Juan Andrés Milanés Benito: Form and Content
Hilde Mørch / Kunsthistorisk Prosjektsenter
What we think we see is not always what it actually is. Just like what is said is not always true or said with honest intentions. When encountering the art of Cuban-Norwegian Juan Andrés Milanés Benito, reflections such as these starts churning. He uses his art to cast critical light on the copies the world is flooded with today, and he creates sculptures and installations that appear completely different than what they actually are.
We need both courage and critical sense to orient ourselves in, and to interpret, the world and the society of which we are a part, to distinguish between form and content, true and false, the real and the counterfeit. We need a good dose of self-examination, intuition, and, not least, honesty about ourselves. In its essence, Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s art is both searching and critical. He works with many techniques, among others, sculpture, installation, performance, video and painting, using a great deal of time to explore and experiment with highly diverse materials. The form is usually figurative, and the contrast between the often beautifully treated surfaces and the rough expression tells stories about the society and world around us. In addition, the works are usually executed in a size that almost causes the room they are in to ‘explode’. We immediately ask: What could they be made of, and how was it possible to install them in the exhibition space? His sculptures and installations can have a striking and confusing resemblance to a swimming pool, parts of a church façade, a ruin, a streetlamp, a hydraulic excavator or just its digging arm, a sink, a forklift or a car. His paintings often have subject matter from his installations, for instance church ruins or facades. That said, he also creates relatively abstract and conceptual installations with less specific themes.
The Cuban philosopher José Martí1 (1863–1895) is considered the intellectual inspiration for Cuba’s War of Independence.2 In an essay from 1891, he wrote the following: “What should be needed is not the form of things, but their spirit. What matters is what is real, not what is seeming. In politics, what is real is what cannot be seen.”3
In other words: It is not always what we see or what is said that is true and represents reality. What is NOT said or seen, however, is often true. Many people have completely different objectives than those they claim to have; they are therefore quite different from what they present themselves as. Furthermore, products are not always what they are advertised as. We are flooded by pirated copies that can pose great risks to health and safety. The world wants to be deceived, many claim, and it is. We are tricked more and more all the time. To cut to the core, we need experience, intuition and a good dose of critical sense. We must use all our faculties of sense to interpret the people and reality around us. What is real and what is not? What is genuine and what is not? What is true and what false? Answering questions such as these require communication and authenticity, the very essence of interpersonal relationships. Misinterpretation, lies and counterfeiting can have catastrophic consequences in human relationships, in politics and when using products and goods. Juan Andrés Milanés Benito deals with all these themes in his art.
Throughout Modernism, artists, perhaps most of all the avantgarde, have engaged with this constellation of themes. The French-American Dadaist and Conceptualist Marcel Duchamp wrote himself into art history when he exhibited a porcelain urinal on a pedestal, entitled it “Fountain” and signed it “R. Mutt”. This was at the Armory Show in New York in 1917. The pseudonym alludes to the German word armut (poverty) and reflects on the state of contemporary art as Duchamp saw it. He wanted to give everyday, mass-produced objects the status of art by placing them in an art context. He wanted to criticize the traditional elevated status of works of art. “Fountain” was so provocative that Duchamp removed it shortly after the exhibition opened. He used readymade objects and a good dose of humour to mix art with mundane culture, and he ended up creating a work that became one of the most discussed in the history of art. It has remained a reference work for conceptual art – for artists who set the idea above or in front of the execution. As I see it, this also characterises the core of Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s artistic practice.
READYMADES THAT HAVE BEEN MADE
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s sculptures can initially appear as readymades: everyday objects that become works of art by virtue of being exhibited in a gallery or other type of exhibition space. This they are not. The artist describes his works as readymades he himself has made. By making objects that can be confused with real objects, he turns the readymade tradition on its head. The copied objects, however, have different meanings for different people, all depending on the social environment, geographic location, country of origin, and so forth. Everyday things that can be of great value and significance for people from one culture can be insignificant to others. Juan Andrés Milanés Benito also explores the ways in which we perceive objects differently in a gallery room than if we see them in the context where they were originally meant to be.
