Creative anxieties: “Anxiety limits my ability to travel, but don’t tell my mom” is the subtitle Juan-Sí González gives to his recent American Playgrounds series, from which a selection of 21 images is included in this catalog from his recent exhibition at the Cleveland Print Room in Cleveland, Ohio. For an immigrant, the alternative—moving with relative spontaneity around an unknown territory, at the mercy of an alien geography and culture—can undoubtedly generate states of intense excitement alongside extreme insecurity. Perhaps even more so in the case of an islander from the Caribbean—Juan-Sí was born in Santiago de Cuba—who, after a long journey, ended up establishing himself in the American Midwest, carrying inside the imaginary of his birthplace, where always “after the land comes the sea,” and this is inevitably true for all four points on the nautical rose. What happens, then, when after the land comes not the sea but land and more land? What happens when the territory where he arrives and that he submits to photographic scrutiny and re-presentation is that very American Heartland, with its vast belts of farming and of steel, a land of seminal traditions that witnessed “the combined impact of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century and the transportation, communication, and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century”?1 What happens, in summary, if—paraphrasing Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story—the landscape re-traced by the photographer on a map attains the same scale, not yet geographically, but in terms of his very wonderment before the immensity of the territory and his urgency to capture it affectively in its entirety?
With the city of Dayton, Ohio, as his epicenter, Juan-Sí travels inward along small roads into the heart of the land. His registry profiles the topography of rural areas and suburban spaces, precisely where one can most clearly appreciate “(…) the state of siege—as Walter Benjamin puts it—the battlefields where city and countryside fight uninterruptedly their decisive combat.” 2 Juan-Sí’s wanderings are as spontaneous as they are routine, with itineraries emerging on a day-to-day basis, as his occupations lead him to places like Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, or Cleveland. This practice of displacement as a form of emotive interaction and territorial recognition creates the diverse instances of the series, from the conception of the project to its final images. González works simultaneously the narratives of topos (references to place) and topics (references to plot) while circling in multiple directions: from territory to discourse, from index to symbol, or from real-life document to the fictions of the artist. American Playgrounds carries with it that hybrid condition and a surreal drive sharpened by the contradictions of an environment whose complexity always leaves us with more questions than answers. In the apparent serenity of the photographed scenes hide—subtly as well as oppressively—the amazement and estrangement that intertwine in the imaginary of his affective topography.
The documentary efficacy of photography and the polysemic reach of the paradoxes of context allow the artist to construct powerfully suggestive images where fiction tends to alter the perception of the environment and hence its history: introspective atmospheres populated with a fleeting stability; an alarming calmness; or a beauty that is at times artificial, as if coming out of a scene from a catalog and multiplying infinitely in the suburban landscape. American Playgrounds explores the multiple layers conforming the semantic thickness of the territory, altered by the intervention of man and his institutions throughout history. Added to the stillness that is unnatural and omnipresent in so many of the images is the persistence of the architectures that sustain the ideological power of religion and other institutions like the nation, the army, or the family. In all of these spaces the notions of stability and the permanence of values linked to land ownership or the economic structures that seem to promise order, collective security, and social progress are metaphorically fastened. Thus, in an image in ochre and reddish tones, a church bell tower in the background appears to rise up over a compact wall formed by bags of Mulch, a popular ground covering used to suppress weeds in home gardens. The photograph registers several symbolic articulations: that of the context, with the persistence of its emblems and attributes, and the vision of an evidentely claustrophobic confinement, formally elaborated from a minimalist austerity and objectual seriality, another of the elements typically used by this artist.
Like an archeologist collecting specimens for his archive, Juan-Sí pulls out of the landscape the instants of his visual narrative. For this purpose he depends on an invaluable resource—or better still, a ruse—which is already a recognizable part of his photographic rhetoric: an abrupt, incisive framing with a sharply intelligent and clear cinematographic affiliation. The exercise of which is appreciable, for instance, in the choice of the wall as a leit motiv, an image that not only suggests the evident tension in the relationship between inside-outside or inclusion-exclusion, but also the atmosphere generated by the current administration’s immigration policies.
The series preserves—and at the same time transgresses—the contemplative dimension and the careful aesthetics of traditional landscapes, but inserts them into the realm of a representation with hyper-realistic touches, with its atmosphere of innuendos and perceptual artifice. The intense color saturation reminds us of the aura of the perfect set in a publicity shot. But it is a color devoid of glitter and lights, which flattens the perspective and alters the three-dimensionality of space, intensifying the effect of estrangement in images resembling canvases substituting reality. Certain scenes evoke the beauty of large fields of crops in rural areas, with their ochre tones and typical reddish barns. They appear to highlight the ideas that, like an anthem, inspire the motto of the University of Miami in Oxford (Ohio): “To accomplish without being conspicuous”3. Others, in contrast, register the void, the wear and tear or neglect, suggesting the uncertainties haunting the territory’s life and economy: the depopulation of traditional spaces, the disturbing indices of unemployment, and the unstable relationships of the manufacturing and agrarian industries, beset by brand competition and the replacement of domestic capital by foreign investment. In short, the tensions of a region immersed in the global economy and thus subjected to the dilemma of overcoming or disappearing.
A powerful image illustrates like few can the fragility of this social balance, the fear of a fall and, in a broader sense, the tensions hidden in many of the photographs. In a shot achieved through extreme foreshortening—by chance, the first picture of the series from which the title arises—Juan-Sí portrays his own feet from the top of a worn-out slide showing on each of its rusty rungs the word “America.” The image is also a perfect example of the shift from photographic documentation to political conceptualism in a found and reconstructed scene. Definitively, photographs as well as landscapes are malleable spaces, open to the author’s transgression. “The landscape is the backdrop of our society—commented the photographer Edith Ruth—and I am the director of the scene. My images are staged landscapes.”4
While the absence of people in American Playgrounds is noteworthy, the evidence of their traces on the environment is eloquent. Juan-Sí avoids the traditional protagonism of the photogenic individual to focus on the discursive ecosystem of the vital space. In these landscapes where ironically nothing happens—or rather, where the traditional notions of a photographic event are given new meaning—everything happens nonetheless. The apparent equanimity of the recorded scenes is a backdrop that allows for a sharp appreciation of the symbolic scaffold that sustains the credibility of a whole system of life, giving it reason and meaning. The photographer’s “eye-camera” seems to rove over the interior of Foucault’s Panoptic, unveiling the hidden mechanisms that enforce social homogeneity and maintain an inalterable status quo, guaranteeing its continuity over time. Juan-Sí González places his observatory in the right place: the suburban landscape, another “confinement institution,” turning it into a suitable space for the study of history (its own history), departing from the incidence of power and its discourses embedded in the profiles of the territory.
The iconic exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, carried out in 1975 at the International Museum of Photography of the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York), opened the door to new visions on the subject, taking for granted that a landscape is a complex representative framework whose symbolic thickness overcomes romantic appropriations of the territory or ideas about the sublime in art. A graduate of Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Juan-Sí González inserts himself from his particular experience in the spirit of the long tradition of American landscapes and from a set of visions which, over the last decades, has questioned the representation of the environment and its rhetoric using different artistic strategies. According to W.J.T. Mitchell in the introduction of his book Landscape and Power, “landscape is a cultural medium that has a double role with respect to something like ideology: it naturalizes a cultural and social construction, representing an artificial world as if it were simply given and inevitable, and it also makes that representation operational by interpellating its beholder in some more or less determinate relation to its givenness as sight and site.”5
If landscape is by its nature “an instrument of cultural power”6 and in a broader sense an “agent of power,” as argued by W. J. T. Mitchell, then American Playgrounds is a wedge introduced into the classist visions of the genre, questioning discourses that sustain the hegemonic structures in the territory. In any event, the series takes shape by using visual evidence as a sort of “counter-epic”—to use García Canclini’s term—exercised from a subordinate social stratum or minority group: that of the immigrant. From that perspective, its significant scope moves obliquely along the periphery of the two persistent established historical narratives: the one that turned landscape into an ideological tool for territorial colonization—let us remember that in the United States landscape appears in photography with the invention of the medium, but also during the conquest and settlement of the territories of the continental West—and the one that endorses photography as persuasive authority, a bearer of “absolute truth.” It is the case that, first and foremost, Juan-Sí González is a Zóon politikon, a political animal, an artist committed since the beginning of his career to an art of social reflection and direct questioning. In Havana in the nineteen-eighties, his well-known performances as part of the Art-De (Art and Rights) group challenged the cultural authorities and their prohibition on the use of public spaces as an alternative forum for artistic expression and political discrepancy.
