Friday December 15, 2017

Celia & Yunior: “We have never believed in the figure of the artist as an enlightened genius”

The artist duo reflects on Cuban art, their future plans, and the Cuban Art Awards

Celia & Junior, Vaca Blanca (Whilte Cow), single-channel video with contacts of US commercial galleries superimposed over green areas of ISA (Instituto Superior de Artes) in Havana

Courtesy Celia & Yunior

Earlier this year, the art duo Celia & Yunior won the first international Cuban Art Awards prize for Young Artist of the Year, sponsored by the Farber Foundation. In an email interview with Cuban Art News New York editor Susan Delson, they talk about winning the award, their current work, where they are in their career, and where they see themselves, and Cuban art, in the coming decade.

First, congratulations on winning the Cuban Art Award for Young Artist of the Year. How did it feel when your name was announced?

Thank you very much. it was a big surprise for us to know that we had won the award. We knew that we were among the 2015 Young Artist of the Year finalists, but the list of finalists was very strong—young artists, many of them our friends, with a solid body work, like ours, working continuously for many years. Really, any of them could have won this award.

How would you describe where you are at this point in your career?

It is rather complicated to clearly describe where we are in our career at this moment. We are now trying to export our working methods to the spaces we live in. We think that's one of the main ways to appreciate and understand those social and physical spaces to which we belong temporarily. We are both very interested in the academic environment as one of the ways to nurture our practice, so we are very focused on achieving our masters and doctorate degrees. It is a consistent and organic way to understand ourselves not only as visual producers but also as intellectuals.

What are the themes and issues that are of greatest interest to you right now? How do they follow from the work you’ve done previously? How are they a change of direction (if at all)?

We remain very focused on what has been a key element in our work: the relationship between the individual, as a social entity, and the bodies that manage and organize the society and daily life—how each of us behaves on a micro scale, and the next stages of evolution for institutions, organizations, and systems. Due to their high bureaucratic content, they cannot move at the required speed.

Installation view, Celia & Yunior, Capital humano (Human Capital)

Courtesy Celia & Yunior

We continue incorporating a large amount of information into projects and new works, trying to connect elements that we normally would not assume as crucial or decisive in our daily lives, but that have an impact on the way we perceive and experience our life in society. All this without being dramatic, sensationalist, or hyperbolic, trying to keep a respectful and thoughtful attitude, and looking to generate dialogue and connections between those who share a similar experience or concern.

Detail of Celia & Yunior, Capital humano (Human Capital), showing photos of goods confiscated in various cases of corruption in Cuba

Courtesy Celia & Yunior

We have never believed in the figure of the artist as an enlightened genius that provides "the solution," but as someone who makes areas of our history, context, and shared subjectivity visible and reconnects them.

What about style and medium? Are you starting to work with mediums that you haven’t used before? Returning to mediums you used previously?

Many of the projects we’ve recently completed are installations or video installations. The installation provides a spatial element that is invaluable when it comes to the deployment of information. Information becomes more than just an element of the cognitive act, and the most important thing [about installation as a medium] is that it makes information become permeable, walkable, and more accessible to empathic levels.

Celia & Yunior, El cuerpo habla en pasado (The Body Speaks in Passing), installation version

Courtesy Celia y Yunior

Video is a medium that has been involved in many of our recent projects—as part of an installation for example, but not as a single-channel work. In the future, we plan to return this medium as a very efficient way for the circulation of information, but also as a tool for exploration and recognition of new contexts in which we are participating.

Detail of Celia & Yunior, El cuerpo habla en pasado (The Body Speaks in Passing), installation version

Courtesy Celia y Yunior

As conceived by the Farber Foundation, the Cuban Art Awards are international, open to Cuban artists throughout the world. As Cuban art attracts more attention on the international art scene, what impact do you think that is having on Cuban artists working on the island? And Cuban artists working elsewhere? What are the challenges of this specific moment?

The idea of ​​an international Cuban Art prize including not only the artists living in Cuba but also in the diaspora is very good. It’s a smart strategy that could bridge many memory gaps and show a commitment to Cuban art beyond the physical boundaries of the island, which has been a recurring problem in the Cuban culture in the last 50 years.

Celia Gónzalez Álvarez of the duo Celia & Yunior accepting the prize for Young Artist of the Year at the Cuban Art Awards ceremony in Havana in May

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

We think that the fact Cuba gains international visibility is very good for all Cuban artists, on the island and abroad. The biggest challenge is that we could be facing a vision of the island and its culture as a highly profitable fetish.

