Issue 22, Past Issues
Leave a comment

Opacity and Sensation in Reynier Leyva Novo’s Historical Installations

Written By Guillermina De Ferrari

In revolutionary Cuba, history is never about the past. In the early days of the Revolution, state-sponsored cultural production paid much attention to the nineteenth century with one objective: to suggest that the struggle for Independence from Spain in the 1890s hadn’t been fully accomplished until the 1959 Revolution. The most evident examples of this official narrative can be found in the films produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). The ICAIC, established in March 1959 to produce documentaries about the Revolution, was one of the earliest and most prolific cultural institutions founded by the new government. In the early years, ICAIC produced films like Lucía (1968), directed by Humberto Solás. Lucía focuses on the War of Independence and the student uprisings in the 1930s during the US-backed Machado regime (famously photographed by Walker Evans and by Constantino Arias) as battles in the more significant Revolution.1 True independence, this and other films seem to suggest, was finally gained thanks to the brave “barbudos” of Sierra Maestra led by Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara.

Revisiting the nineteenth century in the relative openness of the post-Soviet literary circuit meant exactly the opposite. During the period of acute scarcity that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and which allowed Cubans to publish abroad and partly circumvent censorship, the nineteenth century was revived as a safe platform from which to criticize the institutionalized Revolution. This is the case of novels like Leonardo Padura’s La novela de mi vida [The Novel of My Life] (2001), which uses Cuban Romantic poet José María Heredia’s exile to comment on the policing of loyalty during the post-1959 years. Padura and others seem to suggest that Cuban intellectuals have the same degree of freedom of speech as they did when Cuba was the last Spanish colony. Post-Soviet writers use nineteenth-century history to obliquely criticize the present.

In contrast to these two instrumental reinscriptions of the nineteenth century, the present does not matter at all in Reynier Leyva Novo’s historical installations.2 Rather, Novo revisits Cuban nineteenth-century history with the disinterested desire to make foundational events feel private and immediately present to the senses. His is a non-traditional recovery project. As I will argue in this article, Novo’s art, which includes extensive archival research and conceptual exploration, undoes the ideological construction of “History” by embracing its irreducible humanity. Novo’s installations reverse the process of erasure and political appropriation common to historical discourse in Cuba by appealing to rhetorical strategies that both imbue history with life, and obscure it in one single gesture. His project combines the desire to summon the past — a desire for the real –, and the ephemerality of the now. Present and absent at the same time, activating some senses while rejecting others, Novo’s history shows the quality of a specter. By summoning the past in a material yet alienated form, Novo’s installations celebrate the vital opacity of history.

In what follows, I discuss three pieces by Novo from the perspective of opacity. I use as a point of departure Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant’s “opacity,” a concept he deploys to defend the right of the post/colonial subject to not be appropriated by discourses of power that originate elsewhere.3 In my analysis of Novo’s historical pieces, I adapt Glissant’s opacity to designate a strategic misunderstanding designed to protect the irreducible singularity of a historical person or process that is commonly understood to be part of the national narrative. I will then argue that Novo’s pieces incorporate strategic veils of sensorial intensity that create confusion. Displacement from facts to the senses helps privatize the experience of history in a way that resists appropriation. Opacity, I suggest, protects the vulnerability of history from the rhetorical needs of the present.

Opacity is a dialectical term. It presupposes its opposite: clarity. When we talk about artistic pieces that represent history, we are contending with a complicated dynamic between the two. On the one hand, the value of a historical representation is measured in terms of its mimetic character; that is, by the likelihood that something happened that exact way. The field of study that we call “History” is usually evaluated in terms of verisimilitude. Art, on the other hand, is usually judged in terms of artifice, that is of the distance that style creates between spectator and the real. In the case of Novo’s peculiar understanding of the relationship between art and history, it is profitable to consider post-structuralist Cuban writer Severo Sarduy’s ideas on style and verisimilitude in the way each connects to the model offered by official history.

