Wilfredo Prieto and the Work of Art as a Direct Gesture

Posted on 05.11.2010


Wilfredo Prieto. Speech, 1999-2004.

It was love at first sight when I saw Wilfredo Prieto’s work Speech (1999), the ceramic toilet roll holder carrying a roll of toilet paper made from Cuba’s official newspaper Granma. It was indeed something I had never seen before, but was awaiting all my life.  The piece proved that Prieto’s strategy is to reduce the metaphor as much as possible, compress the information in order to make it as small as a placebo, but with the intention to live in your head afterwards.

Wilfredo Prieto was born in 1978 in the town of Espíritu Santo, now known as Sancti Spiritus, located in the central part of Cuba. Though he lived in one of the most beautifully preserved colonial cities in the region, Prieto moved to study at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Arte (ISA) in Havana. In 2002, he graduated in painting, a discipline he has not practiced since.

In 1959, after the revolution, Cuban art became isolated, state-sponsored, and auto-referential. Artists  were developing their work in the turmoil of discovering and shaping a national identity. Later, this sense of renovation and nationalism will be degraded and tokenized to the use of Cuba’s geographical silhouette and flag.[i] Prieto’s work is atypical and emerges from a personal point of view of this history, where Havana is a main reference, but the outcome is universal.

Linked to conceptual art, Prieto stays away from conventional artistic practices—constantly changing his medium as much as his ideas. Through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data, Prieto has become an archeologist of concepts, primarily focusing his studies on society. The artist’s goal is to excavate these concepts as a means to better understand contemporary culture. In this process of analysis, the ideas are cleaned, catalogued, and compared as a channel for synthesis in order to create the most effective images. For example, Grease, Soap and Banana (2006) consists of a daub of axle grease, a bar of soap, and a banana peel placed in a meticulous little pile on the floor of an otherwise empty exhibition space. It is a piece that evokes the idea of falling, without the actual fall. The missing elements in Prieto’s work are often evident, and it is this blatant absence that creates a powerful meaning. The banana peel would not guarantee a fall but could still prove to be a very useful slapstick comedy device.

Prieto’s body of work is, by its very nature, created to be intellectually contemplated. He is connected to the Isouian movement, defined as the art of the infinitely small and the infinitely large.[ii] Untitled (2002), in which ink markings on a chickpea suggest a globe, is a work where the miniaturization of the planet emphasizes the subject of world destruction–not as a cataclysm, but as a slow process of homogenization. As Mike Kelley writes, “In low comedy and political cartoons, reductive and distortional practices exist side by side. Here, both approaches are set to attack false or hated authority, for in the context of caricature’s distortions the refined figure becomes comic butt. In ‘fine art,’ on the other hand, reduction tends to be associated with revelation of the ideal.”[iii] Prieto’s artistic vocabulary, strategy, and gestures engage in this pattern of witticism. The consistent irony in his work is achieved through the presentation of sense within nonsense and illumination amid bewilderment. Above all, it is the brevity in Prieto’s wit that is essential to his artistic production.  The point is to reduce the metaphor so that it can be assimilated in an instant, in order to gain the highest effect with the least possible intervention.

Prieto does not employ his sense of humor as a means for entertainment within the work. Rather, it serves to amplify the critical scope of the piece. His use of atypical taxonomies and dialectic disparities manages to provoke optimal impact. The subtle repetition of words or elements in his works, along with variation, are techniques not intended to provide clarity, but to augment reality. This practice can be seen in Time is Gold (2007), consisting of a gold watch hanging from the ceiling, and Mucho ruido y pocas nueces II (2005; Much Ado About Nothing)[lb1] , which displays several meters of a water pipe and cables with an electric generator capable of providing power to a whole city, just to bring light and water to one small potted plant.