This [type of thinking] would generate highly unilateral paradigms and emphasize a pragmatism based on economic value, which could result in a decrease in the other types of artistic practices that contribute to a certain subtlety that in Cuba is necessary to both the art world and the culture at large. We think the challenge is to maintain an equilibrium—which obviously should not involve any act of limitation—and to preserve artistic diversity through the conscious use of cultural policies that promote coexistence and encourage different types of practices and circulation. 

Creating unilateral paradigms and emphasizing a pragmatism based on economic value, which may result in a decrease of other types of artistic practices, which are needed for the art world and culture in Cuba. I think the challenge is to keep a balance, which obviously should not involve the act to limit, to preserve the artistic diversity from a conscious use of cultural policies that promote coexistence and encourage different types of practice and circulation.

Detail of Celia & Yunior, El cuerpo habla en pasado (The Body Speaks in Passing), installation version, showing diagrams of physical therapy exercises for the rehabilitation of the lower extremities

Courtesy Celia y Yunior

What are your impressions of this year’s Bienal?

Only one of us could attend, and not for long.

There was a visible fracture between the central event of the Bienal and many of the collateral events. On one hand, the projects in the various neighborhoods and areas of the capital posed a very different sort of creative search, focused on rethinking art as part of these specific contexts. On the other hand, the majority of the collateral events posed a return to the market, to the art object and the ease of collecting and transporting the work.

This bears close observation, because of the impact it can have on younger generations and how they perceive the relationship to the art market. But this depends in large part on each artist and how they see their work in a context flooded by cause and demand—predominantly a North American demand.

You were among the artists chosen for the Cuban Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale. What was that experience like? What work did you choose to show there?

It was a very interesting experience to represent Cuba at the Venice Biennale, and have the opportunity to be among Cuban artists like Grethell Rasúa, Susana Pilar Delahante and Luis Gómez, one of the most prominent figures in the contemporary Cuban scene. It was also great to have the opportunity to meet and work with  the Italian team—curator Giacomo Zaza, Ms. Miria Vicini, and the entire support team during the installation and our stay there.

After discussions with curators and considering the curatorial theme that connected works in the pavilion we decided to show Notes on Ice, a 2012 video installation. It involved about six months of research in the thesis files of the University of Havana Sociology Department. 

On view in Venice: Celia & Yunior, Notes on Ice, 2012

Courtesy celiayunior.wix.com

The work shows the academic production of the department in terms of Bachelor, Masters and PhD theses from 2001 to 2012. A vertical stack of reams of blank paper corresponds to each year. The quantity corresponds to the cumulative researches conducted that year. A hyperlink between two fields of knowledge that shortly seeks to illuminate sociological observations over the past decade.

Of all of the experiences of our stay in Venice, there’s one image that for us represents a metaphor of the event. In the middle of the Prada Foundation’s reception, a pier full of VIPs collapsed and they fell into the water—the structure couldn’t support them all. That was the feeling in the days before the opening: a mega-event focused on the image of the art world, not the essential elements. A week of fashion with aesthetic aperitifs.

Do you have a goal for the next five years? The next ten? Where do you see contemporary Cuban art at that point?

Our main goals are to continue working and earning our academic degrees. We want to perfect our strategies for making work and for the circulation of information about the works that we intend to make in the future. We want to increase the number of events that we organize and run ourselves, as well as collaborations with other art-world colleagues and colleagues in other fields related to our practice: sociology, anthropology, public administration, economic studies.

We would also like to continue to be part of the educational field, and to have the opportunity to share our modest experience and opinions with those who are starting to work in art.

Contemporary Cuban art in the next ten years? We can only express our desire to see again a wave of work and artists that continue to revisit and rethink different aspects of the society in which we live. An art that has the capacity to visualize Cuba connected to the basic problematics of art worldwide, and that can respond to them through theory and practice.

What’s coming up next for you?

Right now, we are in the preparatory phase for the Lyon Biennale in September, where we will present a project conceived for this exhibition: Rendez-vous 15, in the IAC (Institute of Contemporary Art Villeurban / Rhone-Alpes).

Susan Delson has been the New York editor of Cuban Art News since 2009. A former member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art education department, as editor she has worked with the Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society, El Museo del Barrio, and other institutions. Her books include the film study/biography Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card and (as editor) Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals. As a magazine editor, she has worked at Forbes, Louise Blouin Media, and other companies.