A Conversation between Wilfredo Prieto and Rosa Lleó

A Conversation between Wilfredo Prieto and Rosa Lleó

April 2019
Rosa Lleó
Mangos, Limes and Flags
In 1958, Spain, like Portugal, was an insular, extremely poor country with a strong presence of the military and of Opus Dei, and an unsustainable economic situation. In 1959, however, the Economic Stabilization and Liberalization Plan was introduced, which deregulated the Spanish economy and opened it up to the outside world by offering cheaper imports and permitting the entry of foreign capital. This also involved a liberalization of the country’s image abroad, making it attractive to investors. And what better than culture and art to make this happen? Abstract art was “real” modern art, the art that was produced in New York, autonomous and inoffensive, as the critics saw it, since it had (in theory) no political meaning of any kind. Participating in the Venice Biennale with abstract art would serve to promote Spain as a modern, renewed country, although later on it was to turn into a land of sun and sand and yé-yé pop music. There were, moreover, a number of artists who were beginning to make an international name for themselves. Likewise, artists needed to leave and to have visibility. In this situation of symbiosis, of mutual exploitation, each party knew exactly what the name of the game was.
I wonder if sixty years later the situation has changed, if negotiation and commitment do not go on being a matter of course in our professions. Almost all of us play the game of irony and cynicism because it allows us to go on creating and because we know that if we act conceptually things will turn out to be too abstract and soon disintegrate. At certain times commitment is stronger and at other times less so. We live in this situation day in and day out, between opportunities for travelling and the bills that have to be paid.
Contextualizing that moment with contemporary reality is simple. When they suggested this interview to me I considered various options: the first had to do with doing straight interviews with artists who are working today, like Santiago Sierra and Tania Bruguera, using concepts such as censorship or national identity. But I usually work with artists of my own generation and my own context, those who cannot conceptualize the ethics of their work and work on the basis of the fragility I was talking about. Later on, I thought of someone like Núria Güell, an artist with a coherent line of work who utilizes the status of art as something exceptional for creating things within the interstices of the law that are also exceptional. She takes art to be an emergency strategy, something useful that cannot remain in mere representation, which permits her to utilize laws in her own interest, as the big companies do, and to demonstrate their fragility. One of her bestknown works consists of getting married to a foreigner so that he could obtain European nationality; that is, utilizing an artist’s grant to pay lawyers and consultants to make this possible. Or showing the impossibility of being officially stateless in order to expose the harshness of the bureaucracy. But Núria would never represent Spain in Venice. So that finally I thought of someone who knew how to navigate the artistic ecosystem in a very subtle manner, someone whose greatest interest is producing and showing his work properly. Wilfredo Prieto is a Cuban artist who doesn’t speak directly of Cuba or pass judgement on it, but Cuba is implicit and present in his way of working. It’s his context, which helps him maintain a certain distance vis-àvis the neoliberal economy. It’s here that he verges on that 1958 Biennale, it seems to me: in the fact that all art is political because it’s a reflection of the material and social conditions it’s created in. Prieto has participated in numerous biennials, Venice included, and obviously the Havana one, ever since his time as a Fine Art student. This text is the outcome of various phone conversations in which the 1958 Biennale is present, but what interests us most is talking about today. About the position of the artist with respect to the whole institutional and economic apparatus that surrounds and constitutes art nowadays.

Rosa Lleó (RL): I’d like to begin this conversation with a video of yours that I think is brilliant, Verde Limón (Lime Green) (2011). In it one sees a lime on the tarmac of a street in Havana during a military parade. One hears music and a crowd in the background. The lime manages to slip and slide between the thick soles of the black leather boots that march in step until after a few minutes someone steps on it and the filming ends. The minuscule object lets itself be moved from place to place, avoiding damage. What were you thinking about when you did this piece?

