Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Sunday, October 3, 2004

Mattress Factory exhibit offers glimpse into Cuban politics

By Kurt Shaw

Opening today, the latest exhibition at the Mattress Factory -- the museum of contemporary installation art on Pittsburgh's North Side -- offers a rare glimpse at the contemporary art of Cuba.

The reason? "It's just an interesting time politically to go to Cuba, when there is this kind of political tension and the art is really interesting," says Michael Olijnyk, curator of exhibitions at the Mattress Factory.

Olijnyk traveled twice to Cuba last year with Barbara Luderowski, the museum's executive/artistic director, to choose from among 150 Cuban artists to create installations for this unprecedented exhibition. They were assisted by Cuban independent curator Magda Ileana Gonzalez-Mora.

As one might expect, with U.S. sanctions dating back to 1961, putting together an exhibition of this magnitude was difficult. All but one of the 11 artists they chose to participate were denied entrance into the United States, which meant that nearly every piece in this show had to be executed by the museum's staff according to each artist's plans.

Their absence proves a melancholic force, but their individual voices are not lost among the 13 works that fill both the Mattress Factory's main building at 500 Sampsonia Way and the museum's annex space at 1414 Monterey St.

Perhaps no single work speaks more about absence than Rene Francisco's "March Without Perspective." Basically a long stretch of bleachers made out of white PVC pipe that fills one room, Francisco's piece is a metaphorical reconstruction of the bleachers that once held him and his compatriots during the rhetorical and long-winded political rallies he remembers having to attend in his youth. Some lasted as long as five hours or more. With an almost gestalt-like simplicity, in a single glance Francisco's piece absorbs the viewer into the monotony to which he once was forced to succumb.

Such subtleties are the hallmark of this exhibition. Although the exhibition lacks the kind of shock value one might expect from political unrest, that's not to say the artists aren't known for creating shocking works.

One such artist is Angel Delgado, who served time for his art. In 1990, Delgado was imprisoned for six months, the consequence of a performance piece he executed at the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts in Havana, during which he formed a circle with animal bones on the floor, spread the day's "Granma" (the Cuban newspaper) in the center, and then proceeded to drop his drawers and defecate on it.

In the decade since his incarceration, Delgado has created several pieces that related to this situation, and his latest piece in this exhibition follows suit. Titled "Memorias acumuladas," it is made up simply of numerous neatly hung wooden units filled with bars of soap that hang on the walls of one room.

At first, the visitor might be overwhelmed with the sweet smell of the perfumed soap that permeates the room, but one should soon realize that each bar of soap is embedded with an object: a key, a domino, a safety pin, a cigarette butt, etc. Each is a metaphor for barter or exchange, addressing more specifically what the artist himself did while in prison: create religious works of art that he sculpted from soap or drew on handkerchiefs and then exchanged for cigarettes and other items.

Additional politically charged works include two rooms by the husband-and-wife artist team of Jose A. Toirac and Meira Marrero. Together, with the help of American artist Loring McAlpin, they created a moving comment on current American politics with the piece "In God We Trust/America's Most Wanted." The walls of one room are filled with Warhol-inspired dollar signs and coated in used motor oil; the room's walls are filled with variously colored camouflage and large-format screen prints of the CIA's most wanted. It's a fine comment, but not reflective of Cuba at all.

Finally, political commentary reaches a crescendo in Lazaro Saavedra's "The Last Supper."

On display in the main building's basement, 12 TVs and a generator hang above a 24-foot-long Plexiglas table. As is obvious by the respective positions of these objects, not to mention the title of the piece, the generator is a stand-in for Jesus and the TVs for the apostles. But what is most compelling about the work is the imagery displayed on the TVs. Especially intriguing is the one that represents Judas, in which flashes of the faces of the children who died in Castro's Marial boat lift of 1980 are repeated in succession.

There is an implicit lesson in this piece: The absence of a redeeming horizon does not exempt art from assuming a ritual function, regardless of whether it relates to religion, politics or both.

The remaining works take a secondary role in terms of political commentary and represent more personal explorations, which begs the question: Does this exhibition effectively represent the current state of Castro's revolution?

It's hard to say, given that most Americans are forbidden to travel to Cuba to witness it firsthand. But what this exhibition does say is that these artists make use of the themes that extend from their own existential condition, which they face and analyze with political tools.

In the end, we are reminded that the artistic avant-garde cannot help but be concerned with the political reality of the present. In this way, the art system's ties to the macro-systems of power, that is to say their ideological and self-legitimizing postulates, makes this exhibition all the more interesting.