The Innovation of Making

With a resurgence in the handmade and a push for sustainability, artists are using materials in new and exciting ways. Los Carpinteros, at the forefront of this, open Silence Your Eyes this spring at Kunstmuseum Thun.

The isolated nation of Cuba occupies a unique place in the Western psyche. Equal parts of Caribbean paradise and romantic nostalgia are tempered by the absence of democracy and consistent anti-Cuban rhetoric from the US government. The streets are populated by elegant 1950s cars and cluttered with beautiful architecture of a fading colonial grandeur. But all media is state controlled, Cuba’s citizens are denied international freedom of movement and its notoriously mediocre food is rationed in an everyday affirmation of their loss of autonomy. The country’s idyllic beaches are tempered by a totalitarian regime, creating a unique position for artists, and also a need to for them to navigate the fine line between political commentary and safe patriotism.

Los Carpinteros is an artist group consisting of Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés (b. 1971) and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez (b. 1969), who, having met during their studies at Havana Art Academy, have practised together since 1991. Originally a trio, Los Carpinteros describe their working process as “really singular”, and the departure of Alexandre Arrechea eight years ago led to today’s duo. With Gilbert and George perhaps the most prominent artist duo of today, Los Carpinteros have taken their sacrifice of individual identity even further by refusing to use their own names in their work, taking their name (the carpenters) as both a rejection of individual authorship and a recognition of the skilled craftsmanship that is disintegrating from both contemporary art and design. This whittling down of two minds into one piece of work recalls the studio systems of the Renaissance, and further emphasises the importance placed on craftsmanship itself: “We have a constant confrontation between ourselves when an idea comes up, and also during the elaboration of it. [But] the result is always a consensus.” Their latest exhibition, Silence Your Eyes, opening this April at Kunstmuseum Thun, simultaneously interrogates the nature of Cuban identity while revelling in the innovation of making. The works represent a celebration of the handmade, straddling the areas of architecture, design, sculpture, painting and clothing while referencing both the everyday and the absurd.

The artists describe this, their first institutional show in Switzerland, as “an extraordinary opportunity” and Silence Your Eyes is the product of two years of discussions between Los Carpinteros and Helen Hirsch, director of Kunstmuseum Thun. The exhibition will “contain some historical pieces of our trajectory, but a great part of the show is composed of sculptures and drawings done in the last two years” with some works only very recently completed and exhibited for the first time. These pieces “reflect the ideas we have been obsessed with” and include a variety of installations along with a prolific number of watercolours, through which the artists extend their fantasies of the surreal further beyond the confines of materials and three-dimensional space. Knin Lego (Tríptico), for example, imagines an imaged complex of Lego across a triptych of sheets, creating glimpses of a monolithic structure that would dwarf the viewer but simultaneously seems more approachable through the medium of watercolour. The building depicted appears both organic and patently artificial, each machine-made Lego brick distinguishable from the next while the forms that they have created extend into the air and overlap one another like overgrown weeds, entangling to create a sanctuary of privacy below. The Lego worlds are continued in Monumento de Legos (díptico), where an unlikely walkway extends absurdly in the air to…? Well, nothing. These watercolours also provide the opportunity to contemplate the role of materials in the work and to diminish and age them through the artists’ own collective imagination. Bloque infectado, for instance, imagines a rot seeping through a simplistic, regular brick construction so that it begins to take on more organic forms as the darker colour seeps throughout its man-made habitat.

While these watercolour works have allowed Los Carpinteros to extend their practice beyond material constraints, they emphasise the greater freedom of materials explored since they began working in Europe. With earlier works utilising a restricted inventory of poor recycled materials, the works of Silence Your Eyes  are constructed from wood, plastics, fabric, resin, metal and fibreglass and highlight the greater freedom allowed in making outside of communist rationing: “The selection of the material is not a naïve or random action; it involves ideology, it involves an intention, an expressive purpose.” This selection has its roots in subversion, through the way in which the softened fabric of bedding is appropriated to imitate concrete in Cama and Patas de rana turquesa’s rubbery, playful flippers, creating a starkly geometric and futile composition: “For us, who usually like to subvert the nature of the materials, they acquire an added importance. There is a language, a psychology, an encryption code in every material.”

Reflecting their chosen moniker, the artists emphasise the importance of craftsmanship: “We really believe it is important to get involved in the process of creation. We really love to be close and we are actually close to everything we produce.” As a result of working away from their native Cuba, Los Carpinteros have enjoyed more autonomy over their materials and the realisation of their works: “In Cuba, it was difficult to fabricate so we [often] had to ask for fabrication in other countries. Having a studio in Europe has allowed us to put our own hands in the pieces again and to intervene actively in the process.” This movement also allows the artists to work from their watercolours, which have inadvertently formed the bulk of their oeuvre: “In Europe, we have also been able to produce a lot of projects that we have thought about in previous years, some of which were already announced in some of our watercolours, but we were not able to materialise. We now have a wider prism of possibilities for fabrication and this has inspired, of course, new ideas and works.”

