Jairo Alfonso and the taste of the world

“A slice of orange tastes as sweet as a whole orange”, a friend of mine told me a long time ago that Goethe had said. Since then, I have used this expression every time I came across a detail synthetic enough to represent a whole universe. Let’s admit that it’s more elegant than saying “one swallow makes a summer”. Now, since I haven’t been able to find any source for the phrase allegedly coined by the German poet, I could claim it as my own, but what sense would it make to fit such a basic idea with such an obscure signature as mine? Let us then turn to Ricardo Reis, that poet who was sometimes Fernando Pessoa, when he said: “Let the gods/ take from me/ by their high and secretly wrought will/ all glory, love and wealth./ All I ask/ is that they leave/ my lucid and solemn consciousness/ of beings and of things./ Love and glory/ don’t matter to me./ Wealth is a metal, glory an echo/ and love a shadow./ But accurate attention given/ to the forms and properties of objects/ is a sure refuge./ Its foundations/are all the world,/ its love is the placid universe,/ its wealth is life./ Its glory is/ the supreme certainty/ of solemnly and clearly possessing/ the forms of objects.”

I know. Goethe’s apocryphal orange is very different from Reis-Pessoa’s poem, but that’s exactly what Objectscapes Cuban artist Jairo Alfonso‘s exhibition opening in January 2023 at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is about: to establish the flavor of a world by possessing the forms of its objects.

‘TELEFUNKEN’, Jairo Alfonso, 2012.

What Jairo portrays in many of the works exhibited there is something at the same time mysterious and diaphanous: the strange post-apocalyptic landscapes that result from blowing up the interior of old electronic devices. Their titles are those of the brand names under which such devices were marketed in his country: Taíno, Caribe, Siboney, an array of names borrowed from the language of native Antillean peoples. There are no coincidences. Such names correspond to the era of what I would call “Guanahatabey Nationalism” that led the 1959 revolution to nationalize Cuban social imaginary by giving aboriginal names to its industrial products. (Including Batos, a brand of baseballs with which they tried to convince us that the national sport, despite being an invention of our favorite enemy, the United States, actually had its origin in the game of batos practiced by the Taínos, an indigenous people settled throughout the Caribbean Basin and the East of the island of Cuba. That in spite of the fact that, if you read the description of the game given by Frey Bartolomé de las Casas, it will remind you of volleyball and soccer rather than baseball). Hence, the country’s main record label was called Areíto, alluding to a Taíno ritual feast, and Cuban radio stations also caught that aboriginal fever and received names like Radio Guamá and Radio Taíno.

It was not the first time that Cuba programmatically raised the flag of autochthony in the name to the unfortunate indigenous peoples of Cuba. A movement of poets who called themselves “Siboneyistas” had already emerged in the first half of the 19th century. And the composer Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes came to compose, in the early years of the Republic, Yumurí, an opera inspired in aboriginal themes, and on top of that he claimed that the origin of Cuban musical culture lied in a false areíto. These efforts were seen at the time especially in the case of Sánchez de Fuentes as attempts to ignore the African legacy in the conformation of Cuban nationality. The option for the indigenous peoples, who were seen as less conflictive due to the fact that they had disappeared, explains, for example, that the national beer before 1959 was called Hatuey and not Cimarrón or Palenque. A variation of an old trick: autochthony is simulated by advocating for what no longer exists in order to conceal the social tensions inherent to what really exists.

For all these reasons, it is significant that after 1959 the nationalized industry chose this already classical repertoire of aboriginal names to name its products. It is even more curious that the radio and TV sets whose intimacies have been portrayed by Jairo Alfonso were actually assembled in Cuba using mechanical components manufactured in the Soviet Union. We can draw an obvious lesson from those fake aboriginals composed by transistors coming from some remote Russian province, from that nationalism made out of components made in USSR.

‘Taíno V’, Jairo Alfonso, from the series ‘Endoscopic Landscapes’, 2022, (PHOTO Etienne Frossard).

From the point of view of landscape art, Jairo Alfonso’s Endoscopic landscapes are connected to at least a couple of traditions. On the one hand, there are those metaphysical urban landscapes painted by a Giorgio de Chirico that have inspired contemporary artists such as the Cuban Gustavo Acosta or the German graffiti artist EVOL (especially in his series of East German communal apartments printed on the foundations of a slaughterhouse in Dresden). However, EVOL’s work also connects with another tradition to which I hinted earlier: that of the representation of the plentiful ruins left behind by the most ambitious social engineering project ever devised by mankind, the one that engendered societies supposedly inspired by the “victorious doctrine” as Cuban Constitution of 1976 put it of Marxism-Leninism.

Such is the capacity of these regimes to produce ruins that it would seem according to the theory explained by writer Antonio Jose Ponte in the documentary Havana: the New Art of Making Ruins that they insist on building ruins directly, without having previously achieved a state of fulfillment. That was the case of the Higher Institute of Art from which Alfonso himself graduated whose unfinished buildings are a perpetual ruin, as the documentary Unfinished Spaces by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray painstakingly shows. That was also the fate of many other school projects carried out between the 60s and the 80s. One can also think of the Nuclear City of Juraguá, Cienfuegos, which has been the setting for stories by Francisco García González (“Reactor uno” and “El capitán (me a) Tormenta”) and the film The Project of the Century by filmmaker Carlos Quintela. Nor should we forget the facilities built for the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, which were turned into brand-new ruins as soon as the competition was over, except for the Olympic Stadium, which was already an incomplete ruin by the time it was inaugurated.

