Slideshow: Cuban Artist Roberto Diago at Santa Fe Art Institute
Day before yesterday a friend who spent many years living in Brazil remarked, as I was extracting something from its superfluous wrappers, “In Brazil theyd hand it to you bare.” Bare. The word struck me for its bald economy, an apt prelude to Roberto Diagos installation at Santa Fe Art Institute. Utopia (2008) salvages materials instantly recognizable as excess packaging, for art of an essentially metaphysical kind.
What you see as you enter the doorway of Diagos installation is a small village of birdhouses hanging and floating in basins, set on the floor, that have been filled with water. The birdhouses are cut of styrofoam. Their roofs are of corrugated metal or scrap metal pressed in upside down vs over the white plastic. The basins are also “found objects”: a banana company logo is stamped on the bottom of one; others suggest livestock feed bins, or human wash bins, or anything put to new use in a world where one persons extra is anothers essential.
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Is “utopia” then code for a society achieved from a thrift of castoffs? And just as castoffs in turn suggest the like-word, castaways, consider “utopia” as so many birdhouses afloat — each on its own private safe sea. With a childhood rhyme (rub a dub, bird in a tub) flicking at the edge of consciousness, the bird houses — empty, after all — seem ominous, as if to suggest that this “utopia”is a post-animist one, bereft of life, if life can be read, through songless birdhouses, as having been extinguished by environmental or other catastrophe. So we have, next to the aural suggestion of paradise, an infernal redundancy of flown-coops, nevertheless perfect in their quietude. Silence meets occupation as a set of uneasy contrast-pairings that make logos and image connect. Mainly as I walked the floor amid all these birdhouses I thought how rarely my house touches the neighbors, metaphorically and literally. As we seek to see one another we encounter isolation.
Diagos Utopia constituted, materials-wise, six crates worth of the art objects that arrived at National Hispanic Cultural Center from the Nuevo Laredo border, for the Confluencias II show of new art from Cuba. There was not room at NHCC in Albuquerque to show it all, so SFAI has become a partner in exposing more of this art in New Mexico. Unveiled here in Santa Fe, the installation for all its hermetic confinement marks a trampoline of ideas that takes its fragile yet antiseptic packaging — styrofoam, corrugated, plastic and tin — and lays bare ruminations on habitation, escape, community, air, water, the necessary, the marginal, the ambiguousness of survival.