Like many of Havana’s cultural institutions – and indeed much of Cuba’s postcolonial architecture – the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam is a little rough around the edges. Outside, the walls have long faded in the Caribbean sun, inside the tiled floor is scuffed. This ‘romantic’ decay is mirrored in Cuban artist Alejandro Campins’s paintings of bunkers, some five metres in width, the canvases propped up on the floor by blocks of wood, that fill the cultural centre’s cavernous galleries.
Campins’s depictions of these neglected concrete buildings (Brutalist in design) are tightly framed within a landscape of brooding colour. The boxlike bunker depicted in Sistema Orgánico II (2018) is built on several concrete stilts across a dusky blue plain over which a gloomy sky hangs. The bunker in Marea baja (2018) sinks into a sandy beach, the scruffy dunes interrupted only by the occasional rock. S/T (2018) entertains a rare site-specific feature: a set of goalposts stands in front of a concrete tower that dwarfs this otherwise empty terrain. No clue is given as to the locations of these buildings, or whether they are real places at all – though in a separate room the artist exhibits black-and-white photographs of bunkers. None, however, exactly matches those painted.
These renderings of lonely-seeming ruins could run the risk of nostalgic fetishism: a Caribbean version of the numerous photography books on Soviet-era Brutalism that currently flood the coffee-table-book market, a mirror perhaps to the tourist sell of Cuba as socialist curiosity. Indeed the country built its own Cold War bunkers, a defensive strategy against a US invasion that Fidel Castro was sure would come (and, given the hell America inflicted elsewhere on the continent, El Caballo was diligent in his caution). Most of these are found along the coastlines (though, famously, the gardens of Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional also boast a few). Yet the exhibition literature notes that Campins also took inspiration from examples located outside Cuba, in Europe and the US, and the fictive nature of the end paintings pull this project beyond gawping documentary.
The French theorist Paul Virilio has pointed out the anthropomorphic quality to bunkers, and the buildings in Campins’s paintings – standing upright, their curving silhouettes isolated in the landscape – could at a squint suggest a bodily shell. There is a sense of atomisation and alienation in the compositions: the buildings imbuing, in Virilio’s words, ‘a feeling, internal and external, of being immediately crushed’. A hint, too, of geopolitical commentary in their being shown in Cuba: a country cocooned by its own government from the outside world, a time capsule nearly destroyed by American sanctions, it is easy to see the decaying buildings of Campins’s paintings as standing for the nation’s political isolation. Yet the works hold a more universal significance (Campins has visited bunkers all around the world, after all), suggesting a basic solipsism in human nature. Bunker down in the knowable self, the outside world but a wasteland.
Alejandro Campins: Miedo a la muerte es miedo a la verdad, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, Havana, 2 November – 5 January 2019
From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview