“Minimal Manual to Read a Proletariat Alphabet,” Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida’s work at the Centre Clark as part of the series Montréal ~ Habana: Encounters in contemporary art, consists of a series of painstaking stencils of political iconography as well as passages from Cuban political texts from the 1960s through to the 1980s, the notable exception being an excerpt from a lecture by Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s current President.
Lavastida, who did not obtain his visa to come to Canada, spoke about his work in a pre-recorded video presented at the artists’ talk organized by the Centre Clark (though he spoke afterwards over the phone from rainy Havana after asking his cab driver to turn down the reggaeton). He referred to Cuba’s socialist political landscape as being such a unique environment that it requires a kind of manual to understand it, hence the title. It’s a simple but beguiling idea, that some cultural texts are uniquely critical to understanding a nation’s set of ideological circumstances, and while the stenciled text is in Spanish, there is accompanying translation in both French and English.
The exhibit is part of a larger series concerning a cultural exchange between Montreal and Havana, with a complementary exhibit opening in Havana come October and also comprising three artist residencies in its Montreal iteration, as well as a video line-up presented by GIV (Groupe Intervention Vidéo) and Vidéographe at the Cinémathèque québécoise.
Considering this spirit of dialogue, what strikes immediately is how Lavastida’s work is self-evidently Cuban, seen alongside Montreal-based Luc Paradis’s “You Roll the Dice, I’ll Play the Game.” The relationship between the two artists’ works can’t help but draw attention not necessarily to our local lack of political art, but to the lack of a coherent politico-aesthetic language, a way of speaking through art that is recognizable and meaningful outside an art world context. Paradis’s work, while playful and very appealing, can’t help but feel very low stakes, grounded in feel and process but never reaching out beyond its own pleasantness.
Cuban socialist iconography would of course read as pastiche coming from a Montreal artist, but it’s compelling to witness its continued relevance and contemporaneity elsewhere, to breathe that sigh of relief that globalization hasn’t effaced all difference. The juxtaposition begs certain questions around the ways in which the individual political plight (of difference and identity and sexuality, for example) takes the forefront in our local art scene, versus a greater collective consciousness elsewhere. Both political-artistic dialogues have, of course, their own lacunae and their own strengths.
It seemed odd, therefore, that the Montreal artist selected didn’t highlight this aspect of the Montreal-Havana dialogue. Paradis’s playful multidisciplinarity and his stylized invocation of the body (think digital Gumby-type forms and shiny abstract ceramics that feel both like things which ooze out of a body and something intrinsic to the body: like kidneys with a distressing amount of agency), is endearing and fun but it lacks the socio-political context that could have made for a more interesting curatorial dialogue between the two artists.
However, it is interesting to discern just how local Paradis’ work appears. It may be very blazé to say “here’s one artist working in our city and one from someone else’s,” but it does serve to highlight the parameters of the local aesthetics we can’t quite discern from in their midst. The series, on these grounds alone, is remarkably engaging. ■
“Minimal Manual to Read a Proletariat Alphabet” and “You Roll the Dice, I’ll Play the Game” along with the accompanying sonic work “Cycles and Cycles” continues at the Centre Clark (5455 de Gaspé #114) until June 22, free. The full Montréal ~ Habana line-up can be found here.