Cuban artist Jose Yaque seems to have an obsession with openings and things that come out of (or go into) them. These mechanical or biological openings and the things that grow out from them, flowing continuously and sprouting upwards, twisting and twirling, perpetually changing in convoluted revolutions, strangely occurs over and over again in his works. What might be the meaning behind these?
A common thread linking these works seems to be nature, in its various forms. In Tumba Abierta (2009) which means ‘open tomb’ beer bottles that are each filled with water and all sorts of plant life fill a standing shelf. That these plants are submerged in water and put in a closed bottle is reminiscent of the preservation of biological organisms in formaldehyde. But why beer bottles?
Perhaps in the making of beer, there are all these dead organisms within it, which worked to give its distinctive flavors that we usually don’t think of when we have a pint.
Suelo Autóctono / Native Soil (2012) is a piece of sculpture done in the basement of the Contemporary Art Centre in Warsaw in memory of Jose Yaque’s childhood habit of digging and finding things from under ground in his home garden.
“A layer of soil is created as a result of changes, both natural and human-induced, and one of these layers is books.” Jose Yaque
How can books be a layer of soil? However, this idea of the stratification of earth is seen over and over again in subsequent paintings and sculptures, so it must have some significance.
In the literal sense, the earth does hold a lot of information about the past, where things and people get buried. So the books are a metaphor for something else, since nobody buries books in the ground. But perhaps there is more to it than that. In this case, maybe the books aren’t a metaphor but a commemoration of something that happened.
What comes to mind is the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, which brought about tremendous changes to the country. While the general population may still be poor in the years after the revolution, one could say that at least their basic needs were met; everyone had a place to live, had free healthcare, free education and had a job at a state company. Everyone was equal; there was no racial or sexual discrimination and literacy rates went up across the country. A utopian vision come true, just like John Lennon’s 1971 song ‘Imagine’. So why would Yaque need to bury his books?
The problems were in the foreign policy, as well as human rights and freedoms for the citizens. For in the days after the Revolution, all land and property owned by foreign companies in Cuba were confiscated. This did not go down so well with America, who subsequently ordered economic sanctions and covert operations both of which were carried out in the hopes of over throwing the Fidel Castro government.
As the Castro government realized what was happening, it clamped down hard to suppress dissent amongst the populace and to keep tabs on everyone. With spies and suspicion running amok all over the place, the artists, intellectuals and clergy suffer the most. Its not hard to imagine that people who had books that the government didn’t like, books that espoused reform, opening up, had to be buried underground and become a stratified historical layer.
Amilkar Feria Flores is a Cuban poet, whom Jose Yaque photographed with a column of smoke rising up from his head. This notion of something sprouting up, of revealing what was hidden is another theme that recurs again and in Yaque’s works.
The idea of continuous flow and perpetual change has to do with the history of civilization itself, where through its twists and turns, life evolves, continually flowing forth and never staying the same. Smoke has a way of 3 dimensionally representing this flow of life; the motions of the particles twirling through the air are governed by mathematical equations and biological at the same time.
A catastrophic event that generates new forms of beauty is depicted in Interior Con Huracan (2015), a twisting, swirling mass of debris, made of up household possessions, stuck in a frozen tornado that rises up through the ceiling.
While residents in the ‘tornado alley’ of the corn-belt states of America might be able to totally relate to this piece, others might wonder what this has to do with Yaque or anything else. Any meaning behind it might have to do with the irony of it all; while residents of tornado alley suffer catastrophic losses when a tornado lands on their home, the residents of Cuba, post-Cuban revolution, aren’t allowed to have any. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Cubans were allowed to buy and sell a car.
Perhaps the Cuban Revolution is like a giant tornado that landed on the country and scooped up everyone’s possessions? In any event, it is the past, a fact of history that flows upwards in the vortex of life, twisting, twerling, in ever changing contorted revolutions.