The work “CW” included in his solo exhibition Mind the Gap (2013, Hå Gamle Prestegård, Jæren), is
a good example of how a work changes meaning when it is removed from its original context, and at the same time, changes the space in which it is presented. When a sink-like sculpture comes so close
to resembling an ordinary sink, we perhaps do not ask “Why is a sink in an art gallery?”, but “Why has the gallery been turned into a room with a sink?” Milanés Benito, when describing his own works, calls them “surreal and dislocated happenings that seem otherworldly, yet which could exist in this world”; he adds that his performances “evoke a feeling or notion of the absurd”.4
Three themes are of great interest to Juan Andrés Milanés Benito: cultural differences, the individual’s many roles, and the counterfeit industry. He has developed both a formal and a conceptual language that is immediate and personal. He uses visual fakes to emphasise cultural differences and the collective global memory. Furthermore, his works invite viewers to read their own stories into them. His primary theme, however, is the counterfeit culture that has infested the world, but which is almost invisible to most of us. This pertains to the goods we purchase, the jobs we do and why – and, not least, safety in our homes, which is very much at risk. The counterfeit industry has grown enormously in the last 20 years and is now wold-wide. It has grown hand-in-hand with capitalism, globalisation and international trade – yet without people probably being aware of the ethics involved. Far more serious than counterfeit shoes, handbags and telephones are knockoff aeroplane parts, automobile parts and medicines. Once these enter circulation, they can result in death and tragedy.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito was born in 1978 on Isla de la Juventud,5 the second-largest of Cuba’s islands. He completed a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the school Escuela Wifredo Lam (1996), also on the island. He had heard of the ‘American dream’ since childhood, but as time passed, began to see it more as a nightmare than as a dream Cubans longed to realise.
After graduation, he soon started exhibiting his works. In 2003, at only 25 years of age, he presented an installation at a central intersection in Casco Viejo in Panama City. It was made of 150 blocks of ice. In the space of a few hours, before the ice melted, the city’s inhabitants were invited to participate in a winter activity, even though the thermometer registered almost 30°C. The performance dealt with several themes, among others, global warming and the problem of the dichotomy between wealth and poverty. In Panama, there is a great discrepancy between the poor and the rich. One manifestation of this is that air conditioning exists in wealthier neighbourhoods but is rare in poor areas. In Panama City, Juan Andrés Milanés Benito presented his work next to that of the Brazilian Cildo Meireles, a conceptual artist who has since come to mean a great deal to him. Meireles’ works are often themed on resisting political suppression. They are also often made in large formats that invite public interaction. In Norway, Juan Andrés Milanés Benito presented another performance many years later, in 2011. For “Walking with My Pet”, he walked around carrying a 1:1 copy of the arm of a hydraulic digger over his shoulder. The weight of a real digger arm is so great that it would be impossible to carry, but it was possible to do with the 1:1 copy. It became a metaphor for a person’s capacity to dig into history to gain knowledge and insight.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito became critical of Cuba’s authorities and politics early in his career. This bore consequences. He could live in Cuba, but it was difficult, if not impossible, to work as an artist.
After being invited to exhibit his works internationally, in Panama and Denmark, he eventually left Cuba. In 2005 a friend from Bergen incited him to travel across the ocean – to Norway. He arrived at 27 years of age, without financial means, and started living as a homeless person – spending the nights in Oslo’s central train station. Already that same year he presented his first solo show in Norway, entitled In a Straight Line from My Face to My Back. It was held at the African cultural centre in Oslo, Senter for Afrikansk Kulturformidling. The exhibition consisted of an American car made of metal, and it was home to a live rat throughout the exhibition. The work could be interpreted as a critical comment on the many years of US influence in Cuba, not only before Fidel Castro ruled the country, but also during his rule and now after his death. The rat could symbolise life and optimism, whatever is worthy of criticism in Castro’s communism, or feisty interference from the USA.
