantities by Cuba during the "special period" immediately after the 1991 fall of the USSR.

The loss of Soviet subsidies made this period notable for its lack of everything including fuel. So, the 160-year-old train which once revolutionized sugar production on the island became a testament to economic privation, and the train in "Flying Pigeon" which should be pulling the man may be propelled by him. How clever.

The group's latest series, Ciudad Transportable (Transportable City), curated by Alanna Heiss and on display at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, is both more superficial and more reticent. The 10 tent buildings, constructed of aluminum tubing and beige nylon canvas, with mosquito netting for windows, represent some emblematic Cuban buildings: capitol, university, lighthouse, sugar mill, prison, cathedral.

Actually made in Los Angeles, these structures are beautiful objects in their own right, sleek, prefab minimalist designs perfectly executed and funny, like Claes Oldenburg's giant hamburger. As tents, they're great. They are sturdy, and would hold up under a storm. Doors unzip. It's an added bonus that they actually look like buildings. My first thought upon encountering the factory tent in the gravel-filled courtyard of the P.S.1 was "Wow, it would be great to camp in one of these."

The only subtle undermining of the perfect forms were the careful irregularities in the trim around the windows. Sometimes the top strip was sewn overlapping the sides. Sometimes one side extended over the top, or both did. Had I seen them first at the 7th Havana Biennial last winter, I probably wouldn't have noticed that detail.

In Havana, where they were all grouped outside on the waterfront, I would probably have been thinking about how their forms reflected on the very real cityscape behind. Or how a transportable tent city invokes the Cuban diaspora, though it's hard to say what that reference means to these artists.

These are not the shabby tents of a refugee camp, but mostly replicas of Cuba's officialdom: a prison, the capitol, a university, cathedral, factory. They are beautiful, but temporary. In New York, there is already a slight rip in the mosquito netting windows of the factory outside in the gravel. In Havana, they could be commenting on the temporal nature even of Castro's power, or how Cubans across the Florida straits have recreated a city in their own image, for better and worse.

The tents were also given context by the other work shown at the Havana biennial. Apparently, Cubans in inzile have begun to grapple openly, though carefully, with the diaspora. Esterio Segura reportedly began his three-part installation on the ramps of El Morro (formerly used as a prison) with a life-size plaster man on a bed of bird cages dreaming of airplanes. Carlos Estévez put 100 bottles into the sea like a shipwreck survivor, each with an image and message.

At the Havana biennial, you also couldn't have escaped the context of censorship that dissolves like sugar in the gulf between the U.S. and Cuba. Tania Bruguera's performance installation, one of the least abstract, most directly emotional pieces about Cuba, was mysteriously yanked the day after it opened.

Kim Levin, in "Art and Contradiction at the Havana Bienal: Cuba Libre" published in the Village Voice last December, had this to say about Bruguera's exhibit. "Treading blindly for what seemed aeons in oppressive darkness on an unstable mush of fermenting sugar cane stalks, nearly overcome by the sickly sweet smell, you approached a faint ray of hope: the dim glow of a TV hanging overhead. On it was a video collage of Castro's life. And as you turned back, all senses on total alert, you faintly perceived the presence of bare living bodies, endlessly rubbing their mouths or slapping their thighs. Some viewers saw a man and a woman, others insisted there were four males. Like Cuba itself, it was a total sensory experience: contradictory, illusive, and hard to fathom. It summed up the invisibility, the toxic presence, the history of exploitation, and the heart of darkness."

The Carpinteros installation in New York, beautiful though it is, suffers without either architectural or political context. The tents aren't even grouped entirely together. The P.S.1 brochure simply indicates that the tents "serve as metaphors for transience in contemporary urban life."

The Carpinteros provided general notes, but artists are notoriously unreliable critics of their work, especially with censors lurking in the background. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Marco Castillo went a little further, explaining that the tents started as a drawing exercise. "It was a form of training for an emergency that we do not yet know, and that we can't quite predict," he said.

I was grateful to stumble across some of their recent large watercolors (81x102 inches) that accompany the show. "El muro #18 no tiene ventana" (Wall #18 Doesn't Have A Window) was a wistful grey and blue study of several freestanding walls and their windows, all except for number 18, which didn't have any openings. "Agua" (Water), lovingly painted in greens and blues, took as its subject several empty five-gallon water containers.

"Piscina llena" (Filled Swimming Pool), entirely in greys and whites, was an irregular round shape like an island or a mouth, bordered with dozens of ladders extending into the empty center where there's no water. Without the water, had there been someone inside, there was no way to reach the ladders.

The pieces, more abstract and more open than earlier work, but less closed-mouthed than the tents, give an emotional center to the transportable city. Their play with emptiness and escape, the empty jugs on an island surrounded by water, or the swimming pool as kind of an inverted island, where the water should be in the middle but isn't, leaves the viewer wondering if the escape isn't out, but in, as it might be for these artists lucky enough to have talent for an aesthetic unchallenged by Havana, or New York.

Related links:

For Alejandra Pozo's Bodies of artists in full action, a look at performances at and around the Sixth Havana Biennial. Also in Spanish

For Christian Viveros-Faune's take on the 7th Havana Biennial.

For P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City.

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