When we spoke a few weeks before the opening of the 12th Havana Biennial, Glenda León confessed to being skeptical about her presentation in Cuba’s biggest visual arts event. There were still structural issues to resolve; even the venue wasn’t confirmed. But on May 24, the José Martí National Library welcomed Cada sonido es una forma del tiempo (Every Sound is a Shape of Time), a sound-concert project scored by León and performed by pianist Aldo López Gavilán.
“This is about a series of scores I’ve been creating since 2010, which have photography as their basis,” says Léon. “In them, you can see a window with raindrops, birds flying, leaves on the pavement, stars, the dots on a set of dice, or 130 names of gods of all the religions of the world. To each of these elements I overlaid an empty score, a pentagram. The most interesting thing is that I know nothing about music, and yet the concert itself is a work of art. The music comes from the image and not the other way around.” Appearing early in the schedule, the event was among the best in this year’s Biennial.
But music is hardly the only medium in which León makes an impression. In Las formas del instante, 2001, she made drawings from human hair arranged on bars of soap. Since then, she has conceived art as an instrument to create other—perhaps new—realities. “From those things that are used by the body or taken from it, becoming distasteful in the process—hair, soap, chewing gum—I create, for example, the sky, a tree, or abstract forms. Behind it all,”she says, “there’s a message: from a tiny thing you can make a whole universe.”
Habitat is another piece that reflects this concept, on a larger scale: an installation featuring a bed covered in a sheet photo-printed with loamy soil, pillow cases bearing images of large rocks, a bedspread of artificial grass, up against a wall depicting the sky. “A micro-world with the sky at the back, a vision that each of us in our own little world, in a room, is a projection of the entire earth. It’s a message of optimism—that with the bare minimum you can achieve great things. It’s almost like politics, because the piece conveys a message of transformation, something to do with that old conception of alchemy.”
When the talk turns to politics, I query Léon on this nuance in her work. I mention Sueño de Verano, 2010, and her intention to touch on the issue of the two shores, the exodus of Cubans to Miami and of course, the Cuba-United States relationship. I add that, to my mind, in this piece political allusions were secondary for her. “The relationship of this work with politics was very playful, an attempt to bring a more relaxed approach to all that stress, more like a game.” She adds: “All artists, if they are consistent in their work, somehow make politics. But to make politics explicitly, you have to be a politician. When artists try to do it they can fall into mediocrity, because they have no training for it and can get stuck halfway.”
So what are the themes and issues, I ask, that are never missing from your work?
“Interior silence,” she responds, “and human evolution, both mental and spiritual. Also beauty, and above all, the truth.”
From that starting point, how difficult it is to create other realities through art?
“I think the hardest thing is the production and execution of works,” León says. “Creating new realities is part of my daily life; it’s what is being projected as a continuation of the reality I see and experience. Perhaps this has to do also with a question I’ve been asked a lot: how long does it take for you to make a work of art? I always say that it takes my whole life. Each time someone asks, I calculate how old I am—and that’s the time it took to do it. Like all human beings, all the experiences of my life enrich me.”
I point out that the cross-disciplinary approach in contemporary art has favored Léon’s work—for example, the overlap of music and art.
“I think I have the whole gamut of media and techniques in my favor,” she responds, “although I started my training with painting, and I do things in paper and ink. But yes, it’s very important to have on hand all the other media and art forms—the experience of having been a dancer, the music, having studied art history. All this is very natural to me. The idea comes first, then I choose the medium. The most important thing is that people approach my work without prejudice and with their own inner silence; some works have very subtle details. It is also good to know something about Nietzsche and Gastón Bachelard, writers I feel close to.”
At fifteen, León held a book by Nietzsche in her hands for the first time; from this, she would fall in love with philosophy. That primary education is still felt in her work, as well as the experience provided by her degree in art history. “I think the basis of my career has been to understand the evolution of art history, and also be up to date with contemporary trends. Although it is impossible to know everything, I think the information is indispensable for any artist—otherwise, you’re bound to repeat things. The theoretical part opened me up to an entire universe, the postmodern and the performative.”
The answers that León found through her studies were the basis of her graduation thesis, which was published as a book, La condición performática (The Performative Condition). It’s a title she may have never dreamed of in her early years, when she first studied ballet and fell in love with music—an element that is now rarely absent from her work, and is helpful is understanding the universe to be transformed.
“I try to see as much contemporary art as I can,” says Léon. “I criticize those scholars and curators who choose artworks that have already been seen, or legitimize an artist who is not doing anything new. I try to always maintain my own style, stay up to date and read poetry, watch films and ballet, listen to music…”
On your own terms, I ask, do you see art as something for a limited audience? That it doesn’t matter how the public perceives your work?
“Quite the opposite. If I did not care what people feel or think when they see my work,” she says, “I’d show it in a room for myself and not let anyone else in. The more people connect to the message I’m trying to express, the happier I’ll be. That’s the motive behind my work.”
León continues: “I think there is a sensory blindness, and city life makes us part of it, very subtly. Maybe someone from the country, who is a little more distant from the bustle, is more connected with the physical senses. The meaning of my work comes from that—to broaden the senses, the human sensibility, against the stresses of daily life.”
Here, the video made from the May 24th performance of Cada sonido es una forma del tiempo(Every Sound is a Shape of Time).