A few years later he was accepted as a master’s degree student at Oslo National Academy of the Arts, also receiving a study grant. He completed the programme in 2009. Already in 2008, he debuted at Norway’s national annual juried exhibition Høstutstillingen. His contribution was entitled “The Route”: a monumental sculpture made of approximately 1,600 shoes he had collected. Shaped like a copy of a 1959 Chevrolet, it stood as a symbol of the Cuban Revolution and rebellion against the USA. The sculpture also referred to the help which never materialised from the North after Hurricane Katrina ploughed across Cuba in 2005. At the school’s master’s degree exhibition at Stenersen Museum in 2009, he presented the video installation “In a Straight Line from My Face to My Back”. This work involved participation from homeless people he had met on the streets of Oslo. He presented a series of rucksack sculptures filled with original and real things – not counterfeits – symbolising that it is difficult to create illusions about being homeless. At the same time, the sculptures were practical solutions to the challenges one meets when living as a homeless person. Since then, he has worked primarily with themes related to authenticity and the counterfeit industry.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito is an energetic artist with a great capacity for work. It did not take long for him to become part of the Norwegian art milieu – a milieu that by the late 2010s was far more international than ever before. And – after completing his master’s degree, it was as if exhibition opportunities were handed to him on a platter. In 2010 he presented his second solo show, Party at the Funeral at Galleri 69 in Oslo. After this, he was added to the select few represented by Galleri Riis in Oslo,6 one of the capital’s decidedly best and most important galleries. His first exhibition there was in 2011.
ABOUT BEING EXCLUDED, ARTISTIC PRACTICE AND CUBA’S HISTORY
The experience of growing up in multi-faceted Cuba has indelibly marked Juan Andrés Milanés Benito and his art. The island nation – so erroneously romanticised by so many – represents a nodal point in world history. It symbolizes the Cold War arms race and the great political differences between North America and Latin America. The Cubans’ need to build a sense of self and self-confidence with Fidel Castro and Che eventually congealed into a dictatorship. It became something like a painful straightjacket. Since 1959 the country has been a socialist republic, a one-party state, one of the few countries that still maintains a certain plan-based economy. The USA’s embargo on Cuba,
a consequence of Castro’s new government nationalising American property after the revolution, resulted in Cuba allying itself with the Soviet Union. Since the USA long refused to trade with Cuba,7 even after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the island nation has suffered great financial problems. Nevertheless, it is difficult for many people not to think of Ernest Hemingway, diversity, music and rhythms when the topic of Cuba arises.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito is concerned about the problem of exclusion and seeks equality, openness and honesty in what he does. Counterfeits, lies and deceit are abhorrent to him. He tries to ‘drill’ into things, see under the surface, under the form, get to the core, to what life and art actually are about. What is it really that is happening in society and between people? What is real and what is a mirage? It is difficult to see his artistic practice independently of Cuba’s history. He has felt exclusion in both Cuba and Norway – first as one who spoke against the authorities, then as homeless.
The titles of his earlier exhibitions testify to his strong social awareness and involvement in issues related to Cuba, its development and future. We make due to mention It ́s What You See (Bærum Kunsthall, Fornebu 2015), Extraction of the Stone of Madness (De Fabriek, Einhoven, NL 2015), Mind the GAP (Hå gamle prestegard, Jæren 2013), Analysis Sanity (Örebro Konsthall, Sweden 2012),8 Speed Is Proportional to Forgetfulness (Galleri Riis, Oslo 2011), La velocidad es directamente proporcional al olvido (One Night Only Gallery, Oslo 2005), In a Straight Line from My Face to My Back (Senter for Afrikansk Kulturformidling, Oslo 2005).
