Havana’s urban architecture has been a reliable subject for Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa. Since the early 90s it has held a central role in his diverse multidisciplinary practice, appearing in videos, drawings, photographs, installations, and sculpture. For Garaicoa, the social and political histories of the city and its civilization are bound up in this built environment; its ambitions and failures have worn like wrinkles and scars on the skin of the communal psyche.
Photo-topography (2012) is a suite of nine works by Garaicoa and is quintessential in so far as it continues his architectural focus and crosses over between multiple mediums effortlessly. Before one registers Garaicoa’s images as buildings in various states of decay, one must contend with the material he has chosen to work with—polystyrene, that crumbly, white, non-biodegradable plastic commonly used for packaging commercial wares. Garaicoa has taken blocks of polystyrene and precisely routed images of Cuban architecture into them. Because of its fragility, the polystyrene has to be protected (encased in a vitrine) less it flake and crumble like the buildings depicted in it. Of course the details may erode over time, but the object itself will not. More likely these plastic pieces will outlast the buildings and perhaps even the city they portray, which endows these ephemeral urban structures with the semblance of an enduring permanence.
Knowing the process Garaicoa used to create the work helps understand its title. The images, originally shot in black and white on photographic negatives by the artist in Havana and Caracas, were converted into digital files which were then cut into blocks of polystyrene, creating three-dimensional relief prints with tremendous depth. The darker the shade in the photograph, the deeper is its relative incision—and this becomes a form of topographical representation. So a shadow cast by a building becomes a gorge in the surface of the print.
The work was commissioned by, and first shown at, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens—a city with a wealth of architectural ruins and a society currently in a state of social and political atrophy. Given these conditions, Ana Kafetsi, the curator responsible for the commission, could not have selected a more appropriate artist. For the Athens exhibition, Garaicoa placed the nine polystyrene prints side by side on a table in the center of a dim room. Lit from above, the white polymer gave the impression of something hovering over darkness. As one approached the work, what appeared to be an abstract topography took shape as a network of buildings, like a neighborhood. In later exhibitions the prints have been mounted on the wall, each encased in its own vitrine, as one might hang a photograph. Here too, image recognition is dependent upon one’s position relative to the print. To see them one must face them head on, a metaphor perhaps for addressing the social and political issues that confront any civilization.