The poetics of the object in the contemporary artistic praxis refer, from to the Duchampian ready-made, to the rise of New York Neo-Dadaism in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century, the New Realism and its multi-discursive-operative, Art Povera, and the Trans-Vanguard of the 90’s. With this tradition a new concept of sculpture is originated, supported by the installation, appropriation and manipulation of textual fragments from different sources. The search for the object and its revelation as a symbolic entity of extraordinary character constitutes a claim of reality to the virtualization of the cognitive orders and the perceived universe.
Within this tradition Cuban artist Alexis Leyva (Kcho) develops himself, and clings –as promptly as César Baldaccini adopted the car, in dramatic compressions, to allegorize the sign of the new times; or Armand Fernández subjugated a violin until amortizing it in fragments like a divine Osiris– to the gravels remaining in the sea. With them he makes a sort of assemblage of an unhealthy, shipwrecked and dying nature.
His modus operandi begins with the collection and appropriation of objects in a precarious state, mainly coming from the sea. This gesture recycles the Dadaist notion of object trouvé by linking the artist with the figure of an anthropologist who seeks, in the detritus of contemporary societies, the redemption of men. In some occasions the object constitutes a fragment, a piece, or mortar for the preparation of installations of sculptural order. A skein of ropes, boats, wood and salt are ready to found the flesh of new morphologies. Other times, organic matter is incorporated in the pure state: coal, earth, sand or resins, which combined with the oil, generate a new and renewed substance. These materials are assembled on the canvas strictly following the patterns of painting and drawing. But his leit motiv beats after every effort: always the sea.
His identification with this subject initially responds to questions of self-referential root, related to his status as a double islander –living on Isla de Pinos, south of the archipelago–, increasing the natural condition of insularity. On the other hand, it responds to the urgent need to outline a categorical image of Cuban identity. By this path, Kcho, to satisfy his sleeplessness, uses the whole nature as material, symbol and vestige. Inoculates her with a farsighted and prophetic capacity, only granted to the oracles.
With a work strongly tinged by Conceptualism, he uses indistinctly drawing, painting, installation and performance to slowly forge ideas in a slow process of evolution. All these formats are platforms for experimentation, areas of collective meditation. Little by little he abandons testing the many poetic possibilities of the thought and in the way unearths sailboats, maps, pulleys, roots: new emblems.
With a strong sculptural tinge, he fixes his installations to the ground, assure of its visual power and offers them a setting of existence close to liveliness. The sensory is the spring to which he appeals to catch the eyes of others: his allegories are essentially formalistic.
Each piece shows a monumental force, sponsored not only by the spatial dimensions that he grants them, but by the solemn tone that, in its immediacy, they acquire. These, like the useless machines of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, acquire a human dimension of colossal order: the titan’s insularity.
The American conceptual artist Douglas Huebler sentenced in an interview: “The world is full of objects more or less interesting; I do not want to add any other, I prefer, simply, to affirm the existence of things in terms of time and/or space.” This is an indispensable key to understanding the fruitful artistic work of Kcho, because in his shadow, recomposing the symbolic system from which our societies feed is possible.
From his hands emerge colossal and battered images surrounded by an extremely pernicious atmosphere. His objects are related to the sea as a shipwrecked, to the earth, as furious. This discursive strategy of such high indexes of expressiveness has its most direct reference in the work of José Antonio Díaz Peláez, defender of sculpture as the assemblage of materials of very fine rudeness in pure state. From the terrain of abstraction, with the aid of stone and oxidized steel, he evacuated the high levels of violence that characterized the young process of founding a Revolution. The influence of a shrewd, direct and angry Fonticiella, the author of broken wooden christs, of rotten flesh and dead sunrises also beats. But Kcho also shares the concept of terribilitá that Antonia Eiriz never knew how to develop. She also found in the raw materials the signs of the nobility and risked inoculating them with all the wrath of her silences. Kcho owes to the neo-expressionist line of our painting the origin of his universe of clay and salt.
A Greek history tells that before men inhabited Earth, this was ruled by titans, colossal figures among which were the personification of the ocean, astral fire, intelligence, sight, memory, and others. Uranus, who held power, fearing that his sons would betray him, locked them in Tartarus –the hell of the gods. But Cronus, his youngest offspring, redeemed his fellows and overthrew his father. Then, his thirst for power and terror of betrayal led him to swallow each of his children, so that his own gesture of foundational rebellion would not be repeated. But Zeus, the last of his offspring, escaped this fatal design and one day returned to overthrow his father and save his brothers from the fateful imprisonment to which they were subjected. Some sources maintain that the titans were cornered in Tartarus, while others affirm that from the greasy smoke of their burning bodies fired by the ray of Zeus, the whole humanity was born.
Kcho’s pieces seem to be the fragments that such authoritarian, imposing and desperate race left behind. They are the fragments of a Tartarus that has spread gently through the earth, infesting roots, wills, youths. Kcho’s pieces are the remnants of a renewed generation of titans who, at the time of founding, eternalized their power. This has become corrupted, distilling stale smells.