In La simulación, Sarduy addresses three forms of artistic representation that collapse the dialectical relationship between verisimilitude and artifice, terms roughly equivalent to transparency and opacity: simulacrum, trompe l’oeil, and anamorphosis. These forms of simulation, according to Sarduy, do not imitate reality. Rather, “they produce the model’s verisimilitude, they incorporate its appearance in an act of pillage,” ruthlessly exploiting “the observer, including him in their imposture.”4 It is particularly important to my argument that Novo’s installations reduce the distance with the spectator by incorporating him or her into the paradoxical structure of the piece.

Combining the theories of Glissant and Sarduy, then, I argue that the strategic misunderstandings that lend structure to Novo’s historical pieces happen through an illusory duplication of one surface in another (simulacrum), deformation and displacement (anamorphosis), and false clarity (trompe l’oeil). I suggest that Novo’s installations stage a sensorial exploration that undermines appropriations by producing a private emotional response. In other words, by lending material and affective density to official versions of history, Novo turns absence into presence, and deadness into life. I claim that, by alluding to history through layers of vital opacity, Novo’s art makes a political statement against the invisible deceptiveness of discursive clarity.

Fig. 1. Sólo la tierra perdura/Only the Land Endures. Digital photograph printed on vinyl and vinyl lettering. 2013.

Visual Silence5

Novo’s 2013 installation Solo la tierra perdura (La Batalla del Mal Tiempo) [Only the Land Endures (The Battle of Mal Tiempo)] juxtaposes a photograph and a text (fig. 1). At the exhibition El deber de ser libres [The Obligation to Be Free] held at Museo del Ron Havana Club Gallery in 2013, the piece occupied two adjacent walls.6 Approximately 22 feet wide and ten feet high, the color photograph is printed on matte vinyl and glued to a false, slightly curved wall at the end of the room. Given its size, the image is surprisingly clear and rich in detail. This is due to the fact that it was taken with a GigaPan robotic camera that takes 32 high-resolution images and combines them into one single image. Because of its size and the curvature of the wall, the first sensation for the spectator is that of being immersed in the landscape. The second sensation is puzzlement: the landscape shows a vacant expanse of green pasture framed by a background of gentle hills and topped by racing clouds on a bright blue sky. There is no immediate meaning to attach to the image; there is nothing to decode. While the image gives us very few clues as to how to interpret it, the title is more eloquent. Only the Land Endures points not so much to absence but to loss. In other words, visual silence is actually the sign not of nothing, but of erasure.

To the side of the photograph, and approximately half its size, is a text in Spanish followed by the English translation. The words offer a vivid narrative account of one of the most significant battles of the Cuban War of Independence, the battle of Mal Tiempo, at which an army led by Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo killed some two hundred Spanish royalist soldiers with the use of machetes in less than 15 minutes. The text, which lends voice to Maceo’s perspective and privileges sensations and emotions, is novelistic: it gives a detailed account of the battle, vividly recounting the obstacles encountered as well as the emotions associated with different stages of the event, ranging from doubt and passion to heroism.

What had originally struck Novo was the fact that there is no memorial marking the place by which to commemorate what happened. Deprived of any kind of signs, the historic site has become pure landscape. That is what the photograph shows, or rather fails to show, and what the text is there to provide. In fact, the text is more than a substitute for a commemorative plaque. In the exercise of looking at the image, reading the text and returning to the image, the spectator superposes the visual and the mental images, turning it into a different imaginary photograph. The text we just read becomes a ghostly presence, filling the visual void and humanizing the landscape. The new mental photograph combines the sensed experience (what is in front of our eyes) and the emotions of the battle.

Text and photograph work as antitheses of each other, but reversing their expected function. The text visualizes what the image cannot. The narrative is there to accomplish an act of communication expected from the visual image but that the photograph is incapable of accomplishing. This is the case because photographs don’t operate in the negative; while they can evoke what is absent, they cannot represent within the frame what is not there. The text compensates for this deficiency by making the absence of memory noticeable. When seen together, the image speaks of a void, of an absence of signs, whereas the text visualizes the carnage. This operation communicates an additional meaning: it describes not just the experience of the war, but also an attitude of neglect and forgetfulness due in part to the passing of time. According to Novo, Only the Land Endures establishes a counterpoint between word and image.7 I would add that it is not only the combination of the two media that creates the meaning but also the distance between them. The vitality of the piece results from the juxtaposition of different languages. In this piece, meaning seems to reside in the invisible threads of comparative perception.

However, I would like to propose a more radical interpretation that results from this juxtaposition, consisting not in the sum of text and image, but in a new image as such. Let me explain. The narrative ends with a striking image:

Everything that had been solid was quickly destroyed with machete strikes. The riverbank was now paved with corpses. More than a hundred mutilated bodies were piled up along the road to Mal Tiempo.8

The text closes with this vivid illustration of the carnage that resulted from the battle. In the text, the pasture has changed color and texture; it is now covered with mutilated bodies rather than with the uninterrupted expanse of grass. This description can be read as a second photograph, the photograph that was not taken on December 15, 1895. The text can therefore be read as a form of ekphrasis, i.e., the verbal description of a work of art. In this case, it is a description of an imaginary photograph whose inexistence is emphasized by the empty landscape of the photograph accompanying the text. The text can thus be read as the simulacrum of a piece that reveals the absence of what is being copied, the absence of an original that nevertheless provides us with the experience of what is absent as if it were present. Or, as Sarduy puts it in a different context, as “a pure non-presence that, transvetized in pure energy, engenders the visible world with its simulacrum.” (20/98) In principle, a simulacrum for Sarduy is a surface-to-surface relationship that isn’t premised on a truth or a founding principle. We can borrow this notion and say that the absence of a true visual image of the carnage is constitutive of the vitality of this piece. Like Sarduy’s simulacrum, Only the Land Endures is about making visible the existence of a void.

Fig. 2. El deseo de morir por otros/The Desire to Die for Others. Polyester resin. 2012

False Clarity

El deseo de morir por otros [The Desire to Die for Others] (fig. 2), shown at Colegio San Gerónimo during the XI Havana Biennial in 2012, consists of a series of replicas of actual weapons used by the leaders of War of Independence:

The guns of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Calixto García, and José Martí, national Cuban hero, [ . . . ] as well as the swords of Antonio Maceo, Máximo Gómez, Manuel Sanguily and Quintín Bandera; and even the bullet that killed Gómez Toro.9

In this piece, more than in any other, Novo’s work approximates an exact science. He obtained permission from Eusebio Leal, the Director of the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad, the agency in charge of historical preservation in Havana, to make molds of the original weapons. The challenge was to find molding material that would not damage the pieces yet still allow the artist to reproduce the originals with 99.9% accuracy. Novo’s objective was to transfer to the replica the actual state of the weapons with all their imperfections. For him, every trace, every scratch in the object was also evidence of the war itself. The molding material that was finally used was elastosil, a liquid form of silicone that can faithfully reproduce the texture of the weapons. Proximity to the original was literal in every sense. In order to handle the original weapons, Novo made the molds in a studio he set up inside the museum where the weapons had been on display and untouched for over 20 years. A month before the Biennial, Novo brought the molds to the US to make the final pieces. The replicas are made of polyester resin — a translucent, glasslike material — that makes them simultaneously ghostly and precious, like fine jewelry. During the Biennial, the pieces were exhibited against a black velvet backdrop in crystal cases visible from the street, with lighting reminiscent of that of a jewelry store.10

Let me elaborate on the two comparisons I have suggested so far. The translucent pieces are ghostly because they suggest their referent, the real weapons, but in an ethereal, unnatural way. This ghostly effect was further exacerbated by the reflection of the passers-by on the streets of Old Havana.11 The displayed weapons are visibly fake and therefore innocuous. In addition, the beauty and the clarity of the jewelry-like pieces help further undermine their original function as weapons. What is ultimately showcased in this installation is the material, and the ultimate material is light. Light helps us decontextualize and sublimate the historical weapons so that we can appreciate in them the presence of an aesthetic soul.

There is, however, a third effect. In contrast to both the ghostliness and the sublimated beauty of the piece, the replicas make a claim for sensorial veracity. Because the pieces are almost exact replicas of the original weapons, they largely derive their vitality from the sense of touch. Even when we may never really touch the usually encased pieces, were we to touch the weapon, we would feel the same proportions, the same crevices and scratches that Céspedes or Máximo Gómez felt. The replicas are metonymically connected to the national hero and thus constitutive of his greatness. The object then becomes a vehicle or a mediator that facilitates the imaginary union of spectator and hero across time. The triangulation abolishes time: spectator and hero are joined by a common tactile sensation. I suggest that this can be interpreted as a trompe l’oeil.

A trompe l’oeil is usually defined as a visual illusion that tricks the eye into seeing a flat representation as a three-dimensional object. Of course, the replicas I am discussing are already three-dimensional objects. However, the analogy works when trompe l’oeil is defined more broadly as two sensorial perceptions at odds with each other. In traditional trompe l’oeil, seeing is deceptive while touch uncovers the deception. The sense of touch refutes the false truth suggested by sight. In The Desire to Die for Others, however, touch produces the illusion while sight reveals the truth of the piece, which is its untruthfulness, its simulation. The illusion of presence (the feeling that this is really the hero’s weapon) is suggested by the continuity of the material scars of the object that have been transferred to its replica. Here, sight unveils the truth.

From this perspective, the replicas can be said to comply with Sarduy’s description of trompe l’oeil as a form of simulacrum:

Trompe l’oeil, whose very definition is the ability to pass for the referent, to codify it, without any excess so that it may become the referent itself, is in such close proximity to the referent that it denies the presence of art. (42/106)

To be sure, the translucent material provides a sense of artifice or technique; what Sarduy describes as “the décalage with the real that is the measure of style.” (42/106) At the same time, however, the replica seeks to pass for the referent in its “intransigent commitment to realism,” to use Sarduy’s words (43/107; emphasis in the original)

Novo’s work, like Sarduy’s trompe l’oeil, is based on a paradox. The aim in both cases is to breathe life into the piece without revealing the true essence of things: a false clarity. Sarduy adds that, as a form of simulacrum, trompe l’oeil, seeks “to accumulate the second vibrations of its appearance, since it is not forms or ideas but additional layers of air, surfaces, that must be incorporated into human space.” (42/106) The experience of the spectator is one of discovery in which he or she actualizes those layers of air, which provide volume, so as to unveil a truth antithetical to the one offered by visual perception.

I will take this one step further by looking at The Desire to Die for Others in light of a secondary aspect of trompe l’oeil, which is that of forced perspective. Forced perspective shows an object either bigger or smaller than other objects represented, giving the false sensation of being farther away or closer to the spectator. Taken to a metaphorical level, then, the effect of the installation is to play with our sense of emotional distance. I claimed above that the tactile experience helps abolish the distance between hero and spectator. When we think of the triangulation suggested by this installation in affective terms, we can see it as an instance of forced perspective. The installation invites us, the spectators, to feel our physical proximity to the hero while gauging the moral distance that separates us from him. The closer we feel to Martí, the better we can measure our own insignificance.

Fig. 3. Los olores de la guerra/The Scents of War. Scents, glass bottles and vinyl lettering. 2009. This image shows the piece as it was shown at the 54th Venice Biennale, 2011: Latin America – IILA.

A Secret Perspective

The caption describes Los olores de la guerra [The Scents of War] (2009) as “fragrances, glass bottles, and written text cut out in vinyl.” The installation consists of three perfumes, bottled and labeled as if they were commercial products, each one named after an important battle of the War of Independence (fig. 3). Testing strips, like the ones found in high-end department stores, bear the date and name of the battle, allowing the public to interact with each piece. The battles, Jimaguayú, Dos Ríos, and San Pedro, were selected because those are the ones in which three generals of the War of Independence died. Novo wants to emphasize this because he believes that the fact that the generals fought and risked their lives alongside soldiers under their command was a distinctive feature of the Cuban war of independence.

