Grethell Rasua and Harold Garcia.

A Journey Through the Landscapes of Vanity

By: Giacomo Zaza

For the exhibition project On the Altars of Vanity, Grethell Rasua and Harold  Garcia propose  a twofold view, addressing themes  both  of  the  capitalist, neoliberal and  of the  communist  realm  (based  on  the  anti- capitalist and anti-imperialist creed of socialist origin).  A research  related to the experiences of Garcia in Miami and Rasua in Cuba.

This double look uses a sort of “ontogenetic” relationship with the environments in which the two artists live, a dialogical contact with their own cultural habitat full of visual and semantic codes (stemming from urban  or naturalistic  domain).  Their inquiry is within territories  where traces  of  biological diversity,  the memory  of a strong  endemism are  perceived, as well as the  artificial, the  space  managed  by man,  the changes causes by social systems. Along these places redesigned by endless textures and weaves, the gaze of the two artists reaches  the boundaries between  the natural and the artificial, glimpsing the unbearable conjunction of political power with economic power – in the case of Garcia – or the social perspectives that can germinate among the ruins and remnants of the architecture of the past – in the case of Rasua. However they court the human  drifts that affect the personal and collective existence. Above all, as the title of the exhibition indicates, On the Altars of Vanity, the gaze focuses on the material inconsistency, on the pretension, on the ephemeral. Entering the stage of a theater of self-satisfaction (as we will see in Garcia’s installation): that pleasure  of appearance and flaunting secretly in every human  being  that unfortunately can be at the root of biological disasters, such as the extinctions of animal  species, or instead progressively changing  aesthetic devices (the chromatic paint on Havana’s shabby  building facades in Rasua’s work).  In short, it is a gaze that explores the euphoria of vanity, transience and uselessness, on the edges of the profound meaning  of life.  Discusses and  comes  face to face with the  vicissitudes  of that “aesthetic metapolitics” that “transforms the form into the form of life” (Jacques Rancière, French Philosopher and Art Critic).

Harold Garcia and  Grethell  Rasua  share  the  ability to  elaborate, through a fervent  artistic intermedia process   –  which includes video, photo, drawing,  watercolor,  object  – a  “landscape”  of  the  moving imagination, from the inside  to the outside of the contexts, and the other way around.  In their imaginative perspective, fluctuating forge of maps and visions, interpretative acts and new perceptions, we can infer that in the construction of the  social behavior and  appearance characterize  the  two  socio-economical systems  put in parallel here (capitalism – liberalism, and communism – real socialism), each with its own characteristics, its own seduction and its own decadence.

Starting from the real experience, the works  exhibited in Miami introduces us to a metaphorical journey in the  middle of two  contradictory  scenarios such  as Cuba and Florida (United  States).  It is a journey that highlights  the  introspective  practice  of  Harold   and  Grethell:  that  attitude of  exploring  the  political deviations and limits of the social imagination, the stereotypes and contradictions, the scars and the roots both in the private as in the collective scope. Of course  there are differences in the linguistic system with respect to the two artists – for example, Harold examines reality, starting from  an excavation in the past to the present and allowing a glimpse of a different horizon,  while Grethell archives an unquenchable metamorphosis of the vitalistic scenarios of bodies (of others and her own), of impulses and desires.

On the  Altars  of Vanity  emphasizes an art that moves  in the  “post-utopian”  areas,  between  ideological masks  and  real questions, between perversion and  experiences, between illusion and  critical disenchantment. Not  only  that, but  it highlights contamination  and  hybridization  as  the  basis for the construction  of  a new  subjectivity:  a field of  resistance  to imperatives and  interdictions.  All the  visual fragments used by the  two  artists respond  to the  will of a cognitive practice poised between  critical and reflective action, between  public intervention and ethnographic record.  The interest is not towards the affirmation of the great narratives, but for the exploration of the minimum stories that intend to bridge the growing gap between  the official discourse, imbued with slogans and propaganda, and ordinary life. An open approach   to  the   accumulated   experiences,  paradoxes   of   current  events,   and   vanity   manifestation nowadays.

