Visitors interacting with The Beginning of the End, 2016, by Rachel Valdés
Courtesy Rachel Valdés

At 25, Rachel Valdés is an internationally successful artist. Her most recent installation,The Beginning of the End, Is on view through November 21 in the heart of New York’s Times Square. With its mirrored surfaces, Valdés’s work is a space where people can walk and look at themselves—a world within other worlds, which multiply in each reflection.

Valdés’s installations stand apart from the stereotypes and recurring themes in contemporary Cuban art. Contemplation, a sense of play, and a willingness to distort the environment are all integral aspects of her work. She insists on bringing art into everyday life, in the process providing a different sensory experience.

I recently spent an afternoon with Valdés in the Gran Manzana, talking about her creative obsessions, her devotion to painting—which continues alongside her installation work—and the possibilities presented by the re-established relations between the US and Cuba.

Rachel Valdés in her installation, The Beginning of the End, 2016, in Times Square
Photo: Lidia Hernández Tapia

Why “The Beginning of the End“?

“The beginning of the end” is a philosophical phrase I like so much. It gives the sense that whenever a story ends, something else begins. That idea of cyclic, infinite aspects is constant in my work. The piece is an object that delimits. It plays with borders, where the material world ends and the immaterial one begins. These two parallel worlds are constantly in our lives.

In my work I almost always create objects and elements that help viewers perceive reality in a different way. I create visual distortions, play with perspective, with optical illusions. I almost always create the object depending on the space where it will be.

I love creating that dialogue between the object, the essence of being, and space. It might be visual, spiritual, mental, or physical. Too, it is rather a unique sensory experience, which presents a different take on reality. It is like a kind of limbo, a landscape in reverse. It’s like a kaleidoscope.

A view of The Beginning of the End, 2016, by Rachel Valdés
Photo: Lidia Hernández Tapia

What was it like to create public art in New York?

This is the first time I’ve made a piece in the center of such a crowded and cosmopolitan city. It’s a challenge because it is very difficult to compete with the scale—visually speaking, it’s tough to do something that can be brought to that level. The buildings are so tall, the architecture is so impressive, and all the visuals are so strong. So I created a piece that distorts that architecture and creates an ambiguity in the parallel between the real and ideal worlds, the tangible and the intangible.

I always get inspired by specific spaces and create objects in response to the environment. But almost all of them reflect the space, and everything around the piece becomes part of the object. And vice versa. It’s a pretty interesting link.

How does your experience creating the work in Times Square compare to the installations you’ve done in Havana?

The best thing is to be able to create these public interventions in completely opposite spaces. The people and the atmospheres are different in Havana and New York, but in the end we are all human beings. We have similarities—feelings, patterns of sensitivity. These works have a universal character. But here in New York, it’s a shock. Because in terms of culture it is a very big country, with tremendous eclecticism.

Rachel Valdés, Cabo azúl (Blue Cube), 2015, installed on the Malecón during the 12th Havana Biennial

What do you enjoy most about siting your work in the thick of daily life, where anyone, art lover or not, can interact with it?

For me, the most enriching thing for me about making public interventions like this one is being able to decontextualize art and take it out of its habitual environment—bringing it to the people in the street. Any viewer has the same access and opportunity to view the piece. For me, it’s fascinating.

More than a specific response, I like diversity. You have to be very strong, because not everyone will like the work. But most of the time I see satisfaction in people’s faces. That pleases me. My goal is to give at least a second’s worth of unique feeling and visual experience.

I like when I see that surprise, that feeling of not knowing exactly what you’re seeing or where you are. The interesting thing is when people take the time to observe. Many times, they immediately start taking pictures on their phones.

Visitors interacting with The Beginning of the End, 2016, by Rachel Valdés
Photo: Lidia Hernández Tapia

The theme of reflection is almost constant in your installations. What have you learned about yourself from those works?

To be honest, it’s hard for me to approach those pieces or see them as if I hadn’t made them. I’m always in the position of the creator. Sometimes I’d like to take that aura away, but it’s difficult. I would like to have the sensation of entering and seeing the work for the first time, to see how I behave.

You first attracted public notice through your work in painting. How does your painting practice complement the installation work?

I’ve been trying to link that need to create scenarios and environments for a long time. I try to do it in the three-dimensional world, but also in the two-dimensional one—that is, in painting. I like to play with illusion, creating apparent depths on surfaces that are not. Lately, I have been working on these ideas in my paintings. I’ve recently done a more abstract painting series, where I create atmospheres and lightplay.

Rachel Valdés, Into the Space 7
Courtesy Rachel Valdés

What motivated the jump from painting to installation art?

The possibility of making installations on a large scale. I have always made installation since my student days at the San Alejandro Academy. I did very abstract things with crystals and mirrors, very symmetrical. But on a smaller scale.

But I haven’t left painting behind. For me, it’s the most sacred medium. That’s what I studied, and it’s always with me. It’s the only creative process I can do with my hands, and where I’m one with the work. It’s a very strong connection. With installations, I cannot produce them myself, with my own hands. I need a team to help me. It’s a different way of working. But for me, both are fundamental.

Sensory experience is an important aspect of your work. What are your sources of inspiration?

I take great inspiration in nature. I like to contemplate the environment. And it is interesting for me to create objects that explore our situation as physical beings within space. Humans look around them but seldom look at themselves in that environment. As a psychological experience it is interesting. One’s perspective can change when a person contemplates him- or herself.

Rachel Valdés, Happily Ever After, 2012, installed on the Malecón for the 11th Havana Biennial

Has the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States benefited you as an artist?

It is much more interesting that the peoples unite and begin to work in mutual, social, and cultural collaboration. It is rewarding to have the possibility to travel to a country, to know the culture, and then to return to your own and to bring a little of that essence. I think these changes favor us all, and that more barriers should be broken to create a more direct connection.

Thanks to all that, I am here. It is wonderful to show the world what is happening in Cuban art, or a Cuban artist`s concerns. It is not necessary to focus on topics and ideas related to social or migratory issues. You can talk about other things and remain Cuban.

You recently appeared in a music video with Marc Anthony and Gente de Zona. Will we see more work from you as an actress?

I like acting, because I see it as an experience that enriches me as a person. I always dream of living several lives simultaneously. It is utopian, but acting gives that possibility of being another person for a few seconds—making others believe that you are someone else. And why not? I wish I could do more interpretations in the cinematographic world. I wouldn’t say no.