Jairo Alfonso’s gesture is, at the same time, more intimate and ubiquitous than that of the aforementioned artists. It is not a matter of representing vast construction projects but of penetrating into those devices that inhabited most Cuban homes; of tracing the guts of those gadgets that, representing a sort of deferred and anachronistic modernity, daily broadcasted the images and sounds that shaped the conscience of an entire people: cartoons, radio dramas, sitcoms, preferably local music, national and imported soap operas, almost always foreign movies national production was never enough to cover domestic demand, a lot of political propaganda and, above all, those speeches of the Supreme Leader that were transmitted in unison by all television channels and radio stations, melting all that Soviet junk disguised as indigenous under the same man and the same voice.

‘Siboney III, Jairo Alfonso, from the series ‘Endoscopic Landscapes’, 2022, (PHOTO Etienne Frossard).

The possible political readings of the exhibited pieces, however, are only justified by the interplay of the works, their titles and the knowledge of the social and historical dimensions of the portrayed objects. Politics or rather, political reading is a useful but limited resource when it comes to understanding an artistic object that refuses to give us its mysteries once and for all. Because, by overlooking the external appearance usually shoddy, especially in the case of the TV sets and immersing himself in the interior of the devices he portrays, Jairo Alfonso plunges into “the lucid consciousness of things”, which is equivalent to representing them with all possible honesty. And by honesty I mean resisting those forms of flattery that are grandiloquence and stridency. It must have taken the artist a lot of effort to reach after discarding other possibilities the exact texture of his series Endoscopic landscapes, the culminating moment of Objectscapes. By achieving the perfect finish of what has the taste of the ultimate definition, Jairo reaches “the certainty of solemnly and clearly possessing the forms of objects” of which Reis-Pessoa spoke.

Because, before arriving at his Endoscopic landscapes, Jairo had to go through the drawing of several clusters of objects of which the exhibition offers us two superb samples: the pencil drawings 494 (the numbers that give title to the pieces of this series correspond to that of the objects that appear in them) and 362, whose central object is a Soviet-made Lada automobile, the ultimate symbol of social status in the Cuba of the 70s and 80s. These clusters are self-explanatory: the only virtue that regimes inspired by the victorious doctrine of Marxism-Leninism are able to encourage in their subjects is no other than the inability to get rid of any junk, no matter how useless. (During communism, says the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, “nothing was thrown away. Even if someone bought a new refrigerator for that could also happen they didn’t get rid of the old one, just in case.”) These pieces are chronologically followed in the exhibition by those made in violet watercolor pencil with which Jairo begins his adventure of portraying the interior of electronic devices, but on a smaller scale and without yet using oil colors. These are also titled with the name of the brands of the devices represented: Sylvannia, Emerson, Telefunken.

‘Transistorized Caribbean IV’, Jairo Alfonso, from the series ‘Endoscopic Landscapes’, 2022, (PHOTO Etienne Frossard).

It is precisely in the Endoscopic landscapes, with its unleashed scales and its palette of earthy tones, where Jairo manages to impose himself completely on the forms he had been stalking for some time. With the same childlike curiosity and adult insight exhibited in the rest of his work, in these object-landscapes Alfonso expresses himself with all the tools of his artistic language. These Endoscopic landscapes are pieces that are perceived as the result of a long distillation process and, at the same time, as unaffectedly and easily as a footprint left in the sand.

It is heroic that Jairo Alfonso resorts to such humble objects to build his idea of a world, of the world. And it is even more heroic that the representations of these tarecos manage to dazzle us as much as they disturb us: I am referring to the radical disquiet produced by the question of whether we had paid attention to reality until now. It is heroic that Jairo turns to the wastes of a failed world to explain to us the taste of the universe or, if you prefer, that of the orange in Goethe’s apocryphal quote. A gesture with which Jairo reminds us once again of the true nature of art, and, on top of that, he does so with a humility that enhances his greatness. From these Objectscapes we can deduce the stance of its creator, which is, as Pessoa said, that of the one who desires nothing “except the pride of always seeing clearly, until he ceases to see”.

‘362’, Jairo Alfonso, 2012.

* The exhibition Objectscapes by Jairo Alfonso can be visited until June 4 at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Enrique del Risco Arrocha (Havana, 1967). He holds a degree in History from the University of Havana and a PhD in Latin American Literature from New York University (NYU), where he is currently a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He has published, among other works, Obras encogidas (1992), Pérdida y recuperación de la inocencia (1994), Lágrimas de cocodrilo (1998), Leve Historia de Cuba (2007) and ¿Qué pensarán de nosotros en Japón (2008). Turcos en la niebla (Alianza Editorial, 2019) is his first novel. Under the pseudonym Enrisco he published a weekly column in the digital newspaper Cubaencuentro for several years and has run a blog since 2007.


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