The Decorator's Home: An Interview Of Marco Castillo On Cuba's Incomplete Aesthetic Revolution


Interview by Oliver Kupper
Portrait by Summer Bowie
Install images courtesy of UTA Artist Space

Marco A. Castillo’s The Decorator’s Home – his first solo exhibition in the United States after 26 years in Los Carpinteros collective – is a microcosm of the dichotomies and failures of modernism’s utopian ideals. Amid a raging Cold War that extended far beyond the US and the USSR, modernism infused a tinge of fascism disguised as national pride in the name of aesthetics, whether it be the folksy arts and crafts dreams of Frank Loyd Wright, or the concrete and rosewood pavilions of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia. Cuban Modernism offered the same sense of freedom and hope in an embargoed state of isolationism and Marxist fervor. Needless to say, the movement didn’t last long – it sputtered out in the tropical miasma of communism’s last island holdouts. In A Decorator’s Home, Castillo captures this fervor: the dreams of space travel, the dreams of high-minded aesthetics, razor sharp lines, rich wood, and rare materials. All of this is imbued with the paranoia of a global race to the cosmos, and the coded languages of spies trading secrets while their Cuba Libre’s sweat into hotel coasters. In the back of the exhibition, a solemn and heartbreaking film, called Generation, is a symbolic six-minute epitaph for Cuban Modernism’s ambitions, it’s lonely siren songs of paradise, and youth crashed on the shores of their aspirations. In the end, Cuban Modernism’s shipwreck wasn’t due to lack of demand or desire. It was the sense of control that the architect’s of The Revolution – namely Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – needed in order to legitimize their violence and delusions of grandeur. As the movement died, many of the buildings were converted to hospitals, schools, and public works facilities. We got a chance to speak to Castillo about his exhibition, curated by Neville Wakefield, and about his own take on Cuban Modernism’s successes and failures.

OLIVER KUPPER: Where did the name for the show, The Decorator’s Home, come from? 

MARCO CASTILLO: I had been doing research on Cuban Modernity, and there was this generation of designers at the beginning of the revolution that got involved in creating a new static for these people that were going to be the future of this country and the future of the world, because Cuba thought that they would convince the rest of the world to become communist. This needed to have an aesthetic. 

KUPPER: It’s funny how revolutions need an aesthetic.

CASTILLO: This generation designed most of the objects we were supposed to use, like furniture, and also interior design for the spaces, for the workers, for the buses, for the hotels, and for the farmers. But at a certain point, the government stopped being interested in that.

KUPPER: Was it too ambitious?

CASTILLO: I think it was the mood of Fidel Castro. He got radicalized, he got very into Soviet politics, and he militarized the country. And so the static artists became an enemy because they were the creative people. 

KUPPER: Yeah, a little utopian.

CASTILLO: Yes, too liberal. In the seventies, there was censorship for writers. The government destroyed the movement, the design, and the taste. 

KUPPER: How many years was that?

CASTILLO: Twenty years, I would say. In Cuba you have Art Deco, Art Nouveau, but I’m fonder of this utopic moment. People were importing resources from the human past. For the colonial time, they were based on identity and they mixed it with the high-quality design from the northern country.

KUPPER: The northern influence is in your pieces, too.

CASTILLO: Yes, what I’m doing here is basically because this movement was interrupted. This stirred a frustration in all of us; we couldn’t have a complete aesthetic revolution. I behaved like an interior designer at the time, creating my own objects. They are not furniture, and they are not art. They are something in between. 

KUPPER: Object-art.

CASTILLO: Yes, this creates a lot of influence in them. They look like decoration.  

KUPPER: At times it reminds me of Brasília. 

CASTILLO: Yes, except the Brazilians use rosewood, and we use mahogany. Cuba has the most beautiful mahogany. It’s darker than the rest. Also, we have a little bit of the Soviet influence over furniture—more practical. The Brazilians were more like peacocks, more exaggerated at times. 

(walking over to another piece)

KUPPER: What’s that?

CASTILLO: This is the type of wood people use to make cabinets. It smells so good. 

KUPPER: When did you start using caning?

