Selected Interview: Los Carpinteros
Excerpts from: INTERVIEW / BOMB MAGAZINE by TRINIE DALTON (as translated by EVA GOLINGER)
TD Well, Welcome, I wanted to ask you a few questions about your artwork. I wondered how you show is being received here, versus how your Cuban audience reacts. Is showing your work in Havana a different experience, or does it depends on the piece?
AA It’s not so different. We show more regularly outside Cuba than in Cuba. We haven’t done any exhibitions there since last year, but we were part of the Havana Biennial, a very big show. Actually, since 1998, we haven’t exhibited in Cuba except in the Biennial. The reaction to our artwork in Cuba is good, but in some ways people are not up to date about the method in which we work. They understand a part of what we’re doing, but they don’t get the whole thing.
TD Does traveling allow your ideas to evolve further than if you just stayed in one place?
AA We can’t conceive of doing our work over the next few years without traveling. Traveling doesn’t just bring you new experiences; it also forces you to begin living again, anew, each time you leave one place and arrive at another. You have to reinvent yourself each time. This has been the best experience of all. We always maintain a standard of production in any type of condition or place.
TD What standard, or what ideal is it that you like to maintain?
AA For three individuals to produce and create a piece of art requires a set of standards and conditions. We have several topics that we regularly use in our work that don’t depend on where we are. I mean we can be in Havana, New York, whatever; it doesn’t matter because we always aim for this standard of production.
TD So in a sense the concept transcends the location where you are working.
AA Sometimes you get inspiration from the place where you are, but often you bring ideas from another place; we don’t need the place to create a new piece, because we already have that with us. So what could seem like a stressful situation, always traveling and changing places, has actually become something necessary for us. Because it’s more about transporting and enacting ideas in different locals.
TD Cities each have their own character. Would you say that some of the topics in your artwork deal with the cities and urban life, and how to live in a city?
AA Yes, lately we have been working on that, and as a result our work is more focused on architecture, and design as well. Everything comes from those concepts, design in architecture, clothing, buildings, furniture, whatever.
TD So It’s about both exterior and interior design?
AA Yes, It’s a back and forth between the interior space of a city and its exterior.
Dagoberto Rodriguez In the beginning, our work had no similarity to what it has become now. It was more focused on Cuban history, more like a social chronicle. Our first pieces, in 1993 and 1994, were along those lines.
TD What sorts of pieces manifested themselves?
AA We were painters in the beginning. We created installations and paintings, like the Havana Country Club or Quemando Arbols (Burning Trees). It was a very different kind of work, and unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures. Flying Pigeon, one of these earlier pieces, is a big painting of a man riding a bicycle. On the frame of the painting is a wooden locomotive. Flying pigeon is a brand of bicycles that came to Cuba in the nineties from China. They were very, very heavy, so the name is a contradiction. Our piece was a commentary on the whole situation of the Special Period [in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, with whom Cuba did almost all of their international trading, collapsed, thus crippling Cuba’s economy] occurring at that time in Cuba. We were dealing with much more various social issues at that time. Now we are dealing much more with design, which is also a social thing, but on a different level.
TD What brought about this shift?
Marco Castilla One of the reasons we stopped painting is because of the question of authorship. The paintings documented how we made our art. There were always two of us in the piece and the third was the viewer who painted. Working as a collective of three was a conceptual declaration. By eliminating painting we stopped being three and became one author. Another reason was the inherent discourse within the object.
TD Your group’s name, “The Carpenters,” is it a social metaphor?
TD Does the carpenter play a unique role in Cuban society?
AA All of our friend used to call us “Los Carpinteros,” because of the way we worked. We used wood and tools in our artwork. Being a carpenter could, in the context of making art, function as a metaphor for what we do; it neutralizes our positions as artists. You are not under fire all the time.
TD From the critic?
TD It seems like there are quite a few different artists dealing with architectural issues like you are now. I don’t know if people ever bring up Jorge Pardo, since he is also Cuban. Do people compare your art work to his thematically, in the terms of art versus architecture?
TD No? I thought everyone would, and you would say to me, “No more Jorge Pardo, we are sick of it!”
AA Actually we love his work. We were just in his house, visiting. It was amazing.
DR But nobody has compared us with Jorge Pardo, as far as we know. He designs a space and makes it livable, and we try to do that as well, but in a false way. Our designs always have a point at which you realize they are fake.
TD Oh, fire hazard.
DR The idea is to create real pieces that work, that are functional. In this exhibit, we work to the limit of what can be done, of what can be used but is also extravagant.
AA the pieces could be seen and as a negotiation between design and violence in some way.
DR Yes, because there is violence in the objects themselves. They look pretty and nice, but each one is a stove with burners—you could be burnt.
TD What are you critiquing?
AA The specific object itself. We consider how the object can be more aggressive. Do you know this piece that we made a while back that is a hand grenade, titled Estuche [Jewelry Box]? It’s about the same idea, living with an object that could be dangerous, or that represents what danger can be. It is a relationship.
TD And there is an element of chance, too. In everyday life, you have to take chances in order to grow.
AA Yes. Basically, these are not pieces of furniture, but rather stoves that trick you into believing they are furniture.
TD I was thinking of it backwards in a way—that these were pieces of furniture trying to be stoves. Why do you insinuate violence in your work? Or, what’s the nature of a “trick,” its relation to the viewer?
MC For us it’s not an issue of violence. It has more to do with a type of production that exists in Cuba. There is a department in every workplace that is dedicated to assimilating ideas and creating objects in order to solve problems. Sometimes these innovations are very ridiculous. For example, you can find the chassis of a bus fused to the top of a train, or someone who is gardening sugar cane using a gardening system based on a bicycle.
