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

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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

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Brothers Grim: An Interview Of Dinos Chapman On The Power Of Humor And Violence

 

text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

 

There couldn’t be a better time for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s new exhibition, To Live And Think Like Pigs, on view now at the UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles. That it opened on the same day as Donald Trump’s wildly xenophobic and damaging executive order banning Muslims from “terror prone” countries is compelling, but perhaps not coincidental. When the wickedness of the world reveals its evident truths, Jake and Dinos remind us that the horror, panic and depravity isn’t just a brand of reality they have invented to shock us – it is actually reality. We are eating in it, fucking in it and living in it.  Swastikas, Ku Klux Klan iconography, rainbows, happy faces and the golden arches of the McDonald’s logo all exist on the same killing field. If their work appears apocalyptic, it is because the end seems so close that you can feel the tingling warmth of the glowing, earthly sun of nuclear annihilation. With the undeniable surge of violence and anxiety, the seething distrust of “the other” – the Chapman brothers create works that are artifacts of this existential catastrophe of our own making. But what people most misunderstand about the Chapman brothers is that their work is hilarious – a laugh riot, an obscene and brilliant joke. If you don’t laugh, you are missing the point all together. What's funnier than a couple of realistic surprised looking mannequins wearing full KKK garb, rainbow socks and Birkenstocks?  We got a chance to sit down with one half of the Chapman brothers – Dinos Chapman – to discuss everything from the failure of the human species to their time working as assistants for fellow controversial British artists Gilbert And George.  

AUTRE: So the title of the show is borrowed from the book, To Live And Think Like Pigs [by French philosopher Gilles Châtelet], which really predicted our current political and sociological turmoil. The show carries the same themes, right?

DINO CHAPMAN: Ish. I think the major theme of the show is failure.

AUTRE: Political? Spiritual?

CHAPMAN: Every aspect of failure, grand gestural failure.

AUTRE: Do you think we’re failing as a species?

CHAPMAN: Oh, we failed. Long time ago. I think we’re just in the death throes of failure

AUTRE: So what’s left after that?

CHAPMAN: Uhh we all die and we kill everything on the planet and it just continues to spin round and round and round the sun until it burns out.

AUTRE: Today, especially now it seems like a really apt time for the show and the political climate in the UK. Is this affecting your work in bigger ways than it has in the past?

CHAPMAN: No, no. I think we’ve always been intentionally pessimistic about humanity, culture. Yeah. It’s a failed project.

AUTRE: Do you think that when people are too positive it puts us in a space of false paradise?

CHAPMAN: Yeah, I mean I think you have to be incredibly short-sighted or an idiot to be positive. Certainly in today’s climate. Every single second, things get slightly worse because of other people’s positivist views. They think they’re doing good.

AUTRE: And complacent.

CHAPMAN: And complacent.

AUTRE: So going back to some of the work that you’ve done with Hitler’s paintings and some of the iconography you work with –  it seems sort of like the idea of people wanting to go back in time to kill Hitler and other dictators to change the course of history. Do you feel like you’re doing that using the present, instead of actually going back in time?

CHAPMAN: Short of inventing a time machine and going back and actually doing something, I think we kind of did [change the course of history] when we bought the Hitler drawings and paintings and defaced them and turned them into hippie nonsense, it was kind of an attempt to give him a --- because those works are often considered evidence of when he was still sort of a human being. As though he would have been redeemable if he went to art school and everything would have been fine. He would have been another artist, but he didn’t get into art school so he decided to go out and kill as many Jews as he possibly could. And you know, the sort of popular idea is that if he was allowed to be an artist, he would not have done that. So we kind of got in there before he became a genocider and kind of fucked it up. Just to remove that bit of humanity from him.

AUTRE: Instead of KKK insignia and swastikas, you use smiley faces as part of that dialogue.

CHAPMAN: Happy faces and KKK insignia and rainbows and swastikas are all the same scale.

AUTRE: Exiting politics for a second, I want to talk about your process: where your studio is, what your typical process is, what a day is like

CHAPMAN: I’ve been in LA for three years actually doing fuck all. No, I’ve been at home working.

AUTRE: Do you work separately from your brother now?

CHAPMAN: No no no, we work together. We’re stretching the umbilical cord to a sort of monofilament at the moment. We’ve always tested the parameters of what it means to be working. It’s preferable to work on your own, because two people implies legion. Multi personalities, so yeah. I kind of moved out here for the weather and the politics.

AUTRE: What about the politics?

CHAPMAN: What about the politics, psshh. I don’t know. I mean I can’t complain, we have BREXIT in England. Europe is about to fall to bits. It’s a great big shit show.

AUTRE: How do you feel about CALEXIT? 