CASTILLO: It was after the Cuban movement. I realized they were using this old material to do things that were very modern. Also, they were doing a lot of screens. There was a very tropical feeling in every piece of furniture—very delicate—you couldn’t really read it immediately. For example, they use a combination of mahogany and white surfaces. It would remind you of a coconut. I did the same here (walks towards screen). I designed the outside of it. I made it white, so it looks a little bit like pieces of coconut. A screen in a very important place called Salon de Protocolo El Laguito, the Protocol Room of El Laguito, inspired this. There is a huge screen that reminds me of this one, but it doesn’t have the alphabet. I added an alphabet because it was sort of an addiction of the Cold War.

KUPPER: Coding…

CASTILLO: Yeah, people really wanted to know these codes; there was lots of paranoia. (laughs) What are they saying? It became almost like art.

KUPPER: Would you consider there to be a Brutalist element to any of these pieces as well?

CASTILLO: You know when you’re dealing with this socialist element, Brutalism is always there. This (pointing to a caning piece with stars) reminds me of our monuments. This is pure Brutalism. 

KUPPER: This is very symbolic.  

CASTILLO: It represents a little bit of the revolution. I come from a country that had a lot of fun—a beautiful, turbulent country. Cuba was very rich in the beginning, but not after the revolution. I represent that as a circle. Simple, beautiful, perfect. It turns into a star, which is a very complex, geometric figure. At the same time, it reminds me of the back or the bottom of a chair. 

KUPPER: What about the rifles?

CASTILLO: The whole exhibition evolves from more abstract work to the more committed, symbolic, and engaged with the later alternative reality. It’s easy for me to imagine that an artist or a designer could have made a poster creating optical art with rifles as a monument, as a creative item. It never happened, and I never saw it, so I made it. 

KUPPER: Was it a military aesthetic?

CASTILLO: There was a moment of militarization. I had to start learning shooting when I was thirteen, and I got these preparations every year until I was eighteen. 

KUPPER: You weren’t going to join the army?

CASTILLO: No, it was not for me. (laughs) I don’t even like weapons. It just fascinated me—the shape of the rifle when you buy it creates a completely different object; it turns into something else. This is an American gun. I think it’s the Springfield. 

KUPPER: It’s a pretty common rifle.

CASTILLO: My grandfather had it. It’s the rifle I always saw when I was a child. He was a hunter. You know what we hunt in Cuba? Guinea chicken. 

KUPPER: What’s a Guinea chicken?

CASTILLO: It’s a beautiful animal.

KUPPER: Not like a Guinea pig?

CASTILLO: No (laughs), it’s a chicken, but it’s so beautiful. It’s a very strange animal. It looks like it’s from a patisserie.

KUPPER: Interesting.

KUPPER: (gesturing towards the sculptures across the room) These definitely remind me of the Cold War shapes—space-age shapes. 

CASTILLO: Totally, because all these amazing designs started in that era. 

KUPPER: It was the beginning of these explorations with satellites and this idea of our future in space.

CASTILLO: The future would be space, the future would be socialist, the future would be capitalist, which there was a big doubt about—there was a fight about it.

The Decorator’s Home is on view through July 13 at UTA Artist Space 403 Foothill Rd. Beverly Hills, CA 90210


On Truth And Symbolism And the Universal Meaning of Life: An Interview With Artist Annina Roescheisen

Artist Annina Roescheisen is making her name known in the art world. Right now, you can see her formative series What Are You Fishing For? at the Venice Biennale, in the context of the European Pavilion. Starting today, the German-born artist who received her degree in art, philosophy and folklore from the elite Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich in 2008, will see her first solo gallery show in New York. Her series What Are You Fishing For? is emblematic of her work: rife with symbolism and metaphor, and dripping, literally, in pictorial beauty. In the following interview, Annina talks about the use of metaphor in her work, her experience getting to know New York and the meaning behind her self-designed tattoos.

Ariana Pauley: There are a lot of metaphors that you use in your work. Do you come up with the metaphor beforehand, or is it a fluid process?

Annina Roescheisen: It’s more of a fluid process. The whole story-writing is a process. It starts with a keyword or a phrase that I write down; I always have these little books with me. There are a lot of things going back and forth. Often, I have five things spinning around in my head at once. At a certain point, there is one story that ends up pushing forward. It can come from anywhere. So, the symbolism comes more naturally. It’s something I like to play with, but I don’t construct the work around the symbolism. It’s just a manner of expressing myself.

