Cuban-born artist Glenda León came of age during Fidel Castro’s regime, so she learned early on to make art from mostly free and cheap stuff. Now dividing her time between Havana and Madrid, León remains a media egalitarian whose odd assortment of materials includes everything from her fingernails, hair, and the sound of her breath to pianos and mountains of sand. Transcending nature and manufactured worlds, her large-scale installations, sculptures, and performance-based videos embrace the full range of human aspiration, reminding us why we crave and create art, even during life’s most dire moments.
Joyce Beckenstein: You grew up in the high-tech global age but lived in the small island nation of Cuba under Castro, so your daily life ricocheted between almost infinite access to information and very limited access to human freedoms and basic necessities, including food and soap. As a young artist, how did you deal with this dichotomy?
Glenda León: There were also two families within those two worlds that you mentioned: my mom’s Cuban family and my stepfather’s American family. Contradictions indeed shaped my vision. In school, I was taught that America was the enemy. But such dichotomies taught me to look beyond what you first see or hear, and this encouraged me to look for a higher reality. I came of age during what Fidel called the “Special Period” (1991–2000), the era after the withdrawal of Soviet influence and investment in Cuba. This was a time of extreme scarcity and also a time to invent new solutions to common problems. I learned to use materials such as my own hair and nails, used bars of soap, and chewed gum. In Cutting Off the Moon, Filing Stars (2009), for example, I represented a crescent moon with a sliver of my fingernail and made a faint galaxy of “stars” with filings from the same nail. Early on, I learned that making art is an act of giving, and that it is wonderful to build a whole universe with very little. I strive to convey an optimistic message by doing this.
JB: Cutting Off the Moon, Filing Stars demonstrates how you can conceptualize simultaneously within the realms of the mundane and the sublime. How do you do this?
GL: I think intuitively, and much of that thinking involves creating or provoking surprises—such as the double reality confronting the viewer in Mirages: Hidden Story of the Broken Mirror (2019), which consists of a mirror broken to reflect the lines of a large tree branch set before it. Are the cracks in the mirror reflections of the tree branch or actual cracks? I strive for these visual moments because I believe that our brain neurons are forced to establish new connections when they see unexpected things. This helps us perceive new realities, become more tolerant, more open to challenges, and more accepting of how we evolve and how the world around us evolves.
JB: What was your education like?
GL: My first “concrete” learning came from my grandmother who, during siesta time, taught me to read the Cuban newspaper Granma. I began ballet studies at age six; studied visual arts at the secondary school; and art history, philosophy, and Latin at the University of Havana. In 2007, I received an MA from the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. But much of my “education” came from Cuba’s rock scene. I loved the death metal albums that my Greek-American stepfather bought for me in New York and Miami. My mother, a filmmaker who taught me about film, loved music, too. Her Andreas Vollenweider album, Caverna Mágica, aroused the deep interest in sound and listening that is so important to my practice. And then, a teenage rocker friend in Havana loaned me a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
In 2000, I joined Desde Una Pragmática Pedagógica (DUPP), a group founded by René Francisco; he was a professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), a school founded by Castro. Aimed at integrating works by emerging artists with the cultural and social life of the Cuban people, DUPP became known for groundbreaking performances and installations.
JB: How did you receive international recognition so early in your career?
GL: Gerardo Mosquera, the internationally recognized Cuban curator of the first Havana Biennial, was one of the first to notice my work. Holly Block, then director of Art in General in New York, and Cynthia Hollis, director of the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida, met me during their visits to Cuba and brought me to U.S. attention. I was invited, as part of DUPP, to exhibit in the 2000 Havana Biennial, where I sold my first hair-drawing piece for $100. In 2003, Christine Van Assche, the founder and curator of the Department of New Media at the Centre Pompidou, bought two of my videos for the collection.
JB: Those “hair pieces” are now iconic works. How did they come about?
GL: I used hair as a drawing material, not because I had no pencil, but to make a statement. Beautiful hair becomes undesirable when it leaves one’s head; to subvert this, I placed hair strands on clean white paper or on fragrant, colorful soaps. I exhibited these works in my first solo show, “Shapes of the Instant” (2001), at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales in Havana. At that time, memories of the “Special Period” still had people squeezing every bit of use from things. I visited a nice soap factory, and the manager, who was intrigued with my project, gave me a box of 100 new soaps. I traded them with neighbors, friends, and students for their old used bars, leaving them with fresh new scents in their hands and smiles on their faces.
