Sherry Leedy Gallery
America’s romantic notions of Cuba are stronger than for any other “exotic” locale in the world. Every cultural product that paints the country as a repressed adversary to the individual (Before Night Falls, HBO’s The Arturo Sandoval Story, etc) emphasizes the beauty inherent in the romantically painted individual struggle against a system turned against him. The embargo furthers this sense of romance. Cuba is the one country in the world that did not sell itself to the United States’ imperial wishes; the one regime we tried hardest to topple remains. The country that lies in our backyard and would seem would seem most likely to benefit from the riches of Capitalism has stood a firm ground in remaining a Communist state. It is the epitome of the rebel stance, confirmed in the image of its national revolutionary icon Che Guevara — subsequent rebels have been idolized and Romanticized to the fullest. Cuba’s exoticness is exemplified by the fact that you can’t go to a travel agent and book a trip to Cuba. Cuba is off-limits. Our capacity to develop communications or understanding is buried behind deep walls of bureaucracy. Cuba’s reality is skewed by years of cold war rhetoric and history lessons provided by the victors, the people with power and wealth. Enter Michael Eastman, commercial photographer extraordinaire with clients including IBM, Jack Daniels, Miller Brewing, Farmland and Hummer — a perfect candidate to illustrate our one-sided written history. How is Mr. Eastman able to achieve this task? Eastman is producing formally beautiful, technically perfect and monumental photographic prints. They are largely absent of human subjects, except from afar, concentrating on architecture, color and interior spaces to tell exactly half the story. Like a photo ripped from a giant text-free page of National Geographic Eastman’s photos are maudlin and gorgeous.
When I entered Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art the most striking aspect of the gallery was not one single piece of work but the contrast of photographer Michael Eastman’s largest piece Two Chairs, Isabella’s (96”x72”), and its proximity to the oversized Dale Chihuly glass sculptural chandelier hanging in real space next to it. Eastman’s photo is of a Havana interior that is decrepit and deteriorating, a once grand hallway now used to hang and dry laundry. The focal point of the photo is the large, iron chandelier that hangs as a relic to grander times. Considered in relation to the Chihuly, I observed the two most antithetical pieces of non-functional hanging sculpture in existence, the former representing the prosperous past glories of Cuba, the latter recognizable as the fulfillment of American excess as expressed by an artist most renowned for decorating the lobby ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The other element most effective upon entering the gallery was the audio, none other than the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack, Wim Wenders’ internationally acclaimed documentary that featured American recording artist Ry Cooder collaborating with and thereby bringing to the world’s attention a host of forgotten Afro-Cuban musicians. The eloquent soundtrack has become the recognizable “sound of Cuba” to most Americans — most likely because most of the music was written before the embargo and carries no urgent social messages. Like the photographs in the exhibit, the music from the soundtrack is STUNNING AND AESTHETICALLY PLEASING, but to have a culture’s entire musical heritage represented to the world by fifty-year-old songs is (I TOOK OUT LUKE WARM HERE)the result of an outsider’s discovery and promotion of the product as an authentic cultural artifact. I’m happy the elderly musicians can now make an income of their music and don’t have to shine shoes and cut hair for a living anymore but I would hope that the same audiences interested in BVSC would also be interested in the contemporary voice of Cuba’s urban youth as it emerges through more innovative forms such as the latest Cuban hip-hop. However, that soundtrack would best accompany another show, perhaps one featuring Cuban artists documenting their own country. For this show the BVSC soundtrack is more than fitting. The title of the show itself is nothing less than Cuba, telling in the fact that it lays claim to a universal visual depiction of an over-simplified country. With the combination of Eastman’s photographs and the BVSC music, we have a nice, clichéd package — an entirely simulated version of Cuba.