The perfumes are real and original. They were made with the help of an historian and a perfume designer in Cuba. Once Novo had the idea and selected the battles he wanted to recreate, he enlisted the help of historian José Abreu Cardet. The two of them consulted a number of sources, including war diaries, correspondence, contemporary accounts with modern ones, in order to gain an understanding of the exact setting of the different battles, taking account of the time of the day and the time of year in which they took place, and of the vegetation, the soil, and degree of humidity of the landscape. Then Novo passed all the information along to a perfume designer who used it to create scents that, as Novo himself puts it, “would somehow respond to these battles.”12

A short essay accompanies each perfume. I will focus on the piece Dos Ríos, comprised of a perfume and a short essay titled  “The Essential Risk.” The perfume was named after the battle in which poet José Martí — “Major General and President of the Republic in Arms” – took part, dying, as the text renders it, on “May 19, 1895 between 12:30 and 2 pm.” (55) The essay centers on the paradox of the poet-soldier, as well as on the landscape and the atmosphere. According to the notes, the war scene includes “heavy rains, mud, fast-flowing rivers, scrublands, noon” and the close proximity of two native trees. It may be appropriate to note that “war scene” is called “war stage” — “escenario de guerra” — in the original Spanish, a phrase that strongly suggests that Martí’s death can be read as a tragedy in the classical sense.13

Formally, the essay consists of a two-paragraph reflection that dramatically imbues the scene with humanity. The first paragraph describes the moment when Martí’s blood mixes with the dirt and the certainty that the land will soon be washed away by the rains of May:

Other names have fallen into oblivion. Other bloods, other sorrows for those who never returned have been diluted into that single death, Martí’s death, as if it embraced them all. A death that was itself a universe of death; the death that distracts us from all other pain. 14

This is an exercise of double condensation. The text views Martí’s spilled blood not only as a symbol of his death (blood as a synecdoche of the man), but also Martí’s death as a reminder of every soldier felled during the battle (Martí as synecdoche of the army). At the same time, however, Martí’s death serves as a decoy. The tragedy of his death at Dos Ríos contains and excludes everyone else’s.

The second paragraph addresses a frequent question posed about Martí: why was the poet fighting on the battlefield when reason dictated that his presence would serve humanity better in other places? Novo proposes that Martí’s death is not the consequence of a thoughtless or frivolous circumstance, but of a necessity:

José Martí y Pérez wasn’t naïve. He was no novice. He wasn’t looking for death. His horse didn’t bolt. He was simply asking for his share of risk: the risk that was essential for the making of a mambí. 15

There was simply no alternative. There was no way to gain independence other than through military action. If, as noted before, generals fought along with the soldiers during the Cuban War of Independence, fighting like a mambí (as the rebel soldiers were called) required the risk of death. Acceptance of the possibility of death in Dos Ríos is constitutive of Martí as an enlightened figure, an irrevocable part of who he was as a moral being. Novo asks us to interpret Martí’s death not as the work of fate or error, but as the possible consequence of a powerful act of will. Martí chose the risk of death in order to incarnate an idea (an ideal) of the self, in order to create the narrative of his personal story that best defined the man he needed to be.16

As I mentioned, Novo’s instructions to the anonymous perfume designer was that the scents should “somehow respond” to the battles. So, how does the perfume “somehow respond” to the concept of Dos Ríos and/or the notion of an essential risk proposed in Novo’s text? The first answer resides in the intersection between essence as the natural extract used to produce a scent, and as the property without which something, here the soldier, would not exist. Presumably, the smell, a combination of natural scents (the perfumer’s note says “coolness, citrus extracts, and H.”), evokes the particularities of the time and place of the soldier’s — Martí’s — death. The mission of the smell is to transfer to the spectator’s own body a sensation that Martí himself may have felt right before dying. The perfume marks a threshold, the instant of the loss of life. It makes the spectator look back on a moment that by definition denies the possibility of retrospection. The perfume gives material density to the notion of the last breath.