On the other hand, the term titan has the etymological meaning of clay. Even in mythology the evidence that this was a race of clay, dirt and dust has been recorded. Kcho seized the national coat of arms, emblem that conventionally personifies our identity as a nation, and redesigned it, now with branches, rags and earth. The appropriation and manipulation of the symbol in the first place, holds the impossibility of eclipsing the truth, in spite of all the transformation implicit in the synthesis carried out, the essence of what is taught nationally and what it represents is unalterable; and secondly, the infectious act of over-writing and symbolic manipulation that power exerts to perpetuate its time and actions. Perhaps this piece indicates the existence of other titans in conquering gesture, perhaps it denounces its marks and imprint in the present. Perhaps it’s the discourse of the impossibility of Tartarus.
The truth is that such symbolic manipulation runs diametrically against the self-instituting systems put into practice by contemporary Cuban society. The shield, or more precisely, the symbol in this way recreated alludes to a state of origin in which the earth is all within reach: it designates the everlasting character of the institutions that the symbol represents. But, on the other hand, it establishes a meta-discourse in which the manipulation and saturation by excessive use of the symbols that humanity has constructed are presented as a strategy of camouflage, masking and concealment of the first truths.
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz states: “When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become.” Culture shaped us as a species and continues to form in a cycle of self-institution, he concludes. Does Kcho rescue the origin of our symbolic devices or declares his exhaustion in endless fatigue? He talks about the state of modern society with grandiloquent, almost epic tones and an ill-fated bias from which it is impossible to he can’t disassociate himself. He builds symbolic and physical ruins, and outlines what we, as a people, have achieved to be.
The discourse that comes from the precariousness of the materials employed designates the rough character of a contradictory existence. This way it allegorizes the exhaustion of the freshness, youth and virility of signs, discourses and values. The use of materials and objects in which the signs of oversaturation by effective use is manifested, is also related to the need to build metaphors with the same symbolic oversaturation that accompanies political manipulation. The validity of cultural essences and institutions condensed in the symbolic devices is questioned. Finally, he builds new emblems on spoils, and inoculates them with pitiful exhaustion. That is why his morphologies are as useless as the machines of Tinguely: our identities are symbolic and bare bodies. And a pitiful nostalgia suits them, far from the cordial and solemn respect, comparable to the affection caused by forgotten things.
His symbols of death, almost in a state of agonizing hyperventilation, cling to existence, fluttering desperately, “flooding a second under the sky, above the world.” This is his space of capture, the subsequent moment of flutter and the corresponding state of miraculous static, transformed into symbolic static. Dying, their authenticity defends these transvestite symbols.
Modernity at maximum expression of nationalism, the project of nation-state that since 1959 prevails in our island, idolized the machine, the industry, the idealized figure of the cruise, the plane and the car. In them faith was placed in progress. Leyva’s poetics contrasts this system of values with the existence of other artifacts, as if these were the result of those. Thus denounces the tear of the utopias that lead the modern notion of society and state. After fractures and failures, idolized objects have been deprived of their blinding brilliance, showing how harmful such pious inventions can be.
But there is a sign in his work that symbolizes what our collective identity is: the boat. The journey has defined the history of this Island: first the aborigines arrived to our coasts by means of the inter-island migration; then the conquerors, with their round trips; Western modernity and its clearest lights, the bourgeoisie in its retreat before the revolutionary triumph in January 1959, the children of the operation Peter Pan, the rafters in their many waves. This insula is defined in the flow, the journey, the dilation. Not infrequently Kcho flirts with the silhouette of our archipelago and the morphology of a boat. He places oars, like strong legs, on everyday objects and inoculates our race with the sign of flight. Perhaps he aims to build monuments that, thousands of years later, can attest, before the men of the future, the lineage of this town. As Aureliano Buendía, the founder of the legendary Macondo, did when he set out on his last voyage in search of land. In One Hundred Years of Solitude a passage describes the act of discovery that we experienced before a piece of Kcho:
The ground became soft and wet, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation became more and more insidious and the cries of the birds became more and more distant (…) The men of the expedition were overwhelmed by their earliest memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, prior to original sin. Sleepwalkers advanced through a universe of sorrow, lit only by a faint reverberation of luminous insects and their lungs worn out by a suffocating odor of blood. They could not return (…) It was a dense night without stars, but darkness was impregnated by a new and clean air (…) When they woke up (…) they were amazed with fascination. In front of them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and dusty in the silent morning light, was a huge Spanish galleon (…) The whole structure seemed to occupy an area of its own, a space of solitude and oblivion, closed to the vices of time and the customs of the birds. In the interior, which the expeditionaries explored with a stealth fervor, there was nothing but a tight forest of flowers.1
With an operating mode that drinks of the canonized creative strategies within the contemporary art, Kcho alters universe of what’s his and translates to the world the clearest signs of our national identity. He is impatient with conventions, official speeches, manipulative gestures, and cultural devices. He hits them, exposing some of their traps; dethrones them and restores symbols. He appropriates the carpenterian real-maravilloso (real-wondrous) and places it as matrix, sap and suffocating odor of blood in the lungs, and interweaves a new cartography for these magnificent latitudes, aware that “the essential is not to lose orientation.”
1. Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad (Madrid: El Mundo, 1999), 18-19.