Interview with Ernesto Benítez (XIII Havana Biennial).
By Claudia Placeres Gómez
We will not stop exploring
and the end of all our exploration
will be to find the starting point
and to know the place for the first time.
Poem “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets
The creative pilgrimage, introspection and silence of Ernesto Benítez during the last seven years are translated into the rebirth of his work, which is sustained in the rigorous decantation of the precepts that have rightly defined him and the values that will compel him in the future. A stop along the way to revisit and dialogue with himself, to question his esthetic discourse and to reinsert himself, taking advantage of the context of the 13th Havana Biennial, in an environment that, though distant at times, will never be alien to him.
CP: When I saw the works selected for your open studio, I noticed that emblematic works dialogue in the space with some that have never been exhibited before. What are the philosophical and artistic precepts that prompted you to make this selection?
EB: Between 1990 and 2011 my work went through different stages of research on existence from a concern for the individual (the self) in relation to the environment and the other; research that often alluded to the traps of perception and the mediating sphere. Although my current proposal has been influenced by my constant travels to Europe and the experiences derived from my insertion in the euphemistic “first world”, I have not radically departed from my initial assumptions.
Today, in accordance with those assumptions, I continue to explore the springs and the different edges of human spirituality in the midst of postmodernity. I continue using practically the same processes -as if it were Egyptian mummification-, the same structures of symbolic analogies and the same materials; but after almost ten years in constant contact with the old continent (cradle of western Eurocentric thought), my artistic praxis opens to new parallel and interrelated lines of research that cannot ignore the new realities of the quasi-dystopian era 2. 0, digital or misnamed “information age” (or of dis-knowledge), which is characterized by a constant struggle to shape the channels and control the flow of information.
This being so, we thought it was coherent, after seven years of silence, to take up again some of the works that best reflected my aesthetic position at the time I decided to begin that necessary retreat, in order to draw the bridge that connects with my current praxis.
CP: How do the discourse you hold in the works of your open studio and the concepts of the 13th Havana Biennial articulate?
EB: Actually, I prefer my works to be the ones that speak in that sense, but I can assure you that in these seven years my work, which is based on reflections and explorations on globalization and biased identity, fragmented memory and kidnapped spirituality, as evident dystopian features of this liquid era of the post-individual, fits perfectly with the argumentative concerns that initially governed the artistic call, even though my presentation has been outside the official collaterals of this Biennial. However, in relation to the coherence with those assumptions, what I have not yet been able to fully understand is how this new conception of the Biennial itself could be sustained -in a general way- under the umbrella of its own slogan: The construction of the possible. I have heard it said that this is a biennial of resistance, a biennial of integration, etc… but the truth is that, in my modest opinion, the final result shows, in the first instance, an evident fragmentation, diverse fractures and disintegration. Without much effort we can perceive that these assumptions are crystallized precisely in some of the theoretical bases that have brought about the social polarization and the expansion of the cultural abyss that globalization constitutes for contemporary people. In addition to its direct relationship with the establishment of the great hegemonisms on which the event intends to initiate a reflection. I know that artists, specialists, organizers and curators, among others, have worked with intensity, with unquestionable rigor and without sparing any effort, but I think that, from the executive point of view, the direction of the biennial -or whoever this responsibility corresponds to-, with a misguided look, has achieved or has ended up “building”, in a general way, what once seemed “impossible”: a biennial out of sync with its theoretical assumptions. So… How to interpret the coherence with the central theme of this 13th biennial? I prefer to let time put things in their place and let everyone implement their own interpretative keys in this regard.
CP: What is the conceptual substratum of this new open studio?
EB: The substratum is found in the project Seven days of silence which, to put it in a way, is the project of projects that resulted from my recent period of “retirement” and silence. There came a moment in my life and in my work when I needed to question myself, to scrutinize myself as an individual and as an artist. A series of concatenated incidents led me, seven years ago, to make a stop to reevaluate some paradigms and reconsider the path I had taken. Seven days of silence then became a process of reflection and study. Initially it was as simple as that: a stop along the way to reoxygenate myself, but time went on and the objectives increased until I decided to temporarily get out of the game as far as the realization of public projects is concerned. I can assure that it has been a very fertile period from the creative point of view and very rich in experiences derived from my systematic contacts with Europe, without losing the link with the island. In the end it has been seven years of silence that certainly “flew” as if everything had happened in just one week.
Ab æternō, the final title of this exhibition, shown on the occasion of the XIII Havana Biennial, is a Latin locution that refers to something that has been there for a long time and that could be perceived from eternity.
CP: Was your distancing from the art institution and the Cuban art scene during all that period of time intentional?
EB: I can’t deny the disenchantment and the many doubts I’ve often experienced regarding the official art institution in Cuba, because many times, despite the tremendous effort of workers, specialists and curators, it doesn’t respond to mere cultural interests… not even commercial ones. At this point, I won’t be surprised by its instability and inefficiency; that’s nothing new, but unfortunately it’s evident that for some time now the country has neglected the galleries of its official circuits and some of its institutions -sometimes in the hands of very reliable but unfortunately incapable people- at times give the impression of drifting adrift, in the best of cases. Thus, in this context, related private entities have been born that stand as competitors and, with their excellent management, put into question many official galleries that lack autonomy.
It is true that at the time I had bitter experiences with some of these official institutions, but I must be honest: my distancing from the art scene was the result of a strictly personal need. It was, at the same time, a rupture and a reencounter with myself. As I was saying: yes, it was a voluntary distancing in which, without ceasing to generate and produce works or projects, I simply did not make them public either in Cuba or abroad. The pieces resulting from this process, more than ever before, are like the visible remains of a period of detoxification and were assumed as work in progress. The cycle opened with the different series started during this temporary lapse has not been closed in most of the researches. I am still working on many of them.
CP: Will you continue to make yourself visible in Cuba and abroad, and will this philosophical and esthetic discourse persist in your work?
EB: Yes, of course. At the end of 2018 I concluded the project Seven Days of Silence and since the beginning of 2019 I am working, among others, on a series of works with photographs taken in a Spanish medieval retreat monastery that summarizes this period and that I hope to exhibit soon in Cuba.
My intention is to continue my discursive line from this inevitable anthropological vocation (focused on the psychological, the social and the cultural), exploring different ways to revalue the so-called analogical thinking and re-signify the symbolic discourse that the digital or cybernetic post-culture has emptied of all transcendental connotation, if this were possible.
Knowing myself to be part of the InDoor culture, as I state in the statement of the exhibition Ab æternō, I do not renounce my interest in dusting off and re-semanticizing different symbols already coined and legitimized -although almost forgotten- by the Western tradition to confront them with the new archetypes and liturgical paraphernalia of postmodernity, in an attempt to establish a constant tension of memory. Hence, photography, ephemeral proposals, clandestine actions, the environment, specific site installations or net art, among others, are excellent allies for me to focus my gaze on the psychology of the ubiquitous (omnipresent) man in the midst of the dictatorship of the “Like”.
I will continue these lines of research by delving into the cultural wound and exploring the splits and fractures of all kinds that postmodern man exhibits as relics or trophies of a battle not fought. An aesthetic proposal that assumes our own weaknesses from liturgical practices and structures of thought, whose epistemological bases extend beyond immanentism, to emphasize an irrepressible need for religare.
Published in the visual arts online portal Artcónica.com