Even though The Scents of War consists of objects, text and data, it ostensibly works through smell. The spectator approaches the bottle, takes a testing strip, and lets the scents of humidity, mud and the proximity of the river invade her body. The Spanish word for scent, esencia, is an ambiguous word that places the spectator at the intersection between sensation and identity or soul. Because of how smell operates, the exact combination of coolness (frescura), citrus extracts and H. renders a sensation meant to make the spectator’s body “somehow respond” to the idea of Dos Ríos so that it touches her soul. Perhaps, if she closes her eyes, she will feel that she is taking a possible last breath, that she is a mambí that very instant, and that the essential, life-defining risk may be about to take its toll.

In her introduction to Novo’s book, art critic Mailyn Machado addresses the subjective aspects surrounding the production and consumption of this piece.17 She mentions the combination of solemnity and joy brought to those who test the perfume in the gallery setting, highlighting its ephemerality. Indeed, not only does “Dos Ríos” mean to capture the instant of death but it also leaves an indescribable, fleeting impression on those consuming it. More broadly, Machado sees The Scents of War as a complex, communal personal experience: “Obtained through the alchemy of various subjectivities, this unsubstantial substance has a very democratic effect: it affects everyone, though never in the same way.” (23) Machado refers both to the multiple specialists/interpreters that took part in the actual making of the piece and to the sum of unique experiences that we can call the spectators’ response. The sense of smell is peculiar in this regard: while it incites a very direct participation on the part of the audience, it is also highly subjective and difficult to describe.

Sensation in art has been elaborated upon extensively by Laura Marks. Marks argues that smell is the most intimate and direct of the senses: “Smell is the most mimetic of the senses, because it acts on our bodies before we are conscious of it. Smell requires a bodily contact with the world, which in turn is mediated in the brain in an especially instinctual fashion.”18 Smell is one of the most private and uncivilized of the senses, capable of triggering immediate memories and physical reactions. Smell requires co-presence or material continuity: one only smells what is near oneself at that very instant. It doesn’t travel through time and space. However, smell presumes to provide knowledge that is intimate; it works with one’s memory and associations. It is not only private, it is also non-transferable. Therefore, when it comes to the sense of smell, material and emotional continuity are mere illusions. While smell provokes a strong physical response, it is singular and irreducible. It cannot be conjured through words and it cannot be really shared. It is fundamentally opaque to others.

I suggest that the figure of anamorphosis can give us a sense of how to interpret The Scents of War. Following Severo Sarduy, I define anamorphosis as an initial opacity that only becomes clear through displacement. Understanding requires physical movement: it is by moving out of your designated place as spectator that you can truly “see.” According to Sarduy, anamorphosis is a “marginal and perverse operation” that occurs once a secret perspective has been revealed to us, almost always by accident. In anamorphosis, understanding is an afterthought, reconstructed when one walks away, after the spectator resigns herself to not understanding. One can use “olfactory anamorphosis,” Sarduy’s term (33/105), to describe this installation as the delayed understanding that takes place after decoding a secret perspective. The meaning is revealed as an afterthought and experienced as magical.19

Following the logic of anamorphosis delineated above, I claim that it is not the sensation itself that produces historical knowledge. Smell doesn’t lend itself to universalization; it is too opaque. Rather, the sense of shared experience happens the moment the spectator walks out, when she evokes a sensation she can no longer fully name. It is after having smelled Dos Ríos, after putting herself in Martí’s shoes at the time of his death, that she gains ownership of the concept of the essential risk. She survived it, but she was close. The smell is now a vague memory of a last breath that only symbolically belongs to the spectator, who, after all, didn’t die.