When encountering Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s art, I often think of H.C. Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.9 This is because it deals with eternally relevant and layered themes, for instance about how difficult it is to believe what one sees and to defend it, also about daring to speak out on important issues about which others remain silent. We easily let ourselves be blinded by forms and beautiful surfaces, both of people and things. Sometimes we choose to believe a story – perhaps for fear of sticking out in the crowd, appearing stupid or incompetent, or simply because group pressure is too strong. In the fairy tale, this problem affects both the emperor and all the sycophants around him. I cannot refrain from thinking that if social scientists today were to analyse the fairy tale, they would not be able to plumb its depths. Perhaps an artist is needed for that.
Some years later, in 2014, he exhibited the installation “Extractions of the Stone of Madness” at Akershus Art Center in Lillestrøm. This was on the occasion of the large group exhibition 1814 Revisited – The Past Is Still Present,10 organized as one of many events marking the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. The curators asked questions about democracy, politics, freedom of expression, equality and racism in today’s society. Juan Andrés Milanés Benito presented two installations which were copies of two fragments from the façade of St. Paul’s Church in Grünerløkka in Oslo. One of these filled an entire room, up to the ceiling. The enormous work was an elegant comment on the relation between permanence and fragility: nothing is carved in stone, not even monumental architecture, and important values such as democracy and justice can quickly collapse like a house of cards, if we stop fighting for them. The work also pointed to the church’s role in society, the meaning that religion has for many people. In this way, the work became a starting point for dialogue and thoughts about religion’s place in society. Given that this sculpture almost reached to the ceiling, it could be interpreted as implying that religion has too large a place in society today. The back side of both installations, however, clearly divulged their materials and how they were made, thus clarifying that they were copies. Differences between reality and illusion are a hair’s breadth.
HANDICRAFT AND MATERIALS
A deep respect and awareness of handicraft and materials characterises Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s works. He labours long and hard on each one. It is also important for him to know the story behind the materials he uses. When painting pictures, he usually uses acrylic on canvas. When creating sculptures and installations, he sometimes chooses to let the materials be untreated and obvious, or he can remove evidence of the materials he has used. He therefore makes a kind of counterfeit, a type of “fake readymade” that teases and challenges us as viewers.
Many of the sculptures and installations are made with Styrofoam, a moisture-resistant material with insulating properties. It was first used in US Coast Guard life rafts in 1942. Consisting of 98% air, the material cannot sink. Other materials the artist uses include epoxy resin, glass fibre, plastic and paint.
GALLERI RIIS IN OSLO
Juan Andrés Melanes Benito has held two exhibitions at Galleri Riis in Oslo, first in 2011 and then in 2017. For the first exhibition, titled Speed Is Directly Proportional to Forgetfulness, he exhibited a full- size copy of an hydraulic excavator. It lay on the floor, brutally toppled over with the cabin windows shattered. He himself said about the work: “I am creating structures with the help of my memories, perhaps even the collective memory.”11
His second exhibition at Galleri Riis, Microwave for One, consisted of three sculptures and installations inspired by Sonia Allison’s cookbook title Microwave for One (The Book Services Ltd., 1987). The exhibition powerfully conveyed some unsettling and foreboding circumstances in various places in the world today, most of all in Cuba. The works were few and forceful. In the gallery space, viewers were confronted with a massive, overturned concrete structure with protruding steel reinforcement bars – perhaps something demolished in a storm.12 Walking around the structure, however, viewers discovered it was a swimming pool turned on its side, completely intact except for a few missing tiles. Apparently it had been ripped out of the ground and installed in Galleri Riis. The pool was relatively small, but as a sculpture in a modest gallery space, it seemed enormous. The rusted pool ladder and loosened and peeling deep-blue tiles hinted that the pool had not been used for a long time. The installation suggested a ruin from Cuba’s past, but also a glimpse into its future. The pool can also be perceived as symbolizing class privilege. In this sense it functions as well today as in 1959, after the revolution, when private swimming pools were destroyed and filled with earth. On the floor of the pool, the spaces where tiles are missing allegedly create a graph showing unemployment statistics in Europe during the three years in which he worked on the sculpture (2013–16).
