Reality is seldom what it seems

Most people will have experienced the astonishment one feels when you discover that what you see is something else than what you think. That is the core of Juan Andres Milanes Benito’s invitation. He makes real art that let us contemplate over reality and experience fakes and counterfeit culture.

When you enter an exhibition gallery with one of Milanes Benito’s sculptures, most probably you will think you are looking at a “readymade”. That is an object from the real world that is transported into the gallery space and thus becomes an object of art. In that capacity, its appearance is given a critical function. The most famous readymade is “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal that Marcel Duchamp tried to exhibit in 1917. Later on, this method has become such an ordinary way of creating art that one can discuss how effective it is. But in Milanes Benito’s case, I think there is more to it than a simple yes or no.

The first time I saw one of his works, I was trapped. It took several minutes and intense investigation before I realized that the Caterpillar Excavator (a digging machine) was a fake 1:1 copy of the real thing. It was lying on its side with broken windows, and this realistic effect contributed to my confusion. But I started wondering when I discovered that the project room of the Oslo-gallery Riis was far too small in order to get the digging machine into the gallery in one piece. I was impressed, and even after I had found out that it was “just” a copy I continued to investigate the object. I got more and more impressed, and I used a considerable amount of time before I left.

It would have stopped with that – just being impressed –
if I hadn’t encountered another of his sculptures a few years later. This time the sculptural installation “Extraction of the Stone of Madness” imitated two fragments from the façade of a church in Gothic Revival style. They were exhibited in a small gallery at Akershus Art Centre in Lillestrøm, close to Norway’s capital Oslo, and one of the two sculptures seemed to touch the ceiling. But this time I was not fooled in the same way: The construction with its plastic materials was exposed on the sculpture’s backside.

The fine line between truth and illusion is just one thing when it comes to Milanes Benito’s art. A more important thing about the sculptural installation is the connotations it gives to ideas about the Church’s role in society and the importance of religion in most people’s lives. As the sculpture nearly touches the roof one might add that it proposes that religion takes too much space in society.

Another significant aspect comes into mind when you get to know that the sculpture was part of the exhibition “1814 Revisited – The past is still present”. It was put together as part of the 200 year jubilee celebration of the Norwegian constitution, and the organizers wanted to raise questions about democracy, politics and freedom of speech, equality and racism – just to mention a few of the issues that could be discussed based on the works of art in the exhibition. Suddenly a plastic imitation of a piece of architecture becomes a starting point for thoughts and dialogues about important questions in any society.

When the functionality of an object becomes useless you might think that there is no point to it other than aesthetics. If that is the case you ignore the human mind’s capacity to fantasize, reflect and discuss. If you search Milanes Benito’s earlier works, you will find a lot of objects, installations and performances that
feeds the mind. One example is his simple ice rink in Panama (2003) that was built of approximately 150 large blocks of ice. It was placed in the town’s central square, and for a few hours, before the ice melted, it allowed a part of the population to enjoy a winter activity despite the fact that the thermometer read 30 degrees centigrade that afternoon.

Of course it was a lot of fun, for both children and grown-ups. But the ice rink also points towards a bundle of issues, like global warming, wealth versus poverty and the struggle of daily life. One simple fact illustrates the dilemma: All the rich families living on Panama’s main street have air condition in order to
survive the intense heat of the sub-tropical country.

In connection to this it is interesting to look at another of Milanes Benito’s performances, called “Walking my pet” (2011), where he in a Norwegian street carried a shuffle from an excavator on his shoulder. The real thing weighs so much that it is impossible for a human being to lift it, but when the 1:1 model is treated in this manner it becomes a metaphor for man’s capacity to dig into the knowledge and historical incidents of our common history.

At the same time it has some importance that it is Juan Andres Milanes Benito who is carrying the shuffle. Because he is a Cuban artist living in Norway the performance also raises the question of race and discrimination. Being one of the richest countries in the world, the western country Norway is the lucky part of an uneven, global distribution of wealth. Milanes Benito has been living in Norway since 2005, lured here by a friend who was living in Bergen, Norway’s second biggest town.

In Cuba he was oppressed by the police because he was critical to the Government. As a result, he could live there, but not work as an artist. He left Cuba after having been invited to exhibit in Panama and Denmark, and when he came to Norway he started off by sleeping in the train station of Oslo. He was homeless. Later on, he was accepted at the National Academy of Arts in Oslo, and he got a grant that covered his living expenses.

Therefore – since he has a concrete experience of being on the outside of society, both in Cuba and Norway – it is an action of great impact when he in 2009 made the performance-video and sculptural installation “In a straight line from my face to my back”. Here he involved homeless people he found in the streets of Oslo, and the backpack-sculptures he made were practical solutions to the challenges you meet when you are forced to live on the outside of society.

In these backpacks, there are no counterfeit objects, only real things. There are no illusions to being homeless. But, on the other hand, the counterfeit industry is a multibillion industry that causes bigger problems than stealing the profit from luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Counterfeit drugs take hundreds, if not thousands of lives every year. And it is said that approximately 30 percent of the American President’s private airplane consists of counterfeit parts. Both these examples are life-threatening hazards of modern day society.

If I should try to summarize the experiences Juan Andres Milanes Benito’s art have taught me, it is the one fact that you always should question what you see, hear and experience. There are always – at least – two sides to every issue, and if you don’t question the reality you are an easy object for manipulation. Milanes Benito’s art gives you an opening for critical reflection, or as he has put it himself: “The end of something is the beginning of something else.”

Lars Elton

Lars Elton (born 1957) is a Norwegian freelance journalist, critic and editor. He is the art critic of the Oslo-based newspapers Dagsavisen and VG, and writes about art and culture in different magazines and publications.