In the last twenty years, contemporary practices have a profound desire for communication, shared spaces, identity re-configuration and discussion, team work (a particular sharing of cognitive horizons). In terms of the method  an intermediate pattern is useful for thinking and achieving complex works, with means that are connected and  belonging  to a context  that is not  necessarily uniform, but fragmented,  indeed  the  way reality is. Generation Y (born in the nineties) propelled the assimilation of the Other, of the appropriation of any element to reformulate it through a visual mixture. Many Cuban-born artists such as Garcia and Rasua try to define the plots of time and socio-cultural space, frame it and find elements of its relevance,  to work in  the  fruitful interstices  of this particular  space-time, both  at a local and  global scale. Art seeks  the expression of the “politics of civilization” that provides a voice to “human problems of identity, community, solidarity and culture” (Edgar Morin) and rethink a new relationship with the non-economic. Art that counteracts the oppression of a political scene transformed into “business management”, interested only in the administrative and tourism sectors.

As anticipated, the artistic practices of Garcia and Rasua are devoted  to an open interpretation of reality. Rasua pays attention to the heterogeneous and marginal situation of some Cuban scenarios, which generate an “anti-canonical” force. It captures and re-transmits the frequencies around  her to convert them  into a sensible aesthetic horizon. In fact, the patchwork practice, central to the Cubierta de Deseos installation, appears  to be in Cuba an extemporaneous modality useful  for solving daily difficulties, and in general  for managing the precariousness and deterioration of infrastructures. While, on another front, Garcia uses all the   sound,   iconic  and  documentary  manifestations  to   evoke  past  and  current  experiences.  Like  a kaleidoscopic survey  that absorbs   social,   racial,   political, environmental  and  ecological contexts,  and revolves around the ecology of human action.

Garcia’s installation On the Altars of Vanity, 2017-19, alludes to the ghost of frivolity that hovers  around Miami  and infects the living standards of the Florida communities. This installation – consisting of videos, photos and watercolors – considers the earth as a physical body subjected to the dangers of corruption, the whims of  the  economy  and  the  lust for prestige,  as  well as  its ostentation.  Here  Garcia composes   a polyphonic “scenario” starting from the events that threatened, and continue to threaten, the safety  of the splendid subtropical marshland ecoregion of the Everglades always at risk due to the invasive and corrosive actions  of man  dictated  by pleasure and  leisure above all. Observing the  immense expanse  of swamps, marshes  and islets, stretching from Lake Okeechobee in the north to the Bay of Florida in the south, to the west by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast to the east – Garcia traces backwards, thanks to a video which unites  documents  collected  from disparate  sources,  not  only the  various attempts  at reclamation with canals and drainages (highly damaging to the  Everglades, formed  by an invisible river  that is moves imperceptibly from the waters of Lake Okeechobee to over sixty kilometers) and of agricultural development (in particular the cultivation of sugar  cane and vegetables that with phosphorus fertilizers devastate the entire ecosystem), but also  the massacre  of birds carried out to adorn  ladies’ precious hats  in the early decades  of the  twentieth century. Given  that narcissism demands   attention  and  adulation,  the  artist showcases the exhibition of vanity (in fact precisely as in Diderot’s Encyclopedia which  denounced those who famish luxurious clothing) presenting in the installation a series of watercolors that show – in an almost manneristic manner  according to the style of the era – a collection of feminine hats,  echoing the  models designed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Along with the images of the hats inspired by the powerful hat manufacturing industries of New York, Paris, London, we also appreciate some images of birds  in the park. On each watercolor there is a fragment of text indicating hat particularities and its cost. It reminds us of Flemish-style fetishism (as in the still life of painter Vanita di Juriaen van Streeck, 1632-1687) of rare and exotic fauna (trophy of unscrupulous hunters). Paradoxically, the group of watercolors capture the  incredible variety  of endangered  birds: a diversity that ranges  from  the  tricolor heron  and the  white egret, the pink egret and night heron.