AP: For the film that was in the biennial, what would you say were the most important metaphors?

AR: In this one, I think it’s about life, death, and Renaissance. There are many others, but I would say those are the main three.

AP: How was your experience at the biennial? How did it all come about?

AR: It came through a gallery in Berlin—Circle Culture Gallery. The gallery owner really likes my work, but I don’t fit into his program (he’s more into abstract art, graffiti, etc.). He’s really very supportive. When he saw the film, he was applying for the Venice Biennale with another artist, and he proposed that I apply my film with him. I’m a young artist; I never thought they would say yes. But I had the answer in two days. I still don’t understand it sometimes. It’s so unreal that I just do it. I think it’s good, sometimes, to not understand what you’re going to do. It’s best to just do it.

It’s a tiny, tiny room. I don’t have the biggest room. But I am so happy to participate and to have the whole atmosphere.

AP: You just moved to New York. Are you nervous that the culture is going to affect your art? Do you think your time in Paris affected your art in a certain way?

AR: I think it always affects your art, where you live. In general, no matter where you live, it’s just about growing up. Definitely, my art is going to be affected, in a way. But it’s also growing more as a woman and growing up in general. Paris was good to grow up, as an artist. I feel more apt to face a bigger audience.

AP: Was there a specific reason why you decided to come to New York?

AR: It’s more open here. People are more curious. I like the way they think here. People just dare to do things. For them, doing things is experience. For me, that’s what life is about. It was nice to grow up in France, but people are not that positive. They are afraid to do things. Sometimes, the result doesn’t really matter at the end. Just go out and do something. In Paris, it could feel like a prison. I feel more open, more supported, and a bit crazier here.

AP: Is it your first time in New York?

AR: I’ve been going back and forth for a year. I wanted to know for sure where I wanted to settle. Sometimes, you have an idea of a city or a job which is not the real thing. I didn’t want to jump into an illusion. I was doing two months in Paris, a month here, two months in Paris, and a month here—for a year. If you move your ass in New York, you can really get somewhere. After the year, I knew I preferred it to France.

AP: What are you working on next?

AR: I wouldn’t say I’m hoping to deal with more mature work, but the next thing I’m working on is much more frontal. It’s still my signature, but my art thus far has dealt with subtle, hidden messages. You can decode if you want to, but you have to plunge into it. The next piece I’m working on is super frontal. You can’t escape it. I don’t know what’s going to happen after.

AP: How did you come to do this new work?

AR: The last one that I just finished—it’s called “A Love Story—is more subtle. It’s about emotions. I wanted to work on a topic called “Love.” It’s so cheesy. Everyone would want to vomit on it. But I wanted something both subtle and deep. Provocative things—nakedness, violence—they’re too easy. It’s super-subtle. Then, from that project, I wanted to do something more frontal.

The new thing I’m working on is called “The Exit Fairytale of Suicide.” It’s super hard-cut. It’s between black and white, hard and light. It’s still my work, but more frontal. The topic of suicide—you just can’t escape it.

"I write quite often. But when I was younger, I didn’t write a diary, I would write on my body. It’s the same thing—symbolism. It’s one sign that stands for a whole story."

AP: Are you focusing mainly on film now? Or are you still working with sculpture and photography?

AR: The photography always comes with the film. I really like to keep some moments of the film, for the audience. There are a lot of people that can’t buy video art. So I want to be aware of that. It’s nice to have a certain moment of a film that plunges you into the whole thing when you see it. So, when I do video art, my whole photography is based on the film. I really don’t like to do photography pure. In a film, you are more authentic. You’re not standing in a pose. The image is in the movement. For me, it’s a deeper photography than posing photography.

In terms of sculpture, there are going to be more museum shows, more installations that you will really have to walk through. I’m also creating sculptures that I integrate into my film.

AP: For your film and photography, is it always you as the subject?

AR: In the beginning, yes. When I was younger, I did some modeling. It was easy, because I knew exactly what I wanted for the images. It’s not about me. You’re like a tool, a transmitter. On “Pieta,” at that point, the easiest way to get what I wanted to convey was to use myself as the model. The movements are played in slow motion, but I didn’t want to edit the video too much. I don’t like to change my art in Photoshop or anything; I like to keep it as close as possible to the original film. It’s good when you’re aware of your body, and when you’re aware of the camera. For me, that was easiest.

