Kcho, Vive y Deja Vivir (Live and Let Live, 2006-2012)

These days, anyone heading upstairs in the García Lorca Theater—the principal auditorium of the Gran Teatro de la Habana, usually home to the Cuban National Ballet—may be surprised by an unusual change. The upper floor of this eclectic-style building facing Havana´s Central Park (built in 1914 by Belgian architect Paul Belau to host the Galician community in Cuba) is a huge space. And it’s where Sacrificio en la encrucijada (Sacrifice at the Crossroads), the latest exhibition by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva—better known as Kcho—is on view through April.

Sacrifice is not your usual solo show—not because of the typical background sounds that surround visitors, but because of the dance steps heard in nearby rehearsal rooms, which mix with the sizzle of some of Kcho´s installed works. Joining the expectations around Sacrifice is the fact that, as Cuban curator Corina Matamoros wrote in her catalogue essay, «few local artists have been so flippantly analyzed, and few works examined with both anger and vehemence as his.” Abel Prieto, former Minister of Culture and a Cuban writer, defined the show from a different angle: «This is another version of the ‘endless battle’ against the nonsense and dispersion of a great artist who is both a great man and revolutionary.”

With a brilliant career since the 1990s, but without a solid solo show in Cuba for several years, early announcements of the exhibition sparked interest in discovering what Kcho had up his artistic sleeve. No one can overlook the fact that his installation Regata (Race), presented by Lillian Llanes in the 1994 Havana Biennial, not only imposed the raft-island equation on Cuban visual imagery (already much worked-over), but helped change the thematic focus of international art biennials. Surrounded by the darkness of the Special Period [the difficult years following the collapse of the Soviet Union], under the trumpet chords of the End of History, Havana introduced a transmigratory and “mobile» vision of the Third World, where borders and cultures were split up as Lego pieces and taken by migrants to the metropolitan centers. Berlin, Zurich and London began to rediscover those “non-Western artists» living in their countries, and paid attention to their proposed interpretive canons. The «other» became chic. Soon after, under the Clinton Administration´s policies, Cuban art emerging after the 1980s became a reality for the U.S. academy and collectors.

Kcho has been a dedicated community worker in devastated Cuban and Haitian areas, a coordinator of urban interventions and political murals of ephemeral duration and value, interior designer of fancy restaurants (Kike and Kcho) who was often accompanied by Cuban Revolution leaders. With the show’s announcement, concerned critics, artists and collectors wondered whether Kcho´s art had managed to avoid the consequences of fame and the critical numbness afflicting several areas of both the Cuban and international art worlds—diagnosed as the “Rich, Fat, and Famous Syndrome.» ButSacrifice gracefully steers clear of this ongoing debate, delving into other areas of contemporary visual culture.

In a press conference to mark the opening, Kcho stated that the goal of the exhibition was to show little-known works to the Cuban public, rather than dazzle people with «fresh” work, as usually happens in solo shows. Thus, with one exception—the installation that gives the exhibition its title—most of the 12 works on view are from 2000-2009. A video, The Intruder, has also been included, and screens have been grouped with additional pieces to display images. Almost all of the works are from the artist’s own collection, as is the case with that enormous outpouring of drawings—many of them created between 1989 and 1994—displayed in the installation work La Memoria Construída (1989-2011).

That is to say, the museum exhibition that unfolds in the upper room of the García Lorca Theater, with large-format texts hanging from plasterboard walls, the brochures and newsprint handouts, has been conceived with a didactic purpose, or as an attempt to re-connect with the natural audience for this Cuban artist’s work. Kcho is the core of the exhibition, credited in the show’s publications as Creator of the Concept and Curator. Accompanying Kcho in these efforts is his own production team, Kcho Studio, whose staff includes not only numerous installation assistants but also individuals responsible for Projects-Archives-Public Relations and Economics and Finance, among others.

It is a team created not only to handle the certification of Kcho’s extensive oeuvre but also the production of works destined for exhibitions, collectors, galleries and museums around the world. In this aspect of the Cuban culture industry, Kcho is preceded by other teams with similar purpose accompanying other charismatic and internationally renowned artists, among them Carlos Garaicoa, Esterio Segura, Tania Bruguera, Yoan Capote, René Francisco, Los Carpinteros, and Alexandre Arrechea.

In these teams—some more visible and organized, others assembled under the principle of ‘outsourcing’—the artist usually is not directly involved in the actual production because of its technical complexity. Individual authorship—the “romantic” ideal of the solo artist—is channeled through technological processes and functions more like Damien Hirst, or the masters in Renaissance workshops. Unlike Los Carpinteros or Arrechea, whose works, in their poetics, have acquired a high-tech gloss, Kcho’s art maintains the “savage,” rude, tercermundista (Third World-ist) character that has defined him from the start.

