Building dreams, dream building |

Building dreams, dream building

Stewart Oksenhorn
Art has to bring certain reflections. But it also has to be a spark plug to make that reflection bigger, stronger, says Carlos Garaicoa. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

A resident of Cuba for all his 37 years, Carlos Garaicoa was likely born too late and in the wrong place to know the 1950s TV show “Naked City.” But he would have loved its tagline: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City,” intoned the narrator each episode. Garaicoa would have loved, too, how the cop drama used New York City, making the Big Apple, from Times Square to the Staten Island Ferry, as significant a presence as the fictional cops Detective Adam Flint and Sergeant Frank Arcaro. At the start of his professional career as an artist, Garaicoa used the city of his birth, Havana, for site-specific photographs, sculpture and writings. The intention, he said by phone from Havana, was “to create a dialogue between people who are walking the streets.” As his work developed, Garaicoa began seeing things in the bigger picture: His focus on streets and individuals grew to encompass buildings, neighborhoods, cities and their populations.

“Self-Flagellation, Survival, Insubordination,” a 2003 installation that opens in the Upper Gallery of the Aspen Art Museum with a reception today from 6 to 8 p.m., is metropolitan in its scope. The exhibit features scale-model renderings of a variety of buildings – stadiums, churches and office towers, in modern and classical styles. The architectural ideas are represented in both solid models standing on pedestals, and in more ephemeral strings and pins, stuck to the museum walls. The earlier work – which he refers to now as “fragments, pieces of cities” – “brought me closer to understanding the idea of urbanism – how buildings affect people in many ways, how people are related to the street,” said Garaicoa. “For me, it’s a way to dream – looking at the buildings, the lights, the cities. It makes my imagination very fast.”

In addition to the building models, the current installation includes three objects, displayed on pedestals: a sculpture made of razor blades, a mound of bread formed in an architectural design, and a Molotov cocktail. Each pedestal also contains a video of his making the objects. The objects correspond to the three words that make up the exhibit’s title. And this, it seems, gets at the substance of Garaicoa’s work. By proposing three distinct responses to the city – to human existence – Garaicoa suggests the infinite nature of emotion and experience. And what better way to represent that vast array of choices than the city, a place where everything from guerilla attacks to a hot pastrami sandwich can be found.”I had made all these pieces about cities, how people can act – an ecological place where people can live, love, hate,” said Garaicoa, whose request for an entry visa to the United States was denied, making him unable to attend the Aspen opening. (It was the first time in many attempts he was denied entry to the States, which he ascribes to this peculiar moment in history.) “When I create that kind of imaginary city, I find three ways to enter the city, many possible ways of how to live. “The ideas of self-flagellation, survival and insubordination – you die, you survive, or you just impose your ideas and make a revolution.”In the architectural models of “Self-Flagellation, Survival, Insubordination,” there is both sorrow and hope. The sadness stems from the realities of Garaicoa’s homeland. Havana is a place frozen in time, where, since Castro’s brand of communism took hold in 1959, “building projects were stopped, and other historical structures have since crumbled into ruins as the result of neglect,” according to the text that accompanies the exhibit. Though Garaicoa says the installation is not meant as a direct commentary on Havana, the artist’s Cuban background inevitably reminds us that the buildings exist as hopes and dreams, sculpture and strings, and not actual structures housing real human activity. The delicate materials and smallness of the works also stress the tenuous nature of buildings, people and even societies. At the same time, what better statement of hope than designing models – and Garaicoa’s designs are meant to be convertible to brick and mortar – for a future reality?

“Self-Flagellation, Survival, Insubordination” first showed in Barcelona in 2003. Arriving to install the piece, Garaicoa found a city whose residents had taken to the streets to protest against America’s invasion of Iraq. Television sets were filled with images of buildings and statues being destroyed in Baghdad, lives being lost in the streets. For the artist, it was a surreal site – he had come to install a piece about the possibilities of city life only to see people fill the streets to join in protest.”That was a reflection of our contemporary city. People were in the street every night,” he said. The installation “was like a mirror of reality.” and not only a mirror, but perhaps even an instigator. “Art has to bring certain reflections. But it also has to be a spark plug, to make that reflection bigger, stronger. It was a reflection of how we are living today. It was the right moment for that.””Self-Flagellation, Survival, Insubordination,” however, is not meant to bring to mind only the notions of conflict and struggle. Garaicoa’s city of the mind sprawls into neighborhoods of ecstasy, fear, poverty and hope.

“I think art is dealing with all these levels of things, reality,” he said, “a kind of hope we are constructing in our minds. But reality brings us to the sad part of life. In art, we think of only one or two range of intentions. I believe that the various real buildings coming into the world, the dream of bringing us to many other levels. We can’t say it’s only sad or hopeful or happiness. There’s so many things inside.”Dealing with cities, you’re constructing possibilities.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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