Carlos Garaicoa was born in Havana, Cuba in 1967.
He trained initially as a thermodynamics engineer before his mandatory
military service. While in the army he worked as a draughtsman, learning
the skills that he would use later in his practice as an artist. In
an interview with conservators at Tate, Carlos speaks about having spent
many hours working in the draughtsman’s office of the army producing
maps and other dry technical drawings by hand, as at this time computers
were not widely available. This was the first time he had come across
the draughtsman’s tools and here he learnt the skills he would use later
in his work.
At twenty-two he enrolled at the Havana Instituto
Supierior de Arte where he studied from 1989 to 1994. He commented:
programs at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) Cuba are quite open,
so I could approach any field I was interested in. They are closer to
open studio programs than to traditional academies; hence the diversity
and plural nature of the work that comes out of Cuban art schools.
Block, Holly, 'Carlos Garaicoa', BOMB Magazine
The idea of the itinerant artist
Carlos Garaicoa has exhibited extensively around
the world, his works having been included in major exhibitions such
as the Kwanju Biennale, Korea (1997), the Biennale of Sao Paolo and
Documenta XI (2002). Although based in Havana in Cuba, Garaicoa encapsulates
the very contemporary phenomena of the itinerate artist, constantly
travelling for the circuit of Biennale’s and commissions. As Miwon Kwon
has noted today we see the ‘intensive physical mobilisation of the artist
to create works in various cities throughout the cosmopolitan art world’.
(Miwon Kwon: One Place After Another:
Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, 2000, p. 46).
Garaicoa relates this not only to the culture of the
Biennale but also his experience as a Latin American artist who is part
of a globalised art world.
Garaicoa has been described as a great urbanist and
much of his work involves responding to cities. ‘Everyday I walk through
the city and feel its intensity’, he has said. ‘For my work to progress,
I need to experience that contradiction between the city’s beauty and
its terrible realities.’ Carlos
Garaicoa quoted by Marc Spiegler in Artnews, March 2005, p.99
Garaicoa acknowledges a powerful relationship between
his work and literary models of the city, particularly the concept of
city as a symbolic space as it appears in the work of the writers Jorge
Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. In her book The Future of Nostalgia
Svetlana Boym explores the symbolic potential of the city as ‘an alternative
cosmos for collective identification, recovery of other temporalities
and reinvention of tradition’. Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia,
2001, p. 76
The urban renewal taking place in the present is
no longer futuristic but nostalgic; the city imagines its future by
improvising on its past. The time of progress and modern efficiency
embodied in clock towers and television towers is not the defining temporality
of the contemporary city. Instead there is a pervasive longing for the
visible and invisible cities of the past, cities of dreams and memories
that influence both the new projects of urban reconstruction and the
informal grassroots urban rituals that help us to imagine a more humane
2001, p. 75
Garaicoa’s work is often concerned with urban ruins,
not only in Havana but from cities around the world. The popular image
of Havana is one of a picturesque but decaying city where historical
time has been halted. Garaicoa both draws on and is critical of such
Carlos Garaicoa’s work for example the series of black
and photographs Arquitectura ajeba (Somebody’s Architecture),
2002, and the architectural models Campus o la Babel Conocimento
(Campus or the Babel of Knowledge), 2002, shown in Documenta
11 addresses failed utopian schemes. Underlying this is a critique of
the utopian project that began with the Cuban revolution, the subsequent
absence of critical histories and ultimately the erasure of history.
Regarding the notion of utopia, I would like to
define the context of the piece shown in Documenta 11 in opposition
to it. I think the term has been abused, especially in the worlds of
contemporary art and architecture, where there seems to be an urgent
desire to catalogue as a utopia anything an artist does in the context
of art that takes its point of departure from the discourse of architecture.
It’s almost impossible to embark on a project or a reflection concerning
architecture and the city without the term ‘utopia’ appearing.
In the specific case of these works and the context that they remit
us to, Cuba, it is expected that what they manifest about the incompleteness
of a social project, the broken promises of a system and the historical
objectives of an ideology makes one think of utopia at every second.
I'd like to make clear, however, that the underlying assumptions and
the conceptual mechanisms of this project do not seek to ramify the
tired propositions of the ‘incomplete dream’, of the ‘country in which
we'd like to live’, but rather seek to be viable solutions to a particular
Despite the utopian charge of the socialist project, and specifically
of the dreams that arose from the practical development of the socialist
society, I would like my work in Documenta 11 to be understood not as
a dream for the future but rather as an immediate action on reality
- a lucid and conscious gesture concerning the collapsed present and
the urban and political fabric of contemporary society. I don't think
my works should be seen as impossible dreams; rather they are the result
of a profoundly aware and critical reflection on my surrounding reality.
They are gestures that point to and somehow want to solve and give continuity
to projects that were never fully developed due to the state’s political
and economic circumstances. I want to respond to history and the path
traced by politics from the realm of thought and the imagination.
Carlos Garaicoa by Holly Block, BOMB
With Letter to the Censors Garaicoa builds
on the idea of architecture as a symbolic site, in this case in his
exploration of censorship and self-censorship.