Francisco & I: A Conversation with Fernando Rodriguez

Cuban-born artist Fernando Rodriguez considers himself a collaborative artist. His partner and muse is a fictional character named Francisco de la Cal. De la Cal is Rodriguez’s alter ego (a blind, humble carbonero, or charcoal maker, who like his creator, is an artist, albeit self-taught. The two have been working together now for over 10 years, in the process moving from a bitingly ironic artistic vision that was solidly grounded in Cuban political reality to a subtle universal conceptualism. A recent conversation with Rodriguez shed light on how he works with de la Cal-how the two pair artistic visions that cross educational, conceptual, and generational lines.

Los vecinos de Francisco, 1998-99. Acrylic, paper, and 428 Cuban ration booklets, installation view. From the series “De un experiencia colectiva.”

Rodriguez has work in the permanent collections of the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany, the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba, the Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporaneo A.C. in Mexico City, Arizona State University Art Museum, and the Fredrick Weissman Collection in Los Angeles, CA. He has participated in recent exhibitions at Arizona State University, at the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, the Bronx Museum of Art, and the Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati (where his show opens this month).

Rosa Lowinger: When did you begin working with Francisco de la Cal?

Fernando Rodriguez: I began with Francisco in 1990, when I did a project with a group of blind people in the province of Matanzas. It was an exchange, a sociological type of relationship. I would get them to make sculptures as a form of therapy, and on occasion they would ask me for things that, to me, were quite marvelous. For example, one blind woman asked me to paint a picture of her mother who had died. But the thing is that this woman was blind from birth, she did not know what her mother looked like. And yet she asked me for this painting for her wall, in order to “see.” For me that was highly conceptual. Because how could she, who never saw her mother, suddenly ask for something like that? That was one of the things that made me create the character of Francisco. It was also in order to talk of many things of that world that is silent, that is very individual.

RL: The world of the blind?

FR: Yes. For me the most important aspect was the experience; I did not see that work as having artistic result. But in the end I took it to the world of art, to the world of galleries, because I think that art as a social phenomenon does not really work.

RL: Did you intentionally create Francisco’s story or did it arise out of the working process?

Para un ajiaco colectivo, 1999. Aluminum kitchen utensils and chains, installation view. From the series “De un experiencia colectiva.”

FR: I created it intentionally. The story is that Francisco was a campesino, a naïve painter, a charcoal maker who made sculptures out of charcoal and very poor materials. That labor with charcoal resulted in his going blind in the first years of the Cuban Revolution. And then, since he had no possibility of continuing his work, I offered myself to him as an instrument. That possibility of my working with him resulted in an encounter between two ways of being, two ways of thinking. It seems to me that this is the most interesting part of creation-that duality, to what extent do we arrive at a common ground, how do we tolerate these differences in each other. It’s all a metaphor, because I speak to the issue of context. Sometimes my work and this personality of Francisco have been categorized as political, but I think they are not. We speak to the issue of human relations more than politics, although sometimes we speak of things that are of this [Cuban] context.

RL: Sure, but the very fact that Francisco went blind at an important historic moment has its political context. Anywhere one lives has its political subtext-Cuban politics inform Cuban art just as U.S. politics inform the work of American artists.

FR: Yes, but in my case I desire more to speak of human relations within a political context. To what extent are extremes negative, etc.? To me that is more important than to speak of politics per se.

RL: What extremes are you referring to?

FR: Many types-those of politics, thought, even ways of looking at life.

RL: And, for example, speaking of you and Francisco, what do you see as the greatest extremes or differences between the two of you?

FR: That I am a person who lives now, who is young, who was raised within the context of the Cuban Revolution, and he grew up prior to that. We have completely different ways of looking at life. He continues to think like someone from the ’60s, he is a very closed person, illiterate, without polish. I am someone who went to art school, I’m an art professional, and he is a naïve painter who did not receive any schooling at all. I try to unify our viewpoints in the center, in the middle ground. That is the ambiguity seen in the works, that they have this double meaning. I try to make the work open enough so that any person could take away some form of meaning; perhaps it could be completely opposed to another’s reading of the work, but the double reading is intentional. For this reason, my work has been difficult to censure, because it has aspects of both faces-from the most “official” to the most critical.

Economia de Espacio: Vertical/Comfortable, 2000. Cloth, cotton, metal and wood, 27 x 17 x variable ceiling heights. From the seriesDe un experiencia colectiva.”

RL: Anyone looking at your series “Sueño Nupcial,” in which you depict the wedding between Fidel and the Virgin of Charity (Cuba’s patron saint), who does not know you or Francisco, could see it as an homage to Fidel Castro.

FR: Yes, but someone else, especially someone within my context, could see it as a critique. That’s the idea, to be in the very center of ambiguity, to let people choose which side they want to take.

RL: The reading itself takes you wherever you want.

FR: Right. Which makes the spectator responsible for the reading, and it makes you question yourself.

RL: Wherever you go, wherever you work, you work “together” with Francisco, right?

FR: Yes.

RL: How does Francisco feel about being in New York?

FR: I think that he does not understand, or does not want to understand. He lives in a very interior world and does not let himself be influenced by what’s happening around him. Unlike me, he is not impressed by New York; his world is his geography, his body, his thoughts. Once, during the defense of my thesis at the Instituto Superior de Arte, I was asked an interesting question. The examiner invented a character, a cousin of Francisco’s who lived in Havana. And he posed the idea that this cousin found a hospital that had the resources to operate on Francisco and restore his sight to him. The question then was: “Does Francisco want the operation?” And Francisco answered that he did not want the operation. He did not want to change his life, his history. He wanted to remain blind. Why? Because if he suddenly saw, everything could seem a fraud to him, and this for me was significant.

Economia de Espacio: Horizontal/Comfortable, 2000. Clay, plaster, and wood, dimensions variable. From the series “De un experiencia colectiva.”

RL: That is a metaphor you created, but in reality we are all like that to some extent. Everyone lives with their own created limits. Most people would not be able to function outside their own context.

FR: It is a metaphor about change.

RL: Yes, and more so if it is an interior change. You’ve traveled to many places. How is Francisco seen in the world?

FR: At times people view him as something folkloric, which is not my intention. Nor do I want him seen as a political caricature. More than anything, Francisco is an artistic proposition, a way of incorporating a different point of view into art.

RL: Francisco appears in your pieces as an integral character within the narrative, or he can also appear as a simple formal element. Yet you never appear.

FR: That’s true. I created Francisco so that people would see another personality in my work instead of me. Sometimes it happens that people think I’m Francisco, that I’m older, and when they meet me they’re shocked. But, in fact, that was one of my goals-to be just an instrument, like a paintbrush, and let him be the protagonist. And yet, very often the ideas are much more mine than his, especially when things are more conceptual and less traditional.

RL: Which seems to be more and more the case these days, as with the works in cement that you have been making and the multiple block pieces. These are much more Minimalist. Yet in other works, such as La Poda Necesaria, you create the pieces in a form that is so rustic that they look actually made by the hand of Francisco. In the more conceptual pieces you don’t see the hand of Francisco, but he continues to appear, his presence is even more apparent.

FR: I appropriate all of the “naïve” techniques into my work, but in the end I try to create the most minimal sort of installation. It’s a mix of the naïve and the conceptual. La Poda Necesaria is a play of materials. It’s made of very poor materials in order to talk about poverty, the passage of time, and how things continue to deteriorate. The piece is a landscape in which Francisco is pruning. Francisco himself is made of the remains of the pruning, the cut branches of trees. The landscape is made of rusted metal, and I see rust as a metaphor for the passage of time. Pruning is done in order to recoup something new, allow new branches to grow.

Economia de Espacio: Horizontal/Comfortable, 2000. Clay, plaster, and wood, dimensions variable.From the series “De un experiencia colectiva.”

RL: In this case not only is the quality of the material itself very important, but its state of conservation forms part of the essential message of the piece.

FR: This is something that is much more a part of conceptual art than primitive art. Often primitive artists are not interested so much in the material itself-they work with what they have, and at the formal level the work is about its sentiment. This awareness of everything that one does and uses is more a matter of contemporary conceptual art.

RL: In Los Vecinos de Francisco you used a material that was quite radical and also very weighty with meaning. Who manipulated whom to arrive at that?

FR: Los Vecinos de Francisco comes out of the neighborhood, building the home. It was conceived by both me and Francisco, but more than that, it is conceived of by everyone because everyone lives there. It’s easy to see that when the piece is installed for viewing by the public-everyone identifies himself. Everyone sees himself. The piece is made of the booklets used at the bodega, what we call “libretas de abastecimiento” or ration cards. Every family is issued one for the year. I believe it’s an important work because it speaks of the history of sustenance in Cuba from 1970 until now. And I don’t see it as criticism. Really, I do not propose to criticize the fact that people are eating only two eggs a week or anything like that. I am interested in the fact of this piece as a historical document, which may or may not have any importance but perhaps someday it will. It is a city. It is my city, and the landscape is created with those materials.

RL: That piece especially lends itself to political interpretations because the material it is made of-the ration card-is the symbol of control; it epitomizes what does not function in the present system in Cuba. You as an artist are content to allow a variety of interpretations of your work. But what about Francisco? How would he react to a negative interpretation of the system based on this work?