Fig. 4. Los olores de la guerra/The Scents of War Scents. Glass bottles and vinyl lettering. 2009. This image corresponds to the El polvo, la sangre, el sueño común/Dust, Blood, and Our Shared Dream exhibition in Bildmuseet, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden, February 24 – May 26, 2013.

But what happens when the spectator can’t smell anything because the perfume bottle is encased within a museum display, as was the case in some iterations of this exhibit? (see figure 4) What happens to the idea of smell when you only see the commercial looking bottles? Does the piece then become about style? Is it about the commodification of history now stylized as merchandise for airport duty-free shops? Is it an item to be consumed frivolously? The smell that cannot be accessed is even more misleading. I would see the bottled perfume as a form of masking, of transvestism. The entire piece is disguise and distortion. Its hermeticism speaks of layers of density that, inaccessible to the senses, can only be understood in an entirely figurative plane.

Ultimately, the unopened bottle resembles Martí himself. A figure that has been appropriated by every ideological discourse in Cuba, the poet is always disguise and distortion, a mask or blotch that makes sense only with a certain perspective. I follow Machado’s suggestion that Martí, as the architect of a vision of a nation, is always seen as the promise of a future that is infinitely deferred (22). As a perpetual emblem of a future desired from and for the present, Martí can be interpreted as an anamorphosis. Like Machado’s description of Dos Ríos, Martí too can be seen as a product “obtained from the alchemy of various subjectivities,” an “unsubstantial substance” that “affects everyone, though never in exactly the same way.” (23)

Vital opacity

The three pieces I have described revise history in non-traditional ways. They engage directly with the senses (smell, touch) and provide narrative texts that require compensatory forms of engagement (like ekphrasis). I have interpreted them as the construction of a vital opacity. Édouard Glissant uses the term opacity to defend the colonial subject’s right to stand against the rational, European compulsion for transparency that was an integral part of the colonial or neocolonial enterprise. It enables the constitution of a freer subject. I have adapted Glissant’s concept to look into how Novo’s art plays with a traditional, mimetic discipline like History in a way that makes it more alive and personal, therefore resisting the contemporary manipulation to which it is subject.

I have redefined opacity in relation to Novo’s historical installations as a strategic misunderstanding that protects the irreducible singularity — the essence or soul — of a given historical moment. Paraphrasing other aspects of Glissant’s thought, this could be seen as a detour in the communication process; a detour that is constitutive of an art whose success is partly measured by its labored distance with the referent. In this context, I see Novo’s rhetorical strategies — simulacrum, anamorphosis, and trompe l’oeil–, as recasting the way we understand a particular historical moment as a human experience. Novo turns the past into a personal narrative, subjective and fragmented, which has a double effect: it makes it more real but also less universal. It is a form of alienation, or, rather, a way to put them out of reach for safekeeping.

When contemporary works of art engage with history in Cuba, it is usually to make a political point about the present. Elsewhere, this gesture is usually to either explore its constructed nature or to unveil its humanity, transforming past glory into affect. Somewhat aligned with the latter category, Novo’s historical installations build on a desire to inhabit, without appropriating, the vulnerability of history. For Novo, history is personal when it is a physical sensation that is impossible to decode, and yet inflicts a wound on us with unmistakable clarity.

Guillermina De Ferrari (PhD Columbia University) is professor of Spanish and Director of the Center for Visual Cultures at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes on Caribbean literature and visual culture. Her book Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Caribbean Fiction (2007) studies the trope of the vulnerable body in contemporary Caribbean literature. Her book Community and Culture in Post-Soviet Cuba (Routledge, 2014) analyzes recent Cuban narrative and photography from the point of view of contract theory and postmodern ethics. She curated the exhibition Apertura: Photography in Cuba Today held at the Chazen Museum of Art (March 6-June 21, 2015).

