Los Carpinteros: When citizens outlive their heroes

Installation View, “Cuba Va!”

Contributed by Katarina Wong / “Cuba Va! (Cuba Goes!)” at The Phillips Collection in DC is a small but powerful exhibition of recent work by the renowned Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters). Born and raised in post-Revolution Cuba, Los Carpinteros were educated in the Cuban boarding school system, where the collective is valued over the individual. Marco Castillo, Dagoberto Rodríguez, and Alexandre Arrechea founded the group in Havana in 1992, and Arrechea left the collective in 2003. In 2018, the remaining duo separated. This is the first exhibition of new work by Los Carpinteros since that break. They use design, sculpture, architecture, and video to show the complexity and nuance of contemporary Cuban culture.

“Cuba Va!,” which refers to the revolutionary cry popularized in a 1970s song, opens with a room devoted to portraits of Cubans. They are created in the linear style of the iconic, monumental portraits of communist revolutionaries Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos found on buildings in the Plaza de la Revolucíon in Havana. Although smaller (around 60 inches high), the portraits by Los Carpinteros resonate with tension between who is considered a hero and who is an average citizen in post-revolution Cuba.

Los Carpinteros, It’s not Che, it’s Simón, 2017, aluminium, LED lights, 60 1/4 x 36 7/8 x 2 inches. Image courtesy The Phillips Collection website

Importantly, the portraits are of older Cubans, who were young when Ché and Camilo were promoting revolution but have now outlived those mythic figures. Los Carpinteros seem to be celebrating the citizenry’s longevity within the system, as well as criticizing an aging government that still hasn’t delivered on promises made over 60 years ago.

Installation view, “Cuba Va!”

In the second room, two recent videos, Comodato and Retráctil, face each other. As Castillo explained in an interview in The Washington Informer, comodato is a loan contract with the government, enabling the borrower to use the house for a certain amount of time.

Comodato (still), 2018, 22:34 min. [Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection website]

In Comodato, Los Carpinteros seamlessly stitched scenes from homes in the most exclusive neighborhoods to those in the most impoverished. The film opens at an estate where a white mansion draws the viewer in. The camera proceeds through one opulent room after another. The scenes could have easily been shot in wealthy homes in Miami or Los Angeles.

The camera then takes a corner to reveal a kitchen, then a bathroom, each the size of a studio apartment in New York, and both still pristine with their 1950s color schemes and fixtures. The camera keeps moving, heading down steps to more rooms, now each more run down than the next, until it exits through a wooden shack filled with large sacks of hoarded plastic bottles. Garbage flows out to the stream behind it. Within the 22-minute film, Los Carpinteros put the lie to the idea of Cuba as a classless society, presenting a much more complex picture of how contemporary Cubans live.

Retráctil (“Retractable”) is a black and white recreation of the public humiliation of Cuban poet and intellectual, Heberto Padilla. The film opens in a slaughterhouse where pigs are being processed. The bloody floors are eventually swept to make way for him to speak. In the early 1970s, Padilla had criticized the Cuban government, was jailed, and was then forced to publicly recant his statements. His disgrace backfired on the government, however, and caused Castro to lose the support of many intellectuals in Cuba. In Padilla’s subtitled speech—which, at the time of viewing, was kept at an extremely low volume in the gallery—he confesses his error in holding different views than the state. The unspoken purpose of his speech was to convince the government that he was a new man whose ideas now aligned with theirs. It is unsettling to watch this re-enactment, as Padilla stands in a place of literal bloodshed delivering words born of coercion.

Retráctil (still), 2018, 17:06 min. [Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection website]

Is “Cuba Va!” a rallying cry for a new revolution or a wry jab at the failures of the last one? Perhaps it is both. In these different works, Los Carpinteros presents an image of Cuba that defies a one-dimensional reading. Theirs is not a Cuba seen through a haze of pre-revolution nostalgia, nor is it a socialist paradise. They unearth ambiguities that leave viewers wrestling with unexpected glimpses into a country so close, yet still so far away.

Los Carpinteros: Cuba Va!,” The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Through January 12, 2020.

About the author: Katarina Wong is an artist and writer. She is also the program manager of the Arts Administration graduate program at Teachers College Columbia University. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Related posts:
Zilia Sánchez, surrounded by the sea
Our woman in Havana: The Construction of the Possible, Part 1
Our woman in Havana: Exploring what it means to be Cuban / The Havana Biennial, Part 2
Artist to artist: An exchange with Cuba

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