Yet, as Garcia points out through some satellite photographs, the integrity of the subtropical spaces of the Park is affected by the alteration of the natural flow of water (vital for the pine forests and the meandering rivers  between  mangrove  forests used by migratory birds or where they live permanently) due to the embezzlement  and  control  of  rivers by construction companies for the  construction of  large  residential agglomerations that have artificial lakes (seen from above they look like as arabesques). Consequently, On the  Altars of Vanity explores  the contextual dangers  at the hands  of building speculations that ruins  the Everglades’ aquatic health ecosystem for the benefit of expensive artificial areas for the wealthy.

Towards the end of the installation the artist creates  a photographic sequence  that associates the pictures of birds with those of hats and buildings under construction, according to a circular ethnographic mapping that remind us of some  analytical practice to  improve the  environment, such  as those  by Peter  Fend  – careful to draw  maps  to monitor  changes  – or  those  of  Helen  Mayer  Harrison and  Newton  Harrison – proponents of ecological reflections between hypotheses of solutions and strident contradictions, between conflicts and threats to the conservation of biodiversity.

Emphasizing the grave error in considering nature as an anonymous  background or reserve to be exploited, Garcia’s cognitive map emphasizes on the dominance of luxury (the conditions of prestige and social distinction)  that ruins  relations  within the  geological  epidermis of the  world.  A game of references  with respect to birds’ extermination and building expansion, the reality that man often  establishes relations with the environment driven by pleasure, exploitation and distribution is undeniable in his artwork. Obviously the human aggressive intervention of nature  causes dysfunctions and devastating effects that invariably lead to high  costs  of  rehabilitation.  The  whole  installation  captures the  environment  as  the  repository  of  a necessary wealth for mankind: an ethical and aesthetic index not to be overlooked.

In Grethell Rasua’s artistic practice, on the other  hand, there is no glimpse of the chromatic values of the plumage,  but of the decorative modifications made on the facades of the private houses of Havana. In Cuba, the dilapidated and vulnerable inhabited buildings, are embellished by an external “naïf” make-up that, as a visual and psychological substitute,  covering the  decay  and filth with bright  colors. This phenomenon is documented in the installation Cubiertas de Deseos, 2008-2019, using a life-size blow-up, a video and a book  that mark  the  transformations  of the  small pieces  of repainted architecture.  A collection  of small exterior surfaces: an urban  polychrome landscape dotted with portions of buildings repainted as a map of the desires of the people who cannot afford to renovate their homes.

Inspecting the common  life, Grethell highlights both the aspirations and dreams of the population that lives in the old ruined  buildings, as well as the masked illusions of better conditions. The need to conceal the dirt through pigments, which are inaccurately distributed in a do-it-yourself version,  is nothing  but a visual ostentation, a momentary aesthetic pleasure, behind which the precarious conditions temporarily fade.

The artistic gesture of Grethell Rasua condenses  and regenerates the Cuban imagination through an anthropological discourse aware of the daily difficulties. From the immersion in the “street” she brings to life actions and projects that underline the transformation and contamination behind  an idyllic, as well as utopian, appearance of Cuba. Same as seen in the video Como Las Aguas Quedan Algunos, 2007, illustrates the different moments of the flow of water – in an apparently natural way – through the impervious streets of Havana. In the end we realize that the clear drop that falls from a wall, channeling itself between the muddy and corrupt roads, becomes stagnant.

The  precariousness and  misery  experienced redesign   the  daily life  of  each  community,  governing  its relational dynamics and survival rhythms, or primary existence. It is no coincidence that Rasua has always been  attentive  to Cuban  social  dynamics  poised  between  beauty   and  decadence, idyllic  vision and precariousness. Remarkable are some the inquiries carried out by the artist in Havana towards the end of the 2000s regarding the gray area of the black market. The result was an examination in the dynamics of shady  commercial transactions  , the  trade  in illegal goods  (drugs  or stolen cigars)  disguised as sweets, underwear, toys,  etc.  Here  too,  behind  the  idyll of  the  exchange,  there  was  social failure of  politically questionable characteristics.

Rasua,  therefore,  has  always  plunged into  the  process   of  direct  exchange,  taking  part  of  it, without symbolist loopholes or rhetorical filters. For her every prerogative of the senses, every stereotype of urban beauty  (central value in the logic of global tourism) is a social, political and cultural predicament. In Cuba, as  elsewhere,  the  is an  underground flow  of  an  endogenous   anarchism that  continually shapes  the landscape, between what is said and the unspoken: useful and superfluous, harmonious and kitsch, legal and illegal. However, this landscape is never moralistic.

