Alexandre Arrechea by Claudia Clairman

As they say, nothing lasts forever–including artistic collaborations. For twelve years, Alexandre Arrechea, born in Trinidad, Cuba in 1970, was part of the trio Los Carpinteros. The group–an artistic collective based in Havana and formed by Arrechea, Marco Antonio Castillo, and Dagoberto Rodriguez—met when they were still students at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte de La Habana in the early nineties. Through the years the trio’s work has been internationally acclaimed.

Three years ago—on July 4, 2003–Arrechea decided to break up this long-term collaboration to go into a solo career. According to Arrechea this day marked the moment that he left Los Carpinteros to try new artistic forms. Like all break-ups, it was a very hard decision for Arrechea, since he had to leave behind the idea of challenging traditional notions of individual authorship.

While being part of Los Carpinteros, Arrechea was mostly interested in merging sculpture, design, and architecture–working between the lines of the familiar and the uncanny, creating collectively humorous dysfunctional hybrid objects, such as finely crafted wooden cabinets in the shape of grenades, water tanks, and coffee pots—taking away the original meaning and purpose of the object and transforming it into something nonsensical and without a function.

Since Arrechea left the group, he has become more interested in exploring the relationship between public and private spaces. He started creating works that he calls “social sculptures,” mostly questioning spaces under surveillance.

One of his first solo projects in a public space was El Jardín de la desconfianza (The Garden of Mistrust) (2003) which will be shown in the upcoming Taipei Biennial in November 2006. It was originally done a month after his mother died and right alter he had departed from Los Carpinteros. It consists of a white enamel metal tree—four meters high—with 22 surveillance cameras attached to the end of its branches. The viewers were permanently under the view of cameras’ lenses and the images were transmitted onto the Internet. The work questions the idea that safety apparatus exists in order to protect us in public spaces, instead becoming an intrusion into our private lives.

The piece also subverts the idea of who sees and what is supposed to be seen in an institutional space, such as museums and galleries. In The Garden of Mistrust it is not only the viewer who watches the work of art, but also the intallation that enters the viewers’ space, violating their privacy. 

In another solo installation, Sudor (Sweat) (2004), images of a basketball game are projected onto an actual basketball court in Havana. For this project, Arrechea filmed his neighbors playing basketball in the same public space over the course of a week. The camera was always focused towards the backboards of the court, so the players are not seen during the game. What is on view is the hoop, the net, occasionally the ball, and the recorded sound and noises of the players. In February 14, 2004 Arrechea organized a party to present the installation in the same court where the games took place. Despite the presence of the viewers in the court, they were there only as spectators and not as participants of the game, since the game had already happened. The title Sudor (Sweat) alludes to physical exhaustion. But no one was sweating there.  Everyone was simply watching the game, so it became a play on the idea of the viewer’s presence or absence, as well as a comment on the transformation and violation of the original function of the public space. 

His most recent piece, Entrada libre para siempre (Perpetual Free Entrance) (2006) which is currently on view at the Museum of Spanish Contemporary Art, Patio Herreriano, in Valladolid, Spain, consists of an architectural sculpture of a section of a sports stadium made out of wood. In the entrances to this built-in stadium are three plasma TVs showing images of the public as they enter the museum. This work establishes a parallel between the stadium and the museum.

Arrechea lives most of the year outside Cuba, doing projects with galleries and museums in different parts of the world, mainly in Europe and Asia. Since the summer of 2003, he has been denied entry to the United States under the Homeland Security Act, his visa twice denied. His daughter was born in Spain, so now he spends most of the year in Madrid. Recently, in 2006, he had an exhibition in New York at Magnan Projects called Dust. It consisted of a sculptural installation of five glass punching bags containing the debris collected from significant cities in the artist’s life around the globe, emphasizing the contrast between the fragility of the material—dust and glass–and the nature of the sports–boxing. Due to his visa situation, Arrechea could never see the final project installed in the gallery’s space.

It comes as no surprise that Arrechea considers his work to be part of the social context in which it is inserted, and not as an autonomous piece of art. His work reflects geopolitical aspects of surveillance and control, be it the politics of art institutions, or in a broader scene, the nature of a controlled society, whether Cuba or the U.S.

by Claudia Calirman

Claudia Calirman (Ph.D., The Graduate Center, The City University of New York) is an adjunct professor at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and Parsons The New School of Design, NY.  She is also a gallery lecturer at MoMA and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.