(Pubilshed in the monograph “RAÚL CORDERO”. Turner Books. 2010)
When I sit down at home to watch TV, I think I know what reality is and what is merely image. Of course, the shadowy concatenations of more or less well-resolved patterns of colored lines that succeed each other abruptly on the screen are what I call images; the screen itself, the box that frames the screen, the room that frames the box -those are certainly real. But the framing doesn’t end there. Outside the box in which I sit, there are further realities that frame my immediate reality, but I can’t necessarily see them. To the extent that I become absorbed in– pay attention to that phrase -the images that come into view, mutate, and vanish from the screen in succession, they are my reality and what might at another time have seemed a more self-evidently concrete reality comes instead to seem vague and unreal. Even so, I can always tear myself away from the images I’ve allowed myself to become absorbed in. I can turn around and look out the window, for instance: there is a larger reality out there, that of the city but also (I can just barely glimpse it) the sky -the infinite, the biggest reality of all.
But those larger frames of reference are not very real to me. The bigger they get, the further away from me they become, and as they become more distant, they become more abstract to me. They become unreachable, intangible. “Reach up and touch the sky,” a song once suggested. But I’ve never succeeded. The air around me is not the sky. Each circle of reality has a border, and those borders can be very hard to cross -sometimes impossible. What is the reality of the political systems that determine every aspect of my daily life? What of the economic forces that influence those political systems? To comprehend them by means of the newspapers I read every day seems no more likely than to understand the events of the day by reading tea leaves. How can the news give me a perspective on politics and economics when it is merely their creature?
Suddenly I begin to wonder if I am no more than a character in a story by Philip K. Dick.
I’d better switch that thought off, the way I’d switch off a dreary and unpleasant TV show, looking for something a little more entertaining. Or maybe even the way I’d switch the TV off altogether. But can the image machine -not the TV but the bigger one of which it is merely a minor organ -really be turned off?
In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard wrote (voluminously) of the simulacrum. In the 1960s, Guy Debord wrote (perhaps too succinctly) of the spectacle. Good old-fashioned Marxists have for ages written about ideology. Simulacrum, spectacle, ideology -they are not synonyms. They have distinct, perhaps at time conflicting emphases. But each concept tries to grasp the basic idea that my bedrock reality may be an illusion constructed by others who do not have my interests at heart.
There is a famous old Chinese story, often retold (by Jorge Luis Borges among others), accordimg to which Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered: was it he, Chuang Tzu, who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or was it a butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Tzu?
What a charming story. It leaves me faraway, pensive. Did I dream that I read that Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly? Or is someone else dreaming that I read it?
Raúl Cordero told me a story -really, a sort of fable- that is somehow similar, yet fails to put me in the same charmed, poetic state of mind.
When he was a kid, Raúl said, he’d always wanted Christmas lights. How he got the idea of the Christmas lights, it now occurs to me, he never mentioned. But anyway, there was no getting any Christmas lights; they were not sold in the stores. The only way to get them was to have them sent from abroad. And who could possibly have sent them from abroad? Only family members who had emigrated -and who were, therefore, something like traitors. So even if someone had sent Christmas lights, it would have been unwise to put them up: that would have been to declare one’s alliance with the traitors. Christmas lights were unpatriotic. “Did you ever know anyone to put up Christmas lights anyway?” No.
But then one year, all of a sudden, Christmas lights appeared in the stores. They were no longer unpatriotic. What had been an unquestionable reality that he had grown up taking for granted had unexpectedly been abrogated and replaced by a new one.
How real could realities be then, if they could be drawn out like cards from a deck?
I got the feeling that Raúl had lost his taste for Christmas lights in gaining the liberty to have them.
“Cordero is from Cuba,” an American critic once observed (between parentheses), “so political interpretations cling to his work, whether desired or not”[1. Leah Ollman, “Getting at the Partial Truth of What We See”, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2002, p. F28. ]. What is most interesting about such a statement is its ambiguity: is it that exhibiting an artist from a socialist country in a capitalist one -within the capitalist art system- inevitably has political overtones? Or is it that making art within the system that obtains in Cuba brings in unavoidable political implications? Possibly both, and it’s true that the artist can only resign himself to this or give up -and having resigned himself, must act in full cognizance of it. If Christmas lights are political, then so is art; but if the politics of Christmas lights are as arbitrary as they are crucial, then those of art must be even more mutable, and perhaps riskier to handle.
The great danger for any artist, and possibly the best argument in favor of formalism, is that the meaning of a work is always dependent on its context -and just as its present context is never entirely knowable, its future ones can never be entirely foreseeable. One way to negotiate this problem -and this is the way that Cordero has chosen- is to try to work as fluidly and as unpredictably as one’s ever-changing surroundings. To be a chameleon.
