Only the Most Valuable Things: An Interview with José Bedia

Untrappable Figure, 1998. Top soil, sand, dry pigment, chain, spray paint, and oil lamp, 17 x 20 x 18 ft.

José Bedia is one of the most widely known Cuban artists in the contemporary art world. Major influences in his work include the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte, which he studied in Cuba, and the spirituality of the American Indians, which he began to explore after coming to America.

Bedia’s works are in the permanent collections of several museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was also commissioned to create a public artwork at Miami’s new Performing Arts Center.

A candid and revealing interview with Bedia took place at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami on the occasion of his recent site-specific installation Untrappable Figure. He describes the installation, his immigrant history, and his creative process.

Sherry Gaché: Tell me about your installation Untrappable Figure.

José Bedia: This work is related to the American Indian. It’s the symbol of the Native American church. The sand on the floor is related to the sand painting of the Navajo Indians in Arizona. I wanted to make something pristine, delicate.

Sails, 1994. Temporary installation project for InSITE ’94 at the Santa Fe Depot, San Diego.

SG: Most of your work is delicate.

JB: Yes, I made it with (sand) dust. It’s physical, but at the same time, untouchable. It’s impossible to keep it, to possess it. It’s in the air, it comes up from the ground, and then it disappears. This bird is pulling this dust, but he’s also pulling something untouchable because he is only two dimensional. It’s three dimensional in the way the wall meets and comes down to earth, but basically it’s flat, it doesn’t exist. It’s a driving spirit, this bird, but it’s also nothing.

SG: You use a lot of line to achieve that, line not having much mass.

JB: Yes, for me the idea of the drawing is fundamental. Everything started with a simple sketch. Many of my works start as simple sketches. I also use chain for line in space, and it is the same thickness as the drawn line on the wall. The installation is like a drawing.

SG: It suggests many things: a bridge, a tower, a creature, a boat.

JB: Or a wave on the ocean. This figure came to me like a vision. I saw this on one occasion. It’s a skinny figure that came out from the ground like that, and kept going and going, with long arms. Like an insect, a praying mantis.

Cancíon del Immigrante, 1994. Mixed-media installation, 6 x 20 x 20 meters.

SG: Is this installation representative of your three-dimensional work?

JB: Yes. I make bridges a lot. The bridge talks about communication between people, between cultures. The link between this side and the other one.

SG: Does this reflect the fact that you are an immigrant?

JB: Well, I was using bridges in my work even before, at the time when I was still in Cuba.

SG: How has being an immigrant affected your work?

JB: Oh, in many ways. After becoming an immigrant, I was more involved with ideas of people who left their country and who had to carry their own culture to the other side. For example, in another work I represent a moving truck, but what’s in the truck are Cuban symbols: the palm tree, the machete, the bull, the anvil, the cigar. It’s as if someone put pressure on you and you had to leave your house and take only the most valuable things.

I also made many works with people crossing from one place to another. People with legs apart, one foot in the motherland and the other foot in the new country. A representation of somebody in the middle, but nobody can really be in the middle—which comes back to the idea in this installation of the Untrappable Figure.

The Island—The Hunter and the Prey, 1998. Mixed-media installation at the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art.

SG: Which was preconceived.

JB: Oh yes. I made sketches. I make many many sketches.

SG: You don’t show them.

JB: These are for me. I have books in my house with hundreds of these little tiny sketches. Some of my friends say, why don’t you show these? But they’re personal.

SG: Do you keep a journal?

JB: No journal. Just loose sketches.

SG: How important is your three-dimensional work in your entire body of work?

JB: The installation is the final part of my own production. I start from the simple thing, the sketch, then I go to the formal drawing, and then for me the most important part of my work are the ephemeral installations.

The Island—The Hunter and the Prey, 1998. Mixed-media installation at the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art.

SG: The only thing that remains are photographs or video.

JB: In fact, I am better recognized internationally through these because museums invite me to make site-specific installations. These are my most important works, because I can control a lot of things in a sketch, but the reality (of an installation) is a surprise for me too. This is the most exciting moment for me. I have an idea of how it will be, but I have only one chance to make it. You can’t make corrections like in a painting. I try to make it quickly, in one or two sessions. In one day. It’s spontaneous.

