Over the course of a month, the Cuban capital witnessed an authentic celebration of the most advanced visuality. The XIII Havana Biennial surpassed its aim: to propose a multiple view of contemporary creation, and to put forward how the possible, and even the impossible, can be built from the plastic arts, as a platform for thought and dialogue on how art reflects the concerns of human beings today.
Participation figures and the number of exhibitions were eloquent, but not enough to explain what the Biennial left behind. The high level of international participation, with the presence of artists, curators, critics and promoters from 52 countries from all continents, was a sign of the sustained prestige of the event. The diversity of themes, trends and styles constituted an unequivocal indication of the inclusive nature of the Biennial.
What should be thought and rethought regarding what was achieved, or what was left behind along the way? This is the duty of the curatorial team and the institutions involved. Artist and critic Manuel López Oliva expressed the not only legitimate, but essential need to define “together with styles and the operational aspects of substantial discourses, the presence of a kind of spider web that traps us, in many cases, with works supported by the false justification of being ‘contemporary art,’ or simple reproductions, not known to all, of what was once done, and remained as a norm in books and catalogs or magazines.”
However, I also agree with the observation of critic Carina Pino Santos, on affirming that the Biennial offered “very special opportunities to appreciate the capacity of art to influence sociocultural processes, especially when we can find creations, in the broadest spirit, that generally go beyond the more limited sense stemming from privatization of the international art system, and the most banal commodification.”
This corresponds to a principle defended by the Biennial from its foundation, which was accurately expressed by Llilian Llanes, who I can never fail to mention due to her longstanding devotion to the launch and consolidation of the event. She argued that it serves as a space for the problematization of art, which goes beyond the simple sum of exhibitions, workshops and theoretical sessions, to give way to a comprehensive and cross-cutting conception, through which “Each Biennial had to place the magnifying glass over some current problem, not in the traditional way of a theme, but as an object of reflection that would allow to appreciate the different points of view existing in relation to a matter of common interest.”
The context in which the event was organized, characterized by the intensification of economic hostility toward Cuba and its consequences on daily life, cannot be ignored. This manifested itself in objective material and logistical difficulties, and occasional breaches, in which organizational shortcomings also played a big part. The latter, of course, should serve as grounds for analysis.
What is undeniable is that art went beyond conventional spaces, as never before, to vividly insert itself in public life.
The “Detrás del muro” (Behind the Wall) project, stretching along the Malecón and surrounding areas; the “Ríos intermitentes” (Intermittent Rivers) initiative in Matanzas; and the “Mar adentro” (Out to Sea) project at the Muelle Real de Cienfuegos, are commendable examples of how much can be done in favor of sharing aesthetic experiences. The “Corredor Cultural de la calle Línea” (Línea Street Cultural Corridor) project, launched during the Biennial, remains to be consolidated.
It is very good to know that works exhibited during the Biennial, both those belonging to the official program and the collateral events, will be kept for the enjoyment of those who for various reasons were unable to see them.
Last but not least important was the Biennial’s role as a showcase for Cuban art. Both in the main exhibitions and the intense collateral program and open studios, we saw what our artists do, their concerns and aspirations, their achievements and shortcomings. There is no better gauge to ascertain where we are; a good task for critics and institutions.