TD I wonder about the measuring tapes. The tapes extend down the wall, but instead of numbers appearing on the yellow strips, word from banned texts are printed onto them. Do you try to make your pieces humorous?
DR There is always something fundamentally humorous in the work, given the fact we create objects that look one way in reality, but are really something else.
TD Does you artwork have a dark humor? The element of danger that you were talking about before?
DR We come from a strong tradition of black humor, and that can’t be ignored. The way we construct a joke or commentary is the same way we create and construct our artwork.
AA The name Los Carpinteros itself is a joke. When people first see us, they think we are carpenters who are trying to make art. Really, it’s the way of conceiving life and organizing one’s thoughts that gives a particular form to a piece of art.
TD As in the act of smuggling? Using containers to hide what’s within?
AA There is not a theme. Censorship is censorship. It’s global. We are not going to choose one specific kind of censorship—it’s everything.
DR And we don’t focus on one particular moment in history, either. We have tried to create a library with old books, and books from the present.
AA From Homer to…some of them have been banned or expurgated or the writer was
killed because of the book or publication.
DR And there are good books and badly written books as well, in our concept behind selection.
WE Are trying to include all the writers that had been banned. But we discovered that when some of these same writers came to have power, they banned other writers. So we decided not to put those writers in because they had turned around and done the same thing to others.
DR In creating our library, we constructed those books that did not interest us or appeal to us. We are not democrats, nor of democratic character. Literature democratic is democratic, of course because it is public, but you don’t have to choose everyone. The central idea of this piece is that knowledge can be used dangerous. We have tried to convey this with the measuring tapes, to illustrate that reality can be measured as well.
TD I also wanted to ask you about Marcel Duchamp.
AA We love Marcel Duchamp. But Marcel doesn’t love us. He is dead—he can’t.
TD It seems that you’re coming from a similar tradition of elevating certain objects giving them new meanings, and thus transcending conceptually the physicality of these objects.
AA It is almost impossible for artists to stay away from Duchamp. He is studied in school and everyone, at some point, has to go to him as a source.
TD You studied him?
AA Yes, of course. At our school in Cuba, the teachers were focused on seventies Dada in America, and the sixties of course. From Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Beuys exists a line, and we always intersect that line.
TD So, conceptual art is a big part of art school in Havana?
DR The professors of the institute were all artists who only created and exhibited in Cuba. Beginning in the eighties, a thriving environment was created for discussion. Flavio Garzandia, a teacher at the institute, brought all the conceptual ideas to us, especially the American idea of conceptualism.
TD In a review of your show, Linda Yablonsky called your measuring tapes “metal tongues.”
AA Metal tongues?
DR That’s good, I like it. It’s a nice relation to our piece.
AA We can change the title of the piece now.
TD It’s the history of Cuba, so it’s a hard question, but was it international, did you think about the socialist or the communist commentary that can be read into your work?
DR When we get asked that type of question, we sometimes think it’s a joke. Cuba is pure energy for us, not a point of reflection. There are things in our work that refer to Cuba, but they are disguised and subtle.
TD But your obsession tends to be Cuban, of Cuban origin?
DR They are not meant to be specifically of Cuban origin, but they bring you to a place such as a beautiful sandy beach that reminds you of Cuba.
AA There are lighthouses everywhere in Cuba, but when we work with lighthouses, the big lighthouse at the entrance of Havana unconsciously comes to us.
DR You are subject to the light from that lighthouse—it’s always guiding you. We use that image a lot, and every time I see a lighthouse, I think of Havana.
TD there are lighthouses all up and down the West Coast, so for me, having grown up her, I think of California.
AA We were thinking about the idea of being and working and thinking of Cuba in some subtle way. Sometimes that refers to Cuba, but is not explicitly a Cuban thing. Perhaps it’s a situation.
DR It works from an ideological point of view. The lighthouse, for us, is not just the light that guides, it is much more than that.
TD In terms of what we were talking about earlier, the mental versus the physical object, are you focusing your new work in one direction or another? Is your artwork changing in a way? Or do you think you will continue to keep that balance between the physical and the conceptual?
AA We are going to continue with that balance. A project I recently designed as an outdoor piece for Madrid, Spain, will consist of ten lighthouses. It’s going to be like a diagram, the same configuration of the first light houses that the Spanish put in every country when they came to colonize. So we are going to reconstruct the first lighthouse that they built in every one of those countries again, but this time, they will all be situated in Madrid.
TD Full-size lighthouses?
AA Fifteen feet tall.
TD That’s big—will they be stone?
AA No, they will be a light polycarbonate.
TD Cool, When will you doing that?
AA In January, they will be up in February.
TD You have to work fast! This is a little off the track, but back to the measuring tapes—one thing I noticed was that a lot of them seemed to be personal notes from the author to the reader. They speak directly to the reader. Here are some: Anne Frank, “I hope that I will be able to confide everything to you,” or Goethe, “I have carefully collected whatever I have been able to learn of this story.” Or the Kama Sutra, which is a very intimate text.
AA We picked the beginning from each book.
TD The first line of each book?
AA Except for the Decameron—there is a specific section that was censored, and that’s the section that was chosen.
TD I wonder if you were making a statement about having a personal communication with your audience?
DR That’s lovely, but incidental—we haven’t thought of that one.
AA We were so focused in our project that there were pieces we didn’t even get a chance to read.
TD People always find new interpretations of your work—that’s a good aspect of art making.
AA Yes, we agree. That’s beautiful.
BOMB winter 2001/2002