CHAPMAN: I think it should divert a fence around California and keep everyone else out. It seems...why not? I’m quite pleased that California is rebellious and not seemingly republican. I’ve only just learned the difference between democrats and republicans. The only reason I know republicans are bad is because of France. I hate France. [laughter]



AUTRE: Oftentimes, there's not much of a difference between the two.

CHAPMAN: One of the nice things about being in a foreign country, although it’s not really strictly defensible, is that you don’t feel responsible for anything. I know that’s burying your head in the sand, but for me it seems preferable to being in Britain and sort of railing against something I may have been able to do something about.

AUTRE: Do you feel like the critics are harsher at home?

CHAPMAN: I just think I can look at Trump and not laugh, but not feel related to him in any way.

AUTRE: As brothers and collaborators have you always wanted to make work together?

CHAPMAN: There’s a five year difference between us. Five years is kind of the absolute point at which you’re at different schools at different times so in England I would have been leaving school as Jake would be joining us. We never really spent much time together apart from the evenings and then we finally kind of caught up with each other in college and did a lot of talking and then decided after we left college that we should work together. I mean, we tried to work on our own for a bit but it just seemed kind of pointless when the conversations we had were much more fruitful and much more interesting than the conversations we were having in our own heads which are invariably kind of solipsistic. You can’t argue yourself out of a color.

AUTRE: What is your typical response to people's misunderstanding your work? I mean, is there a typical response?

CHAPMAN: We don’t feel any responsibility for what people think of the art. If you make a child mannequin with a penis on its nose you have to invite a plethora of readings of that. There is no correct reading because once the work is finished and it’s in a gallery environment, it’s done. We’re no longer in control of what it means because every single work is entirely subjective.

AUTRE: Yup, it’s in the hands of the viewer.

CHAPMAN: Yeah. It’s not but that’s where it starts to do its biggest journey.

AUTRE: That’s where the job begins, the intellectual job. And you’re not just making depraved work to make depraved work. Reality is actually depraved.

CHAPMAN: We’re making stuff that hopefully clarifies or makes the fault lines in western culture's moralistic thinking apparent. Again, you put a mannequin with a penis on its face in a gallery and it trips people up, it makes people think lots of different things. I’m not that interested in answers. I’m more interested in questions.

AUTRE: In the beginning, you were both assistants to Gilbert and George, right?

CHAPMAN: I was an assistant for a long time. Jake joined up and got us both sacked.

AUTRE: How’d that happen? Is it a long story?

CHAPMAN: [laughs] No, it’s a really short story actually. I think we were bigger and more unrelenting than them. The two of us together was a bit too much.

AUTRE: A bit too much for them. I mean, they’re pretty politically charged but it seems like you want to take things in a new direction.

CHAPMAN: I just think they decided it was unfair.

[laughs]

AUTRE: Jake made a comment recently about the Ai Weiwei photograph of the drowned refugee boy. That it sort of aestheticized other people’s misery. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CHAPMAN: It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that artists think that painting other people’s poverty or hardship helps. It doesn’t help their hardship or poverty it just—

AUTRE: Glorifies it.

CHAPMAN: It does that and it also doesn’t do anything apart from make the artist feel like they’ve done something, which is a terrible thing.

AUTRE: It’s selfish.

CHAPMAN: Yeah.

AUTRE: Everybody congratulates themselves for feeling sympathy.

CHAPMAN: Absolutely. I was watching Louis C.K. the other night and he said that, on airplanes, he always feels like he should give his first class seat to service men because they always sit in coach. He never does but he feels really good about thinking that he should do it. That’s an artist's’ mentality.

AUTRE: It’s the thought that counts mentality.

CHAPMAN: He didn’t actually do anything about it.

AUTRE: Yeah, so you think people should actually do something about it?

CHAPMAN: It would help [laughs].

AUTRE: So for this particular show, is there something you would want people to know that they might not see?

CHAPMAN: It’s all for sale [laughs]. At drastically reduced prices.

AUTRE: And my last question, because I know you probably want to get back inside for the opening.

CHAPMAN: Ah yes, being uncomfortable walking around my own work.

AUTRE: Is it uncomfortable being around your own work in that kind of setting?

CHAPMAN: It’s a very strange thing to do. It’s a bit like being a child.

AUTRE: When your mom puts it on the refrigerator?

CHAPMAN: Yeah. You want people to come up and pat you on the back for doing well, but you don’t. Still, that’s sometimes what it feels like.

AUTRE: Is art the most powerful medium for subversion? Especially now.

CHAPMAN: No, guns and hand grenades are. They’re powerful. And humor. Humor allied with guns and hand grenades.

AUTRE: Which one first though?

CHAPMAN: Guns.


Jake And Dinos Chapman "To Live And Think Like Pigs" will be on view at UTA Artist Space until March 11, 2017. text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE