Celia Gonzalez: The Need to Say Things through Art
Celia Gonzalez admits that her approach to art was not focused on business. This Cuban artist, who has been working with Yunior Aguiar since 2004, has set the aim of her work on the relation established between the citizens and institutions that organize life as a society. She is the author of “Colonias Epífitas (Epiphyte Colonies)” and “Estado Civil (Civil State)”, which are part of Farber Foundation’s collection. On the other hand, one of her installations, “Apuntes en el Hielo (Notes on the Ice)”, was included in the National Fine Arts Museum’s Cuban contemporary art collection.
How does the micro-partnership between Celia and Yunior work?
Yunior and I are friends since we were 15 years old and we were studying at San Alejandro School. We realized that the art realm was highly competitive, individual, artists taking their own way. Working together was an opportunity to face this world in a different way and have somebody you trust, so you can talk about your thoughts. We created a conversation mechanism and artworks come out of it. People usually ask: what do you do? What does he do? I can’t tell because we are always having a conversation and the ideas flow as we speak. He’s presently living overseas, so we use video-calls or emails to be in touch. He tells me things, I tell him and, suddenly, the artwork is born. We share our work. Confidence and a similar way of understanding art, that’s what we have and what really matters.
Which are the recurrent topics in your works?
We’ve always been interested in the way citizens interact with different Cuban or foreign institutions, since there is a group of rules that can favor those people’s interests or not. It’s interesting to see how people try to avoid rows with institutions, they go around them and achieve their goals.
We believe in the importance of highlighting different situations, instead of thinking that artists can “solve out that phenomenon”. That’s up to the administration, the government, but we can identify and point out those conflicts, which affect ourselves.
Installations, video-installations… Are you planning to keep on working on those artistic expressions or include others?
We work on installations because that’s a space where we can juxtapose pieces of information and we have been interested in looking into archives and digital means. Installations give us the opportunity to put together two things that would never be connected, thus creating meanings and focusing the attention on a spot.
The problem with installations is that they disappear once the show is over. That’s a problem, but it is also attractive because you have to see it in the space. We have been invited to work in institutions or take galleries as an institution. For example, the Cuban Art Museum is a museum, but it is also an institution where people work; or the Higher Art Institute (ISA is the Spanish acronym). That was a point of interest for “Estado Civil (Civil State)”, the way people get married, divorced or use the law, the Family Code. You increase the contrast levels of daily and small things, make them bigger and attract the attention.
Works that changed your career?
“Estado Civil” was one of our first works, Yunior and I, and it was very important because we began to question the relation between civic space and government space, and the way it is documented. Legal documents are true enough, pictures are not needed, a conceptual point that people used to describe as cold, since weddings are far more than that, but we were interested in talking about performance and how it can be seen in a different way.
We later began to work on videos, as a mean to spread the message around the world. Copy in a flash memory. We needed to express ourselves and some works were close to journalism, since they were very directs, there were interviews and we worked with other artists.
I believe that “Bojeo” is an important work and we shot it in Trinidad & Tobago. We sailed around Tobago island, took pictures of the beaches and asked hotels in Cuba for descriptions of their facilities. We did it back in 2006, when Cuban people weren’t allowed to stay in hotels. A receptionist explained that Cuban people were not allowed to stay in hotels, unless they were just married or living abroad. So, after all the tropical joy, peace and beach, the video comes to an end with this idea. It was an interesting idea, before the law was changed.
Afterwards, “Apuntes en el Hielo” and “Colonias Epífitas” are two good examples of how artworks can change when meeting installation parameters, since installations help viewers get in touch with artworks by means of several fields of information. The video in “Apuntes en el Hielo” is not a single channel to be screened at the movies theater: it is a data-giving video. We’re also interested in working with files, systematizing data that could be disconnected. For “Apuntes en el Hielo”, we spent six months working at the archive of the History and Philosophy Faculty, Havana University.
The agenda scanned for “Colonias Epifitas” is an archive on the houses that stood for a power sector and presently represent another power within themselves, but they share common esthetics. You seem to have become your historic opponent. The architectural typology didn’t change. Epiphytes are plants that feed from other plants’ environment and, in this case, the house is the environment used by the new power to feed. These are parables, which are not necessarily direct, with a camera and interview; but, at the same time, the message is very clear. These are not polysemous works that have been opened like a fan, so you can think whatever you want. Yunior and I have well-defined goals in each work.
What did the Young Artist of the Year Award, given by the Farber Foundation in 2015, mean to your career?
It was an honor for us to be given the award to the best young artists, since there were several colleagues with excellent careers. It was an honor to be handpicked by such an important jury and we feel that it boosted our career and exposure. After so many years of work, although we are young, you ask yourself if it wasn’t in vain.
What do you make of the art-market relation?
That question depends on the artist you interview. Contemporary art is marketable and there are market niches for expressions. As for Cuban art, Cuba doesn’t have a structured art market. There are no Cuban collectors, not on the island. The fact is that collectors come to Cuba, buy artworks and go away. Therefore, there are no collectors to create a line, a way of understanding art. No one is collecting abstract paintings, pictures, contemporary art. There are no collectors to support those ways of seeing art, creating routes. Many people come to Cuba for cultural tourism, they buy artworks and take them back home. That’s fine, because they are supporting those artists, but their preferences are validating and legitimating those artists, so it is a random process, which lacks of structure. A group of people visit a gallery, some of them buy art and some don’t. That situation conditions the atmosphere of art.
I spent some time living abroad and, when I came back to Cuba, I found a different reality in terms of art. The people spend more time in their studios and less in public spaces; they are not thinking in sharp and critic art, but in facing that market.
This whole context conditions the production of artworks, because artists want to make a living from their work. If you realize that something can be marketed, you keep on doing it. I understand that, but it depends on the interests. Why do people approach art? Art can be a bad business, with ups and downs. Some days you sell, some days you don’t. My approach to art was not focused on business. I certainly want to make a living from my art, but if that entails modifying my work to reach out to the market that comes to Cuba, I’m not doing it. That’s a conflict, because you have worked hard on a line of artworks and you want to be consistent. The conditions could change and people could be interested in buying that type of works.
What do you think about today’s Cuban contemporary art?
Several artists that studied with me at the Higher Art Institute (ISA is the Spanish acronym), and got their degree back in 2009, have had a great career in terms of exhibits and artworks. I admire the work of many artists from my generation. I believe that having diversity is very positive, the existence of several ways of understanding art, but there is certain conditioning, a trend to be focused within our own space, encapsulated and focused on the studio and the idea of selling, instead of the discussion, the clash of ideas. People are now very interested in talking about management, new galleries, marketing, races, other elements that are not necessarily linked to art. I recall the times when I used to meet artists and talk about art. We now talk about promotion, galleries. A change of direction has taken place. I’m not judging, but that’s what has happened.
The CIFO scholarship has been very important to my career, because the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation gives prizes to young Cuban artists every year and that’s very helpful. We are presently developing a project on the management of education thinking, in different moments, and different scenarios of this thinking managed by higher education. We are working with Havana’s University. It is also going to be a video installation. We’ll display the artwork in August, at Miami’s CIFO space and the exhibit is scheduled to be held in September, along with other Latin American artists.