“What is central or peripheral depends pretty much on where you look from. I believe I am from the centre, whereas Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are peripheral,” says Carlos Garaicoa when we sit down on the occasion of his exhibition showing until September 11 at the MAAT museum in Lisbon. The Cuban artist, who has been living in Madrid for the past 10 years, claims he’s in an excellent position to estimate the ongoing power shift between centre and periphery.

Garaicoa shows his site-specific dystopian installation Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy – meaning ‘I’ve never been surrealist until today’ – at MAAT, Lisbon’s new Museum of Architecture, Art and Technology. The installation explores the relationship between the city and the individual, architecture and urbanism, fiction and reality. It’s the artist’s first large-scale installation.

Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
The model airplane crashing in a tree is “a symbol for how contemporary society deals with ecology, the economy, humanity, conflicts: we are crashing”, he explains. The reference to Surrealism is deliberate too, he says:

“Of all the avant-garde movements, surrealism was the most political. It proposed something really different in terms of psychology, how humans could relate to reality and the canon. Artists criticised the structure of the powers that were: church, money, market. This was the strongest movement of the 20th century – conceptual and radical. Also the only art movement that became popular. We are all heirs of Surrealism.”


Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
Garaicoa was born in 1967 in Havana, where he grew up and was trained as a painter and started to do photography. “I began to do reportages to catch the decay of the city,” he says. Today Garaicoa uses drawing, photography, performance, architectural models, text, sculpture, installation and video to research the gap between utopian claims and reality, and how all this translates into the urban landscape.

Architecture has always been a primary focus – for instance at Documenta 11 in 2002, he presented a series of sparkling architectural models sharply contrasted by black-and-white photographs showing the malodorous reality of the actual buildings in his home city Havana. “Architecture that was completed and got abandoned – these buildings became a ruin before they even existed.” Garaicoa’s art works also talk about neo-colonialism, the collapse of 20th century’s great utopic ideologies, and the impact of socio-economic and political evolutions on urban landscapes. In the exhibition at MAAT, all these issues come together, he explains:

Carlos Garaicoa
Carlos Garaicoa: Continuity of Somebody's Architecture, installation view of the project for the documenta 11, Kassel 2002. Photo: Ela Bialkowska. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
“In our time, we are at a crucial geopolitical turning point: the centre is on the loose and the former periphery’s alternative world visions are gaining momentum. Throughout the past centuries, ‘the West’ spread its tentacles, and everything that fell outside was perceived as the periphery and thus 'exotic'. This is all changing now very rapidly. This power shift becomes visible in the art world.”


An artist from the periphery who increasingly finds himself in the centre, Garaicoa has shaken off exoticism and is claiming his place:

“Europe and the US are now begging for artists and collectors from the periphery. But do we really believe that all of a sudden there are interesting artists in the periphery, and before there were none? They’ve always been there, of course. Art history is a construction based on the economy. Art is where the money is, and it’s the economy that gives artists their position. For instance, Brazilian art was always super interesting, but only when its economy boomed, did international galleries moved there. The former periphery – China, India, Latin-America, Brazil – has an ever stronger impact. Geopolitically and thus also in the art world.”


It’s not only about the centre being in a crisis but also about the empowerment of the former periphery. Garaicoa is well placed to witness and analyse both:

“Coming from the South gives me strength. Living in Latin-America gave me the opportunity to develop survival skills and ways of thinking that help me to deal with all kinds of chaos. After 10 years in Europe, I am aware of the power of my position. Current developments in Europe remind me of what Latin-America already went through. Dictatorship for instance – we all thought it had died out in the West, but it’s making its come back now. In the heart of Western democracies, authoritarian regimes are nestling, using economic chaos to reshuffle society. These democracies are acting in the same way Latin-American dictatorships did. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, the periphery – all the Latin-American, Asian and African countries that had suffered from Western imperialism – were in deep chaos. Now we see it’s Europe and the US suffering. The West that sold us models of democracy, reveals not to be democratic itself. It was one big lie. The piece I am showing in MAAT represents the metaphor of living in this political and economic chaos.”


“We have to rethink our position as citizens”, Garaicoa goes on that he’s always had the feeling he was living on a crossroad:

“Just like the Nigerian writer Ben Okri, and many other people from countries that were colonised and post-colonised. The good thing is that we already have the models to deal with a situation like this. In the West, many people feel lost because they don’t have these models. As citizens, we have to be strong. That’s the only way to move forward. We have to be less passive, ready to put ourselves in a critical position. In Spain, young artists feel completely lost. The only thing they knew was a government offering them money to be an artist. They have to put themselves in another position – support yourself! Become independent!”


Part of reclaiming our position as citizens in our chaotic and changing societies, is to act locally. And, as someone for whom actions speak louder than words, Garaicoa has launched the Artista X Artista foundation in Havana, which offers art residencies for foreign artists in Cuba and for Cuban artists abroad. He explains:

“I find it very important to be local. All problems I’ve been through in Cuba, I’m facing in Spain now. My experience makes me stronger as a local activist in Spain; I am very convinced we have to focus on our local surroundings. Globalism is an idea the centre tried to sell us – Hollywood-blah-blah really. The real thing is to be local. And to support strong individuals, thinkers and artists in our own city.”


Art might be a global industry with lots of money going around, and glamorous events and big stars – and Garaicoa admits that he is inextricably part of that – but the very DNA of art is to confront people, to challenge us out of our comfort zone, to go deep. This is what Garaicoa does. His work at MAAT, where visitors literally can stroll around in a large-scale architectural model that looks spectacular and theatrical, does exactly this.

“As artists we should not enter into a culture of entertainment. Our role is to interact with people, have a personal impact and to make things that last,” he concludes.

Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)
Carlos Garaicoa: Yo nunca he sido surrealista hasta el día de hoy / I've Never Been Surrealistic until Today, 2017. Site-specific installation of plants, light, wood, metal, gravel, land, artificial grass and model airplane.  Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (San Gimingnano-Beijing-Le Moulin- Havana)