Lázaro Saavedra was born in 1964 in Havana, where he continues to live. He graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte, Havana, in 1988, and has been a lecturer there since 1991. Saavedra’s practice combines pictorial work with other media, including texts, performances, happenings and video installations. He was a member of the Grupo Puré in the 1980s; the Pilón community project from 1988 to 1989; and the collective Enema, a group composed of former ISA students, in the 1990s. His work was included with that of other young Cubans in the ‘La tradición del humor’ (‘The Tradition of Humour’) exhibition as part of the 1989 Bienal de La Habana.
Lázaro Saavedra: I don’t know the details of how the Bienal was constructed. I couldn’t say who decided to put all our work together in the same space and to call the show ‘La tradición del humor’. Possibly it was Llilian [Llanes Godoy]. Many people were opposed to it; they saw it as a way to tone down the critical discourse with which many of the works in that space were charged. For example, there was Bloqueo [Blockade, 1989], a work by Tonel [Antonio Eligio Fernández]; and there was a shit-themed room built by Carlos Cárdenas, where he made shit-shaped figures, painted all over. At that time his philosophy was that life is shit, that everything is shit…
Rachel Weiss: Others lightened things, such as Tomás Esson, whose work dealt with the idea of the talisman, although that was in ‘Tres Mundos’.
LS: I don’t recall Tomás’s work very well, but I remember the piece in ‘La tradición del humor’ by Glexis [Novoa] and also Ciro [Quintana]’s installation, in which a video on a monitor showed an animated cartoon with altered subtitles that had nothing to do with the content of the animation, but which appropriated the scenes to talk about problems in art. It was well synched with how the cartoons were speaking. And it prompted thoughts beyond what was being said. In terms of language, I thought this was pretty original at the time – and it would even seem valid as a way of presenting a work now.
RW: Would you please describe your contribution to the exhibition?
LS: I left the wall blank and didn’t do anything. The work was called Dr Jekyll y Mr Hyde [1987/89]. It was made up of two texts, one produced with a typewriter on a very poor-quality sheet of paper, the other written with a computer and on a very neatly printed sheet. They said the same thing, one in Spanish and one in English; the neatly printed version was in English. In the work I appropriated the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The text explained to the viewer that he/she was in front of a work of art, but one that could only be seen if certain requirements that were listed were met. Of course no one could meet all the requirements and so no one was able to see the work. One of the requirements was that all conditioning created by the
‘great’ biennials of the world should be shed, so that the art of the Third World could truly be seen… 01
RW: You’ve told me about the cynical attitude of artists participating in the Bienal and also about the Bienal’s own cynicism; the idea being that above all else it was a platform for international projection. You already felt this way back then, which seems pretty early on, wouldn’t you say? We were still in the Bienal’s ‘golden age’.
LS: Yes, that’s right. But all that became a bit more entrenched in the 1990s. The third Bienal, of 1989, was the first one I participated in. The work I made for the next one, to which I was not officially invited, was inspired by that idea. It included a group of interviews between me and my friends. They asked me what I was going to do at the Bienal and I answered that I was going to do nothing, and they would say, ‘but what do you mean nothing?’ Then they would list reasons for participating. Rather than pointing to the fact that it was a biennial in the Third World, they all described it as a platform for projection, because important gallerists would be going, there would be promotion and it would be a key place for launching yourself into the First World.
RW: What were the politics behind the selection process, and behind the process of negotiating the works’ content?
LS: I don’t remember very well, but I think Tonel had some relationship with the then-young Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales [the Ministry of Culture’s Centre for the Development of the Visual Arts], because he was Jürgen Harten’s assistant when Jürgen visited Havana for research that would lead to ‘Kuba OK’. 02 I don’t remember whether Tonel was involved with the Bienal, but I know that [Gerardo] Mosquera was.
RW: Gerardo told me that the decision to section off all the difficult artists was made by Llilian and that he did not agree with it, but that it was the only way for them to be included in the Bienal. I wonder how much of all this the artists were aware of…
LS: I wasn’t aware of anything myself and only found out afterwards. We were pleased to be in the Bienal. Even without factoring in the large amount of innocence we had back then, it felt good to be there. I do believe that once ‘La tradición del humor’ opened, certain feedback started, about using humour as a way to soften things and make a joke of it all – and as a means of not giving the exhibition a different kind of curatorial concept. Of course these are things we come back to again and again; if work has an intentionality beyond the humorous, then it’s a tool. What should it be called? What discourse will be connected with it? Where will it be situated? And would that discourse be accepted? That’s also a question you have to ask yourself; you always have to ask yourself whether your discourse would be accepted – or you have to fight to find a way for it to find acceptance. In the end you always have a direct confrontation, you decide to face the source directly and reach the conclusion that everything is a consequence of a system, of a way of running a system. Is it possible to make a direct critique of the system from within the system? Am I going to allow you to come to my house and insult me, unaware of what you’re doing? Criticisms can be soft, medium or harsher – they can be a serious thing. If you insult me, I’ll kick you out of my house! That’s something very Cuban and also typical in the rest of the world; you can’t dishonour me in my own home.
RW: Then the question might be, what’s more important, to stay at home or to hand out the criticism? What did you think back then?
LS: I didn’t get to the kind of realisations I’m now making. I was completely immersed in my work, above everything else. I felt a deep conviction for it at that time, to the point of abandonment. It was about the chance to use art as a tool by which to transform society through thought; to have an effect on ways of thinking was a very important thing for me.
RW: That summarises Che Guevara’s ideas, doesn’t it?
LS: At that point I’d read some of Che Guevara’s works and I think I even quoted him in some interviews from the time, but I’d venture they weren’t actually Che’s ideas, and could come from José Ingenieros, a philosopher Che liked.
RW: So the work entitled Dr Jekyll wasn’t designed to lure curators and collectors?
LS: I was in conflict with the Bienal. When I found out I’d be participating I felt very pressured to show work. I was at a stage when I would think up works for a specific context, for a specific action, so in the project I presented I tried to resolve a conflict, to think through just what exactly the Bienal was, with the many budgets that were behind it, the Third World thing – all these special issues.
RW: Did the aspect of Third World self-identification appeal to you or did you feel it was only a rhetorical turn?
LS: It was part of the rhetoric I was witnessing. I don’t think of myself as an expert in terms of Third World issues but I was a part of it. I saw the Bienal in the following terms: ‘you’ll set up your biennials over there, and over here we’ll make one the way we understand a biennial needs to be made’. But it was such a significant event that you had to make a real effort. I wasn’t
working in the same relaxed way that I usually did for my own projects. It was all pressure, everyone understood it that way, and that grew as things went along. Above all else, this concerned the Bienal feeling like a fair, its being confused with a fair.
RW: Can you say any more about that?
LS: It’s something really typical of the Cuban cultural context. Artists realise they not only hold a way of earning money through specific buyers, but that with any luck there’s the chance an important collector or museum might buy their work, which opens up many doors. Through this process you start to become aware of the fact that Cuba and the Third World don’t hold the key to your successful career, that you should be an international artist more broadly. This way of thinking didn’t take place in my own time. Back then we were very naïve: we thought galleries were nonprofit spaces, as opposed to places for business. The kinds of work we made were not meant to be sold. Galleries [in Havana] at that time were not commercial like they are today. The works we were making fitted a biennial rather than an art fair. You go to a fair to buy, but this is unnecessary at a biennial, where the kind of reflection is different, where there are questions raised around the curatorial aspects you might be incorporating into the artwork in order to present your concept. This doesn’t happen in Cuba these days. It’s very difficult to make a biennial work because everyone is thinking about selling, as in a fair, because it’s a great chance to sell, to get US dollars and solve your day-to- day problems.
RW: But was this your thinking back in 1989?
LS: No, I don’t know what the more cutting-edge people thought, but this is not the way we saw it. We were a young generation. There were no double standards and no one owned their own house or had even finished their studies. It wasn’t a period of globalisation like today, which has an effect on the way art is made and on how it is shown. Artists from the 1990s started to be aware of global issues, and great curatorial projects on an international level began to take place, bringing together artists from here and there and showcasing their work… ‘I’m not a Cuban artist, I’m international’. That didn’t happen so much at the start of the 1990s.
RW: Did your project cause you any backlash from the Bienal? LS: Not that I recall…
RW: Because it was a work that reflected the idea of rejection.
LS: In my project I tried to resolve the tension between participating and not participating, doing and not doing, being and not being. These types of tensions have sometimes been embedded in my work. I think becoming aware of those tensions is also in itself part of making work; rather than following any of their aspects, considering the tensions in and of themselves. My own personality is pretty full of tensions and struggles. Many of my recent videos, in which a Lázaro speaks with another Lázaro, stem from this vein, pitting the self against the self. Dr Jekyll y Mr Hyde was about a revolutionary Cuba, where everything is supposedly the way it should be, and about another Cuba, where nothing is accepted, an invisible Cuba; a split society. Here all sorts of ethical discourse that tries to fix that type of behaviour comes through.
RW: Tell me more about what you showed when you next took part in the Bienal.
LS: The second time I hadn’t been invited to participate. The Bienal had grown. Cuba changed suddenly in the early 1990s. That idea of considering the Bienal as a springboard became entrenched in every way, especially for the artists. And at this point I definitely challenged the issue directly and openly. I think the Bienal’s theme was‘El desafío del arte’ [‘Art’s Challenge’], or something like that…
RW: It was ‘El desafío a la colonización’ [‘Challenging Colonisation’].
LS: Yes, and I named my work ironically in response El desafío de mi arte [My Art’s Challenge, 1991]. It was an installation in which I openly sold myself and was even up for changing my image. It involved my works, my CV and me applying for grants. To some extent it may be related to Structuralism or post-Structuralism, through its breaking down a mediating structure to reveal what’s underneath it all.
Translated by Lupe Núñez-Fernández
For a transcription of the text used in Dr Jekyll y Mr Hyde by Lázaro Saavedra, see the essay by Rachel Weiss in this volume, p.59.
‘Kuba OK’, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1 April–13 May 1990, curated by Jürgen Harten and Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández), with work by artists including José Bedia, Carlos Cárdenas, Glexis Novoa, Ciro Quintana and Lázaro Saavedra.