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by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

Hearing a writer read his own work can lead not only to new ways of understanding the material, but also to a different level of empathy. I am so delighted to be able to present a sample of Jonathan Lerner’s new novel, Alex Underground, in this way. You can both read a sample from this non-fiction novel and listen to the author read it. Lerner takes us on a journey that is both physical (to Havana) and self-revelatory in his tale of leaving the Weather Underground at the end of the 1960s.  

This is a fragile and dangerous time for Lerner’s Alex, much like the materials that Arte Provera artist Jannis Kounellis has used for a lifetime. His current installation in London, his first since 1982, inhabits the vast underground space of Ambika P3, a former concrete testing plant hall (the concrete for the Chunnel was tested there). Critic Floriana Piqué guides us through the labyrinth of this artist’s work, which has often taken place in large spaces, contrasting high drama with the modest means used to create it in ways that address the metaphysical oppositions of life and death.

Sylvie Fortin, who just curated the Québec City biennial, Manif d'art 5, which is tagged with the rather unusual title of “Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe!”  might have included Kounellis. Or would she? Fortin, who is currently Editor-in-Chief of Art Papers Magazine, curates with humor and politics walking hand-in-hand. She gives us the insider’s view of her biennial and her home province  of Québec. Perhaps you can go home again.   

All my best,



Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer living outside of Atlanta, GA and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Photos above, clockwise from upper left: Jonathan Lerner; Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2010, © Manolis Baboussis. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London; Manif D'Art 2010.


      Jannis Kounellis, Untitled at Ambika P3, 2010. © Michael Maziere. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London.


The Dramaturgy of the Labyrinth

by Floriana Piqué

K for Kounellis. K for Kafka and for the main character of The Castle. K for the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet.

On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

Since the beginning of his career in the Sixties, Jannis Kounellis, one of the great living artists and a key figure of the Arte Povera movement, has always challenged boundaries in his work, defying different kinds of beauty, at times in unusual spaces.

Kounellis treated the huge concrete underground space beneath the University of Westminster in London, called Ambika P3, as the nave of a Gothic cathedral.

Space conceived as an atto unico [a one-act play]. Kounellis’s dramaturgy begins with the sign of the K traced on the ground, translating the pure immediacy of the artist’s thoughts.

The artist built vertical steel walls over this drawing on a flat surface. Labyrinthine and rising from its horizontal base, the stage unfolds to comprehend the memory of the infinite.

The arms of the letter K appear simultaneously as open lines stretching toward infinity and the dead end of the labyrinth where the only choice is to go back where one came from.

As usual with Kounellis, each steel module forming the metal walls has the same proportions; each one is topped with black pieces of coal, a memory of times of harshness, of labour and fatigue.


Jannis Kounellis, Untitled at Ambika P3, 2010. © Michelle Coudray. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London.

Empty glass bottles – clear, brown, green – fastened to these modules with steel cords are reminiscent of the polychrome surface of the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

But the light here is controlled, partially hidden by fabrics and black coats, draped or twisted to suggest dead bodies.

The human presence and its perennial condition.

The elements of Kounellis’s visual vocabulary may seem recurrent but the narrative is unique.

Kounellis’s research into constant measure and proportion is evident in every work, particularly in the special projects that began with an installation at Galleria L’Attico in Rome in 1969 for which he brought live horses into the gallery, and is visible in the change of scale in the work here, like in his fractal universe, from the imposing K to the stillness of the adjacent spaces.

Natural raw materials, objects of memories, and constant proportions open paths where narrative, observation, and meanings combine in a powerful way.

We leave the vastness of the nave to encounter smaller, much more intimate spaces where the theatricality of the works exists in a syntax we’ve seen before but is conjured here differently.

The first, a vestiary where twelve black coats are left hanging, anticipating and implying the human presence, the spectator.

And the artist, present in his absence once he divests himself of what is – as he defines it – his culture of chiaroscuro.

Above the coats, three steel modules, smaller in size, with bottles, and an old sewing machine, allude to windows of dimmed light.

Again in search of a constant harmony.

Nothing in Kounellis is description. He distills traces, symptoms, biographical notes of an entire life.

But then the images reassemble in our minds to perform the chorus of the human tragedy.

A coat-stand, where a coat and a hat hang, hangs in turn from a pillar in a hall as a reminder of the uncertainty, the transitoriness of human life.

While, in the extreme corner, a black bundle of clothes, possibly, is set as a memento of mourning and death: a definite certainty.    


Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London. 

 The exhibition Jannis Kounellis is at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 23 April - 30 May 2010. 

For more information, visit

Superflex, Still from The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV). Courtesy: Manif D'Art.

"Quelle Catastrophe!"
An Interview with Sylvie Fortin

by Deanna Sirlin

Sylvie Fortin, Editor-in-Chief of the Atlanta-based Art Papers Magazine, was chosen to curate the 5th Manifestation internationale d’art de Québec, the Biennale of Quebec also known as "Manif D'Art." TAS's Editor-in-Chief Deanna Sirlin talked with Sylvie Fortin via email about her conception of this Biennale and the projects she selected for it.

DS: What can you tell us about the rather unusual title you've given your edition of Manif D'Art, Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe! ?

SF: When I curate a project that seeks to operate in the contexts of both Québec and Canada, I chose titles that will avoid the need for translation. So, the title has to be understandable in both languages--albeit unevenly. In French, the expression "Quelle catastrophe!" carries a range of meanings that far exceeds the literal English translation. In addition, in the title of the Biennial, it follows the question "Catastrophe?" This play of question and exclamation--or emphatic affirmation--doubly mobilizes the term "catastrophe," opening it up to a range of meanings or rather inviting the viewer to ponder this multiplicity.

I also like to play subtly with titles to instill doubt. All the more so with the concept of catastrophe. On would expect the reverse punctuation--i.e. Catastrophe! Quelle Catastrophe? Here this simple reversal unmoors both meaning and expectations. But you have to look at it. It doesn't give itself away so easily.

But to come back to the meanings and connotations of the exclamative "Quelle catastrophe!", I need to stress both its humorous and ironic dimension. We use this expression daily, for life's funny little catastrophes. Think of a cute three-year-old who looks perplexedly at the empty cone in her hand, and the ice cream on her dress. She'll look up to her dad and say, quelle catastrophe! It can also be used ironically, when your friend relate something that seems totally catastrophic as she is unable to summon up the requisite distance from the event. In that instance, to help her put things in their proper perspective, you might retort ironically, "Quelle catastrophe!"

As such, the double title unleashes a series of questions at the notion of catastrophe, which was my goal for this project.

DS: Why are art biennials important?

SF: I am not so sure that biennials are still important. At this point in time, they are a leftover from the immediate post-1989 moment when, until about 1999 or so, they did serve a crucial purpose. During this period, they did open up channels for the circulation of artists and works beyond the narrow and comfortable northern transatlantic dialogue (North America-Europe). They also helped give visibility to curating as a discursive practice. That's crucial!

However, if we think about them in the most literal way--as something of a better-funded project that happens every two years--then there might be a place for them. Ultimately, it comes down to the strength and pertinence of the curatorial proposal.

DS: Are biennials here to stay, then?

First of all, let me say biennial (triennial) exhibitions presented by collecting institutions as part of their programs--think, Whitney Biennial or Carnegie International--are only biennials or triennials in terms of their periodicity. So, I am not talking about those here.

When I use the term biennial, I mean projects presented by autonomous organizations that don't run ongoing programs or have permanent spaces.

Some will, others won't. It's a question of "ecology." In some contexts, we will come to see that biennials served a temporary function. They were a resource-efficient way to develop and educate audiences for art in locations that lacked (in the views of local politicians and local elites) art institutions and/or where art was not a thing apart--or a practice that needed a specific type of space for its presentation. In these places where there have not previously been autonomous institutions called museums--and while these institutions are being built--the biennial format is the perfect transitory format. What's more, for politicians of newly-formed countries with a more or less shiny image, it was a great way to develop cultural tourism. And to prove that they were ready for integration into the global market--or integration into the EU. Remember that global banks and large investment firms have been their main backers. In such contexts, I believe that biennials might not last because their purpose or function will be integrated into institutions.

But I am not really interested in these kinds of pronouncements. I don't really care what you call a project. That's a question of packaging, which should always come second. Nor do I care, as a critic and a curator, whether a project is institution-building. It's the other way around--institutions that care about sustainability should understand that this can only achieved through judicious artistic decision--fearless programming is what sets one project apart from the others. Institutions and organizations should only last out of necessity.


Laurent Grasso, Souvenirs du futur, 2010. Courtesy: Manif D'Art.

DS: In addition to what you said about the title’s humor and ambiguity, can you tell us why catastrophe  was your subject for Québec City?

Québec City, the aspirational capital of a state that isn't, is a peculiar place. It is peculiar because it is where I was born and grew up. But more importantly, it's peculiar in the sense that the dominant ideology there works diligently to tell people that they are safely isolated from catastrophic world events. For me, the question was "what's at stake in making Quebecers believe that they are untouched, safe? Why is so much invested in this social/political anesthesia?" But this is only half of the question. The other part has to do with the place where I live now, Atlanta, where one might ask "what's at stake in making Atlantans believe that they are in a permanent state of crisis or emergency, that, somehow, things are always worse here?" I am sure your reader will know what I mean. These are mirror images.

Catastrophe offers the possibility to think about these two realities in a continuum. It goes something like this, "what's at stake in the global distribution of anesthesia and anxiety?" How are anesthesized and overstimulated zones produced and exchanged? Catastrophe is a great concept to begin to think and question this phenomenon.

DS: Do you think catastrophe is a comic idea or a tragic one?

SF: It's both, and more.

DS: Did some of the artists approach Catastrophe as something personal? Please describe for us the works that are about the personal.

