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When art raises the bar


Art is no stranger to alcohol. Van Gogh was a fan of absinthe or the green fairy as were many Parisian artists of the time. Goan artist Francis Newton Souza had a tempestuous relationship with wine and women. And these days the whole experience of art viewing at fairs and galleries has become happier with a glass in hand. In fact, if museums were to allow one to gaze on masterpieces with a full-bodied Malbec in hand, it would be safe to say that they wouldn't be complaining about the lack of visitors.

The art installation that was one of the highlights of Miami Art Basel earlier this week literally overflowed with people, with crowds clamouring for entry and having to cool their well-shod heels on the wooden deck outside. The egg-shaped wooden bar was the work of famed Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros who called it the G?iro after a Cuban percussion instrument made from the dried shell of a gourd. In Cuban slang, the word also connotes a party.

And what a party it hosted. Glowing seductively in the dark on the Miami oceanfront, the installation witnessed an intersection of art, music and alcohol. The structure itself is made of intersecting vertical and horizontal ribs. "A masterpiece of German engineering, " joked Vadim Grigorian, global project leader of the Absolut Art Bureau since the actual construction of the work happened in Cologne.

G?iro was presented by the Absolut Art Bureau, which also sponsored the Art Basel Miami fair. Absolut was active in arts sponsorship in the '80s and '90s and is now marking its return to the art world with collaborations such as this one.
Architecture has always fascinated the Cuban artist duo of Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodr?guez who even called themselves The Carpenters (Los Carpinteros) because they liked the reference to craft and hand tools. "Architecture defines our relationship with Havana (the city where they grew up). After the revolution, Havana hasn't seen any good buildings. Instead the functionality of the old ones has changed because of necessity. For instance, a police station has been turned into a school, " says Dago, the only one who made it to Miami. Castillo didn't get a visa.

Even the G?iro is functional for its centre is taken over by a bartender who serves drinks designed in consultation with the artist. "That was the fun part, " laughs Dago. Of the three drinks on offer one was a "healthy" concoction of vodka, orange and carrot juice, ginger and coriander. Also on the menu were a Clove Sour (vodka, lemon and cloves) and Telegram (vodka, chili and spicy salt). It also served as a backdrop for a musical performance by Mallorcan composer Joan Valent who used the G?iro, the musical instrument, to good effect.

"We like the fact that our art has become a useful object and it's not just symbolic. Everyone wants to touch it and at night, it glows like a lamp, " says Dago, who lives in Madrid but travels frequently to Havana.

The notion of migration and the perpetual migratory state of modern existence is also a theme that Los Carpinteros have tackled. In a work that showed at the Havana Biennial in 2000 and travelled to the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art in 2001, the collective literally created a movable city. Titled Transportable City, it consisted of a tented city with 10 "buildings". Each building represented an important institution such as a school, a church, a warehouse |and a prison.

The G?iro is also inspired by a model prison designed by social theorist Jeremy Bentham which envisioned central surveillance without the inmates realising it. Cuba has one such prison and Fidel Castro was held there between 1953 and 1955.

Dago says the duo became interested in panopticon prisons and the idea of control some years ago. "Initially, we made a panopticon library. The person standing at its centre would get equal access to every book. " For the Miami project, the concept was reconfigured to make it a bar with the bartender at the centre. From the outside looking in through the wooden slats one almost feels like a voyeur. On the inside, it's as if you're in your own world with only tiny windows to give you a glimpse of the life outside.

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