When some artists get an idea they turn it into a painting or a sculpture. When Wilfredo Prieto gets an idea he does as little to it as possible. This isn’t to say he doesn’t work hard on his ideas – he’s capable of spending months, even years, on one of his art projects – but he’s good at hiding any evidence of his efforts.
For the 2006 Havana Biennial, Prieto contributed a rotting banana peel, a bar of soap and a daub of axle grease, which he placed in a neat little pile on a floor of the exhibition space. More than a few visitors who saw the week-long installation in the Santa Clara Convent were left wondering, “Is that all there is?” and, indeed, that was all there was. But perhaps the whole point (or at least part of the point) of Grasa, Jabón y Plátano (Grease, Soap and Banana) was to provoke that very sense of wonder.
Wilfredo Prieto is like a master magician who uses the simplest gestures to amaze us. Or a cat burglar who manages, on wits alone, to sneak past even the most sophisticated alarm system.
“My ideas come, I think, from everyday experience,” Prieto explains, “and I think my work as an artist isn’t really to create these ideas but to grab at them. They are floating in the real world, like clouds. They are just there; anyone can see them and pick them up. They belong to everyone, you see?”
Our interview takes place in Havana’s Lennon Park, a block away from Prieto’s apartment. He’s sitting on a bench a few feet from a seated statue of John Lennon. This same park was once the site of Sacando al perro y comiendo mierda (Walking the Dog and Eating Shit, 2007), one of Prieto’s “public interventions,” which involved placing some human shit in the park among the already-present dog shit. The title of that installation played on the idea of “wasting time” (another meaning, in Cuban-Spanish, for “comiendo mierda”) – but, yes, the artist prefers to let his work to speak for itself.
Prieto prefaces much of what he says with "I think" and often finishes his sentence with a question mark, as if he were reluctant to draw conclusions. It could be said that Prieto’s art demonstrates a similar reticence, playing with uncertainties, evoking something that could or might happen to us but probably won’t – say, slipping on a greasy, soapy banana peel at an art exhibition, or encountering human shit in a public park. He tampers with the ordinary until it becomes unlikely but not entirely impossible. As for the meaning of his art pieces, he’s typically generous with clues but prefers to leave the detective work up to the viewer. In a Barcelona gallery he once laid a rug in the middle of the floor, then carefully combed the gallery space for all the little bits of dirt and dust he could find, which he then swept under the rug (Untitled/Red Carpet, 2007). “That one was a little hard for people to understand,” Prieto recalls, “if they didn’t look under the rug.”
Most of the time, the missing elements in Prieto’s work are obvious, in a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture sort of way. He transformed a Canadian art museum into a dance club, complete with disco lights, dancefloor – everything you’d expect, in fact, except the music (Mute, 2006). The more than 6,000 books that comprise his Biblioteca Blanca (White Library, 2004) are utterly blank. And the 30 flagpoles for Apolítico (2001), his most widely known work, are topped with national flags stripped of their familiar colours.
“It’s very strange because I got my university diploma as a painter, and I haven’t painted anything for, like, the last 10 years. I think there’s some really interesting painting in the world today but for me it doesn’t make much sense. I mean, I’m looking for ideas, and ideas offer me a medium, and this medium keeps changing depending on the particular idea or the concept I’m working on. I never get too attached to any one way of working.”
Artists, of course, have been abandoning canvas and clearing new creative paths at least since 1914, when Marcel Duchamp found an ordinary bottle rack and decided to call it art. The notion caught fire in the 1960s, when anybody who wasn’t painting or sculpting could claim to be a “conceptual” or “concept” artist.
Prieto was born in the Cuban province of Sancti Spíritus in 1978, a decade after Duchamp’s death. He moved to Havana to pursue his art studies at the famed Higher Institute of Fine Arts (ISA), graduating in 2002. “I admire Duchamp a lot,” Prieto admits. “He’s more than an influence, he’s inevitable.” At the same time, while Prieto has tried to distance himself from any traditional way of making art (as any good conceptualist must do), he also tries to stay free of any particular historical or cultural considerations.
“Yes, I’m a Cuban artist,” he says, “but I don’t see myself as a cliché of the Cuban artist. I try to distance myself from my roots, from anything that makes up my personality. I think that the most important thing in art is to adopt this sort of detachment, which enables you to know yourself better. Thinking about a certain style or approach to art just limits your creativity, no?”
Maybe that’s one reason why Prieto’s work tends to travel so well – there’s something manifestly “universal” about it. Apolítico opened in Havana and has been shown, so far, in Ireland, Italy, Holland, Canada, USA, Australia and France. Biblioteca Blanca opened in Barcelona and went to the biennial exhibitions in Singapore and Venice, and will travel next to Austria. Prieto recently won the 2008 Cartier Award, which entitles him to a three-month residency in London. And he is currently preparing a new installation for Frieze Art Fair 2008.