Carlos Garaicoa is one of the internationally best known and most influential Cuban artists, whose work has achieved canonical status in his homeland. Born in 1967, Garaicoa first studied thermodynamics, but eventually turned to art when he enrolled, and later graduated at the renowned Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana.
Curator, with Esterio Segura, of the important 1993 exhibition Las Metáforas Del Templo (Metaphors of the Temple), Carlos Garaicoa has created an exceptional body of work on the themes of architecture, ruins and utopia. From his initial subject, the city of Havana, he has moved on to New York, Cuito Cuanavale, Valencia, Minneapolis and Venice. Rívoli o El Lugar Donde Mana La Sangre (Rivoli, or The Place Where Blood Flows) was named after a piece of the same title, transformed into a light-box photograph in 2002. The earlier work included a photograph of the location and an architectural rendering. In complementary visions, the photo offered a dispassionate close-up of the building, reduced to its façade and knee-deep in detritus, while the drawing depicted a pyramid built on the roof, and a rivulet of blood trailing down the building’s surface. A handwritten text announced the drawing’s title, Proyecto Cruel (Cruel Project). This was an idea for a future performance, in which buckets of blood were to be thrown over the ruins. Throughout the Rivoli project, Garaicoa assumed the fictitious identity of an architect whose mission was to renovate and restore buildings on the point of collapse. The use of an imaginary creator and the photograph-drawing structure of the original piece also appear in his other projects of the time, such as Acerca De La Construcción De La Verdadera Torre De Babel (On the Construction of the Real Tower of Babel, 1994-95), Primer Sembrado De Hongos Alucinógenos En La Habana (First Cultivated Field of Psychedelic Mushrooms in Havana, 1997) and Proyecto Acerca Del Triunfo (Project on Victory, 1994-99). The grandiloquent solutions laid out in those drawings were demonstrably ineffective, absurd, and incoherent in practical terms. Their laudable purpose could not be transmuted into concrete action, instead, it was reduced to good intentions. The ruins became a record of utopian impotence.
Rivoli is perhaps one of the works in which Garaicoa takes his farcical projects of urban sanitation to extremes. Conveyed by a fictitious creator, the artist’s message reveals several meanings simultaneously. Buildings such as the old Rivoli jeweler’s shop, protagonists of Garaicoa’s “impossible” projects, had been built, for the most part, during the early 20th century, the first decades of the Cuban republic. By the 1990s, they were crumbling, inexorably, under the weight of time and social indifference. As Piranesi had once done with Rome, Garaicoa congealed the mutilated buildings in their tragic grandeur, turning them into symbols of social anomie and the loss of faith in the overarching narrative of social emancipation. His appropriation of design language was harshly critical of the modern architect as a cultural figure, infused by utopian ideologies since the Bauhaus era, but incapable of protecting the historical “skin” of the city. The ironic tension between the two elements, project drawing and photographic representation, prevented any lapse into nostalgia, as it does in the 2002 light-box work, a temptation that Wim Wenders was unable to avoid as he portrayed a Havana “pierced by shadows” in his 1998 film, Buena Vista Social Club.
Carlos Garaicoa currently lives and works between Havana and Madrid.