In Rasua, as in Garcia, the work possesses  a point of view entrusted inversely to those who contemplate it. Materials, images and messages  populate a horizon that questions us: the interrogatives are presented to us in their appearance and through their visual interpellation they capture our eye and our mind. Through the inventory of traces  and signs, the two  artists testify to the freedom  to imagine a history and a shared world, “a mixture of past impressions and recent knowledge”, Sartre would say, which teaches us “scientifically” nothing, but neither does imprison or indoctrinates us (!).

Their  objective is not  scatological but reflective: to be able to predict the  charm  of residential  areas  of Miami,  embellished with pools and  artificial lakes, precisely the  abuse  of appropriation  and  the  use  of nature  for the benefit and well-being of the individual, in a blind disinterest in the extinction of fauna; or behind the decorative pieces on Cuban palaces, often unsafe and crumbling under a totalitarian rule.

Our eye and mind are attracted by fool vanity straining our vision of the world.  Behind the charm  of vanities we forget the importance of the biosphere, and only focus on urban environments and the social sphere, the fundamental problems. Perhaps, as Edgar Morin suggests, putting aside the world based on profit, we will concern  ourselves  with our “awareness of belonging  to an earthly homeland”, a “planetary citizenship” tha recognizes the  “complexity of the  living”, even the  cosmic one (since “Man does not  have the  sovereign mission  to dominate nature”).

The ones,  affected by vanity, advertise  not  their real  beauty, but the  idea of beauty  that they  believe to embody.  This seems  to me to be close  to the  idea that the  forms of ideological absolutism  have had  in undertaking any path  that leads to an utopian splendor. For example the image of the classless society of communism (erased by the thunderous collapse of the Soviet and European socialism). Garcia warns of the excesses of vanity in the formulas of communism, as well as those of capitalism, and of the imperialism of the multinationals or the Free Trade Treaties (the illusion of a free trade  that does not exist). For the video installation  The Third  Bullet, 2016-2019, the  emphasis is on the  feelings that are still burning  about  the communist way of life for some inhabitants of Austria. The artist intends to discuss the dissolution of an ideology  devoid  of political-social  processes, of total emancipation.  The video shows  Garcia  resolve  on assembling an old contraption equipped with a large sheet capable  of capturing the fog and collecting water in various Austrian sites. After collecting a can of water and freezing when at home in Cuba he places  a pin from   the  Austrian  Communist  Party,   given  to  him  by  a  party   activist.  In  the  video  the  scenes  are accompanied by the voice of the militant communist who comments on the glories of the party, and puts  it in dialectic with capitalism. The final scene shows us an ice cube slowly  melting under the Memorial to José Martí  in the  Plaza  de la Revolución  in Havana.  In the  video at  a certain  point  the  discussion on the  two systems  merge. Garcia alludes to the white flags similar to the triumphalist drapes  of the Revolutions. He knows,   however,  that we  must   move  beyond  the  terms  of  the  socialism that  dismissed the  ancient bourgeois classes, author  of new management classes, which  suffocated religions and eliminated forms of protest, both beyond the soft and consensual political system by hand with the slowdown in the production of economic means. The danger then is an authoritarian capitalism: the transition from a failed communism to something amorphous, such as the political and economic control of the technocrats, the new vedettes and the new floggers of reality. Hence it would  be good to move even beyond liberalism in economics and the  pure  administration of the  existing in politics. So? What is the  non-socialist or non-capitalist option proposed  by Harold? Certainly it would fully include a policy at the service of the people that does not make any distinction between governors  and governed,  who knows  how to maintain an austerity as a rule of life and government, with compassionate towards plurality of identity.

The way remains  open,  in progress.  For the  moment we continue  the  journey through  the  landscapes of vanity not without the input of resistance to today’s cultural asphyxia.

Text: Giacomo Zaza

Translator English Text from Italian: Claudia de Oliveira C.