The work of the Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto is growing more and more minimal. With almost nothing, he points out to his audience the effects of the globalized economy.
Over the past decade, Wilfredo Prieto (b. 1978) has developed semantic strategies in his work by decontextualizing objects and materials, whose minimal tangibility triggers reflection on the complexities of contemporary reality. In his well-known outdoor installation Apolitical (2001-2008), the object dislocated from its meaning was the national flag of all the member countries of the United Nations. By reproducing them using greyscale colour fabric, Prieto's flags became photographical representations eliciting a certain nostalgic temporality, as if one were gazing at a ruin of the nation-state. The work places us deeply in contemporary actuality, as through its title it questions the changing significance of nations in the age of globalization, in which economies and world order are no longer governed by state power but heavily controlled by corporate interest.
Because Prieto always responds to the contexts of the sites where the flags are installed, the symbolic meaning of each reiterates the spectator's interrogation of how the world has variously been politically organized throughout history. For example, in its first instalment, Apolitical was presented as part of the Havana Biennale at the majestic Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a fortress constructed in 1763 by King Carlos III when what is now Cuba was part of the Spanish Empire. Experiencing the piece there underscored how tenuous the idea of a nation is when considered from the vantage point of history.
Prior to Apolitical, Prieto turned toward concerns of economic survival and freedom of speech through a series of works that merged vernacular cultural practices and informal economy with a Dadaist bricollage attitude, which can still be traced in his most recent works. For example, in Speech (1999), Prieto produced rolls of toilet paper made from the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, Granma. On one hand, the work alludes to the mundane ways in which people adapt to the lack of personal toiletry items on the island, a strategy the artist appropriated in his conversion of the newspaper into designed toilet paper. On the other hand, it directly invites viewers to wipe their asses with Cuban state propaganda and its hegemony of information.
With its title, Speech, the work envisions a situation whereby an intimate, individualist act in the bathroom produces a counter-meaning to the one-man rhetoric of Castro disseminated by the media – a counter-revolution that occurs between the mouth of the patriarch and asshole of the subordinate. Although functionally analogue and 'poor' objects, the toilet rolls of Speech comment on the vulnerability of all media information (analogue or digital), and on how events that may have triggered important political crises or social mobilizations are now rapidly consumed, digested and thrown away or excreted.
In other early works, Prieto began to use elements that were less strictly connected to Cuba’s governing ideology – like the state newspaper – but that nonetheless still responded to its context. For Matriuska (2001), the artist carried out the simple gesture of gathering different types of containers, from industrial cylinders to domestic pots, and placing them inside each other from biggest to the smallest like a Russian matrioska. Able to see from above all the different types of utilitarian objects that share a physical functionality but differ in value and social use, the viewer is confronted with a kind of chain of economy and production. The work visualizes a progression of labour from the factory to the home kitchen while, through its evocative title, ironically citing the idyllic Bolshevik social model by which Cuban society had been structured for many decades.
Another ready-made work by Prieto that also comments on value through the use of mundane elements is Scale of Value (2001). For this piece, the artist gathered rum, beer, wine, soda and water in plastic cups that were later stacked on top of each other and displayed on the floor. At first resembling the leftover drinks of a party, Prieto’s composition suggests a hierarchy of value, both commercial and social. If in Matriuska the grouping of containers dealt with value in relation to the mechanisms of production and labour, in this work, value is placed in relation to the commodification of leisure and taste.
It is perhaps the artistic attitude and modus operandi of these last two works that seem closer to Prieto’s most recent practice, where there is even a less authorial presence in the artistic gesture, and where the spectator is confronted with an object he or she could easily leave unnoticed. For example, in Grease, Soap, and Banana (2006), Prieto placed on top of each other the materials described in its title. Placed in the middle of an empty space, the sloppy object could easily lead the visitor to slip. Perhaps at first instance banal and caricatural, the potentiality of having the spectator dramatically loose orientation is an invitation to dislocate the perspective of reason – which is in general the experience one has with Prieto’s work.
This strategy has been carried out even further through other works, where there is a greater authorial withdrawal, with pieces that seem accidental, like Cuba libre (2010) and Agua bendita (2010). In both cases, when installed, the viewer solely encounters damp spots on the floor. However the liquids on display have immense ideological meanings. In the first case, a spill of coca-cola is splattered next to a damp spot of Cuban rum; they are the ingredients that comprise the mundane cocktail whose title is also the main slogan for both pro- and anti-Castro rhetoric. In the case of Agua bendita (2011), a huge splash of beatified water covers a big area of a given exhibition space. Here, the artist had a real priest bless the water to make it holy. For Prieto, the veracity of the object is of great importance: if such works are to be reproduced or acquired, instructions are given on what type of rum should be bought and what ecclesiastical ritual should be carried out.
Other recent works by Wilfredo Prieto are installations that respond to specific sites and contexts. At Art Basel, his work One (2008) dealt with the politics of desire, consumerism and spectacle that are catalysers in the fair. On the floor of the booth, Prieto installed a huge pile of diamonds, only one of which was actually real. Through its mimeticism, the work confronted viewers with their own belief in the quest for authentic luxury. Representative of Prieto's conceptualist humour, the work suggested a sculptural, abstract reduction of mundane bling-bling aspiration, which has migrated through the tastes of the global working middle class as the aesthetic paradigm of status. At Art Basel, One paradoxically became a subtle elephant in the room, denigrating the very desire that would potentially inform the piece's own acquisition.
In a more site-specific practice, Prieto took over an entire floor of the Contemporary Art Museum of Vigo in Spain, which has identical wings to the left and right sides of its entrance. In the ends of each wing, the viewer encountered a huge cube made out of bales of hay that covered almost the entire area. What at first instance seemed two immense objects from Arte Povera were actually the architectonical representation of a philosophical paradox on moral determinism, commonly known as 'Buridan's ass': a satirical synthesis of the thinking of the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, where an ass is depicted between two stacks of hay, one on either side of him. Being incapable of deciding which side to eat from, the animal dies of hunger. In Prieto's installation, turning to the left or to the right has an ideological implication in today's political panorama, where the dividing lines between left-wing and right-wing have been blurred to satisfy neoliberal economic agendas.
At Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam, Prieto previously participated in the group show The Disobedients, curated by Jimena Blázquez Abascal in 2008. On that occasion, he created Smart Gum, another almost untraceable work, even though it literally filled the entire floor of the gallery. Chewed bubble-gum lay neatly ordered on the floor in a Cartesian grid composition. Because of its symmetry, the viewer unconsciously assimilated the image as a tile design, later noticing that it was in fact thrown chewed gum; the reminiscence of social irreverence one finds daily on streets. Talking with the artist, it has become ever more important for him not to build up more objects than those that exist in reality. His upcoming exhibition in Amsterdam also promises to be invisible, retinally empty but fully charged with semantic dislocations of reality.
Inti Guerrero is a curator based in Amsterdam- Wilfredo Prieto
Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam
November – December