Conversation with Direlia Lazo

How and when did the idea of this exhibition come up?

It came up a few months ago when Marianne and Georges-Philippe were visiting Cuba. While walking the streets of Havana, some of my artwork caught their interest: they decided to come meet me. This is when they offered me to work on a first project with Choices, which became more complex over time to finally take the form of this mini-retrospective.

So this would be your first retrospective attempt outside of Cuba?

The first one in Europe. We held a retrospective exhibition in 2011 at the Arte Actual gallery in Quito, followed by another one in late 2013 at the Casa Daros in Rio where we presented several artworks, as part of a larger program.

Looking at the list of artworks exhibited, I was really pleased to see that among them were some particularly representative pieces not only of your career, but also of Cuban art from the 1980s: ST, 1988, El arte arma de lucha [Art as a combat weapon] and Detector de ideologías [Ideology detector]. How did you proceed with these two?

In two different ways. As regards to ST, I will make a new one using this time a real Baroque-style frame just like I had originally imagined it. The one which is currently exhibited at the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana is made of papier mâché, as I was unable to find the one I wanted. Concerning Detector de ideologías, I will present a newer version (2010) with an integrated distance sensor using an Arduino (via a motor), so that the closer the viewer gets to the artwork, the more he faces ideological issues.

Tell us how you met the official who inspected the Detector before it was exhibited.

I created the detector for an exhibition called Una mirada retrospectiva [a retrospective look] (1989), which I organized with (the artist) Rubén (Torres Llorca). Back then, due to many expectations and concerns about our work, the exhibition was constantly being monitored by cultural officials. Given the good relationship between me and Rubén, all the pieces were stored at his apartment and he would often receive visits to see the artwork. Rubén tells that during one of them, when the detector had already been installed, as he approached the device, some kind of general muteness happened, nobody said a word, and the officials left in silence. Now for the rest of the story, on what might have showed the needle, it is pure invention.

How did the detector evolve to the Arduino-board version?

Some works have a highly open structure. I identify some of my pieces as being complete, and recognize necessary mutations for others, towards installation or other forms. I always question the essence of my work and the various forms it might take. I was well aware that the detector, as a cardboard artefact in this version, had its own essence, which would disappear if it took on another appearance. This can sound a bit mystical but it is related to what Greeks used to call metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls.
Yet it is also true that language has evolved, and an artwork language irrecoverably depends on technological advances, on what goes on at a social level. This is how you realize there are things you would like to reflect on, and in order to so, you must consider the new forms of language, although it also depends on each one’s personality. I have always been very curious, and when a group of Spanish professors who were giving a course on the Arduino visited me in 2009, it immediately caught my interest and I started doing some research. I found out that specific classes existed and it was in fact a discipline taught (Physical computing) at NYU: I was overwhelmed.
I do not know a thing about electronics. As a matter of fact, when I started studying fine arts, the teaching of scientific subjects had just been canceled. Although at the time we were more than happy to only have literary subjects, now I believe it was utter nonsense. I had to learn about electronics from scratch in order to work on the Detector prototype.
I enjoy studying versions with students, as it is a fascinating topic. Making versions of famous works, not only theirs but also their fellow artists’ ones. An idea or an artwork can never be fully covered. As you dig in and go deeper in the very essence of a work, you can imagine various forms of existence related to each one’s experience.

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I would like to ask you, regarding the political nature of your works: how important is it for you that the viewer knows the context within which a piece was created?

This political nature you mention is just one of the many layers that represent my work. It is essential to understand my artwork, but I see no problem with informing the viewer to help him find his bearings. What concerns me however, is when the political aspect is invented or exaggerated. I find it important to let it take its rightful place in the artwork.

Let’s now talk about a series of more « apolitical » works in which you used blank canvas to illustrate your concepts of Emergent Art, Official Art, Unofficial Art and Protest Art.