In spite of this emphasis on fabrication there’s a further conceptual element to the work because, while Los Carpinteros’ practice recognises the skills of the artisan and the significance of materials, they also consistently focus on notions of space and the distinction of the private and the public, as in the permanent commission Free Basket (2010), a sweeping series of arches incorporating a central basketball hoop at Indianapolis Museum of Art, as well as Ciudad Transportable (2000), a series of tents derived from Cuba’s most famous landmarks. This interplay of public and private is referenced throughout Silence Your Eyes but with a marked movement towards more political commentary and an adoption of the motifs of their country for a humorous look into the functionality of objects. Cama juxtaposes the privacy of the bed with an intricate network of roads crossing over it. The concrete grey palette presents a dysfunctional relationship with a space that should be comfortable and welcoming, while the two motifs together recall the unique experience of overnight travel, incorporating what should be the privacy of a bed with the very public act of a shared sleeping space. And while contemporary artists are often polarised between the conceptual and a truth to materials, Los Carpinteros embrace these parallel models of working: “We see no conflict with this dynamic of creation; we have become gradually used to it. We don’t feel it changes either the original flavour or the authorship of it. The act of choosing a material thus is a conceptual act; materials and processes are chosen depending on what we mean.”

This refusal of restrictions creates a categorical no man’s land for Los Carpinteros, where the works hover ambiguously between form and function, art and design: “Our work lies in a singular intersection between these two branches of art.” Far from restricting their practice to a conservative consideration of the practical and the useful, Los Carpinteros’ revival of the skill of the traditional artisan creates “an expanded field of creation where this boundary [between art and design] is invisible.” They refer to this way of working, which is becoming increasingly common, as a “unit” and a “contaminated area” but in a manner in which the contamination creates new possibilities rather than hostile environments where artists must conform to one category or another. “Visual arts today are promiscuous – any discipline can intervene in order to express ideas – and we really like the design appearance of some of our works … our works have always had a ‘useful’ appearance.”

The juxtaposition of seemingly useful objects within the white cube and a transgression into the absurd creates a hotbed for political references. In 16m, a rail of identical suits, complete with starched white shirts, is suspended, recalling the faceless, uniform identity of the government employee, while Movimento de Liberacíon Nacional plays on Cuba’s identity as tourist hotspot and Caribbean playground when freestanding barbecues are moulded into the star of Cuba’s flag. The piece highlights the uneasy nature of Cuba’s tourist industry, and the dual economy created by foreign money fuelling growth, while few tourists engage in the real activities of the country’s citizens. The most design-led and structural pieces of the exhibition – Someca, Focas and Retiro Médico – are tall, utilitarian formations which ironically have not realised their purpose. Expertly carved in a manner that celebrates the beauty of the natural wood from which they are created, the pieces nonetheless draw attention to their lack of purpose – Focas is a shelving unit with its storage space boxed in while Someca extends and protrudes at odd angles, refusing to give away any intention of functionality. A disintegrated and melting percussion set creates a glossy counterpart to these organic materials in Cuarteto, where the shining scarlet hues of melted plastic spill across the gallery floor evoking the highly stylised and sinister photography of Guy Bourdin, a reference to the worship of consumerism that goes against every communist dogma.

The most interesting work is Ping Pong, which attempts to transcribe a performance into a static piece. The ping pong table is scattered with shards of PVC, the curves of which evoke the organic and predetermined movement of an invisible ball across the playing area. Although the work is created from solid and inarguably tangible materials, it has the lightness and unpredictability of a kinetic piece. The piece offers the opportunity to contemplate at great length the gracefulness of a game that usually happens too quickly for the eye to pinpoint the curves of the ball’s movement, and it also references a national symbol for Cuba’s greatest political ally today, China. Ping Pong seems to be almost a homage to this far larger, more intimidating, communist and totalitarian state, except that, in the hands of Los Carpinteros, it naturally highlights the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the game itself.

While their Cuban identity undoubtedly informs their work, Los Carpinteros emphasise that this is inadvertent and they do not have a political agenda. They acknowledge that “the fact of living in Cuba has already influenced us in our way of thinking and in our logic to perceive the artistic, cultural events,” but stress that this is simply an irreversible effect of their background: “Although our work never made a direct statement towards the political reality of Cuba our context, our culture, and our homeland [always lie] in our artistic practice. The way we [approach] the creation and the conceptual statement [that we have] assumed since the very beginning of our career is to do with the everyday experience in Cuba, with the peculiar relation (deformed and natural at the same time) established in the Cuban context with the objects, the architecture, the urbanism, the function of things.”

Silence Your Eyes  awakens a variety of interpretations – of materials, of ideas, of surreal fantasies, of political critique – and refuses to be pigeon-holed into any one of them, creating a showcase for the artist and the artisan as well as a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of all our interpretations of Cuba. The show ran from 28 April to 8 July.

Ruby Beesley