Wilfredo Prieto (WP): The piece occurred in a casual sort of way. I went to a parade and I saw the lime, how it was passing from foot to foot and so I decided to repeat it with my camera. I think the work is about situations that intersect, situations that are not related and yet are. Sensibilities that participate in parallel events. About circumstances which are somehow random but which also enter into the very logic of certain social and political circumstances. That was a guiding principle of the work. For me art is a reflection which oxygenates reality in a way that can be contrary or can be direct, and in this instance it’s an aesthetic reflection of a political situation. How we perceive a detail that may go unnoticed. This has always seemed important to me: how the artist participates in society, in politics and in the economy, in religion or in philosophy, and how art takes on a certain independence, since it has autonomy but does not cease having a relationship. It does not have to be a direct relationship (although it can be, too), but it is its responsibility to reflect upon the environment in which it finds itself. I think it’s a temporary more than a contextual question, although the latter is also important.
For example, to regard the art of the Renaissance and of the Middle Ages as a form of religious expression was almost inevitable, because the context was religious, its moment was religious. The same thing occurs today: we’re living through an absolutely political era in every context, an era of information overload, macroeconomics, movements, and that means that art has to be a point of contact, although often it doesn’t speak directly of this and avails itself of those temporary tools in order to say other, much more universal, much more quotidian, things. The vision of the piece, which coincides with other works I was making at that time, has a bit to do with that.

RL: This piece has always made me think of the way art can speak about context. You were saying that this is a political era, and what era isn’t, but your phrase is very useful to me for making a connection with the Venice Biennale of 1958, in which Spain was also in a “very political” moment. In an interview Tàpies1 makes mention of a symbiotic relationship, a sort of mutual exploitation between government and artist. Namely, that at the time politics was interested in art but art was interested in politics, too, as an implement of exchange.

WP: The relationship is mutual: politics uses art and art, politics; furthermore, the exchange is ferocious. Just take a look at our own era: there’s never been a moment with more censorship. The strategies of censorship have changed completely thanks to a single magic word: market. The market is capable of voraciously censoring artists, it obliges or directs them towards saying what it wants to hear, and that conditions cultural and creative freedom in accordance with reasons that lead the artist to be complaisant. A kind of contemporary prostitution goes with culture. And that isn’t, of course, all that naïve. For the market to have extraordinary privilege isn’t purely natural—it has to do with political manipulation and a more thorough redirection of culture towards trash culture. Look, for instance, at the way Spain has a Ministry of Culture and Sport or something like that, I believe. It’s incredibly counterproductive that there’s a single ministry for both areas. There are so many ways in which politics conditions art. That’s why they’re always related. Today there’s nothing more explosive than prices in the art market. An exhibition’s not a media event in terms of the content of the works themselves but in relation to the prices, and it’s also a hidden bubble in which everything is permitted, deregulated, everything is possible.
I think there’s quite a strong relationship between politics and art. And between art and politics when it makes use of those resources and doesn’t avoid them. When it doesn’t get involved in profundity and stays in that kind of gallery/institution/fair/biennial system, which are tantamount to the same thing. Right now we’d have to undertake a much more serious revision of what the production of art is; I think new terms have to emerge. What you’re often seeing in the fairs can’t be called “art”; nor is it craft, so there has to be an intermediate term, like a “production of the culture industry,” or I don’t know what you could call it. But that would be something else altogether, because art has a specific function that is social and cultural and that must not be in contradiction with the market, but neither can it be as a function of the market, and right now that’s the way it functions. That doesn’t stop there being other periods in which it also happens, like when art was commissioned. In any event these are questions that have to be clarified; if not, we enter into an extremely serious point of confusion, because the market is creating new paradigms and often they are totally vacuous. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t good artists who enter the commercial circuit, but the problem is the general transformation it entails.

RL: You were speaking of other works you’ve made at the time of Verde Limón. I’m also thinking of other earlier works that can be related to the relationship between aesthetics and politics, such as Apolítico (Apolitical) (2001). Works that to a certain extent mention and expose the absurd, inoperative and wasteful nature of the type of art you were referring to as a product of the culture industry.

WP: Miren el tamaño de este mango (Look at the Size of This Mango) (2011) is about the duration of the essence of things, about how to make a comparison between a natural and an artificial element. I really liked the idea of comparison and of the priorities of a era in which essential meanings are forgotten. Also the relationship between the ephemeral and the lasting, also questioning durability of materials. All the works have to do with the ephemeral, but each one is autonomous and is differentiated in its particular meaning.
I made Apolítico as part of a collective exhibition I was in while still at university. It was a piece that somehow or other wanted to speak of international mourning. A way of homogenizing ideology and nationalisms, of disrupting the ways of seeing that we have by default. The territorial question also came into play, the question of political and geographical consensus, thinking about creating a vision that was much more global than the national kind.