These pieces work regardless of the context. For example, Emergent Art deals with intergenerational conflicts which exist not only in the Art world but in any field. There are always in the balance the ones who are power-obsessed, who have control, and those who attempt to raise their head. I don’t know if this expression exists in other languages, « to put someone in the shade » (me están haciendo sombra). These pieces have a lot to do with the visualization of this expression, in a literal way but from a visual standpoint.
This is an important part of my work and it used to be, in the 1980s, a way to document this verbal tradition and make it visible. I recall how we used to read any type of literature referring to Cuban popular parlance with (the artist) Ciro (Quintana) in the mid-1980s. back then, we had bought an excellent dictionary called El habla popular cubana de hoy [Today’s Cuban popular parlance] by Argelio Santiesteban. Language was so full of creativity that when you would focus on visualizing it, most of the communication work had been done: there was no need to visually build it, the popular expression already showed ingenuity and the artist only had to illustrate it in some way.

Some of these works come from your recent exhibition, Base/Superstructure (2015), at the Wifredo Lam Centre of Contemporary Art. I take the opportunity to mention it is part of the National Prize of Plastic Arts you received in 2014.

That is correct. In addition to the recognition it represents, this prize involves putting together a personal exhibition and a catalog which I am currently working on.
The exhibition unfolded on two different levels, with each one representing « base» and « superstructure » Marxist concepts. Karl Marx transposes these two already existing concepts, « base » and « superstructure », to illustrate his critical analysis of society.
Via this exhibition, I intended to symbolically represent these concepts by confronting two exhibitions: a « down » one and an « up » one. The works we mentioned earlier had been installed in the « upper » part, representing superstructure, in which I attempted to review my experience as a creator, as well as my relationship to art circuit. That is why my works were referring to general art issues, being at the same time pretexts. At this level, the texts displayed with the artwork were the essential part.

You wrote these texts yourself?

I did, I actually explored this idea in the past with Una mirada retrospectiva [A retrospective look] where each piece had an explanatory label, just like in any traditional exhibition with objects displayed. I intended to use this text method again in Base/Superstructure, and even though most of them make no sense, what is written has a purpose. I received help from Corina Matamoros (exhibition co-curator) for the first correction: throughout her work with the publishers, she paid close attention to making no changes, except for a few spelling corrections or anachronisms I might have missed.

Why was it so important for you to keep this rusticity and nonsense in your texts?

Because that’s precisely what anyone might experiment while facing some of these texts, isn’t it? Artists have always enjoyed defending what is far from possible today: the complete autonomy of an artwork.
Although I have been trying to say as little as possible on artworks, contemporary art is full of these hermeticisms. When you stop in front of a piece and it does not take you anywhere, you have to wait for the artist’s translation. Somehow I have always tried to draw art towards language. In order to do so, it is necessary to bring cognitive and communication functions to the forefront. This will allow to clear the path between the artwork and the viewer and send a strong signal, considering it doesn’t prevent transmission of complex ideas.

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However, some works go beyond the text and image, with no attempt of giving all the information at once, in which fragmentation of knowledge is part of the piece.

Each artist represents a different world. Art plays a significant role when it comes to human brain psychology, with specific connections for each person. Some artists do not see the point of giving information but find interest in emotionally working together with the viewer. For example, David Lynch made movies to show he « could paint », and when he « painted poorly », metaphorically speaking, he had meant to. In other words, I’m going to make a movie with a linear story to let everyone know I can, even though this type of conventional narrative is not interesting. I actually liked Lynch’s movies right from the beginning: I felt attracted without really understanding what I was watching. This actually happens a lot in contemporary art. You see a piece of art you don’t understand, but you do feel strongly attracted to it. Quite often, you stand there, hypnotized, until you reach new levels of understanding.
And while we're at it, let me tell you I happen to have created the ST piece (1988) precisely for people to know I can paint!

Do you think your work has always been understood?

No, I don’t, and I can’t expect it either.

What hasn’t been said about your work? What has been misunderstood or what did you fail to express?

That’s a tough one ! Sometimes, I receive comments very different from what I wish I could hear. I might just want to talk more about process, about how I create my work.

Let’s talk about process.