The seemingly effortless formalism of Wilfredo Prieto’s work is misleading. The artist embodies the challenge as a personal competition that is in constant reach of an unachievable goal. His work is highly structured and well planned, realized through a careful association of ideas that interact  with one another in a spare presentation.  Like a principal ballet dancer, with elegance and grace he is able to hide the hard work that is put into the production of his art.  Significant in this respect is White Library (2004), consisting of  more than six thousand blank books, each designed with its specific paper, cover, and dimensions. Every day we are expected to select the information that enters our lives; through this piece, Prieto introduces himself  as an administrator of this knowledge. The irony in the work lies in the fact that the books are there to be viewed by the public, but there is no text. However, like zombies unable to control the urge to leaf through the blank pages, the gesture is an automatic impulse, therefore the missing element—which is the text–allows for the construction of a new mode of representation  in the collection of knowledge. The participatory element of White Library is the key function that creates  the framework for a library; without the public, it is merely six thousand blank objects.

For Prieto, humor, irony, and sarcasm are systems of communication that permeate culture and political criticism. Politically Correct (2009) consists of a photo reproduction of a watermelon made to fit a cube to be placed on the floor. The piece strives to be adequate, to adapt to its new form, but it also needs to lose some its essential characteristics: to be round. If all of us were squared, we would be all easier to stack and store![iv] At least it might be what the farmers of the Zentsuji had in mind back in 2001. Through the standardization of the attributes that Mother Nature provides, fruits, people, and places could lose their own significance. As Marc Augé argues, one of the consequences of hyper-modernity is the non-place,[v] and Wilfredo Prieto refigures in the work Airport – Madrid, Brussels, Roma, Paris, La Havana, Barcelona (2008) a series of photographs of the floors of international airports, where besides the title, nothing in the image could identify them.

Prieto’s widely recognized piece Apolitical (2003) consists of thirty one flags from different countries, where the representative colors are represented in grey scale. Here the artist examines the concept of citizenship with the assumed pretense of abandoning barriers of ideology, identity, and politics. By reducing the symbols or canceling the colors, as the character Cobb from the neo-film-noir Following (1998) summarized, “You take it away, and show them what they had.”[vi]

In broader terms, the work of Wilfredo Prieto does not intend to proffer a new reality as an alternative to politics, but rather identifies political reality for what it is, without apology. It therefore maintains a certain reservation about promoting or creating an apology for politics. As a commitment to demystifying and criticizing the self-legitimizing attitude of modernity, he develops a project of dissection in order to construct a lexicon for defining contemporary facts and situations. Many elements in Prieto’s work have strong local connotations, though they still hold significance in a global context. Examples can be found in the use of particular materials, such as  peas, bananas, yeast, sugar, rum, and lemon, which serve as references to Cuban traditional cuisine and the Cuban agriculture system.

Prieto’s work is direct, but it is also open to different interpretations. Crane (2006), for example, is a sixty-meter high crane that unsuccessfully tries to lift itself. It is an epic image of the poetry of infinite disappointment. Moreover, Crane is an iconic image that is related to other contemporary artworks such as Francis Alÿs’s series “Paradox of praxis,” which reflects the sense of impotence and impossibility that we experience when dealing with the bureaucratic system.

By employing ostensible simplicity as strategy, and drawing on everyday spaces and objects as a communication code, his work shares methods with other artists of his generation such as Ivan Capote, Tatiana Mesa, and Orestes Hernández.  Prieto’s pieces generate constant reflection, demonstrating the capacity to alter forms at will through installations, sculptures, interventions, videos, and drawings. However, through their various media the ultimate focus is to synthesize and express a concise idea. As Gerardo Mosquera comments, “Although Prieto is an artist of ideas he is not a critical artist, inasmuch as he doesn’t set out to produce political or social commentary. [ . . . ] Prieto is a critical artist who does not ‘do’ criticism: it merges from the very context of his works.”[vii]

[i]Antonio Eligio Fernández, “The Island, the Map, the Travelers: Notes on Recent Developments in Cuban Art,” Boundary 2 29.3 (2002): 77-90.

[ii] Robert C. Morgan, Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[iii] “Foul Perfection: Notes on Caricature” (1989), in Mike Kelley, Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism, ed. John C Welchman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003), 20-39.

[iv] “Square fruit stuns Japanese shoppers,” BBC News, 15 June 2001.

[v] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 1995).

[vi] Following, directed by Christopher Nolan. Momentum Pictures (UK), 1999.

[vii] Gerardo Mosquera, Artnexus 69, Vol. 7 (2008): 50-55.

Published at Review 82, Americas Society Magazine. 2011

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