For the past month or so, the artists of the 8th Berlin Biennale have been exploring the intersection of broad historical narratives and individual lives. One of those artists is Antonio Eligio Fernández—better known as Tonel—whose installation, Commerce, 2014, takes a highly individual look at the Cold War. “Tonel is an artist, caricaturist, art historian, and avid collector of printed matter chronicling the global politics of the twentieth century,” reads a guide to the Biennale. “Purposefully naïve, like most of his work, Tonel’s installation juxtaposes the tragedy of individual will against the forces of history.”
Here’s a photo-walk-through of the installation, with excerpts from Tonel’s own description of the piece.
My view of the Cold War is very personal, informed by the fact that I was born and grew up in Havana, Cuba at a time when my country got involved in this conflict—first, when the revolutionary leadership directly confronted American dominance in the Western hemisphere, and later when that same leadership embraced communism as the state ideology and decided to align itself internationally with the Soviet Union. This pivotal period of contemporary history is part of my biography; it is something I have lived and experienced first hand in a very specific, even intimate way as a person living in a Caribbean, Latin American culture, who will go through his formative years in a context defined by the ideological proximity between Cuba and the entire Soviet-dominated bloc, as well as by the close ties between Cuba and many of the so-called Third World nations.
This project is a continuation of a number of works that I have created since at least the early 1980s, thinking of history as a source of inspiration. More recently I have dedicated entire one-person exhibitions to reflect on particular chapters of late 20th-century history, like the space race and its central placement in the Cold War strategies of the two main military blocs. . . .
The installation includes drawings, photography, three-dimensional objects, artists’ books, and sound. There are a total of three artists’ books, each one with its own soundtrack. These tracks of electronic music have been created in collaboration with Bob Turner, a Vancouver-based musician. Headphones are provided, so that the audience has access to the sound component of the piece.
On one of the walls the installation displays the word “Commerce” in Russian. The letters are individually made using concrete reinforcing bars (rebar). The text is placed at the center of the wall. Hanging symmetrically below the word “Commerce” will be the portraits—rendered as ink drawings on paper—of the chiefs of the communist parties in the countries that were part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or COMECON (a trade and economic organization founded in 1949 that reunited the countries of the Soviet bloc, under the leadership of the USSR) up to the 1970s, when Cuba (1972) and Viet Nam (1978) became members of this organization.
The insertion of two Third World countries with ostensibly underdeveloped economies in a trade group dominated by European nations is a phenomenon that had some unintended consequences, among them the transfer of relatively inexpensive labor to European partners like East Germany, where the workforce could absorb thousands of young, not-so-skilled Cuban and Vietnamese workers to be integrated into some of the fast-growing industries, during the 1970s and ’80s.
The display table at the center of the room allows for the presentation of the artists’ books and their content. The titles for these books are as follows: “Taking Comfort. Insightful Wisdom from the Financial Papers of A.G. Muskeet” (2010–2014); “Heroes of Baikonur (The Cosmos Book)” (2009–2014); and “Dispatches from the War Zone” (2010–2014).
“Taking Comfort…” presents fragments of the work of the fictional character A. G. Muskeet (Vilnius, Lithuania, 1929 – Calabazar, Cuba, 2010), who is introduced as the first financial advisor to sign on to an official position in the revolutionary government formed in Cuba in 1959, after Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army took power from the previous administration. This book includes texts and images—mostly as charts displaying statistical and financial information—and is a newer version of an earlier work that was part of the exhibition “The End of Money,” curated by Juan A. Gaitán at the Witte de With Contemporary Art Center, Rotterdam in 2011.
“Heroes of Baikonur” is conceived as a collection of images —drawings, collages, photos, diagrams—and texts that refer to the space race and to the “Cuban Space Program,” in the context of some of the well-known space programs developed by the USA and the Soviet Union since the 1950s.
“Dispatches from the War Zone” is a look at history starting in the late 19th century with the collision of and old empire (Spain) and a younger one (USA) in the Caribbean, and continuing with the influence of Communist ideology, and of the Soviet Union in the shaping of the Cuban nation throughout the 20th century.
The second wall displays a drawing installation with a mural drawing in the background. . . . The mural image is based on a drawing from 2009 that compares a Soviet robot from the ‘70s, known as Lunokhod (“Moonwalker”), to one of the electric vehicles commonly used today in a golf range facility. There are more than 30 framed drawings on this wall, many of them were created working from existing images and documents that have helped to shape our views on history and historical characters from the second half of the 20th century.
Commerce is on view in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, one of four venues for the 8th Berlin Biennale. The Biennale runs through August 3, 2014.