I suppose that it is this slyly mimetic capacity of which Cristina Vives was thinking when she noted of her fellow critics that “Cordero has deceived them with the obviousness of his appearances”[2. Cristina Vives, Timing/Lacking/Mixture. Raúl Cordero in complete spaces, in Raúl Cordero 1996-2002 (University of Salamanca, 2002), p. 108]. But the point was never to play games with potential interpreters. Cordero is not a trickster. But he is surely as aware as any artist is of the meaning of Marcel Duchamp’s famous axiom that it is the viewer who completes the work. What that means is the artwork is by definition open, unfinished, because there can always be another viewer. Cordero respects the division of labor: Confident that there will be viewers sufficiently thoughtful and observant to do their job of completing the work (to their own satisfaction) and do it well, he tranquilly goes about his own business of setting the work in motion. Incidentally, this also accounts for the fact that his work is rarely either rhetorical or seductive, which is to say, it does not attempt to impose itself upon the viewer through either power or desire; but rather, it arouses feeling by way of the intelligence and an understated sensibility. For this reason, too, his work tends toward an acceptance of the ordinary, and shuns exoticism or melodrama.
On at least one occasion, though, Cordero has indulged in something akin to both exoticism and melodrama, namely fabulousness. Probably the work that is most emblematic of his sensitivity to the shifting context of a work of art -and therefore one of his most “theatrical” works, in Michael Fried’s sense of the word, referring, as is well known, to an art “concerned with the actual circumstances in which a beholder encounters”[3. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, originally published in Artforum, June 1967; now in his Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 153.] it -is his “Hello/Good Bye” series, or rather to the two parts of the series that are The Rolling Landmark (Europe) (2001), and The Rolling Landmark (America), (2002-2003). If you think about the phrase “rolling landmark” for a moment, you will see that it embodies a certain contradiction -less obviously, perhaps, but just as surely as the phrases “portable mural” or “itinerant site-specificity” or “temporary monument” are contradictory. To speak of a rolling landmark is to designate something at odds with its own concept. And yet such a thing can exist. The Rolling Landmark is a luminous sign, built to Cordero’s specifications on the model of the famous WELCOME TO THE FABULOUS LAS VEGAS sign that greets visitors to Nevada’s neon-lit kitsch playpen, latterly rebranded as a haven for family fun -the important difference between Cordero’s remake and the original being that his version has a big blank where you’d expect to read LAS VEGAS. Instead, the bright white space is ready to be filled in (like the white surface of a poet’s unwritten page or of a gallery’s empty wall) by plastic lettering to form the name of any city or town whatever. Cordero took his sign on a tour of two continents, or at least some small samples of those continents, so that in the photographic documentation that is part of the gallery version of the piece you can glimpse FABULOUS GENT, FABULOUS DEINZE, and FABULOUS WATOU, among other places in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as FABULOUS TIJUANA, FABULOUS CHULA VISTA, and FABULOUS BARSTOW, from a trip through Mexico, California, and finally Nevada, where he was able to photograph his portable WELCOME in front of the more permanent one that was its model (and where the minor differences between them, such as the fact that Cordero’s emanates a harsh white light whereas that of the original is warm and yellowish, lend the juxtaposition a sense of strangeness out of all proportion to its fundamental banality). Cordero’s movable sign is sensitive to its changing contexts through its own changeability, of course -through the fact that one name can be substituted for another. But to an even greater extent, its site-sensitivity (if that is the right word) derives from what never changes about it: It functions like a ruler, a standardized gauge, that can be held up against any background to see how the place measures up or falls short in the quality the sign proclaims -fabulousness. Since the places where Cordero has photographed his “landmark” are pretty blank- Encinitas at least seems to have a hill, or maybe it’s even a mountain, but he has cagily positioned the sign just in such a way as to block one’s view of it -or else have been photographed at night so that you can’t really see much anyway, one’s impression is mostly based only on the name after all. Even those of us who don’t actually think Las Vegas is fabulous must imagine that it is at least more fabulous than Victorville, wherever that is, and even though what little of Los Angeles one can make out through the darkness looks pretty unprepossessing in the photograph Cordero made there, we still have to imagine something more inspiring than the National City of which we can see just as little. The “Hello/Good Bye” series is in many ways an uncharacteristic project for Cordero, but its slippery and ambivalent relation to context is emblematic of his oeuvre as a whole. He has used almost every medium available to the contemporary artist -photography, video, objects, writing, performative interventions- but undoubtedly he is most prolific as a painter. A painting, one might think, is not the sort of “floating signifier” that the Rolling Landmark is; being so much more complex than a simple signboard, it is capable of carrying a great deal of its context along with it, and therefore establishes a greater degree of autonomy. This is undoubtedly the case; but then the painting itself is a context for everything that one sees in it. Cordero’s paintings are meeting grounds for images that may have only the most tangential relations with one another -images that spatially coincide yet which the viewer must analytically disentangle and consider sequentially before attempting to mentally resynthesize them. A metaphor that the artist often uses is “zapping” -switching channels on a TV set: “When you switch channels rapidly you flick through images to find one that is attractive to you, when they no longer attract you, you press the button”[4. In Conversation with Raúl Cordero, -in Raúl Cordero 1996-2002, p. 122]. At times he has even seemed to have the same impatient and uncommitted attitude toward the medium of painting itself, as when , he told Javier Panera, “I am no longer a painter, I use paint, just as I use other media… I am a mercenary of artistic media”[5. Ibid., p. 123]. That was in 2002. Since then, it seems to me, Cordero has zapped this very attitude: he seems to have become more engrossed in painting, rather than in remaining an artist who uses paint, at least in the sense that a great proportion of his work is now in painting rather than other media.