The spectator misses the whole process prior to this. I may have had the idea a year ago, and then I say this is the time to do it. I need the right objects. Sometimes I have the right idea and I am looking for the objects. Other times it’s reversed, I have the object, like for example this horn, which fascinated me. I kept looking at it, thinking what can I do with this? It takes a while to think before I find the right idea. Always something simple, the least decoration possible, flat. I don’t like textures and thick levels. I want a very clean line, like a waterfall. The channel of projection makes the installation physical.

SG: Your perspective is incredible.

JB: This is the Chinese perspective view. The point of focus in Renaissance perspective is the horizon point. With Chinese perspective, the point is behind the spectator, so you are surrounded by the work. When I was in art school, I felt a contradiction between myself and the Western tradition they wanted to teach me. For me it was a trick, false like a window to the exterior world. So I wanted to do this in reverse. It took me a while to find a solution in other cultures like the Chinese or like the primitive people. There are other choices, that’s the point.

SG: That’s the secret to the drama here. This perspective pulls the viewer into the work. What does sculpture mean to you?

JB: The only thing I can tell you is that I don’t do the work with the intention to make it physical or three dimensional. That’s just what came out of me. This installation is like a relief to me, as if the drawing on the wall came out into the space.

Olukun, 1996. Mixed-media warehouse project, installation view.

SG: What do you think about other sculptors?

JB: I don’t look at much contemporary art. I don’t know what is happening in New York galleries and what is the cutting edge. I visit natural history museums and ethnographic exhibitions. By coincidence, people consider me a contemporary artist. I consider myself more linked to the past. I think we are dependent on the past. If we want to know what we are now, we have to think what we were before. So I consider myself a traditional artist, because I follow old ancient stuff around.

SG: So who do you like of contemporary artists?

JB: I like Richard Long very much. I consider how this guy had to be at the place, walking and feeling the landscape. I am in connection with his feeling.

Who else? Joseph Beuys. Not many others. I feel unsatisfied in many ways with other works. I see something missing. The people are more worried about what others will say, and not thinking about what they want to say. Long and Beuys, they’re not worried about what people are going to say. They have to do this and it has to be like that.

SG: But you do have a certain celebrity status. Has this influenced your work?

JB: No. I don’t pay attention to what happens around me. To me, I’m the same guy. I don’t know what people say about me. I am friendly, but I don’t go to all the parties and places. That’s not for me.

El Año del Oggun, 1992. Mixed media, installation view.

SG: I heard that you don’t use a typical studio. What is your studio like?

JB: It’s a very small space in my house. It’s the garage. I work when I want. Sometimes I spend hours until late at night painting and then after that a week passes without any production. My installations are impossible to make in advance. I can do drawings, paintings, and I like to work on several things at the same time, even four to six pieces. A work hangs in the studio for a few days and then I put it away. I don’t have any of my works in my house. The work has to have a life independent of me. I put it in galleries, give it away, or store it. I keep several things for myself. I don’t want to display it though, because that creates confusion for me. I don’t want to be fed by my own things. Other artists like to be surrounded by their own production. To me that’s sick. You made these for the people. You have to share this with somebody else. Sometimes I’ll look at an old work, and I’ll think “this is still good,” and then I’ll roll it up and put it back in the closet.

But I have my house full of things. Tribal objects mostly. Displayed all around. For me it’s not a collection. It’s like an open library. I learn from these objects in front of me, slowly, day by day. Maps, weapons, all kinds of things. Baskets, pots. African, American Indian, South American.

SG: How do you choose your objects?

JB: I see the object and at some moment, a part of the object comes closer to me. I collect what I like. Sometimes I find things that reflect what I did in my work, and these confirm to me that I’m on the right track.

SG: Let’s talk about your materials.

JB: This is very important. Sometimes I find some kind of object that has the perfect connection with my feeling at that moment. For example, chains. These are new in my work. This was the perfect solution to connect the vertical elements on the wall with the stuff on the ground. I chose the same thickness as the wall line drawing. I choose the objects for a reason, not for decoration. For instance, the lamp on the ground was used because I needed a substitution for fire right there. Sometimes it’s not the perfect object but it’s something that solves the problem for the moment. Sometimes I’ll use an Afro-Cuban object and other times I may use a very kitsch thing like a plastic figure decoration from a house.

SG: What are your most common materials?

JB: Iron metals, glass bottles, bricks. Concrete bricks for me are very important because believers of the Afro-Cuban religions use these to make altars in the corners of the house. They select the corner because they think that the gods and goddesses are going to be checking all the space of the house from the corner.

SG: So is your installation a god or goddess?

