Art In A Neon Cage: Welcome To The Havana Biennial

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In Cuba's socialist economy, if you want a well-paid career, you probably won't find it as a lawyer or engineer. You may do much better as an artist. Successful Cuban artists travel abroad, benefit from state support and can earn huge sums selling their work to foreign buyers.

And every two years, they get a shot at a breakthrough at the Havana Biennial, which has become one of the most important art events in Latin America.

The biennial's home is Havana's La Cabana fortress. Built late in the 18th century, it was the largest Spanish colonial fortification in the Americas. It's been a grim place for much of its history, serving as a military garrison, a prison and the site of some notorious firing-squad payback after the Cuban Revolution.

But this month, as the center of Havana's Biennial, it makes for an art gallery like no other.

In the cavernous space of what was once a large prison cell, Oswaldo Gonzalez, 30, has spent weeks installing a piece he calls Domestic Scene.

With nothing more than carefully cut pieces of cardboard, masking tape and back-lit strips of brown paper, he's recreating something like a cozy living room, complete with a soothing fireplace and windows.

"This is the most important art event in Cuba," Gonzalez says. "For young artists who are trying to emerge, this is our chance to meet collectors, gallery owners and museum directors."

Gonzalez is just one of the young Cuban artists who cleverly make use of the biennial's setting. Another piece features huge oil derricks set between the fortress ramparts, their rusting hulls covered with sod. Then there's the room full of lifelike clay human figures, which a Cuban sculptor will slowly dissolve under a web of shower heads.

The artist Duvier del Dago gathered 3,000 pieces of rusting iron that flaked off an old Spanish cannon and suspended them on strings to recreate the object's ghostly image in the air, illuminating the entire thing in a darkened cell with black lights.

"It's sort of mystical," del Dago says. "I wanted to make something lyrical out of the fact that no one seemed to care that this cannon was falling apart."

Foreign collectors do care about Cuban art, and many of these pieces can run in the thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars.

Still, artists here struggle with the lack of decent Internet access, and only a few have agents who can represent them abroad. Access to the best market for their work is complicated by a U.S. embargo.

"Cuban artists have lots of ideas which they cannot develop, because of the lack of budget," says Christian Gundin, a young collector who represents several artists in Havana. "But if they can sell this work, I'm sure they will try to produce some of the other ideas they have in mind."

For some young artists, the Havana Biennial is the place to take risks with their work as well as their savings, hoping to catch the eye of visitors from Europe and, increasingly, the United States.

Artist Lorena Gutierrez, 24, sank thousands of dollars into her installation, importing sheets of holographic vinyl from Peru, and a giant custom-built cage from Spain with white neon lights for bars.

"I'm a little tired of people saying we have to work with basic materials because we're here in Cuba," Gutierrez says. "I wanted to make something glamorous and beautiful, even if I had to find a way to bring materials from far away."

The result is a cell inside the fortress whose high walls and vaulted ceiling are covered by the iridescent vinyl and lit up with the electric glow of the neon cage that hangs in the center of the room. It creates a warm, almost psychedelic rainbow effect, but the cell and the buzzing cage produce a disturbing feeling of confinement.

Gutierrez calls the work Condemned, and it's up to the viewer to read between the lines.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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