UNFORTUNATELY INTELLIGENCE IS AMONG THE VIRTUES most difficult to possess among those for whom it is always under suspicion of subversion, and the oeuvre of the Cuban artist Kcho is above all intelligent. If Kcho’s oeuvre walks along landmarks that have been and are political it is only because his central concerns—migrations and insularity (particularly, Cuba’s insularity)—implies an ocean of human relations among which is power.
Kcho has stated that his works begin with a title. In fact, his poetics evidences how certain concepts seek to be incarnated in works with which they enter into relations of tension, of metonymy, of contradiction, of metaphor, of irony, etc. The first version of Para olvidar (In Order to Forget, 1995) that Kcho showed at the Kwang-Ju Biennial was a wooden boat floating on bottles. These are two objects of the literature of the sea and of forgetting. On the one hand, the vehicle with which one flees never to come back, or the one with which one returns only to find what is no longer there, or the one with which one simply goes fishing. On the other hand, the empty bottles a drunk gulped down to drown painful memories, or the ones a ship- wreck survivor used to send hundreds of messages that perhaps nobody found, or simply empty liquid containers. Kcho’s oeuvre seems to generate a dialectical movement that makes interpretations swing from one extreme to the other only to settle back into the facts of the raw materials. Both the wooden boat and the glass bottles are blunt as well as fragile objects whose main use is to contain something yet one is meant to keep liquid out and the other one in.
Kcho’s works are usually constructed with second-hand materials and found objects: “I like working with used materials because of the concentrated energy that emanates from them […] I do not work with debris but with past life.” Not surprisingly, Kcho has great admiration for the work of Pablo Picasso (cubist collages) and of Marcel Duchamp (readymades). Some have read into this aspect of Kcho’s poetics a reference to recycling as a way of life for Cubans during the “Special Period” of scarcity that followed the collapse of the Soviet block. It is always possible —and Kcho does little to prevent it—to discover in his works a critical sub-text about the Cuban political situation, but if there is one, it is not a partisan critique, but a reflective and even an existential one.
His ambivalent political-philosophical relation- ship with the Cuban socialist regime may very well be expressed in the work La jungla (The Jungle, 2001)1, a sculptural construction that combines Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized Monument to the III International (1920) with the erotic anthro- pomorphic bamboo forest of Wilfredo Lam’s mas- terpiece bearing the same name (1943). The III International (1919) was the summit that consolidated communism as the head of the proletarian world movement. Tatlin was commissioned by Lenin to design a wooden model for a monument that—had it been built—would have been 2,000 feet tall. Kcho’s reinterpretation of these works is a fragile tower constructed with slender twigs. It is worth noting that Tatlin—in addition to being the founder of Constructivism—was a sailor and ship carpenter. Is this work a reflection about the construction of the utopian project of a socialist society with the meager materials of scarcity? Does Kcho identify Tatlin, Lam and socialism as paternal figures?
In the Kcho exhibit at the New World Museum (Houston) there is a second version of Para olvidar (In Order to Forget, 2000). In this newer work the boat was replaced by an actual dock which Kcho appropriated and reconstruct- ed. Old tires cushion the impact of boats that might dock there and empty bottles stand where one might expect water. This dock (or one like it)—sans bottles—is part of yet another work called El camino de la nostalgia (The Road to Nostalgia, 1996). These overlaps between different works are an indication of how Kcho’s cre- ative mind works. Suddenly, the same objects— slightly altered—are instances of different con- cepts. Once we replace the dock for the boat we are no longer in transit but waiting for an arrival or in the eve of a departure. The dock is a metaphor for fallible memory. It is the last thing one remembers as one leaves, or it is the first thing one steps onto when one leaves behind what one will forget, or it is the familiarity of daily events that makes us forget the present.
Regata (Regatta,1994), an installation that was shown at the 5th Havana Biennial, is a seminal piece in Kcho’s oeuvre. It consists of dozens of small wooden toy boats, old shoes and other beached debris that come together in the shape of a yet larger boat. The title camouflages with a very Cuban sense of humor what may be going on when a flotilla of vessels suddenly takes a definite direction. “The world is made of migrations,” wrote Kcho. What might be a reference to “Marielitos,” to Elián González, or other local attempts of emigration and exile, Kcho understands as a more general case of the human con- dition. At some point Tainos migrated from one Caribbean island to the other and the Spaniards arrived in a similar way. In recent history, the Vietnamese massively fled their land on board improvised vessels and Mexican natives continue to cross the Rio Grande as they have been doing for thousands of years. Regata brings together the first skills for making wooden toys Kcho learned from his father with the game of making contemporary art.
Kcho’s exhibit in Houston included several drawings. Although Kcho once expressed a cer- tain disdain for painting, drawing is the instrument of his visual thinking. Drawing is so important for him that the work that he presented at the Venice Biennial—although not a drawing but rather an installation shaped like boat by a row of chairs—is titled Sólo cuando dibujo comprendo lo que pienso (Only when I draw I understand what I think,1999). The rhetoric of Kcho’s draw- ings bears some resemblance to those of the South African artist William Kentridge although for the latter they are always the vehicles for animated videos whereas por Kcho they are either ends-in-themselves or ideas destined to become installations. Says Kcho, “I like drawing because of its intensity; it is like poetry.” In fact, the objects he draws are intensely poetic: propellers, oars, tire tubes, huts, boats, docks, etc.
The polyptych Binocularsis a series of drawings grouped in five panels. They resemble the vision of someone who observes a group of people aboard boats through binoculars. In these drawings (albeit not in binocular vision) the por- tion of the visual field the right eye sees is different from what the left eye sees. In one case, the left eye sees an armed man aboard the boat that the right eye does not see. This type of ambiguity is frequent in Kcho’s oeuvre. When one sees these drawings one is prompted to ask many questions. Who observes? Is it the Cuban Coast Guard or the U.S. Coast Guard? Is it a neutral observer? Who is observed? Are they coming or going and where?
Kcho: “I have never understood why in Cuba, being an island, the sea is considered dangerous, when it should be something very close and loved. It is certainly risky and beautiful, but everything that defines what Cuba is has arrived by the sea.”
Ironically, Kcho can leave the island of Cuba freely but so far the American museums that have shown his work have been unable to procure him a visa to cross the sea into the United States.
1 This work is a reinterpretation of an earlier one by Kcho: A los ojos de la historia (Before the Eyes of History,1992) that included a conical coffee filter at the tower’s highest point.
2 We thank Armando Palacios, director of the New World Museum, and to Roberto Borlenghi, proprietor, Janda Wetherington, director of the Pan-American Art Gallery, for their priceless collaboration and information