Kcho is an artist who enjoys challenges and physical effort. He is the weaver of an endless drawing, as if describing objects using pencils and crayons were his essential way of understanding the world, beyond abstract concepts and ideologies. He has always called himself a draftsman who has been projected onto sculpture to build, in real space, those artifacts that he thoroughly describes in countless paper sheets. La Memoria Construída attests to this endless task. This is the name of the first section of the show (and one of the most interesting); a large room, on whose walls hang clips holding countless drawings (wrinkled, crumpled, full of dirt, and in other cases broken), and at whose center table tidy sketchbooks, labeled with dates on their hard covers, may be opened and looked through.

La Memoria Constuida is like Vulcan´s forge, the space where Kcho reveals the shameless depths of his everyday creation. The use of white cotton gloves is essential for looking through these drawing notebooks, taken from his personal collection. While browsing with gloved hand through one of the groups on the wall, I discovered a conceptual work: in summer 1994, Kcho called for a competition of balseros (rafters), in which they would participate with their own boats.

It´s worth showing this “museum consciousness” or “collecting consciousness” in a contemporary artist, but this feeling can be contradictory at times. David is a 15-meter-long floating dock, made of wood and metal barrels, which reproduces in its design a possible version of the Michelangelo´s famous sculpture. The accompanying video shows it in its original location, floating majestically on a beach, serving as a diving board, a functional artwork for children and bathers to enjoy. As an ephemeral and perishable work, I thought it would remain forever in that blue beach, beaten by the waves and salt that would gradually soften its corners, rust its tanks, until David would be consumed by nature. However, Kcho removed it from its original context (it belongs to his private collection) to place it in the room with the video, as if it were a sculpture to contemplate, a defunctionalized object turned into a simulacrum of itself.

The same paradox applies to Vive y Deja Vivir (Live and Let Live, 2006-2012), an arrangement of hollow mud bricks by Kcho, who initially presented the work in the Plaza Vieja during the 2006 Biennial. In an action recorded in a video clip that was frequently broadcast on Cuban television, city inhabitants hastily carried away the bricks—which were free—in carts and on bicycles, restoring Kcho´s readymade back to his functional context. Among the pieces in Sacrifice is this work, now staged (renacted) as a wall covered with those bricks, a wooden ramp, and a construction-site wheelbarrow. It’s as if fictional or re-created tools used in a historical museum were exactly applicable to contemporary art. But the bricks and tools remain silent signals of a false reconstruction, while the video screens show the living documentation of the social appropriation.

As a mise-en-scene, one of the strongest points of Sacrifice has certainly been the choice of venue: an ample, eclectic edifice built during World War I. It is an architectural text on which Kcho´s works play a violent discursive role, which undoubtedly contributes to the sense of physical decay and precariousness of the building, which is the seat of the Cuban National Ballet and the international ballet festival in Havana. The placement of the pieces in this space was arranged by the artist, pencil in hand, through the development of numerous drawings in which he shows the works in scale along with human figures, as he has often done for other exhibitions in museums and galleries.

However, from the texts included in the show, even if they are placed next to the appropriate pieces, visitors don’t get the essential information that usually accompanies a curatorial-thesis exhibition. Even though Sacrifice intended to show little-known works, it was still permissible to show where they had been previously exhibited abroad. The communicative silence surrounding the exhibition pieces brings up other valid questions: Why did the curator-artist choose these works, and not other ones from his extensive oeuvre? What were the selection criteria he followed in choosing such pieces, when we know there are more powerful works? What do these pieces mean for him from an artistic and emotional standpoint, that made him decide to share them with the audience, beyond the usual and obvious silence of many contemporary art gestures? How does Kcho select his works from the vast amount of accumulated drawings in his notebooks, when the ink in his drawings seems to spout impetuously, gushing as if it were blood?

The exhibition’s newspaper handout doesn’t help to clarify these questions, and doesn’t approach Sacrifice as the first exhibition drawn from Kcho´s own collection. (Are we in the first stage of an eventual Kcho museum?) Nor does it pay attention to the great quantity and variety of international critics who have commented on his work from the beginning, which would be a useful, orienting element for the Cuban public. Rather, it is Kcho´s unquestioned voice, his detailed review of his popular and familiar origins. He is with us over several pages, but he doesn´t say what moved him to re-present these pieces.

For Matamoros, «beyond all social circumstance referred to in his work … for Kcho the experience of the sea orders everything.» I think it’s exactly the opposite: the fierce creative tension, the brutal, short-range sparring, the revealing short-circuit between the everyday island routine and its transcendence is certainly what will put Kcho on the edge, at the crossroads. The moments when he has metaphorically talked and argued with—taking both an irreverent and respectful position as a Cuban—icons like Alexander Calder, Brancusi, the Soviet Tatlin or Wifredo Lam, are when he has shown the greatest artistic coherence.

Whether Sacrifice at the Crossroads is the starting point of a new stage in Kcho´s life, time will tell. For the moment, it confirms that a myth called Kcho continues to unleash provocation.

For more photos of the exhibition, visit the Cuban Art News Facebook page.

Abelardo G Mena Chicuri (La Habana 1962) Formerly a curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, he is curator of the Farber Collection, Miami. He recently became CEO of RM Estudio, an arts advisory company in Havana for private and corporate collections.