For “What Are You Fishing For?” I would have loved someone to be in my place, but the water was, like, six degrees (about 43 Fahrenheit). You can offer to pay a model as much as you want, but if it’s not their project, they’re not doing it. I prepared for months—taking cold showers, reading up on those cult divers. I was psychologically prepared to do that.

This last film, I’m not in it. I’d like to be more and more in the back. But in a way, it’s nice when you have the experience in front of the camera. I can direct people better. I know exactly what I can ask them.

AP: You do a lot of humanitarian work. Will that translate into your new work? Are you planning on continuing that in New York?

AR: I would love to. I work a lot with autistic children. Every time I go to Paris, I still go to see them. I worked in a project in Berlin for street kids. I would still like to integrate my work into humanitarian projects. For the moment, I haven’t looked around at what is in New York, but I would like to do something.

It’s easy to do good stuff as well. It’s not always necessary to do something that is public. You can be a humanitarian all the time, in a way.

AP: Would you want your art to translate that to the viewer?

AR: My art has a lot to do with emotions in general, and I really try to keep it open for everybody. That’s the humanitarian side of it for me. I don’t like the “elite art” thing. I loved that in Paris, all the exhibitions had young people coming—13, 12, even younger. I really want to have an art that talks to everybody. On the other hand, I don’t know if there’s a day where I can really work in front of the camera with autistic children or with women’s rights. In a way, it’s in my work without being in my work, through my personality.

AP: You described your practice as a “social media practice.” Could you explain that?

AR: Actually, it’s a term that I would love to erase. It created a lot of confusion. “Social media,” for me, was word-by-word. “Social,” because I like to be in the social, humanitarian arena. “Media” is just the medium that I use. But “social media” as in Twitter, Instagram, whatever created so much confusion. I’m stepping back from the term, because it doesn’t describe my work as an artist.

AP: Tell me about your tattoos.

AR: I started early, when I was thirteen. I write quite often. But when I was younger, I didn’t write a diary, I would write on my body. It’s the same thing—symbolism. It’s one sign that stands for a whole story. Nowadays, I use more of the paperwork to describe things. When I was younger, I did it on my body.

AP: Did you design them all yourself?

AR: Most of them. I work with a friend who is a graphic designer in Munich, just so I can do it properly. I got a lot of inspiration from the Japanese artist Nara. I saw one of his images when I was five or six, without knowing anything about contemporary art. But it was always appealing to me—the side of the cute little girl paired with this more evil side. I loved the eyes with the stars inside—like the universe. There’s a lot of depth, even though it can seem childish. I love his art. He was a big inspiration for a few of my tattoos.

AP: Are there any artists specifically that inspire you?

AR: I like the paintings of German Romanticism—Freidrich, for example. I like literature as well. I love contemporary artists as well, but more for who they are. Marina Abramovic, for example. I’m not a big fan of her work, because it’s super violent. But I really like how she pushed herself to do something innovative and unique. She’s such a strong, spiritual woman. And her project, “The Artist,” is so great. Yes, nowadays, it’s a bit too commercialized, but I think she’s great.

AP: While you’re in New York, do you have any projects lined up besides the upcoming exhibition?

AR: I have a group show on the 22nd of November at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery on the Lower East Side. We’re about to talk about a solo exhibition there as well. I have two solo shows—one in Paris and one in Geneva—also in November. That’s the month. I’m working on other projects, but I’m waiting for confirmation before I spill any dates. The next show will probably be around springtime next year.

AP: Do you have a specific message that you want your new New York audience to get from your work?

AR: Not really. I think it’s not up to me. At the point that you exhibit your work, you give it up to people. It doesn’t belong to me anymore. Take whatever you want to take from it. I just hope that people will like it.

"What Are You Fishing For?" will open tonight and will be on view until December 1, 2015 at Elliott Levenglick Gallery, 90 Stanton Street, New York, NY.  What Are You Fishing For? is also on view at the Venice Biennale until November 22, 2015 at Palazzo Bembo in the context of the European Pavilion. interview and photos by Adriana Pauly. intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE