The Object as Protagonist: An Interview with Los Carpinteros – Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo, and Dagoberto Rodriguez

Working under the name “Los Carpinteros,” Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo, and Dagoberto Rodriguez are among the most innovative and internationally sought-after Cuban contemporary artists. The group’s elegant and mordantly humorous sculptures, drawings, and installations draw their inspiration from the physical world—particularly that of architecture and furniture. Los Carpinteros’s pieces are part of the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City, the Museo Meiac in Badajoz, Spain, and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana. They have participated in U.S. exhibitions at the New Museum, P.S. 1, Art in General, and Arizona State University.

A recent interview with Los Carpinteros in their Havana studio shed some light on the process by which three individual artists work as one author.

¿Provisionalismo?, 1998. Bricks and galvanized tub, 176 x 253 x 242 cm.

Rosa Lowinger: How did you come to call yourselves “Los Carpinteros?”

Alexandre Arrechea: Since we began working, our pieces were based on work with hand tools, wood, items which are used by a carpenter. Our pieces were like miniature furniture, souvenirs, and so forth. For this reason people began calling us Los Carpinteros.

RL: Are you saying that you did not take on the name yourselves, it was others that gave it to you?

AA: We began signing with that name as of 1994.

Marco Castillo: We were looking for a name and gave ourselves a bunch of different ones like Equipo MAD—an acronym formed by Marco, Alex, and Dago. In the end, Los Carpinteros seemed perfect for us because we wanted to investigate issues of the way art is made, the way that an object is fabricated. To speak of a carpenter is to speak of the way something is made.

AA: We also wanted to identify with the guilds of tobacco workers, sugar cane workers, and carpenters. Giving ourselves this name implied a sort of guild affiliation.

MC: It was a form of conspiracy…

Dagoberto Rodriguez: …because it also had nothing to do with art. At the time that we began to sign our work as Los Carpinteros the environment was charged with projects that were hyper-artistic, loaded with socio-cultural problems. We wanted to work from a more subtle position.

RL: In what manner was the prevailing work charged?

DR: For example, in 1994, when we had our first important public exhibit, in the Havana Biennale of ’94, there was a particular situation in Cuban art. All of the artists, the majority, that is, had emigrated from Cuba. The Cuban art climate had suffered terribly because of this. Practically the only artists that remained were students in the art schools.

150, 230 cms3 de oscuridad, 1998. Wood and ink, 325.5 x 83.6 cm.

AA: The idea of being a carpenter, that is a common person, without great pretensions of other sorts, reduced the notion of the artist to something simpler. Of course, as artists we always aspire to a greater dialogue; but the concept of “a carpenter” was a form of subterfuge for us; it gave us something to hide behind and therefore to circumvent the prevailing climate of vigilance.

MC: It was a strategy for slipping in.

DR: We did not want our work censored. So we disguised it. We cloaked it in a mantle of manuality and manufacture…

AA: …and created a language that was as subtle as possible.

MC: Subtle and, at the same time, convoluted. We jumbled the means of communication and took the socio-political discourse to a more subtle level of cynicism.

DR: Our work began to appear as something which only reflected on the manner in which it was made; it seemed like art which reflected solely upon art. But it wasn’t.

AA: We also started to refer to the process of creation by putting ourselves into the work. We began appearing as protagonists in the works as a means of derailing the political discourse of the moment.

RL: It’s true that art critics who write about Cuban art always seem to look first and foremost for this political content.

MC: Cuba is a socialist country, a leftist country. The art which was being made in the ’80s was very revolutionary in political terms. It was an art of the left. That was on the one hand. On the other hand, you had an art at that time, the time of our genesis as artists, that was intertwined with folklore, etc. and although that was never of interest to us, it was also part of the prevailing artistic climate. We wanted to do something which would collide with that atmosphere. So how do we make work that would be aggressive in that socialist climate? Quite simply, we decided to make pieces that appeared conservative.

DR: Exactly.

MC: We began to make works like Quemando Arboles, which is a fireplace carved in mahogany. When we’ve shown these pieces in Germany, people say, “these pieces remind me of fascism.” Another piece in this series is Havana Country Club, in which we depict ourselves playing golf on the old, no longer extant, golf course of the Havana Country Club, which has been converted into the Superior Art Institute. In another country, say the U.S., pieces like this would have little meaning; but in Cuba they go against the grain.

Archivo de Indias, 1996. Wood, 480 x 140 x 140 cm.

DR: Cuba’s socialist revolution is only 40 years old. All of the recent history of the country is colored by this fact. It’s been very difficult to shed this; it has been something that has marked all Cubans these past 40 years. What was our goal? I don’t know, maybe this will sound odd, but the idea was maybe to forget that past, to put it aside.

RL: This early phase, where you three appeared as protagonists within the works, now seems to have been replaced by other imagery that is possibly also emblematic—for example lighthouses, windmills, hummingbirds, towers. At what point did you decide to remove yourselves from the work? Was this an aesthetic decision, or based on other criteria?

DR: It was a total aesthetic change.

MC: The first thing we did was to stop painting. When we stopped painting, the portraits disappeared. The work stopped being this compendium of carpentry and painting.

DR: Another thing is that we did not want to create a social chronicle of the country. Because it could have seemed that we were devoting ourselves to painting clever situations that commented on what was happening. We did not want to do that and for that reason we stopped painting altogether.

RL: So it was an ideological decision as well as aesthetic?

AA: Clearly.

DR: Completely.

MC: Yes, but our work also has to be understood in terms of series. The fact that we stopped painting did not mean that we rejected what we did before. We simply began a series with other parameters. We started making furniture, that is, we concentrated on the idea of a piece of furniture, the metaphor of things—of thought, but all through the means of furniture and design. Pieces like La Mano Creadora (The Creator’s Hand) and Archivo de Indias (Archive of the Indies). These pieces are adaptations of existing objects with determined functions which we reduced to furniture and design.

Estuche, 1999. Wood, 225 x 130 cm.

RL: The fact that you work as a collective, and sign as a unit, means that you renounce your individual identities as artists. How do your decision-making and your artistic criteria function?

DR: I’m going to tell you a story. One of the reasons why we stopped painting is for reasons of authorship. The paintings documented how we made our art. There were always two of us in the pieces, and a third was the viewer, who painted.

MC: Our working as a collective of three was, at one time, a conceptual declaration. That discourse used to be important. Nowadays we are one author. The fact that we are three is helpful because we get involved in these crazy, technically difficult projects—like the grenade, Estuche, which we just completed; like the wooden lighthouse. It’s like the “threeness” is most important now on a practical level, it’s not conceptual anymore.

RL: You choose certain images and repeat them in different materials—lighthouses, windmills, etc. What determines the choice of materials? Does this have to do with making pieces in Cuba, where there are certain shortages of materials, or is it due to other factors?

Iglesia, 1997. Nylon fabric and metal, 300 x 250 x 350 cm.

AA: That depends. Sometimes the lighthouse is a piece of furniture with doors, sometimes it is a tent. The same obsession is worked out in different ways. For example, the lighthouse with doors, in which we speak of darkness, becomes the negation of the very idea of a lighthouse as something which emits light. In the case of the tent lighthouse, we are addressing the element as transportable architecture. In both cases, there is a confluence of ideas. But for us, the primary obsession, the source of our obsession, is architecture. And, well, we might make a piece in Belgium as a tent because it’s possible to get the tent material in Belgium, though the original idea for the tent arose in Cuba. And then in Cuba we might make it as a piece of furniture because we can get the wood.

MC: I believe that, like any artist, one has obsessions; you try to work out the perfect metaphor in a particular piece; but one hardly ever achieves that. So if you didn’t get it once, you try to do it again, and it goes beyond whether in Switzerland or Belgium or in Cuba you can find thus or such material. We have ideas, and we try to do them in the right setting; we take advantage of the opportunities to repeat and redo what we may not have been pleased with fully, in a different direction.

AA: We also like to exhaust the possibilities of an object. And don’t forget that we are three, and whereas any one of us can come up with the idea of working with lighthouses, each one of us will experiment with the idea in a different manner.

DR: We don’t impose this on ourselves; it just happens as we go along, each one of us with our particular obsessions…

MC: But multiplied by three.

RL: Is there a particular material which you prefer to others?

AA: It’s more apt to say that there are ideas which inspire us more than others. The material is incidental, no?

MC: I believe that we’re inspired by materials that have to do with human labor. With traditional vocations of all types.

Una sombrilla, 1997. Wood and metal, 210 x 170 cm.

