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.