The work of Alexandre Arrechea, a founding member (from 1991 through 2003) of the Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros, has undergone a transformation during the past several years that has been quite gradual, but is no less radical for having taken some time to unfold. Somewhat paradoxically, his more recent works seem increasingly in harmony with the original goals of Los Carpinteros, in that the images and objects Arrechea creates serve increasingly as visual metaphors for ongoing social themes of inequality, cultural disenfranchisement, and the oft-disputed role of art’s rightful place in a global, media-driven society. Like the anti-utopias that were Los Carpinteros’ stock in trade a decade ago, Arrechea’s new works offer a kind of visual position paper about the meaning of the world as we live in it today.
This is not to say that Arrechea – or for that matter Los Carpinteros, in either their past or present incarnations – should be considered makers of political art, if we use that term as it is normally applied. Arrechea does not direct his art toward an activist audience, nor is it especially connected to ongoing world affairs. His work is not about hunger, dictatorships, the environment, the rights of women, children, or minorities or the persecution of political journalists. In fact, like many artists of his generation, Arrechea prefers to manipulate his symbols and materials is such a way that the viewer doesn’t always go away from them with a specific point of view. The intersection of art and politics is not generally one that offers a full range of possibilities for creative freedom, especially if the work is to have a shelf life beyond that of the topics in question.
The last two curatorial collaborations that this writer undertook with Arrechea saw his art articulate a place where technology and nature collided in unsettling ways. His 2006 sculpture Garden of Mistrust took the form of a massive tree-shaped sculpture, each branch of which grew a video camera that swiveled regularly from side to side, if performing a security function at a bank. The fact that most of the cameras were inoperative did not dispel the Orwellian atmosphere, especially in light of the few video images that were projected onto the adjacent wall. As I wrote at the time, “On the one hand, the work enables a viewer to participate in the dissemination of one’s own image and/or activity as part of an ongoing ‘performance,’ while simultaneously witnessing the experiences of others who may not currently share your time-space coordinates, along with more who do.” In other words, Garden of Mistrust privileged no single point of view, nor did offer a synthesis of its many fragmented perspectives. As its title suggested, it offered no escape and no real resolution, either.
Mississippi Bucket, a public sculpture created for an outdoor plaza very close to the Mississippi River retaining wall, does not at first seem to address issues of technology and nature. Created in the shape of the Mississippi Gulf, with spidery, meandering lines, the sculpture is actually a functioning bucket: when it rains, the interior fills up with water, which either spills over or settles at a fixed depth an slowly evaporates. The work is not so much concerned with the primitive technology of the bucket as it is with the ongoing challenge of keeping a massive body of water at bay in a city that lies largely below sea level. New Orleans is often described as a bowl-shaped settlement surrounded on all sides by bodies of water, and Arrechea’s broader point seems to be that the technology required to establish and maintain this delicate equilibrium goes largely unseen. By offering us a sculpture that is also an aerial view of New Orleans’ unique geographical location, Arrechea is enabling us to take a step back and contemplate both the historic necessity of the city’s position, and the never-ending struggle to keep it from drowning.
Arrechea has given his first museum exhibition in Spain the open-ended title, ‘Everything Something Nothing,’ possibly as a way of suggesting the limits of attaining pleasure and then trying to hold onto it. Including many new sculptures and drawings produced for the occasion, Arrechea does not insist on a thread of connection between the individual works on us, but instead allows a free-flowing set of associations to develop in the viewer’s imagination. The most ambitious work being presented is After the Monument, which is in essence a wrecking ball structure whose basic design could have been lifted from an Alexander Calder stabile. At a height of two meters, After the Monument does not really appear dangerous, and the fact that the ball itself is a polished mirror means that most viewers will find themselves looking directly into their own reflection. Viewed as art, of course there is an inherent fragility to a freestanding structure that addresses so explicitly itself to destruction, while the title suggests that life in a post-ideological world is conspicuously lacking in the kinds of clear-cut enemies that rigid conformity always presupposes.
A more playful note is struck by the sculpture Pregon, which consists of a grand piano on which the artist has installed hundreds of tiny, empty theater chairs, all facing in the direction of the missing pianist. The political metaphor being mined here seems to involve the absence of the virtuoso whose role it is to perform a concerto or sonata for the assembled masses. With both the maestro and his public missing, the tableau is frozen in a state of immobility, apathy, or both. What remains is the relative scale of the two halves of the equation, with the piano completely dwarfing the absent audience, who are nonetheless crowded on top of the instrument. One interpretation of this enigmatic image is that when leadership disappears, so do those who are most deeply affected by it, leaving a kind of functionless cipher in its wake.
Many of Arrechea’s other new works for this exhibition are in a slightly more literal mode, such as the warehouse whose size changes automatically according to fluctuations in the stock market (Warehouse), or a video projection of a wrecking ball bouncing against a wall [Black Sun]. Taken together, however, they represent a rich diversity of possible ways of addressing sociopolitical issues through works of arts whose meanings are inherently open-ended. Like the state of the world economy, which is never far from Arrechea’s musings, this boy of work seems to surround us with emblems and reminders of the predicament we have found ourselves in. And while it is probably true that art won’t provide any us with a way out of the current conundrum, it is equally true that without art to provide some perspective, we might trap ourselves into believing that reality is the only things that matters.