Book Review: Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989 by Rachel Weiss and other authors, Afterall Books, 2011

The Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)[1] opens with a documentary sequence portraying a crowded street party at which a political killing takes place. We see a cluster of dancing figures and percussionists as gunshots resound. A body falls to the floor but is swiftly carried away by men in uniform – and the party continues. Rhythms of Afro-Cuban beats and a dead body thus become entangled signifiers that configure a subjective narrative of the revolutionary process and its aftermath.

This stretch of “memories” bears an in-betweenness, with half-truths and disjunctive pictures, a condition wherein a “pure” moment cannot be extracted and therefore this documentary fragment appears doubly haunted. Gerardo Mosquera, curator, art historian, and co-founder of Bienal de La Habana[2] states: “The Cuban Revolution produced one of the most toughest and radical regimes, but, since it happened to be in a Caribbean country famous for its music and nightlife, it was also, as Che Guevara proverbially put it, ‘revolución con pachanga,’ or revolution with party.” With the opening of the 10th edition in March 2009, the Havana biennale celebrated 25 years of existence.
On Fidel Castro’s recommendation, Centro Wifredo Lam was set up in 1983, with the principal responsibility of organizing a visual arts biennale that would serve as a common forum for artistic approaches and discourse emerging from the Third World.

Besides Cuba’s ideological commitments to Third World solidarity and South-South exchange, the first few biennale editions were influenced by Cold War geo-politics, as evidenced through the exclusion of states like China and South Korea. While its story is now evoked in the framework of recent efforts to collate a history of exhibitions, there are several “missing” signifiers to be dealt with when re-visiting the “plot:” political formations and terminologies that no longer “perform” the critical roles they once held and often lapse into a state of naïve reminisce, or are distorted to fit into the food chain of present-day globally.

However, the latest book in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series, Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989, is discerning in its exploration of this biennale as a manifestation that embraced, yet also actively debated, the very terms and commitments that brought its stakeholders together. The book succeeds in assembling a fresh set of commentaries and a tableau of remembrances through catalogue excerpts, reviews, updated versions of paper presentations delivered as part of the third edition’s discursive program, and recent interviews with participant artists.
In his introduction to the book, Charles Esche considers the “place” of the third Bienal de La Habana amidst the global events of 1989. Coincidentally, it opened just a week prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its timing also dovetailed with two other exhibitions that sought “global reach” and came to be chronicled as noteworthy “identity exhibitions” — Magiciens de la Terre [3] in Paris and The Other Story in London. While all three exhibitions employed different curatorial strategies, and varied in extent, they revealed a panoply of perspectives on “other” Modernisms. These endeavours involved “a chewing over and spitting out” that produced a renewed field of possibility and provoked transitions from an auto-tuned art history toward polyvocal and peripatetic frequencies of “elsewheres.”

(Read Complete Article in C Magazine, Issue 112 “Exhibition Practices”)

Notes:

[1] The film is directed by Tomás Gutiérrez
Alea and is based on the novel Inconsolable
Memories by Edmundo Desnoes. It was first
censored when selected for a public screening
in the United States.

[2] Mosquera resigned from the biennale’s
organizational team following the third
edition.

[3] Luis Camnitzer notes that only two artists,
Jose Bedia (Cuba) and Seven Twins
(Nigeria), were part of both the Bienal
de La Habana and Magiciens de la Terre.
A forthcoming book in the Exhibition
Histories series will form the second part
of “Making Art Global” and will look into
the radical yet much critiqued exhibition
Magiciens de la Terre, curated by Jean
Hubert Martin and held at Centre Georges
Pompidou and the Grande Halle at the
Parc de la Villette, in Paris.

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