Much of meaning has been written about the Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros. Especially impressive is Lilian Tone's essay, "Placeless Place," which eases Los Carpinteros' work -- including their Inventing the World at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) -- into the neat net of Michel Foucault's theory of heterotopias.
Impressive, that is, until you actually meet with Marco Castello and Dagoberto Rodriguez to discuss their works more, well, candidly.
My first question to Castello and Rodriguez concerns Foucault. His heterotopia is the anti-utopia, the "place of this nowhere," the place of deviation, of liminality, of cultural spatial authority. Since Los Carpinteros' work takes on the politics of space -- transforming a grenade into a jewelry box or a sandal into a map of Havana, for example -- the question seems a logical one.
Castello and Rodriguez look at each other and then smile.
"No," they say.
Maybe it's the language barrier? No, they admit with a grin, they haven't read Tone's essay.
I ask about the influence of Surrealism in their work. Another no.
"It's much simpler than that," Rodriguez says. "Los Carpinteros. We're carpenters."
The guys, both in their early thirties with big friendly grins and magnificent accents, laugh again.
"Everyone in the United States thinks 'Surrealism!' when we turn objects of use into objects of more use," Castello says
Rodriguez nods. "It's practical."
"Like GPS," says Castello.
OK, a flip-flop and a map are both useful tools. I get it. You get lost in the city, you take off your shoe and you re-orient yourself. But what about the 7-foot high wood grenade transformed by pristine drawers into a jewelry box? What about the giant missile cum breadbox?
"The implication is there, of course," Rodriguez says. "But first we like to play with (objects) that already have an identity. We like the perversion of political meaning."
Take the sandal with its relief map. It's made of wood, and wood to Los Carpinteros "can be very flexible." Society, too, is very flexible.
"Culture is shaped by pressure," Rodriguez says. Like the pressure of a foot stepping onto the sole of a shoe. Like the pressure of a people clamoring for change.
And the jewelry box? Domestic culture is as relevant as anything else, and Los Carpinteros focuses on that aspect as well.
"A household item shows who you are," Castello says.
It's true enough here in the U.S., but think about Cuba. To 21st-century Americans, Havana is an eerie place. The neighborhoods were arranged, in the beginning, according to class structure and assets. After the revolution, though, the poorer classes took over the city and the strangest things happened.
In the beginning, only the wealthiest people had swimming pools; they were completely unknown to the poorer communities. That fact, in part, explains the countless drawings, plans and sculptures of swimming pools in the CAC exhibition.
"Having a pool is like living next to a lake -- you have the refection of your home right there," Rodriguez says. "You double it, so it's always more expensive."
But doubling and the mirror image are fundamentally surreal -- or in Freud's term, unheimlich. Don't the guys want to talk about surrealism now?
"You're an art historian, aren't you?" they ask me.
"You're very theoretical."
It's my turn to laugh.
"The people with the fancy houses left and left all these meaningless pools," Castello says.
The question then became what to do with them, since this new "classless" structure of government had never encountered swimming pools before. Further, it's been illegal to build swimming pools in Cuba for a half a century, since the revolution. These leftovers are relics of a different era.
"The point is that we have been dealing with is trying to find new functions for this deserted object," Rodriguez says. "We're recycling the functionality of the other object, the swimming pool, into something that can be useful."
Los Carpinteros has taken on more than swimming pools and sandals, though. They're trying to repossess the whole city of Havana. Everything.
"(The city) is like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other," Rodriguez says. "Everything is contained, and contains: city, building, furniture, objects."
The exhibition, which originated at the University of South Florida's Art Museum, is divided into three major sections: La plaza, or the city and the city's architecture; el agua, or the water in both its privatized function (pools) and its public function (oceans, travel); and la casa, the home, the items that make up our everyday existence.
If you wander through the CAC exhibition with those loose categories in mind, you'll see what they mean about the Russian dolls. The public and the private realms, so often hacked apart, are actually integral to each other. The home and all its accoutrements sit inside the city. The two are inseparable, and not just in Havana.
The work of Los Carpinteros hits on that point quickly, and with humor (and Castello and Rodriguez will laugh right along with you). Yet, we -- especially Americans in the midst of a spurious war -- need to take it seriously to understand the real meaning of these little drawers and hiding places. All of our most personal, most intimate spaces are inexorably linked with our community.
As such, we can pretend all we want to be outside the government. We can debate all we want, but we still keep our valuables and our food inside the objects of war -- the same places we got them in the first place.
Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World continues at the Contemporary Arts Center through July 30.