Time in the Context of Cuba

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Killing Time, the exhibition currently on view at Exit Art until July 28, 2007, brings together the diverse works of three generations of over 80 contemporary Cuban artists, some of whom have not had any prior exposure in the United States. Curators Elvis Fuentes, Yuneikys Villalonga, and Glexis Novoa gathered works around the central themes of time, process, and transition.
In the opening poem, En busca del tiempo perdido, by Exit Art’s co-founder, Papo Colo, it is said that “artists that spend time in a vacuum are cultural possibilities that never happened.” Specifically relating to Cuba’s unstable relationship with the United States, it seems easy for Cuban artists to get lost within this negative space. Killing Time, therefore, serves as the conceptual structure through which these artists are liberated or protected from the repressive pull of the vacuum described in the poem.
Emerging from the larger notion of time is the sub-theme – persistence. Utilizing installation, photography, video, drawing, sculpture, and performance, Killing Time demonstrates Cuban artists’ ability to “hold onto one’s opinion against all odds,” (a reference to a wall label on display alongside Saidel Brito’s “Trece”). Changes in the art market, censorship, political and economic hardships failed to deter their artistic integrity. Saidel Brito’s “Trece” references these various adversities. Thirteen funerary wreaths somberly decorate the gallery floor; the accompanying text describes the significance of the number thirteen in Cuban history. The 13th of March marks the date of the student revolution against Fulgencio Batista in 1957, in addition to being the title given to a university art competition during a time when art was perceived as a “weapon of revolution” (demonstrated in Elvis Fuentes’ “A Timely Introduction). It is also the name of a schooner on its way to the United States, intercepted and sunk by Cuban coast guards. Brito’s “Trece” commemorates the deaths of those aboard and the persistence of their memory as time advances in Cuba.
The passage of life is also explored and emphasized in the video work by Carlos Garaicoa. In “Four Cubans”, Garaicoa positions four individuals in front of the camera as “talking heads” ready to be interviewed. Minutes elapse; no words are uttered and no actions are performed by the “interviewees.” Accentuating their silence is the ambient noise of car motors, bike pedals, and people going about daily life behind them. As one observes how the individuals shift their bodies and change their facial expressions, it becomes evident that their minds are rapidly at work and their silence becomes almost unbearable to the curious viewer. Given Cuba’s tense political atmosphere and issues of censorship, the lack of an attempt to convey their feelings is more effective than any number of words.  By having these silent interviewees momentarily turn their backs on the daily life that occurs behind them, Garaicoa expresses the futility of speech in a censored environment. Where the absence of words is central to “Four Cubans,” the absence of bodies is the driving force behind Luidmila Velasco’s piece.

The works by artists Luidmila Velasco and Rigoberto Quitana both address Cuba’s past and the uncertainty of the future. In “Those who are no longer here,” Velasco photographs color portraits of the houses and apartments of friends who have left Cuba. These photographs are personal testimonies to the people they were and the spaces they once occupied; their memories and stories left resonating within the walls of the architecture. However, questions of who they have become and what new life narratives have been written remain unanswered to the viewer, and quite possibly to the photographer. Quitana’s “Cuban Calendar” addresses this type of ambiguity but on a national level. Red digital print-outs of a lifeless Fidel Castro accompany pages representing each year, starting with 1959. Fidel is consistently inactive as you flip through; however, the intensity of the red gradually decreases. On the last page of “Cuban Calendar,” it is the year 2007; the red is a washed out pink and Fidel’s image is reduced to a faint outline. Quitana uses the calendar to express the unchanging state of Cuba, while alluding to its vague future. Killing Time provides artists like Quitana with a venue to house their creative speculations and responses to Cuba’s history.

The exhibition does not offer one conclusion; with over 80 artists being exhibited, each visitor may leave with a different interpretation of time in the context of Cuba. The curators allow the artists to locate themselves and consider their roles within this temporal space. The result is an entire gallery filled with cultural possibilities that have been realized.