RL: I really think this work would now be very relevant once more, due
to the current climate in which there’s a series of governments which are quite like each other and come out of the same type of strategy. It’s a work that can gain traction in many other contexts and moments.
In that respect I’d like to come back to the word censorship. You wisely claim that the fiercest censorship is the one the market imposes today. In 1958, during the Franco regime, it appeared there was no censorship, because abstraction wasn’t political and the government didn’t perceive a “dangerous” message in it. As a matter of fact it utilized it as propaganda to demonstrate an idea of the country more in keeping with the democracies of the rest of Europe.

WP: Art was much more autonomous at that time, one spoke of materials and of a series of elements typical of the artist. Curatorship based on concepts didn’t exist, the Venice Biennale functioned through national pavilions; that is, it didn’t select an artist with a particular sensibility but chose a country’s quota instead. Therefore, participating in that biennale in the Spanish or the French pavilion had a much more political connotation. Now, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter where an artist may be from, providing he or she responds to a specific reality. That compromised the way of seeing art; its function or its role was that of representing a country or a certain politics and not a specific form or a criterion of artistic language. What happens today when they invite you to the Venice Biennale? They invite you to a form or to a specific language, in principle. I’m expressing it in this way, even though it’s not so nice.

RL: But you’ll agree with me that other types of censorship exist; what’s more, it seems to suddenly re-emerge with greater strength. I’m thinking of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), where they wanted to censor the exhibition Histories of Sexuality. And even in Cuba, with the work of artists like Tania Bruguera, who’s been detained for wanting to show a work in public space. I suppose your work would be close to the position of Tàpies and other artists regarding that relationship they called symbiosis.

WP: A very similar situation of censorship existed in the late fifties in Cuba in connection with the abstraction of the Los Once2 group. Abstraction was seen as a highly political movement because it was an evasion of this reality; it was a response to a really complex social situation.
As for Tania Bruguera, I haven’t been privy to any censorship in her case. I
was there when she showed her work El susurro de Tatlin #6 (versión para La Habana) (Tatlin’s Whisper #6 [Version for Havana]) (2009), with a microphone through which you were able to express your political opinions.3 This occurred as part of the 2009 Havana Biennial and I was among the public. There wasn’t any type of censorship. I don’t understand the media coverage of this work. Something altogether different was when Tania decided to exhibit the work in the public space of the Plaza de la Revolución without asking permission. Were that to be the case, I’d have to say that as artists we all have our works censored, because if I want to show my work now in the middle of Paris without asking permission, they’ll automatically say no. And so we artists would have a few of our works censored. There are always certain social and ethical norms. Something altogether different is the intentionality of artists when utilizing that kind of “Ai Wei Wei effect.” You perform a political or social action that doesn’t correspond to the agreed norm and that obviously appears in the press, and more headlines mean more fame, which, logically, means more monetary worth. I think it’s a very typical formula and it’s a far cry from the ethic of working as an artist. Even in economics, companies have anti-monopoly laws; art ought to have a few minimum laws, too. One thing is censoring a work and another is provoking a kind of media censorship. Personally, I can say I saw the work and that it was exhibited in an international public biennial with international press coverage. I think we must be quite clear when art is reflexive with a society, with a certain context, with the political, philosophical and economic situation; when art is questioning and critical. There’s a huge difference between art and socialist realism, which serves concrete interests with certain forms or certain complaisant aesthetics. This kind of capitalist realism also seems propagandistic to me.
I come back to the idea that we would have to differentiate between what is art and what is craft, between what is art and what is propaganda. I think we must be clear about these definitions in this era in which information ceases to be specialized and turns into a kind of “Instagram fashion.” I think that it’s poles apart from artists like the ones you were telling me about, artists like Tàpies who were in a situation of dictatorship which directly affected their persona. It cannot be compared to the kind of spectacle we’re experiencing nowadays and which doesn’t have anything at all to do with the seriousness of such complex situations. It’s the game of exoticism, of “what I want as a Western buyer and what I want them to sell me as global tourism.”