Yet still, one would have to guess that Cordero’s stance toward painting remains ambivalent. What else are we to make of his penchant for evoking arbitrary connections to the painting of the past? In works such as A Painting the Same Size as Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa, A Painting the Same Size as Willem de Kooning’s Woman I, or A Painting the Same Size as Ed Ruscha’s “Annie”, all from 2008, the artist reflects ironically on his efforts to “fill the shoes” of his esteemed precursors -and of course the irony is redoubled when one considers how incompatible the aesthetics of such diverse predecessors are. For that matter, one has to wonder to what extent painting can even be considered a single art when it covers the productions of the prototypical Renaissance man, the Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist, and the Los Angeles Pop hipster. Yes, the glory of the art of painting is precisely that it can support such a vast range of techniques, ideas, and forms of feeling, and more besides. But what in practice does that mean for the contemporary painter? As Boris Groys has observed, “The museum doesn’t dictate what the new has to look like, it only shows what it must not look like”[6. Boris Groys, “On the New,” originally published in Research Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 38, Autumn 200, now in his Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), p. 27]. Since these three ways of conveying a female image in paint -by means of a surpassing naturalism, a seemingly abrupt shattering of the image that is nonetheless full of doubt and hesitation, and the simple, uninflected typographic rendition of a name -have already been successfully achieved, they cannot in themselves represent valid artistic goals. And yet the painter is driven to measure his achievement against theirs. The lettering (reminiscent of the read-out of an LED -I can’t help but think of the face of a digital alarm clock, as if this were the painter’s wake-up call) simultaneously disrupts the painting and completes it, which is to say, the lettering completes the painting by disrupting it and (even more surprisingly) disrupts the painting by completing it. Similarly, in the earlier “Expenditure” series, started in 2003, Cordero had measured his efforts against the derisory criterion of the amount of energy spent in making them, “defacing” their imagery with legends detailing the number of calories supposedly used up in their production and the percentage of that consisting of fat.
For Cordero, therefore, an image that “functions” pictorially is not necessarily sufficient matter for a painting. In fact, an image that does not quite function on its own, and therefore needs something else to complete/disrupt it, is the best basis for painting. Often enough, that something else is another image, as in the untitled works from his “Obtained by transition” series (2004). In these paintings, images interpenetrate. Cordero works a kind of magic in them that he usually eschews; his paintings are usually much more straightforward in their operation, if not in their meaning. The texts that appear on the surfaces of other paintings, or even the patterns of dots on still others, for instance, are clearly distinct from the images they invade. Something similar is true of works in which images are layered in a self-evident way -for instance the 2008 painting Mambo de la Conquista, in which three levels of imagery can be seen: a sailing ship, rendered in muted colors except for the red of the cross on its sails, emblematic of the conquest mentioned in the title; three heads, rendered tonally as if they were shadows cast on the blue of the sky and sea, presumably mambo musicians of the title; and finally, in white on top of the surface, an avenue of tall trees in perspective, an image that recurs in Cordero’s work, (quoted from a landscape painting by the Dutch painter Meindert Hobbema, whose presence is a puzzle not referred to in the title).
But in works like those from the “Obtained by transition” series, one cannot distinguish separate layers of imagery. The images fuse in such a way that one can clearly make out two different images but cannot tell where one begins and the other leaves. Such paintings embody Cordero’s aesthetic of zapping in the purest possible way -and I accept the irony that this is so even though that aesthetic undermines all sense of purity. All the transitions are completely smooth and seamless. Paradoxically, this makes the juxtapositions even more uncanny and disturbing. Is one of the images waking from the dream that it is another? Which image, which reality is being replaced by which? It’s impossible to tell. But what’s clear is that Cordero’s is an art of transition, of images that in succeeding each other change their meaning, and above all of the moment -an impossibly brief, nearly ungraspable moment- in which the state that will soon have disappeared and the state that will succeed it are all but indiscernible.
A last word about politics, or rather about the political implications of art. I take with great seriousness Cordero’s warning, that “every time we talk about Cuban art there is an overestimation of the national experience”[7. “In Conversation with Raúl Cordero”- p. 116], an overestimation that is held both within the country and abroad but from which Cordero himself has done his best to abstain, for all his love of country. And yet I cannot help but think that for a Cuban today the question of “transition” must have much more than aesthetic resonance. It is impossible not to imagine that his country will not sometime soon be going through a transition, probably a difficult and painful one, on a scale greater than has been seen there for more than five decades. What rough beast slouches toward Havana? Could that be the question that haunts this art of transition?