DR: But Marco, even a computer is a product of human labor.

MC: I am referring to vocations, to trades. We’ve never made anything with a computer. We’ve always focused on the traditional trades of plumbers, carpenters, etc.

RL: When you create works in other countries, do the particular idiosyncrasies of that country influence your choice of subject matter or material?

DR: Although we generally tailor our projects to the economic necessities of a particular exhibition space, the concept is not generally affected by the country in which the piece is made or by the particular local audience that will view it.

MC: We want to make pieces that will function indiscriminately in many places. Not in all—but in many.

DR: We want to make works that will be understandable and capable of transmitting a sensation in Havana, New York, Rome…

RL: Yes, but I am referring to the process of creation. When you are out of Cuba, does the fact of being out of Cuba inspire differently?

DR: Of course; we’ve had many surprises, pleasant surprises outside of Cuba. We’ve made pieces by discovering new materials in the environs.

MC: I’d like to add something—it’s interesting to talk about the difference between making pieces here or there. Yes, we have surprised ourselves, but in reality, 95 percent of our ideas have been developed in Cuba. They are created here, in this studio. Later we might adapt or change them according to specific conditions.

AA: Sure, but there are also periods when we have lived and worked outside for longer durations, for example in New York during the New Museum exhibit, we were there three months, and however you want to put it, that environment inspired us. We were faced with other phenomena. New York is another story, just as Germany is. Let’s not forget how important design is for our work. We are greatly nourished by design, by magazines, by images in the streets. But as Marco said, we adapt this to what we developed in Havana.

MC: I said that before because I don’t want people to comprehend our work as something done by travelers who go here and there to get inspired.

DR: That’s exactly what I was saying.

AA: I’m just trying to support your idea [Marco’s] by saying that yes, we are inspired by other places, but we use this to adapt the same ideas we came up with in Havana.

DR: The three of us are saying the same thing.

La Siesta, 1998. Rocking chair and pillows, 335 x 62 x 70.5 cm.

RL: I noticed a subtle change in the work that you did in your 1999 exhibition at the Vera Van Laer Gallery in Antwerp. It seemed to me that the irony and duality game was reduced or sublimated somewhat by a greater simplicity and elegance.

MC: That’s not because of Antwerp. That’s because we’re getting old.

AA: The Antwerp exhibit was like an exercise of limits for us. That is to say, we forced ourselves…

MC: We forced upon ourselves a pie forzado. (That’s a kind of stylistic limitation that is common in Cuban music and poetry, like beginning every sentence with the letter “s.” That sort of creative restriction often results in something unusual.)

AA: Yes, exactly. We gave ourselves a pie forzado in order to try to take the work to a limit. An example of this is a piece called Blue Point. The piece consists of a simple row of threaded screws lined along a wall…

MC: …which gives a sensation of things that already exist and are very common.

AA: That piece surprised us.

RL: Why?

AA: Sometimes you work with materials that are what anyone would use, because a screw is a common item, not restricted to anyone, right? To exhibit it in such a simple manner—a row of them along a wall—was an act that casts doubt on the entire act of creation. It’s a work that could be made by anyone, which places us in a vulnerable position as its creators.

RL: Actually, this departure seems prevalent in all of the Antwerp pieces. Also in The Nap, which you exhibited at the Iturralde Gallery in Los Angeles in 1998.

AA: That’s right. All of those sculptures are more conceptual. More a matter of design than anything else.

MC: I think that Alex just responded to your question regarding the change you perceived in the Antwerp exhibit. We had been working with certain hardware items, tools, making pieces that allude to labor, but we had always done this with a certain virtuosity. We made works that were extremely complex to execute and that only we could do because we would dedicate two or three months to the process of a single piece. The “change” in this exhibit was that we arrived at a minimum point. We worked with the most basic of materials and the only thing we did was organize them. There was another piece in Antwerp that consisted of five vises hung next to each other at the same level, that were unified by a fine piece of copper wire. That piece spoke of risk, of danger…

Situación de riesgo, 1999. Painted closet, pillows, and rope, installation view.

AA: …because the copper wire was barely visible, that is to say, if you got close to the work you could actually run the risk of cutting yourself. The cable was practically invisible, but somehow the vises appeared connected.