JB: Despite draconian suppression of freedoms during the “Special Period,” Castro supported the arts and looked to monetize international interest in Cuban art—so long as artists did not denigrate his regime. Many artists thus learned to universalize the specifics of political circumstances. How did this phenomenon affect you?
GL: My generation wanted to escape from what had become, by the late ’90s, a fetish-like obsession with the notion that to be a Cuban artist and sell work one had to criticize the system obliquely. We never lost interest in Cuban political issues, but we looked instead for that “higher reality,” a more universal language transcending specific circumstances that might have originated in Cuba. Summer Dream (2002–12) deals specifically with the logic of going beyond politics; it relates to the irrational division between two countries in close proximity. But the swimmers in the water also universalize struggle, the vulnerability of all those who risk and lose their lives in journeys toward freedom.
“Early on, I learned that making art is an act of giving, and that it is wonderful to build a whole universe with very little.”
JB: Did you personally have to confront economic, political, and sexual harassments?
GL: Politically I was most affected by travel constraints. I was unable to leave Cuba during the three-year obligation to “Social Service,” required of ISA graduates. The U.S. denied me a visa until 2012. That’s when I first visited New York City for a solo exhibition at Magnan Metz Gallery.
My mother and grandmother raised me to be an independent woman, and I came of age in the ’90s, decades after the feminist movement and a Cuban revolution that proclaimed gender equality. But little has changed in the sexist social behavior of men toward women—despite greater job opportunities for women—and my feminist-conscious works conflate this disconnect between female disenfranchisement and female empowerment. In Ritual (2014), for example, a circle of tiger-painted fake nails surrounds a miniature businessman, reflecting the servile message that encourages young Cuban girls to sexualize themselves with “weapons” to snare rich men into marriage. But by situating the male as the object of the female gaze, this work also suggests a reversal of gender roles.
Noli me tangere (or the Impossible Writing) (2018), part of a sculpture series made with vintage typewriters, is similarly a “portrait” of supermarket cashiers and secretaries who type with long artificial nails. It features garishly painted fake nails adhered to the keys of an old typewriter. How uncomfortable. Why do this just to look sexy? I was delighted to see that these works have resonated with the #MeToo movement and its battle against sexual abuse and harassment.
JB: Could you talk about some of your other symbolic works involving religious books, flags, or money?
GL: Nietzsche prophesized that a new man would come in God’s place. My video/performance Inversion II (2016) symbolizes the consumption of money as a power-driven addiction. To subvert that power, I scratched the print from a $100 bill, stuffed the filings into coca tree leaves, and smoked the ink powder. The Nietzschean point—when money becomes an addictive societal power, it denies us the true pleasures in life. The joy of life is the real treasure that we should harvest.
JB: Environmental concerns are another major theme in your work, and you often explore them through the use of artificial materials.
GL: For Every Flower is a Shape of Time (2000–07), I embedded an artificial flower within a landscaped bed of summer flowers. This practice serves as metaphor for the relationships between the real and the artificial, the ephemeral and the eternal. Habitat (2004), an installation depicting an ordinary bedroom made entirely of artificial materials, urges us to regard the earth as our “common bed.” My new installation at Espacio LaB 26 in Havana fills an entire house, expanding the message about the need to address the climate crisis.
JB: How would you compare this work to Natural Mechanics (2019)?
GL: This again spans two extremes—human action and cosmic consequence. A parade of toy cars crawls like ants over tree trunks, “devouring” them. But then you see an actual car struck and smashed by a single tree, as happens during hurricanes and tornados. Humanity is innovative, but destructive. Nature is stronger. We need to coexist with nature and alter our behavior if we are to reverse climate change.
JB: Physical objects tend to disappear as your works reach toward the spiritual. Why do you embrace music and sound as media for the metaphysical?
