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Yoan Capote

Tanya Barson

The fundamental contacts, transactions and exchanges involved in human relations are the basis for Yoan Capote’s work, whether these are based in fiscal or emotional economies, or driven by necessity or desire.  His works can be seen as constituting a lexicon of psychological states, his major themes and concerns being drawn from his overarching interest in fathoming the depths of individual subjectivity. On the one hand, his works examine sensibilities inspired by personal relationships (including love, jealousy, longing, grief, claustrophobia) and, on the other, those grounded in the impacts of political or social structures upon individual experience and daily life (stress, fear, isolation, paranoia, cooperation, conviviality).  Utilising allegory and visual puns as universalising devices, Capote creates sculptures which, while they relate to the immediate context of their making – Cuba during the ‘special’ economic period and subsequent post-Fidel era in which Raul Castro has initiated limited relaxations of state controls, are not restricted solely to this framework or milieu.  Equally, although the works often have an autobiographical impetus or observation behind them, they are abstracted from any specific experience or detail to become reflective of the human condition in general.  Thus, they eschew solipsism, privileging instead psycho-social associations.

In a career that now spans more than a decade, Capote has produced a body of work that encompasses a variety of processes and materials but which is grounded in the practice of sculpture.  His work combines aspects of Duchampian neo-conceptualism with post-minimalist figuration inspired by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys. And yet, he also returns to the example of earlier twentieth century modernist artists, and in particular to Surrealism, as the basis for an adaptable sculptural vocabulary. At the same time, surreal eroticism, the pull and push of desire and the potential threat to subjectivity inherent in this oscillation, has become an important theme within Capote’s work. Another of Capote’s key influences is Constantin Brancusi, whose pared-down modernist figuration provides a model for sculptures which are also grounded in a sensitivity to the sensuous qualities of materials such as wood, stone or bronze.  Following the examples of Brancusi and Bourgeois, Capote’s work is characterised by a preference for somewhat traditional material processes such as carving and casting, though this is combined with a willingness to use less customary materials such as rubber or organic substances including bone.  This seems to be as much, if not more, to do with a general comfort with material hybridity, than with the need to improvise with the materials that are available in a context of relative scarcity.  Moreover, these materials and processes are put to the service of an absolutely contemporary sensibility, addressing dilemmas and questions of existence rooted in the here and now.

While Capote does address the impact of political controls and power structures, his work nevertheless avoids overt pamphleteering or campaigning in favour of a more discrete and sophisticated deployment of metaphor.  Works such as Self-portrait (Each one of us) 2002-8, set up disturbing tableaux, which emphasise the fragility of the human body and its condition of daily struggle.  In this work, seemingly fragile human leg bones support three blocks of concrete; although they are rooted in a fourth block of concrete, the work establishes a dissonance through the exposure of the bones, the disproportion of their narrowness and apparent insufficiency to support the blocks above.  The combination of materials, warm brown bronze which contrasts with the stark, brutal concrete, plays up an evocation of the abject and bodily in opposition to the sterile and industrial.  Yet the bones and concrete are placed in a condition of suspended animation, suggesting both the probability of violence that has occurred, which the combination of these elements seems to evidence, and of imminent disaster as we anticipate the bones crushed by the weight of the blocks.  What results is an image of life lived in a state of perpetual stress and resistance, of past, present and future aggressive violations.  This work relates to an earlier piece named Stress 2004, in which regular modules of concrete are interspersed with a band of bronze cast from a mould of the artists’ clenched teeth.  In both, balance or equilibrium is made inherently problematic and disturbing.  Moreover, bodily parts combined with or encased in concrete has more widely known, sinister connotations.

Capote uses both bodily fragmentation and anthropomorphosis – of domestic objects and situations – to address the relationship of our bodies to the world around us.  His works engage with both the pathos and the humour of living together.  For instance, Married 2004 consists of two pairs of ordinary footwear, men’s shoes and women’s sandals, however one of each pair is in the process of metamorphosis, stretching to join and morph into one another.  Such works evince both an apprehension about the dissolution of identity, though viewed with a keen sense of the absurd, but also express the proximity and unity acquired through marriage.  Meanwhile, a work such as Secret (so much to say) 2006-8 encapsulates the condition of concealed information exchange, of anxiety related to the open expression of true opinions as well as interpersonal relationships and the basic need for (private or intimate) communication.  In what appears to be a model or device for a scientific experiment, but one whose precise function evades us, a glass tube is plugged at either end with a rubber stopper, the inner end of which incorporates the form of a human ear.  Such works go beyond the more literal anthropomorphism of sculptures such as Married.  Here the artist presents the impossibility of communication within a given structure; two ears, perfectly mirroring one another, listen endlessly to the vacuum between them, into which no sound can enter.  Capote embraces such images of paradox, frustration and futility in his work.  He describes this sculpture as addressing the circumstance of being ‘careful with our words’ as well as concerning the preservation of knowledge.[1]