The largest piece in the show, Two Chairs, Isabella’s, centrally placed on the south wall of the main gallery, is also reproduced in the second room of the gallery at 70” x 50”. An image shot from an elevated position of an interior of a large open room with light emanating from the ground level, one is confronted with the elegant shape of the iron and glass chandelier, its durability, and its contrast to the cracks in the ceiling that expose the white plaster underlayer and temporality of the space. “Isn’t it beautiful”, I hear a viewer exclaim. “No, its beautiful”, the second concurs. I wonder if there is any stopping the double-edged sword known as beauty, because I know they’re right, these are stunningly beautiful photographs. Perfectly composed, with orthogonal lines connecting at a vanishing point directly underneath the chandelier where two lines of hanging clothes also meet in the center of a wall that appears to be exposed to every kind of atrophic condition. Unlike many other photographs of Cuba Two Chairs, Isabella’s is subtle in its use of color, monochromatic like a sepia print — emanating warmth, creating nostalgia. The decaying chairs in the picture seem perfect perfectly placed in the composition and in the streams of light that illuminate them. Many of Eastman’s other interior shots depict uncomfortable looking chairs, dilapidated buildings and walls that have not been painted since Castro took office. In Blue Interior, Havana, a crumbling mattress looks as if it has sunken into the floor, but the seductively colored, pastel ocean-evoking cobalt wall is so gorgeous it abolishes the astonishment one should feel upon realizing that Blue Interior is inhabited — a private residence of abject poverty. Beauty has the power to uplift humanity and get one through the day, it also has the capacity to mask the trouble of the day with its polished, flimsy glow. Displaying poverty through such a visually appealing aesthetic brings joy to the viewer, it also renders one passive, raising no questions. We are seduced by the surface appeal, and left with no story to fall back on. Through the use of the picturesque, Eastman has created a depoliticized Cuba, an invented Cuba, a “whitewashed” interpretation of the country. Looking at the remains of Havana through this lens, Capitalist ideology is subtly re-affirmed — anyone dubious of it has no choice but the rubble in the street.
Though the invention of the photograph brought with it dreams of an egalitarian tool, the objective eye does not exist in photography. Mr. Eastman states that his photographs “almost become theatrical sets waiting for the play to begin.” It is clear that in creating these sets, formal elements of space, color and light supercede any other concerns. Eastman’s remaining concern, I assume, is to avoid political or controversial issues.
One image that avoids potentially controversial content is Woman in Doorway, Havana. The woman referred to in the title is actually two women who are silhouetted against large columns in an image taken from across the street by Mr. Eastman’s voyeuristic lens. The photo is focused on the architecture of the columns and arches that surround the women and the pastel pink light highlighting the structure. Striking sexually suggestive poses, one of the women, a young teenager, wears a dress and appears to be hanging out, waiting. I wondered if this photo could be a commentary on the sex tourism trade and its effect on the young woman of Havana? In the context of the rest of the show I think not. I asked the artist what intentions he has regarding Cuba’s history, political structure, and current events when photographing these sites, he asserted, “I try to approach photography with no expectations…for me it is easier to respond…to react…to create.” If every viewer approaches his exhibit without expectation, and with such hocus pocus nonchalance, they too will surely be fulfilled, but in a post-colonial era is it still appropriate to blatantly construct “our” vision of “others” on flimsy, romantic notions of dated artistic purpose?
“Eastman’s photographs offer viewers an unparalleled opportunity to meet Cuba”, so says the essay in the press release to the show. I imagine Eastman’s cultural visa must have been easy to obtain — this is the Cuba the American establishment wants you to meet. One that is easy to be critical of, a country that is in need of American currency, one that we can help when they’re ready to be helped. In an interview with the University Daily Kansan, Eastman stated that he does not “pretend to understand all the politics in the foreign relations with them, but I hope my work makes people think about what our trade embargoes are doing to those people.” Eastman’s benevolent intentions are moot. It is important to not believe in the autonomy of the artwork related to the culture that creates it. These works are tied up in American foreign policy in ways that may not be obvious even to the artist; rather than making a point about how the embargo has hurt the Cubans, these photographs divide America’s relationship with the country even more. By allowing an American artist to project a representation of another culture’s identity, our own culture remains absent of any relevant issues concerning those we are representing. Instead of gaining access to an authentic representation of Cuba, glorification of Eastman’s images simply further the myth surrounding Cuba. By making claims to authenticity and objectivity, these photos place the viewer beyond the murky waters of understanding contemporary Cuba and into an abyss of false understanding solidified by the simple rhetoric these photos illustrate.
The art world is controlled by the ruling classes, but there is always possibility of being critical of one’s own cultural ineptness, inside this space, that is not available in any other cultural arena. The curatorial risks of offending are great, but the rewards can mean a greater understanding of other values. In the last year The Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence presented Contemporary Art from Cuba, Grand Arts in Kansas City held a show by the Mexican-American artists Jamex and Einarde la Torre, and The San Fransisco MOMA curated a group show called Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art. Each show exposed artists from Latin America to North American viewers and presented their indigenous views on the complex history and relations of their native lands in a world that resists responsible Global trends. As Americans increasingly answer the call of “us against them” it is pertinent to find out who the “them” are. Leaving the question of another culture’s identity up to the current administration, Fox News, or a misdirected corporate photographer moonlighting in an art gallery amounts to negligence and an ill-informed population.