Carlos Garaicoa

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

This exhibition brings together work from the last ten years or so from a Cuban artist, born in 1967 in Havana, who now maintains studios both in his native city and Madrid. By the end of the nineties Garaicoa already had an international profile, and his work was represented in the Documenta of 2002. On the evidence of this exhibition he is worthy of such attention: the subtlety and reflective quality of the artworks were a welcome change from the sensationalist or merely clever post-conceptual work that very often is wheeled out in galleries and museums. Not that Garaicoa is immune to delivering the odd ‘one-liner’ himself: The Most Beautiful Sculpture is the Brick we Throw at the Face of the Cops (2008) presents the viewer with a wall built of copies of a solid-looking book on May ’68, apart from at one near-central point, where the book has been replaced by a paving block. But such lighter affairs are more than made up for by the quiet unfolding in various dimensions of a piece like No. 3 of the series Minimo is not Minimal (Mr. S. L.’s tricks) (2010). It comprises two wall-hung images, the first a powerful photographic print of a brutal concrete ruin on a pier, which would have been enough by itself for many artists (a romantic aftermath of the passing of modernist ideals), but accompanied here by a drawing based on the photograph, in which the ruin becomes a Minimalist object, stripped of any romanticism. The persistent ghost of the modernist ideal, the continuing influence on contemporary work of the terms of the Minimalist object, the translation, or conceptualisation, of photograph into drawing, all are present unobtrusively alongside and in the aftermath of the primary, affective photo.

Carlos Garaicoa, No Way Out (2002). Installation. Wood table, wire and rice paper lamps, 140 x 330 x 330 cm. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Le Moulin. Photo Ela Bialkowska.
Carlos Garaicoa, No Way Out (2002). Installation. Wood table, wire and rice paper lamps, 140 x 330 x 330 cm. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Le Moulin. Photo Ela Bialkowska.

On the evidence of this exhibition, Garaicoa’s chief interests lie with architecture and the city, and the ways in which they embody political ideologies and artistic ideals, often providing a material rejoinder to the abstraction and rationalist self-assurance of those same implicit ideas. Paper cut-out architectural forms, undetached from the sheet from which they were cut, but raised up into the third dimension, occupy a zone between the planner or architect’s drawing-board and the reality of lived space (Bend City (Red) [2007]); silver mini-replicas of buildings associated with political repression and persecution scale-down and subvert the power invested in the originals while maintaining a fetishistic aura (The Crown Jewels [2009]); the artist’s collection of books on architecture, textual anticipations of real organised space, extend out of the textual and begin to architecturally order space themselves (My Personal Library Grows-up Together with My Political Principles [2008]); in a small animated video a figure stands, apparently with a feeling of wind-in-hair liberation, on top of a modernist tower, before throwing himself suicidally forward, only to reappear at the top of the tower as the video loops (My Public Obsessions [2009]).

Despite this clear centrality of the architectural, bringing into play Garaicoa’s wry critical eye for the simultaneous failure and fundamentality of twentieth century modernist utopianism, it was a different quality of the exhibition that set me thinking. A lot of this work brought the word ‘poetic’ to mind. This was understandable in the face of works like Untitled (La Internacional) (2009) which quietly altered (with an added layer of thread mesh) texts found in public spaces to suggest underlying, unspoken realities, as if an urban unconscious was being teased out by an artist-psychoanalyst. But with a work like Loss (2006), which contains no textual element, the fact that the word still felt apposite had me puzzled. Loss is an assemblage of Japanese-looking paper lamps, laid out to resemble a model of a city, or rather – as no one-to-one correspondence between the piece and buildings and streets seems likely, and the illumination of the lamps introduces a certain vividness – a three-dimensional image for a city. The work could be described as ‘post-conceptualist’ (i.e. part of an expanded practice, working in various media, throughout which certain recurring concerns are perceptible), but it quietly refrains from communicating any specific issue, nor is there any risk that its aesthetic qualities might immerse the viewer, splicing retinal effects to conceptual motors, as often happens with work made since the eighties with a conceptualist awareness. Instead, a certain language of ‘city’, and ‘global city’ hovers about the piece, as well as, of course, the connotations of the work’s evocative title. They are held in check, however, by the simple facticity of the lamps. No matter how much one thinks in terms of urbanism or globalisation, or homogenisation or the disappearance of the local, in other words, the viewer is still left with the lamps, and their ‘lampiness’, as it were. This feels somehow ‘poetic’ to me, a quality I suspect to be bound up with a particular realisation of post-conceptual art, and one which appears to be particularly at home in recent Latin American art.
I first came across this use of ‘poetic’ at the same 2002 Documenta, where it was associated by the exhibition’s battery of texts with the work of Argentinian artist Victor Grippo. In this case (in the piece Tables of Work and Reflection [1978 – 1994]) the proximity of poetry was made explicit by including poetic quotations on the eponymous workman’s tables (so explicit that critic Cameron Irving complained of the repetitive appearance of the actual word ‘poetica’, and the amplified ‘poetic feeling’ in a review of the piece for Frieze magazine). It was not an entirely convincing introduction to ‘poetic conceptualism’, being a little heavy-handed and issues based, but it did manage to embody a certain constellation of ‘poetic’ elements: the use of modest found objects, aesthetically untransformed, but artistically translated by their association with text that showed an awareness of Latin American literature, combined with a leftist sensibility. Over Garaicoa’s IMMA exhibition the twin stars of Jorge Luis Borges, practically a literary conceptualist himself, and Italo Calvino (admittedly Italian, but born in Cuba), preside. Less explicit, but none the less an influence, is the strong, concrete alliance of Latin American poetry (Neruda, Paz, Vallejo, etc.) with left-wing political action: while Brazilian conceptualism could take a public stance against the lack of engagement shown by Joseph Kosuth’s essay ‘Art after Philosophy’ (1969) – both the essay and the manifesto denouncing it were published in the magazine Malasartes (Rio de Janeiro, 1975-1976) – there were no such doubts about poetry. And the use of modest objects, more mundane even than the consciously ‘basic’ affairs used by Arte Povera or Joseph Beuys, brings to mind a statement by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, that he wanted ‘to disappoint the expectations of the one who wants to be amazed . . . it is only then that the poetic can happen’ – in other words, withholding from the spectacular, from aesthetic immersion, is an essential part of this ‘poetic’ practice.
So what is at work here? In its ‘disappointing’ character this art seems to me to have a consciously counter-capitalist aesthetic: spectacle, marketing, the seductiveness of design are all quietly side-stepped. In its maintenance of the facticity of modest found objects it also resists the powerful metaphorical working of ideology, a complementary step away from left-wing domination. The object is never dissolved into the working of the idea, as happens in propagandistic statement, but remains within its separate existence while maintaining an afterlife, as it were, through its figurative connotations. This seems to me to be the crux of the matter of the ‘poetic’, and an operation of metaphor in the face of ordinary phenomena that naturally takes place in societies with strong cultures of poetry. Lastly, this proximity of the literary or figurative brings in a ‘memorative’ dimension, distinguishing it from the ‘what you see is what you get’ immediacy of first generation North American conceptualism: a distance is kept in which pensiveness, light irony, the elegaic, humour, etc. can be brought into play.

Carlos Garaicoa was on view 10 June – 5 September 2010.