I will start by telling you a story. While I was in secondary school, I was asked to draw a picture of the story with the rabbit and the moon. I took the latter as an excuse and started drawing the moon, the sun with stains on it – I had heard the sun had stains – and finally the entire system. This knowledge came from a poster hanging in a primary school class where my mother used to study at night on 51st avenue in Marianao. Everything related to the universe was an obsession so I always stayed focused on this poster. When the teacher saw my drawing, fascinated, she left the room to show it to the other teachers. She didn’t see the process, only the result. I was no genius, I had just gathered information here and there and consistently organized it thanks to my drawing skills.

What is the upstream work with the Escultura Social [Social Sculpture] diagram?

This work was installed on the ground floor of the Base/superstructure exhibition. As you entered the Wifredo Lam Center, there was a car, a Chevrolet from 1955 with its hood open. An image of the friendly meeting between Raúl and Obama was projected on a white sheet from the hood, and behind there was a documentary on the Soviet exhibition held in Havana in 1961. The diagram was in a small adjacent room, with two texts. On the left there was a definition of social sculpture by Joseph Beuy, and on the right, my own definition of the concept. This Chevrolet just happened to identify as an example of social sculpture to me, because its creator was completely anonymous. An object belonging to material life, born in specific circumstances.

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How did you manage to identify where all the car parts came from?

When i bought the car, i asked the owner where they came from, but he didn’t really know, although he had owned it for almost 20 years. Since then, everytime I would take my car to the garage, I would write down the serial number of each part they had got out or changed and make some research on internet. The mechanic himself would tell me where some of the parts came from and what kind of technical improvements the car had undergone. That’s how I got to know my car little by little, tracking every part, until I realized they either came from China, India or Italy. It was a substantial trade in Cuba. For example, in Matanzas, there were some cars called « caraduras » which had their front part cobbled together in order to copy brand cars. Clearly this was illegal, and numerous cars were seized. I have several concerns about these works: I know they represent a conflict by themselves and raise doubts for the viewer.

Thanks to the Sponsor collection, you’re painting again. What’s beyond the « painting to know what you paint »?

Sponsor works as a visual metaphor. The artistic paradigm of mass is oil on canvas, this is why I chose painting. The idea for this project came from a day I was in Germany, back in 1996: as I was correcting a catalog, I started picturing the full-size advertising logos as real artworks. At some point, I thought it was one of the artists’ work, until I had it confirmed there were the exhibition sponsors’ logos. As I returned to Cuba, I tried to start a project consisting in painting corporate logos with oil, having the companies fund the project and make a catalog out of it. Unfortunately, back then it was hard to find sponsors in Cuba. In the early 21st century, I met someone who took charge of finding the funds and giving the project visibility. The exhibition was a success, particularly thanks to the gallery hosting it, which had large windows, allowing people to see the artwork from outside. The gallery looked like a shop. I worked a lot on the texture of each piece: these works are characterized with thick impasto, and numerous layers; their material texture was essential in my mind.

I’ve always wanted to question you about your influences regarding education. Your methodology as a professor of the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) has influenced lots of artists, in particular the collective project ENEMA, which you founded with a group of students and now embodies an essential component of Cuban artistic life.

Back then, the teaching material for art was not readily available. In the early 1990s, thanks to Pedro Álvarez, I read an article from Arthur D. Efland which had a great impact on me: he would draw parallels between philosophy, esthetics and psychology in order to explain various art teaching methods. Each artistic practice reflected the vanguard idea specific to its context. History of art was neither monolithic nor linear, it should be analyzed considering the ideologies running through it. From that moment, I identified myself to Efland’s work. While on a trip to Spain in the early 21st century, I came across the Spanish edition of his work Art and cognition by accident at the bookshop La Central I had just found. After reading it, I gave the reference to (Luis) Camnitzer who was really impressed with the book, which allowed him to support the ideas he was working on. Another significant event was my involvement in a gathering organized by the Casa Daros in Rio on functional illiteracy (2008). Numerous pedagogues and educators with impressive community practices were present. It was very interesting to see how all these methodologies and systems could be considered as artistic practices. I have been taking pedagogy as a learning process since I started working with Enema in the early 21st century. I have learned a lot with them: I did some research with the students and reinterpreting the works of (Burden, (Marina) Abramovic and others made me aware of the weak points I had as a former student at ISA.
I always thought that art could not be taught, and what I really tried to teach my students is that there is no formula in art.

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