  1.  Gerardo Machado’s was a cruel regime. The poverty and the repression of the Machadato was largely illustrated by Walker Evans in the book The Crime of Cuba by Carleton Beals (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1934). Evans’ photographs were eventually published on their own under the title Cuba (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001).
  2.  Reynier Leyva Novo (La Habana, 1983) studied in the Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro and in the Instituto Superior de Arte, though he didn’t graduate. He participated in Cátedra de Arte de Conducta, a workshop founded and led by performance artist Tania Brugera. He is an artist who is in constant search for new conceptual experience. (consulted on May 27, 2014).
  3.  Édouard Glissant. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1997), 190.
  4.  La simulación (Caracas: Monte Avila Editores, 1982), 19. Quotes of Sarduy are my translation from the original in Spanish in consultation with the English version in Written on a Body. Translated by Carol Maier (New York: Lumen Books, 1989; 97). Page numbers of Spanish version are given first.
  5.  This entire section takes at its point of departure my analysis of Novo’s piece in the catalogue of Apertura: Photography in Cuba Today held at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, March 6-June 21, 2015.
  6.  The exhibition “El deber de ser libres” (The Obligation to Be Free) was curated by Sachie Hernández and held September 13- November 9, 2013 at Museo del Ron Havana Club Gallery. (consulted on May 27, 2014).
  7.  Reynier Leyva Novo, e-mail message to author, October 2, 2013.
  8.  Reynier Leyva Novo, El deseo de morir por otros/The Desire to Die for Others (Valencia: Selvi Artes Gráficas, 2011), 56. Quotes are my translation of the Spanish original for the exhibition Apertura: Photography in Cuba Today. The original reads “Todos los sólidos han sido deshechos a machetazos. El terraplén queda empedrado de cadáveres. Más de un centenar de cuerpos mutilados se amontona por todo el camino de Mal Tiempo.”
  9.  See the description of the piece for the 2012 Biennial at
  10.  Reynier Leyva Novo, e-mail communication to author, June 12, 2014.
  11.  “The streets of the old city and its passers-by are reflected in the glass panes which contribute to the surreal and deep dimension of this installation.”
  12.  Reynier Leyva Novo, e-mail message to author, October 7, 2013.
  13.  I clarify that Dos Ríos is the battle, and Dos Ríos is one of the three perfumes that make up The Scents of War. “The Essential Risk” is the title of the short descriptive essay included in Dos Ríos.
  14.  “Otros hombres han sido olvidados. Otras sangres, otros lamentos por los que nunca regresaron no se recuerdan como si aquella sola, la de Martí, lo incluyera todo. Ella misma un universo de la muerte que hace olvidar los demás dolores.” (Leyva Novo, 56). Unless noted, the translation of quotes is mine following in part the English translations available on Novo’s book.
  15.  “No era este soldado bisoño, José Martí y Pérez, un ingenuo, no se le desbocó el caballo, no buscó la muerte: simplemente pidió lo que le correspondía: el riesgo esencial para ser un mambí.” (Leyva Novo, 56)
  16.  I am alluding to the concept of “narrative-based identity” proposed by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and Michael J. Sandel in Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). I have discussed this notion extensively in my interpretation of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. See Guillermina De Ferrari “The Ship, the Plantation, and the Polis: Reading Gilroy and Glissant as Moral Philosophy.” Special Issue: Comparative Perspectives on the Black Atlantic. Comparative Literature Studies, 49.2 (2012): 186-209.
  17.  Mailyn Machado, “From the Desire to Die for Others to Empowering People.” In El deseo de morir por otros (Leyva Novo, 9-29).
  18.  Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2002, 115).
  19.  This section is largely based on Sarduy’s discussion on anamorphosis (25-33/99-105). Notice, in particular, Sarduy’s allusion to Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors: “Through anamorphosis, painting can reveal (with disquieting closeness, by masking it in a misleading form, hung above the floor, in the foreground) the ultimate image that is only perceived when the departing subject — le sujet que se barre –, who is disappointed and has given up hope of understanding the hieroglyphic in nacre, looks, as if to bid farewell, to the left, looks sinistrally, and as in an analytic rebus, at that instant he sees her, the Sinister One, in the macabre splendor of her osseous coat of arms.” (29-102)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.