FROM HAVANA TO KUNSTHALLE
Adrian Melis addreses the contradictions faced by the practice of work or of ‘non-work’ in a post-communist society and also the issue of ‘non-work’ due to unemployment in a neoliberal societ.
It all began in the Bòlit Centre for Contemporary Art in Girona, Spain, when Adrián Melis (Havana, 1985) along with a few artist friends, presented his new works to Rosa Pera, who in those days was the director of the institution and who was already familiar with it due to his participation in the 10th Havana Biennial. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that it all began at the Biennial itself, or at Tania Bruguera’s Cátedra Arte de Conducta, or in Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) or at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Art. The truth is that after the encounter in Girona, Melis was invited to participate in the collective exhibition Dread of Being Devoured, Desire to be Devoured, a show that gave him immediate exposure in the Catalonian scene. And the chain of events continued: Adam Szymczyk, director of Kunsthalle Basel, came to know Melis’s work through Bòlit’s website and invited him to take part in the consecutive exhibitions How to Work and How to Work (More For) Less, which took place in April and June of 2011 respectively. A year and a half later Szymczyk reiterated the invitation, this time to offer Melis a solo exhibition.
The Value of Absence (24 March to 26 May, 2013) is the first wide-ranging personal exhibition in a public institution of Melis’s career. The show is fundamentally organized around two main themes. On the one hand, the contradictions that are faced by the practice of work or of ‘non-work’ in a post-communist society as a Cuban, and on the other, the issue of ‘non-work’ due to unemployment in a neoliberal society such as Spain.
The exhibition begins with the video The Making of Forty Rectangular Pieces for a Floor Construction (2008). The images show a factory that is no longer in production while the background sound, improvised by the company’s own workers, recreates the usual functioning of the machinery during a single workday. The Making... introduces a distinct element to Melis’s early work, which is the collectivization of the elitist practice of art through collaboration—in this case of civil servants who, voluntarily or in exchange for some symbolic retribution, trade in their unproductive state for the productivity of a cuentapropista (a self-employed worker). In other pieces such as Production Plan of Dreams for State-run Companies in Cuba (2010-2012), exposed in the same room, the collaborators, sine qua non of the artist’s works, commit themselves to writing down the dreams they have had during their ‘work-time nap’ on a piece of paper. The final installation compiles over three hundred mass-produced dreams, resulting from boredom, lack of interest, tedium or mere tiredness. Unlike earlier projects where collective participation was not compensated financially, in other works such as The Value of Absence – Excuses to be Absent from your Work Center (2009-2010), a monetary exchange is established between the artist and the participants with ends that are more symbolic than lucrative. For this project Melis bought and recorded the ‘excuses’ presented by the workers to be away from work. The price of an excuse equaled the amount of money that was subtracted from their paycheck for being absent from work, so that the worker earned the same amount whether they went to work or not. The project involved a total of 114 workers whose excuses resulted in 327 days of absence from work, the costs of which amounted to the unlikely number of 3065.65 Cuban pesos (about €95.6, according to the current exchange rate). A great example of doing ‘more with less’, to paraphrase the Bauhaus aesthetic slogan.
“The new man and the celibate machine”
by Tamara Díaz Bringas
Module 01: Around 1924 El Lissitzky represents himself in a self-portrait as The Constructor.
Module 02: Lázaro Saavedra creates the Metamorphosis series based on his experience on a construction ‘micro-brigade’ in Cuba in the 90s. In an exhibition in Havana, the same artist wanted to get inside a coffin wearing a builder’s helmet but the authorities refused permission.
Module 03: ‘Build socialism come what may’ announced a billboard in my home province, Matanzas, around 1989.
Module -89: Moments that shaped the world: a still shot captures the movement on what could be any road in Havana. In the meantime, news of the fall of the Berlin wall is reported by various members of the international press. The images released around the world at the time, however, were not broadcast on the Soviet televisions of a small island in the Caribbean. Perhaps this was because the fall was too thunderous to let it invade the collective imagination of a society that was “building socialism”.