In certain circumstances the most innocuous information turns out to be powerful, details become crucial, divulging anything a matter of risk – why else is the right to privacy defended so vigorously by human rights organisations wherever possible.  Knowing the power of knowledge exerts a compelling influence over the individual, often leading to self-censorship, or to the development of clandestine forms of communication.  In this sense, Secret (so much to say) was prefigured by a work and performance Capote executed in collaboration with his brother Ivan; Secreter 2000 consists of two connected capsules which create a closed circuit system of communication allowing the brothers to speak to one another confidentially, without being overheard.  The work manifests an ingenious, improvised response to the need for privacy and presents an image of co-operation and complicity.  Thus, through his work Capote aims to reveal the profound physical and psychological impacts of authoritarian power on the individual and the community.  Suely Rolnik has identified similar thematics in operation in the work of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, in which the psychological realities, or in fact the sensation of political repression or what she calls the ‘excessive pathalogical ‘normality’ of life under state terrorism’, are made evident through the work.[2]  The difference is that while Meireles’ works were conceived under and refer to a period of repressive military dictatorship, Capote’s have been created in the context of a different level of state control and in an era of relatively unprecedented optimism about the future and increasing connections with the world outside.  Therefore, his project also has a positive dimension and outlook.  Another work, Open Mind 2006-8, offers a very different response to the need for communication – both locally and within an international context.  This work, a public art project that exists as drawings and a maquette for the time being, is a somewhat Borgesian labyrinth which takes its form from the mind itself, the channels and modulations of the brain.  Rather like the sculptures of the Austrian sculptor Franz West, Capote’s open-access work is intended to offer an experience which is physical, visual, auditory and sensory, with the additional possibility of fulfilling a useful function. West has commented ‘Best of all I like art in the streets; it doesn’t demand that you make a special journey to see it, it’s simply there. You don’t even have to look at it - that is probably the ideal art.’[3] While West’s sculptures incorporating seats offer members of the public the opportunity to sit down and have a rest, Capote’s labyrinth through the addition of music, is intended to stimulate meditation and a sense of global solidarity.  Both aim to promote conviviality and operate in an in-between space crossing art-life boundaries.

A departure in form and technique within Capote’s practice, Isla (in memorium) 2007 is a diptych depicting the sea and its horizon line beneath a grey sky.  This rather bleak image is composed of both conventional and strange materials, oil paint combined with fish hooks and nails on wood.  What results is a simple yet powerful, expressionistic, monochrome image recalling the seascapes of Anselm Kiefer, and with a similarly oppressive effect and basis in existential reflection.  Yet, the Isla paintings also embody a form of profound longing, an awareness of isolation and claustrophobia that comes from living on an island and of the sea which surrounds and divides.  It summarises the emotional basis for emigration – the curiosity about and need for contact with the outside world just beyond the horizon.  The Cuban population, having endured a longer and more acute history of isolation than most in recent history, has an intimate, communal knowledge of conflicting desires such as the pain of separation, the solidarity of shared circumstance and the longing for departure or escape.  An earlier work, 1,2,3, Testing… 2000, addressed a similar longing for contact with the external world.  For a site-specific project realised during the 7th Havana Biennial the artist, collaborating with Galeria DUPP, placed cast iron sculptures of microphones along the sea wall, some facing outwards, towards the horizon, some inwards, towards Havana.  The work seemed to ask the familiar question ‘is there anybody out there?’  Yet, the microphones provided no possibility of making audible this or any other question directed outwards, or any reply; being functionless objects they would be unable to facilitate any form of communication.  The work eloquently summed up the lack of a dialogue existing between Cuba and the world and the intense desire for contact.  In his work, Capote walks a fine path between reflection on the past and projection into the future, between observation of the specifics of his local environment and an outward-looking attitude that seeks to connect with humanity in general.  Although his works encapsulate the condition of living between two worlds, the complex state of double-consciousness that seems to sum up Cuban experience, they also address situations and states that apply almost universally to human experience.

January 2009


[1] Unpublished notes by the artist
[2] ‘A shift towards the unnamable’ by Suely Rolnik, in Cildo Meireles, Tate, London, 2008, p.133
[3] West quoted in Robert Fleck, Bice Curriger, Neal Benezra, Franz West, London 1999, p.20