"Art is not something you do totally on your own" (Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez, in conversation with Los Carpinteros, at the 8th Havana Biennale, 2003).Read More
Such is the view of the Cuban-born collective, Los Carpinteros, which since the early 1990s has arisen to take centre stage in the Latin American and international art sphere. Their story, set against the late 1980s backdrop of a crumbling Soviet Union and the establishment of Pax Americana, is one of regeneration and possibility. Primarily, that of filling a gap left by a previous generation of Cuban artists who, given the occasion, jumped ship to the United States or Mexico, fleeing the constraints imposed on their post Cuban missile crisis generation. Despite the apparent brain drain, for Los Carpinteros this was a moment of opportunity: that to step forward and initiate, as students, a new beginning in Cuban art.
The Los Carpinteros collective, or 'equipo' as they describe themselves, found each other at the Havana-based Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1991. Established in 1976, ISA focused primarily on a range of revolutionary practices and anarchistic instances, starting with Marcel Duchamp's subversive introduction of re Mutt in 1917, leading through to André Breton's warring oneiric objects, Joseph Beuys' social sculptures and Lygia Clark's neo-concretist movement. That art could be conceptual, weighed upon an idea rather than solely craftsmanship, is what initiated Alexandre Arrechea Jesus Zambrano (b. 1970), Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés (b. 1971) and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez (b. 1969) to spontaneously come together. As they exchanged ideas, they realised that these converged, and that as they started creating, it did not matter who the author was: they all were.
What Los Carpinteros create is very much a conscientious response to places, spaces and objects, how they have been conceived, built, used and abandoned. As a collective, they observe and mentally digest their form and function, with the idea of displacing the given and altering that which is immediately recognisable. In considering the cerebral work produced by Los Carpinteros, one may consult Michel Foucault's notion of 'heterotopia' elaborated in Of Other Spaces (1967). As defined by the French philosopher, heterotopias are places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. One may borrow this notion to understand Los Carpinteros' work for it seems to exist in a space of 'otherness': it is neither here nor there, analogously mental as it is physical.
In the year 2000, Los Carpinteros created the seminal work Transportable City (2000), which they presented at the Havana Biennale that same year. Fabricated from nylons, zippers and rope, the oeuvre reflects a possible displacement settlement. Yet, the buildings created defy in their form and seeming function the structure of a tent, that living abode typically associated with such fabrics, temporality and mobility. Instead, one can spot a church, a factory, or a high-rise building. Such confusion between form, function and associations is found throughout Los Carpinteros' work. For example, in their later piece Home (2011): while the construction of the piece resembles in its form a caravan, Los Carpinteros chose to make it out of illusory red brick rather than painted metal or plastic, thereby associating it with fixed abodes and contesting the structure's implied transience.
What begins to emerge from viewing the works by Los Carpinteros is that they are playful yet intelligent, serious yet brimming with wit. They are artists, creators and innovators who do not take themselves overly seriously. Their work Rollercoaster (2008), for instance, is not only built as a childhood ride but also as a pale pink bed: one could not think of a greater disparity of emotions between the sensation of calm when sleeping and the overwhelming adrenaline surge instilled when rushing in modular circles. Similarly, from the work Quartet (2011), one is tempted to believe, but ultimately can not conceive, that sound would ever emerge from the melting instruments, seemingly shafted to the floor. Los Carpinteros are whimsical, and it is this aspect of their work which allows them to play in a mutable territory: that between the pragmatic and the impossible.
Los Carpinteros have had multiple solo exhibitions around the world including at the Thyssen-Bornesmisza in Madrid, the Kunstmuseum in Thun and the Faena Art Center in Buenos Aires. Their work has been continually exhibited in notable group exhibitions such as at the XI Havana Biennale, the Cisneros Art Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art in Medellin and the Hayward Gallery in London. Los Carpinteros oeuvres are furthermore held in multiple important museum and foundation collections, including the Centre Pompidou, the Daros Foundation, the Farber Collection of Contemporary Cuban Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the MoMA, the Tate Modern and the Thyssen-Bornesmisza in Vienna.
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