GL: Music and sound convey spirituality, a lifting of the soul that allows us to travel through time without even moving. In Interpreted World (2007–09), I’ve invented a new musical language by translating the names of the world’s five most followed gods into Braille. I had each name inscribed on a separate music box cylinder and then played the music boxes within a circular installation of separately constructed niches. Standing in the center, you could hear the sequential refrains of the five compositions.
For Music of the Spheres (2013), at the Venice Biennale’s Cuban pavilion, I superimposed an image of the solar system on a disk with a blank music score. A separate note designated each planet on this score. I had the nine-note score incised on a music box cylinder and suspended the box above the planetary disk to play its “cosmic” tune on a continuous sound loop. The pavilion’s mute antique statues representing Greek and Roman gods enhanced the existential aura, blurring present time and time past within music as it faded into eternity.
Other works use silence as metaphor. Metamorfosis II (2018) and Música Concreta (2015), for example, feature piano parts detached from the instrument to create new forms. These sculptures make no sound, but they vibrate in one’s mind as memory of all the music one’s ever heard.
“These sculptures make no sound, but they vibrate in one’s mind as memory of all the music one’s ever heard.”
JB: That consolidation of musical experience has parallels in your recent installations based on ancient texts in which you merge elements of many faiths into a single form.
GL: I was influenced by the work of an enigmatic medieval philosopher, Ramon Llull (1232–1316), who sought to organize the tenets of faith common to the world’s major religions in a single device. Some say that he devised the first algorithmic “machine” in order to unify them symbolically. I strive toward a similar holistic approach when I connect the identities of different gods through sound, language, music, and form. Book of Faith (2015), a work created by recycling pages from religious texts and turning them into paper once again, presents another iteration of that idea, as does Transitive States: Religious World (2016). For that work, I melted silver religious pendants into a single anamorphic pendant.
JB: Time thematically connects many of your works. Could you describe Wasted Time (2013) and its interesting international exhibition history?
GL: I’ve been obsessed by time since I was a kid—the minutes it took to brush my teeth, lace my shoes, walk to school. Wasted Time consists of a mountain of sand, approximately 175 centimeters high, with an hourglass partially submerged at its top. It is an ironic monument to insignificant and consequential events: lost time clocked daily; human time historically measured. I speak of the day-to-day things we do that contribute, with little conscious thought, to the absurdities that pile up into mountains of lives lost in the name of faith and homeland.
Wasted Time was recently shown at the 2020 Changwon Sculpture Biennale in South Korea, but it assumes nuanced meanings depending on the venue. For example, in 2018, Simone Njami selected it for the 13th Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary Art, in Senegal. He chose the semi-abandoned, old Palais de Justice as a venue, a large room full of graffiti and broken windows, punctuated by the bare remains of an old courtroom. I feared the details of the piece would be lost outside the surroundings of a clean white cube, but I was wrong. The results were magical. Workers using only shovels constructed the 12-ton pile of sand. Its honey color harmonized with the old palais, the color of Dakar itself, each grain of sand in dialogue with a moment in history.
JB: That connection of humanity to eternal time informs your performance-based videos, particularly the series “Every Breath” (2003–17). Has Covid-19 aroused new interpretations of such works?
GL: I began the “Every Breath” series in 2003 to dramatize our connection to a very beautiful, alive, breathing earth. In the first video, a girl in a flowered dress breathes deeply as she sleeps on the grass, each breath animating a flower on the dress to grow toward the sky. In other videos, the sound of breathing accompanies the roar of waves on the shore or the movement of clouds across the sky, echoing the “sound” of time.
Works of art continuously reframe our perspective during changing times, so, not surprisingly, these videos celebrating the synchronicity between humans and the earth assume new meanings within the context of the pandemic. They resonate as a warning about how humanity has evolved its relationship to nature. Now, the gentle breathing in the videos provides a stark contrast to the reality of breath stifled by a mask. George Floyd’s tragic cry—”I can’t breathe”—was another perspective-altering event. So, the sight of a young girl breathing naturally draws a fragile psychic line between life and death. Like my work with music and sound, these works with breath connect us as physical beings to a far more expansive social, political, and spiritual world.
Glenda León’s new installation, Como Glenda por su casa, is on view at Havana’s Espacio LaB 26, March 12 to May 12, 2021.