The artist also presented the installation “The Treasure Room”. This was a long and narrow corridor with an alarm system. It sluiced the public into an empty room, but the alarm was not triggered until the public passed back through the corridor on their way out. An obvious and important reference for this work is the American Bruce Nauman’s famous “Green Light Corridor” (1970, Guggenheim Museum, NYC). Nauman’s art has been a source of inspiration for the Cuban artist ever since he attended secondary school, back when there was no Internet and only limited information about the international artworld. He still remembers the powerful experience of seeing a book about Nauman. It was in Spanish and had been given to him by a friend from Mexico. Even if influence from Nauman’s psychological-visual universe is not all that apparent in Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s art, he certainly has studied the American’s conceptual works carefully.
The exhibition’s third work, “Chroma Key”, consisted of different skin bleaching ointments displayed on a sheet of blue photographic carton. The idea for this work emerged after Juan Andrés Milanés Benito visited Togo’s capital Lomé. While there, he saw large billboards advertising strong bleaching agents for dark skin. The pictures were shocking and racist: an unhappy woman with dark skin was juxtaposed with a happy woman with bleached skin. The installation expressed a strong internalised control that literally gets under one’s skin. In addition, the work referred to a post-production technique used to edit special effects on film and TV.
With his background from Cuba, Juan Andrés Milanés Benito has always oriented himself beyond
his immediate environment. He is an international artist, and the forms, techniques and themes of his works have great potential to be meaningful to many people in different countries and from different levels of society. As well as being inspired by the already-mentioned Bruce Nauman and Cildo Meireles, he has absorbed impulses from the Russian painter and art theorist Kasimir Malevich, a pioneer within geometrical abstract art and one of the most important members of the Russian avantgarde in the early 1900s. Other sources of inspiration are works by the German Wolf Vostell, who creates paintings, sculptures and happenings with elements of violence and destruction.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s first solo exhibition in Sweden, Analysis Sanity, was at Örebro Konsthall in 2012. It featured seven forklift sculptures cast in epoxy, glass fibre and plastic. They were mounted atop a group of clothes-drying racks. It was absurd to see what appeared to be heavy iron machines placed atop flimsy racks. Several of these works were also exhibited at Bærum Kunsthall at Fornebu, near Oslo, in the exhibition It’s What You See in 2015. The Örebro show, however, was not the first time he exhibited in Sweden. Already in 2009, the year he completed his master’s degree, he was invited to participate in OpenART in Örebro, along with a few fellow students from Oslo National Academy of the Arts.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito has continued to work internationally. Recent exhibitions include If Stones Could Talk (Neues Kunstforum, Colon, 2016) and Extraction of the Stone of Madness (De Fabriek, Eindhoven, 2015).
It is difficult not to be affected when encountering Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s works. They are aesthetic, their crafting is superb, and they often contain a political barb. The combination of the often beautiful, sensorial surfaces and the strong and raw themes triggers associations and reflections that do something to us as viewers. It almost becomes impossible to avoid a process of reflection – and all the layers that are eventually revealed. What we think we see is not always what it actually is, and what we hear is not always true. It is a matter of form and content – interrelated. It is about looking, about seeing the aesthetics of things, but most of all about the constant need to question what we see, hear, perceive and experience. There is always more than one side to an issue. If we are ambivalent and inattentive, if we are uncritical and do not question the life and society around us, we will be easy prey for manipulation.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito has thus justifiably distinguished himself in the Norwegian art landscape, and there are several other artists working with related themes, among others, the accomplished Norwegian drawer Christian Messel,13 even though his drawings have a completely different expression.
Juan Andrés Milanés Benito points beyond the beauty of surfaces – through creating copies of mass- produced things. The sculptures and installations manifest his deep knowledge of crafts and materials while also making us aware of the counterfeit medicines, electronics, clothing and so forth flooding our consumer society, and how uncritical we are as consumers. His works reflect on the times in which we live, not only in form but also in materials and content. With their entire expression, they trigger our awareness and question us as viewers: Do we allow ourselves to be fooled by “the emperor’s new clothes”?