Module 04: ‘For a civilised life – for productive work’ can be read behind the pictu- re of a worker on a 1932 poster by Gustav Klucis.
Module -378890: Adrian Melis creates a model of a hypothetical industrial estate using unfulfilled projected figures from the production plans of building develo- pers in Cuba. The difference between the plan and the reality amount to: 378890 projected square metres. The piece gives proportions to what is never measured, perhaps because failure itself is immeasurable.
Module 05: ‘Let us fulfil the plan of the great projects’, urged Klucis in one of his 1930 posters supporting the First 5-Year Plan designed by Stalin.
Module 06: On a Cuban billboard in 2009, some hard-working ants ask: ‘We work... And you?’
Module -327: Though official policy aims to reduce absenteeism, the project begun by Melis in 2009 increased his own ‘productivity’ to the same extent that workers managed to be absent: a total of 327 days. An audio recording of the ingenious excuses used comprises the piece The value of absence.
Module -20: In a ‘paranoid’ inventory of what is missing, “Stock” details, for example, blocks and bags of cement, wooden boards, metal rods, roof tiles, pigs and lobsters. Although the pictures may seem like evidence from the scene of the crime, the details of the ‘absent’ materials place them in an uncertain zone somewhere between bearing witness and complicity.
Module 07: Melis operates inside social relations, in such a way that his practice of art does not represent but rather forms part of the operations – of time, work, crime – carried out with those he works with.
Module -300: In contrast to the tedium of bureaucratic ‘productivity’, “Dreams Production Plan for State-run Companies in Cuba” sets as its goal ‘siestas’ or naps taken during working hours. More specifically, it sets its sights on dreams, small corners of respite stolen away from a totalitarian management of life.
Module 08: And if what we were dealing with here – as is the case with Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” – is a fantastical celibate machine? Perhaps the diverted, vaguely useful, at times hilarious functionality of “New Production Structures” can be inter- preted as a ‘celibate machine’ which – as Deleuze and Guattari describe – interferes with the reproductive function of technical machines.
Module 0: While the production processes Melis implements may not serve to build that socialist ‘new man’, they do on the other hand produce play, invention, involvement, free time, criticism, disobedience, counter-information, interference, bureaucratic delirium and numbers, numbers, numbers.
Tamara Díaz Bringas
Independent curator and researcher February, 2012.
Text for the exhibition “New Structures of Production“ Adn Galería, Barcelona.
"Havana Biennale talking about revolution"
Text published, 2009
"... In Havana, the Revolution is taking a sick day, but it has nothing to do with solidarity for the ailing Castro and everything to do with art. In a project designed for the current Havana Biennale, Cuban artist Adrian Melis has installed a telephone outside the Galeria Havana for the purpose of recording the excuses given to the state to justify absences from work. In Cuba, if you don’t go to work you don’t get paid, but Melis will personally pay an amount equivalent to a day’s wages for the right to record an excuse.
And the Habaneros are taking him up on it. “Up to now,” he explains, “Forty-seven persons have used the service to be absent from their state work centre. The total number of days not worked is 144 for an approximate value of 1,444 pesos, the equivalent of 62.60 in convertible currency”—or about $90 Canadian.
What cheek! And how the hell is young Melis coming up with the cash? In an economy so overly determined by the state one doesn’t like to ask, but I do need to know what he’s got against work.
“In Cuba,” he says, “There is a coolness to not working. It’s like not caring. You can’t produce anything anyway.” The artists, however, are keeping busy in Cuba. Of the more than 200 artists from 40 countries featured in the Biennale, which began on March 27 and will continue through the end of April, the Cuban art is arguably among the most visually and conceptually captivating.
Galeria Havana is hosting 52 Cuban artists in addition to Melis, and in keeping with the Biennale’s theme of “Integration and Resistance In the Global Era” the work is edgy and topical, and often moves boldly beyond the white cube. As all art is vetted by the State, one realizes the extent to which the government is tolerant of ideas that challenge it—to a point...."