RL: I’d like to talk now about your participation in the Cuban Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale with the work One Million Dollars (2002), which is about the prostitution of the market. Tell me about the invitation to this pavilion and the realization of this piece.

WP: It’s a piece I produced, I think, in 2002. Sure enough, it’s talking about
this theme: about the market, not only of art but, in general, of a consensus of forms and of a kind of crisis in values and ideas. The decision to participate in the 2017 Biennale was taken by a particular curator and the fact that artworks acquire a new life when they’re confronted with a new context seems interesting to me: at which time the content, or the effect it produces, is totally different. The language of the work acquires a new plasticity.
And as for participating in the Cuban Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, naturally it’s a source of pride. Cuba isn’t a country with a solid enough economy to pay for a Venetian palace, so I know about the effort this involves. It’s something very difficult for a country with limited resources. I think it was a superhuman effort, and that gave me a thrill. Up until that moment Cuba had shared a pavilion with other countries, independent artists had participated, but not as a national pavilion; the connotation is different. There was a very nice mix of generations, which also showed the dialogue between different artists in the national context a bit.

RL: Why do you think Cuba decided to have an individual pavilion, knowing it involved such great cost and effort?

WP: It wasn’t so much a question of self-affirmation but rather that there was the chance to find a pavilion, raise a bit of money and utilize it. In Cuba a policy has prevailed of promoting contemporary art, and I think the country always strives to achieve what’s possible and even more. The Venice Biennale is a circuit that’s beyond the reach of a cultural institution with limited resources. That also makes it very interesting. I’m certain that if the country has another opportunity like that one it’s going to utilize it. It’s not so much “I have my embassy and I fly my flag”; alright, it’s that too, all the ministries exploit it and the institutional ego exists, but I don’t think it’s about that, I think it’s more a question of the need for a type of artist. I think Cuban art’s in very good shape, even though it functions within very complex circumstances. It’s an island, and the fact of being isolated, also economically, with a different political system, makes everything more limited and more complex in an international context. Be that as it may, the level of the artists calls for that interrelation, and it’s logical that it should occur under these circumstances.

RL: If I think about the case of Spain, I reckon it would be exactly the opposite: after participating for so many years I reckon it’d be worth rethinking it. Furthermore, the Spanish Pavilion is the first one you see on entering the Giardini. Does this national representation, with uniquely Spanish artists, this highly institutionalized thing make sense? The agency which manages the pavilion is that of Cooperation and Development, which doesn’t even depend on the Ministry of Culture, it’s purely a matter of international relations and protocol.

WP: The first thing one would have to question is the biennial institution and the form this institution takes. I think that in some ways there’s a crisis in this concept, because the platform had the original sense of showing diversity, but with globalization it changed. It’s an out-dated concept, one year there may be ten interesting artists in Spain and another year there might be none. Biennials are turning into art fairs in which the important thing is the market, fashion and the media. You know how you go to any biennial and you find exactly the same artists, it’s not as if they were actually showing you another overview of what’s happening, it’s like there was a global art which they package in exactly the same way for a similarly international fair, so that in some way the curators and organizers are keeping to the same broad lines of the contemporary art system, and neither do the institutions and museums escape this. The Havana Biennial began as a curatorial project: it’s the first biennial—after São Paulo— that avoids pavilions and utilizes a curatorial concept, not so much thinking of the quota of artists by country but by geographic or geopolitical areas. I think the general cultural crisis has to be rethought and all these events have to be questioned. I think the problem’s right there and not so much in the national pavilion, which after all is a very outdated schema that has to be rethought, because if not it contributes nothing. There’s nothing more boring than going to a fair or a biennial where you know you’re going to find exactly the same.
The amusing thing would be to stop going.

RL: I remember that at the opening of the Istanbul Biennial of 2015, where I knew they had a limited budget for many artists, I attended a Marian Goodman Gallery dinner in a privileged spot on one of the islands in the Bosphorus. I suppose the participation of her artists was paying for the participation of many others who were not represented by an important gallery. It’s also true, moreover, that if the national pavilions are still kept up in Venice, by being operated by ministries, at times a little misinformed, interesting things can slip through which are outside the purview of the market. By this I mean that there are still ways of doing things that can be used to partly escape the “censorship the market imposes,” don’t you think?