MC: That piece was the limit of something of which we aren’t even certain. It was a limit, it was danger, it was communication, a compendium of sensations but explained anew with the simplest of means. It was just five vises bought in a store, a copper wire—and it gave such a pleasant satisfaction, because there are works, like Estuche, that take us four months or more.

DR: Which, let me tell you, is not fun for anyone.

MC: Yes, but it’s interesting as a form of laborious torture.

AA: There’s also the idea of time there. Of time lapsing. And we would never make a work like this outside of Cuba, although it might be technically easier to do so. We do it here, and it becomes a labor of time in which one is depleted.

DR: We’re thinking of doing a project now which consists of the representation of three seconds in three different sculptures. The sculptures would be pieces of furniture…

AA: …in which the temporality of our work would be explicit.

RL: Have you already worked this concept out in drawings?

AA: Yes, the drawing is in Spain.

MC: But the concrete idea of that drawing is that we are working with time, specifically the physical representation of three seconds, but by means of extensive labor and impeccable craftsmanship. The idea is to create a sculptural piece of furniture…

AA: …that could imply four months of work…

MC: …but would represent those three seconds.

DR: You could spend four or five months on the first piece, and then the next five months making the second second, but it could also take an entire year, which would mean that for this three-second piece you would have taken three years.

AA: It’s a little like carnival in Brazil or the Pageant of Remedios, where people spend all year preparing for a single day of celebration, no? For us this temporality…

Gavetón, 1998. Wood and metal, 130 x 35 x 225 cm.

DR: …is discourse.

AA: Clearly, it’s discourse.

RL: Since we’re talking about drawings, in general, is it not true that the ideas that you realize as sculpture have their origin in your drawings?

AA: Yes.

MC: Sometimes.

DR: What? How?

AA: What happens with drawings in our case is very particular. In order to be able to converse, we need a drawing in front of us. At times a verbal dialogue is not sufficient. But this does not mean that each and every drawing ends up as a piece of sculpture.

MC: It’s not like in the case of Christo, where the drawings are part of a conceptual compendium. In our case, the drawings are part of a working methodology. Since we are three, we need a way to communicate; and the drawings, in a sense, are the letters we write each other.

AA: I believe that is the perfect definition. The drawings are our correspondence.

DR: A drawing can be the origin of a fabulous conversation; and that conversation can result in a different work, and from that a third work can come out which has nothing to do with either the original drawing or the conversation.

MC: And which possibly we never even draw.

AA: Exactly.

Evaporación, 1999. Metal staircase, aluminum tub, and water, installation view.

DR: That is to say, the drawings are neither cause nor effect.

AA: It’s like the conversations between Wittgenstein and his disciples in the forests outside of Cambridge.

RL: Your pieces appear to be based always on concrete objects.

MC: Do you mean not like other artists who might base their work more on the philosophy of things?

RL: Yes. It seems like the pieces are consciously devoid of emotional or philosophical content.

MC: It’s not that we renounce philosophy; it’s that the philosophy that we try to convey is that which arises from the nature of the object.

DR: What do you mean by the philosophy that arises from the nature of the object?

MC: If we’re talking about the grenade, we’re not concerned with the sentiment which might surround the idea of a grenade. We present a grenade with a certain structure and the metaphor is created only by the object. Sometimes working with objects that already exist reduces the philosophical model. And we deal with two concrete elements-a grenade and a piece of furniture. The reading flows from the combination of these two things.

AA: We need the consensus of three people to work out an object. And working up to that consensus takes the object to a certain neutrality.

MC: And concreteness.

AA: Exactly. That’s why the pieces sometimes appear sterile. The filters and psychology of the group pare the object to its neutrality. A piece which can be enjoyed and accepted by all three of us gets to the point where none of the three influences has weight.

Café, 1996–97. Bricks, wood, metal, and watercolor, 3 x 15 meters.

DR: What Alex is saying is interesting. We are the first who view our own work, that is, we act as the first “show,” the first gallery. When the sculpture passes through our process of consensus, it’s been modified, changed, or left intact for thus or such reason.

AA: I don’t really know if a neutral object can actually exist. Maybe it can’t, but we search for it.

MC: The object itself tries to be neutral to be acceptable to us.

AA: What excites us is doubt. Like Descartes said, “Always doubt.” For us, this is the broth of cultivation. Doubt, this is what we’re talking about.

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