In other series, later carried out in the United States, the artist analyzes the rhetoric of social rituals in the mass media and, more generally, the relationship of the individual—and particularly the immigrant—within this system of “truths” formulated from written language or visual discourse. In these installations, and in his conceptual objects, experimentation with language and its implications acquires the dimension of a playful exercise—like a jigsaw puzzle or crossword—around the manipulations of power and its perpetuation in knowledge; an exercise that denotes the exclusive nature of a social statement and its persistence in the Post-truth discourse.
The representation of the immigrant’s identity acquires a skeptical, poignant dimension in a work like Pupitre (2013), where Juan-Sí González portrays a schoolboy’s chair in the immensity of a snowy landscape. The photo includes a label that he authored with the following statement: “After many years in exile, I returned to my country to discover that I had unlearned everything that I knew in my native language. Now I know less every day. I’m almost free.” Broadly speaking, the critical scope of his work goes beyond the socio-political contradictions of his home country, focusing on any latitude, and, throughout his artistic trajectory, on the antagonism between the heteronomous (“that which is subject to an alien power preventing the free development of its nature”) and the autonomous (“or the capacity of subjects to establish rules of behavior for themselves and for the rest, within the limits signaled by the law.”) An image from American Playgrounds duly suggests this contradiction, under the guise of a metaphor that captures the spirit of a city in an “encountered situation.” In a scene of austere composition, two signs appear to emphasize a fixed condition: a red arrow on the pavement indicates the flow of traffic and a sign on a commercial facility signals the only direction allowed: “One Way.”
Almost forty years after the Parque 23 y G Art-De performances, American Playground is constructed not only as an exercise in identity around the landscape, but as a nomadic practice or a way to carry out the study from place to place, from landscape to landscape. But the series also arises from the urge to affectively commandeer a vital space on a daily basis, while keeping both a reflective distance and a critical eye. A multidisciplinary artist, Juan-Sí retakes the iconography of an essentially fascinating and inexhaustible genre, a genre that is today subjected to the ethical revision of its traditional tenets. If this collection of images becomes credible as the subjective representation of a territory and its culture in a historic moment, it is perhaps because it marries, in a reasonable measure, the astonishment of the immigrant and the skeptical drive of the citizen; the empathy of the local and the uncertainty of the guest. But in the current context, the artist can freely exercise his opinion and critical views, understood as civic responsibilities and protected not only by the constitution but by a genuine sense of belonging to a place.
If “inhabiting means to leave traces,” as Walter Benjamin stated, American Playgrounds is the artist’s trace on the place’s memory: the affective imagery that links—like a travel diary—the personal experience and the relationship between power and its discourses on the suburban spaces of the United States’ Heartland. An imaginary capable of intertwining unrelated temporalities and truncated stories. But it can also bring the island to the maps of the continent, the sea to the interminable land, and the artistic gesture to its autonomous condition and its full discursive capability.
1 Andrew R. L. Cayton, Richard Sisson, and Christian Zacher, general editors. The Midwest: An Interpretation at Humanity Institute, The Ohio State University.
2 Walter Benjamin: Sens unique, Paris, Maurice Nadeau, 1988. 3 Andrew R. L. Cayton, Richard Sisson, and Christian Zacher, general editors. The Midwest: An Interpretation at Humanity Institute, The Ohio State University.
4 Touil Fatma: Photographies & non-lieux, le paysage entre mutation et médiance, Journée d’étude « Déplacer les frontières », Université Paris8, INHA Paris, 2012.
5 Mitchell W.J.T., Ed.: Landscape and Power, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago and London), 2003.