May 19, 2005


Below the Surface: Daydreams of Havana, and Other Cities, Too


Walking the dilapidated streets of Havana, the Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa imagined an alternative universe. He pondered the Art Deco facades behind which dogs prowled debris-strewn lots and the disintegrating columns that supported nothing but sky. In 1993 he began transforming those ruins into artworks that seem as evocative as the city itself.

He would pretend to prop up a building's walls with wooden beams and then photograph the results. On another photograph of a crumbling site he would superimpose absurd drawings or the outlines of utopian architectural structures. In 1996 he took his obsessions with cityscapes on the road, in an exhibition at the Art in General gallery in Manhattan that explored the relationship between Havana and New York. Several of the works featured an object photographed on the streets of both cities. Another juxtaposed a photograph of a young Cuban in Havana who literally wore his urban dream on his arm in the form of a tattoo of the World Trade Center towers with a photograph of the actual towers.

A growing number of artists around the world have begun looking at their city's streets as metaphors for politics, culture and history. Mr. Garaicoa's tragicomic view of Havana travels particularly well. At 37, he is a rising star of international art fairs who has translated his urban excavations into riffs not just on Havana but on cities as disparate as Moscow and Los Angeles.

Through July 17 his interpretations of Los Angeles and Havana are on view at the Pacific Design Center of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. This survey of his recent work, "Carlos Garaicoa: Capablanca's real passion," includes pop-up books, videos, architectural models and rice paper lanterns whose glowing shapes evoke a nocturnal metropolis idealized from afar.

"Everybody who lives in a city knows what I am talking about," Mr. Garaicoa said in a recent telephone interview from Havana, explaining his fascination with urban centers. "In the complexity of a big city, a lot of people are fighting for something, looking for something. So the city is a very rich subject to make work about love, hate, history, beauty, what people expect from life and how politics get involved."

Mr. Garaicoa (pronounced gar-eye-CO-ah) lives in Havana with his wife and son. But he often spends weeks, even months, reconnoitering the cities where he will show his works.

But in the case of Los Angeles, he made only one short visit, in March 2004. There, Alma Ruiz, a Museum of Contemporary Art curator who organized the exhibition , pointed out an abandoned storage building at the edge of the Santa Monica Freeway that was scheduled for demolition. He photographed it then but was never able to return for the next stage: photographing the site after the building was torn down (a friend did that for him) or even to see the exhibition.

Last fall his visa application was turned down, something that has happened to other Cubans over the last year under the Bush administration's tightened restrictions on Cuba.

To complete plans for the Los Angeles exhibition, Ms. Ruiz had to catch up with Mr. Garaicoa in Moscow in January, where he was participating in that city's first biennale.

There he displayed the techniques that result in his Los Angeles exhibition, as in the before-and-after photographs of the storage building site. That final work paired huge black-and-white photographs: on the left the shabby Art Deco building against a cloudy sky; on the right, the vacant lot with an outline of the former building traced in red thread.

In Moscow, however, his photographed reconstructions had a harsher edge. It was in Russia, he said, that he found the roots of so much that he deplores in Soviet-influenced Cuba.

"I wondered, how did Cuba get involved in all that?" he said in an interview in Moscow in January. "We come from African gods; when we have problems, we go to the beach." The Moscow installation is called "To transform the political speech in fact, finally." It includes black-and-white photographs of Havana streets and buildings on which he stitched in red the outlines of the avant-garde architecture of the 1920's Russian Constructionists. In glass cases, he displayed sheets of Soviet stamps imprinted with current Cuban political slogans. The thread architectural drawings represented the exuberance of the first years of revolution; the stamps the export of a stale ideology to Cuba.

"I'm bringing back to Russia all this official propaganda that doesn't belong to me," he explained.

The Los Angeles exhibition, "Capablanca's real passion," takes its title from another of Mr. Garaicoa's works that explores Cuban-American relations. It consists of a chessboard on which the pieces have been arranged to reproduce a moment in the 1918 New York chess match between the American champion, Frank Marshall, and José Raúl Capablanca, the Cuban who defeated him.

"My idea is that America and Cuba have been playing a game of chess for a century," Mr. Garaicoa said.

The chess pieces are fantastical models of old Havana buildings as well as the boxy high rises, nuclear reactors and television towers of the modernist enterprise that visionaries once believed would change the world. If the buildings were removed from the board, he said in the telephone interview, the landscape would change, just as political and economic forces change cities. "My art is not political," he said. "But it is playing a game with politics. It is a little judgment of history."


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