WP: Yes, it’s very nice the way you describe it but in actual fact institutions are people and those people are also influenced by the institutions of the market, even curators can be ruled by those criteria. But obviously what is important is the criterion of quality, not so much quotas or fashions, as returning to the essence of art itself, to the creation of art as a creative or reflexive discipline, not an element which participates in an economic and social spectacle.

RL: Returning to the Biennale in ’58, Spain’s strategy at the time was to use art as an instrument of propaganda to say that the dictatorship could be as modern as the democracies of Europe. It’s a bit the history of modern art in the States, abstract art as an apolitical symbol of modernity.
It seems that with the upsurge of populism the idea that contemporary art is propaganda has been lost, it becomes a degenerate element of no interest. They let the Museu Nacional de Brasil burn down… I think Cuba is one of the few places where there’s still this idea of contemporary art as a vehicle of propaganda and emotion.

WP: Nowhere’s safe from the phenomenon of globalism, I’m hugely optimistic about the actual regulatory forms of things, there’s always a balance via a phenomenon. A country may promote one type of art but there will always be one or two artists who’re going to transcend that moment. I think the hardest crisis is that of the art-education institution; that is indeed something that ought to be revised with much more seriousness because when you’re a student you’re in a moment of production that’s much more sensitive and much easier to deform, but I repeat that a brilliant artist always ends up emerging, and that’s the important thing. He or she emerges, creates a paradigm and a school. However difficult it may be, any process is always going to have a certain channelling effect. Nothing’s more incredible for a creative process than crises and difficulties. It may seem paradoxical, but crisis situations make you keep your feet more on the ground in order to understand your problems and your circumstances better. So we come back to that moment in the ’58 Biennale, which comes out of a situation of crisis. Look, now, when you check out Latin American art with its highly complex contexts. When you check out Mexico, Colombia or Brazil there’s an enormous richness if you compare it with what’s being produced in London or New York. You note that the cultural life is different, due to special circumstances. The institutional crises are boring because rarely do they fulfil that regulatory function, so to a certain extent I’m waiting optimistically for all this to somehow fall apart.

RL: Tell me in greater detail about your relationship with the Havana Biennial, which as you were saying was conceptualized with greater care, based on the idea of the Third World or Global South. I suppose you’ve been linked quite a lot to this biennial, so I’d like to know how it’s been formed as an institution and its moments.

WP: If you look at the Havana Biennial in relation to other biennials it’s quite old, it emerges in 1982. It goes along with this idea of pavilions, but begins working with curatorship as a concept and shifts to areas that aren’t in the mainstream of art. All of a sudden they began to reclaim artists from Latin America or Africa, from contexts that weren’t considered to be centres of art, like Havana itself. I think that this produced a new spark outside of the extremely well-known centres. Later on it evolves and responds to specific contexts and thinks about if a given artist from Brooklyn can be more unknown than another artist from Guatemala who doesn’t enter that elitist circuit. The Biennial then starts working with unknown and very young artists.
I myself always remember participating when I was studying at university, and that for me was marvellous. The Havana Biennial escapes from all those economic megastructures, given that I think it manages a budget that’s a little higher than Jafre’s, but it’s close, it’s almost zero, and despite that it has a huge number of participants. I personally liked the last edition a lot because its frontiers were blurred, it didn’t take place so much in the context of a museum or gallery space but went into the city, to live with the people and in places where art isn’t a daily rationale. That made it interesting to assume another dynamic. The next one, which opens soon, has another feature, which is that of expanding throughout the country. The good thing is that there are very favourable circumstances for reflecting upon the biennial institution and reformulating it.

RL: I’m interested in the idea of generating another type of economy that has to do with generosity, with being able to spend time and to listen to artists. To be able to pay with a conversation that might last for hours. We’re realizing that there are other economies and one can produce better in Mali or in other places where the market doesn’t demand so much. Give me an example of some place where you’ve felt comfortable working with another type of economy.

WP: The Jafre Biennial in Catalonia can function as a very good example of another type of biennial via the exchange with a local public. The works call for another significance, another different sensibility, so that you learn, you’re not stuck with “I came to exhibit,” instead you think about what you’re relating to and about other things that are happening. One comes back to the human meaning of art as reflection and as a field of knowledge. I repeat, necessity seeks a solution. Now’s a good time in that respect.