FR: For Francisco this is simply a landscape. An urban Cuban landscape. He gives it no extraneous interpretations. I, of course, know that it has additional significance and that people could read it in that way, but I also see it as something humorous, the tone of it is light, ironic.

Comfortable, 2000. Cloth, cotton, and wood, 71 x 60 x 25 in.

RL: If someone says to Francisco, “That piece of yours is highly political,” what is his reaction?

FR: I believe that Francisco is armed with defenses to rebut the question. He closes up. He continues always to see the piece as something pretty. But frankly, to my way of thinking that piece defends itself on its own merits.

RL: You say Francisco is uninterested in success or in the public’s interpretation of his work. So why does he create art?

FR: Because art is a means of expression of sentiments and ideas. He is an artist, and he needs to work. I am his instrument, but I am also trying to say things through him.

RL: In some pieces, he does not physically appear in the work, but his conscience is there anyway.

FR: His, and that of the people. In my last few solo shows the work is tending toward a more universal content. The L.A. show was called “De una experiencia colectiva” (“Of a Collective Experience”), and it spoke of the individual versus the collective, that is, to what point are extremes bad. The L.A. and New York shows have a great deal in common; Francisco appears as a multiple, or sometimes not at all, because he is everyone, he is anyone, you, me.

RL: In Ajiaco Colectivo, he does not appear at all.

FR: Yes. To me that piece is quite conceptual and ambiguous, and it is made of a very human, utilitarian object.

RL: Some pieces in “De una experiencia colectiva” contain a joke about collectivity. For example, the drawing for Café Colectivo (Collective Coffee) essentially suggests that it cannot function. The piece is made of a chain of coffee cups linked by their handles. It is impossible to drink coffee this way.

FR: Yes, that is the ambiguity, the two sides of the story. In a society where there is an excess of individualism, someone might see collectivism as a dream, an ideal, even if it looks like it does not function. For me it might seem absurd, but for another it is an ideal. You can read it in two different ways.

Comfortable, 2000. Cloth, cotton, and wood, 71 x 60 x 25 in.

RL: In some of your more recent pieces you seem to have taken duality and ambiguity to another level.

FR: In the New York show, I gave myself the task of making the pieces as minimal as possible in terms of resources and visuality. And idea as well. In New York I am talking about dreams, about sleep, about how to sleep comfortably, even when it does not function. I made three installations in New York: Economy of Space speaks of how to take advantage of space and how to share space among people. The column is a stacked bed, like a MacDonald’s sandwich, and it consists of layers composed of two Francisco figures and mattresses going up. An infinite number of people can sleep in this way. Only the height of the ceiling determines the number. The other piece is the same thing, but horizontal, a line of people sleeping under a low ceiling. In this show I play with materials. The soft mattresses versus the rigidness of wood. It’s a mix between comfortable and hard. The positions of the Francisco figures are absurd really-very rigid, very uncomfortable-but the mattresses are very comfortable, and, for me, this emphasizes the basic idea. In the other piece, Francisco is made of clay, simulating bricks. This deals with the idea of fragility, of protection. The figures are placed in a wall, stored like something fragile. The third installation is a bed, and the mattress is made of a series of fabric Franciscos with cotton inside. In this case, one person is the other’s pillow, and they thus make a mattress for each other. It’s a way to accommodate ourselves, even when we don’t have our own beds. We can use one another to be comfortable.

RL: We see so much jockeying for space in the world, so much killing because people perceive there is not enough room for everyone.

FR: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’m no longer interested in Francisco and me as Cubans only. This is a matter of human relations on an international level. It has no boundaries, and I see it as the projection of Francisco for the future-he will now talk about human relations and the absurd.

Encandenado, 1998. Wood and padlocks, 123.5 x 15 x 12 in. From the series “De un experiencia colectiva.”

RL: How did he come to that?

FR: Life has taken him there, as it has taken me to talk of other things. I’ve been traveling outside of Cuba, but Cuba itself has also become universal. Another piece in New York, a bed made entirely out of sleeping pills, gives another option for being comfortable in sleep. At least some people see it that way.

RL: Some new works deal with comfort and sleep.

FR: The moment of sleep is the most private of all. But this speaks of collective dreams as well.

RL: You frequently address dreams, since “Sueño Nupcial” What is Francisco’s greatest dream?

FR: I think that he always thinks in terms of past and present, never in the future. For that reason he does not know what he wants. His dreams are those of the ideas that occur to him in a given moment, of the next work, and that I execute it for him.

Rosa Lowinger is an art conservator and writer living in Los Angeles.