JB: It could be. Bricks are used to create a garden to make the gods feel more comfortable in your house, because they are wild spirits, they come from the forest, so you have to make a little forest. They use the concrete brick to contain the soil. Then they put religious things in the soil. And I use that, following my tradition in Cuba.

SG: What about technology? Does it influence your work at all or do you ignore it?

JB: No, technology is only a solution when I have to make something extremely perfect. I don’t pay much attention to technology. I think people and especially artists lose their capacity to make things with their hands. Many artists make a sketch and commission the work. I prefer to do those things with my hands, because for me, otherwise it’s a fake. I feel very sad when I see a very fancy and wonderful artwork and the artist didn’t even put one finger on the object. They give orders “put this there, to the right, to the left.” This thing doesn’t have a soul, doesn’t have a heart. Technology has nothing to do with hands, but instead someone who hides behind a screen with some special tool. In my case, I have to be linked with the main work.

SG: Isn’t the Internet a connection between many things?

JB: Everything is connected in the end. But I don’t even know how to open a program. I don’t want to know. I don’t care about this.

SG: What about virtual reality factors like time, dimension, space?

JB: Yes. I’m very interested in these. But the moment you say virtual reality, you are already saying it’s a fake reality. My own opinion is that it’s real but it takes a while to develop in front of you. I found this through my experience with the religious people. So in some way, I can tell you, I saw that figure. I make a representation to tell you how my experience was. I don’t want to convince you that it’s real, I just want to show you what I feel. This is difficult to explain.

SG: There’s no falsity in the work.

JB: I don’t invent anything. For example, the sand symbols. I learned what each thing represents from a medicine man in Montana. When you make it, it’s very hard to get it perfect, the symmetry, the levels, the curve.

People are too worried about technology. In the end, we are stuck with the same problems from ancient times. We are basically the same people as before. We must find other solutions. For me, the elders of these Indian communities who teach me have some answers. They don’t have the total answer. The answer is spread out in many ways. So sometimes I make a trip and I put the teachings inside me, and the final step is the installation. This is beyond technology. Technology talks about communication, but people don’t communicate with each other at all. People confuse information with real communication. People confuse entertainment with real culture. Madonna is a great entertainer but she will never be a singer like Billie Holiday. Don’t offer me a substitution. We don’t have the real thing anymore.

SG: What about Andy Warhol? Was he a fake too?

JB: No. He was a real guy. The problem was he liked to play with that, and this is dangerous because you can get stuck in that. I think he had the real feeling of an artist. But he chose the scandal, the publicity. But I think he was wonderful. You have to discriminate when there is only fashion and publicity with nothing behind it, but he had more than that.

The problem with Western society is that there are too many choices. And they are not the real thing. Substitution of the reality. People are worried about what is outside their home. So they try to control nature and reality outside with fake things. Everything made is artificial, to keep nature in control. There is no more jungle. We have total control of everything, but we don’t really. Take ecology. We talk about it, people are concerned. But the Indians have known from the beginning that if we hurt Mother Earth, we are doomed. So they take care of Mother Earth. People are lazy, and they put all their trust in the authorities. People only look for comfort, but it’s no longer possible to guarantee comfort for everybody. This is a lie.

SG: How do you keep in touch?

JB: I just go out on the street. I’m a social guy. I talk with everybody.

SG: How has Miami influenced you?

JB: Miami was an easy transition for me. It was the best substitution for Cuba that I could find. The same people, the same language. I use Miami as my headquarters, my resting place. I’m always traveling, to Mexico, to Brazil, to Europe. Some issues about the immigrants’ condition, which are very strong in Miami, have become a part of my consciousness and of my work. I am lucky but other people are suffering a lot. And I deal with this every day. Not because I see it on the news. The landscaper who cuts my grass doesn’t have any money and he has to feed his family in Guatemala. And the plumber is a guy from Honduras working two jobs. I think a lot about people who can’t live in their own country and have to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

SG: What do you think about contemporary art?

JB: Most of it is a substitution for the real thing and people accept the reproduction, the artificial. But I am an artist and I know what a real artist can do. Only a very few artists can successfully play with the irony of the fake. Jeff Koons plays on the very edge between kitsch and art. But in general I feel bored and unsatisfied with today’s art. Don’t give me a fake, and don’t give me conceptual when there is nothing else in front of me. Postmodernism, the idea that reality is fake and I show you how fake it is producing another fake, is wrong, to me: being like Duchamp one day and Picasso the next, like changing clothes.

Sherry Gaché is a writer living in Miami.