The works selected--whether already existing, reversioned, or commissioned--explore the notion of catastrophe from a multiplicity of viewpoints. To answer your question succinctly, I will mention two very different approaches to the "personal." In their film installation "The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV)" (2009), the Danish collective SUPERFLEX addresses the current financial crisis from a therapeutic perspective. The film comprises four sections (or sessions) during which a professional hypnotist leads us through our fascination with speculation and power, as well as the fear, anxieties, and frustration of losing control, economic loss, and personal disaster.

Milutin Gubash’s new video installation “Hotel Tito” pursues his focus on everyday domestic occurrences, using levity and humor to address otherwise traumatic situations. The video alternates between the early 1960s, by way of Hotel Tito, a small bed-and-breakfast in Split, in the already crumbling socialist Yugoslavia of Tito, and the present-day interior of a car parked on a street outside Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Montréal. It is accompanied by “false” abstract paintings, claimed to be portraits of Tito—who was variously regarded as a visionary architect of socialism or the ruthless dictator of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1982. Looming in the background, catastrophe inflects everything the protagonists do, see, dream of, and reflect upon. Here, minor mishaps, misunderstandings, and accidents metaphorically allude to larger artistic and existential questions.

DS: Are any of the art works about Catastrophe in the natural world? Are some works about political Catastrophe? Which are these?

Yes, of course, and much more than these categories.

Toronto artist Gwen MacGregor's video “Going,” (2009) best speaks to the "natural world" category. In general, it reflects her close observation of time and how its passage shapes small dramas or uncannily familiar situations. In “Going,” a leafy forest in the French countryside seamlessly, and barely perceptibly, transforms into a barren plain with nuclear cooling towers. The juxtaposition is real and the only manipulation is the reversal of events. The video intentionally plays with viewers’ expectations—images of rural settings are pleasant and unthreatening—while pointing to nature’s exploitation as resource.

As for the question of the political, the show approaches it from many different points. Milutin Gubash's work, again, speaking to the legacy of the Tito period. In Luca's Buvoli's installation “Instant Before Incident (Marinetti's Drive 1908)” (2008)  and video “Instant Before Incident (Ave Machina)” (2008), the artist reminds us of modernism's birth in catastrophe. Remember Marinetti's car crash! Italian futurism, which was so instrumental to fascism, was born of his ensuing delirium. By trying to "stop" the accident, Buvoli asks us to consider what other modernisms might have (might) be possible.

Lynne Marsh’s new single-channel video installation “Plänterwald” takes as its protagonist a derelict amusement park at the edge of the city of Berlin. Here, the masses are present through absence, as policed borders isolate the park from public space. The work plays on the absurdity of the use of force in relation to the decay and obsolescence of the site. “Plänterwald” pursues Marsh’s exploration of worlds contained by an internal logic, and quietly, yet relentlessly—like the defunct roller coaster—echoes the rumbles of deep social and political fault lines and their explosive potential.

Iván Navarro’s politically-charged work addresses the disinformation strategies of dictatorships and the double-talk of liberal democracies. His light sculptures recast everyday objects as seductive yet foreboding forms with double meanings. The work selected for Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe! tackles political failure and specifically Augusto Pinochet's seventeen-year dictatorship in Chile, a reign marked by torture, murder, and government-ordered disappearances.

Navarro's haunting video “The Missing Monument for Washington, DC or A Proposal for a Monument for Victor Jara” (2008) refers to folksinger and songwriter Victor Jara, killed in September 1973 in Chile Stadium by Pinochet's forces. Two darkly dressed barefoot figures ambiguously appear in an empty space with white bags over their heads. One is on all fours, bearing the weight of the other who quietly and resolutely recites Jara's poem "Estadio Chile" [Chile Stadium], while, acoustic guitar in hand, strumming a single chord.

“Victor” (2008) recasts the video’s unfolding as a fluorescent-tube rendering of a crouched human figure bearing a stack of paper on its "back." These giveaway sheets reproduce a still from the video on one side and Jara's poem on the other. Together, these works speak to catastrophe’s dispersive work, injecting a dose of absurdity into Walter Benjamin’s view of history.

In Ahmet Ögüt's video installation “Things We Count” (2008) the camera pans slowly across a field of retired fighter planes as a male voice counts them one by one in Kurdish, Turkish, and English. While the planes are both numerous and monumental, they have obviously been put out of service. Still, they retain both a memory and a certain potential. At the first level, this enumeration emphasizes their multiplicity. But the juxtaposition of languages leads us further afield: it abstracts the planes into models or symbols of war’s tragically unique way to connect nations and their citizens. Built in the USA and other Western countries, these planes always unload their deadly cargo elsewhere. Now, they have come back home to rest. The connotative field of these foreign languages may not be understood by all—much like the political subtleties of foreign nations are often incomprehensible, if not altogether undetectable, to us here in Canada and the West. 

Doyon/Demers, Installation for Manif D'Art 2010.

DS: How is your Manif d’art different form the first four versions of this exhibition?

SF: It's different in four significant ways;

1.  For the first time, it includes most of the city's cultural institutions as full partners. In the past, the Manif's curator was responsible for an exhibition in a temporary site. The local non-profit spaces, galleries and museums programmed their own shows, based on their own (often fragmentary) interpretation of the theme. This led to a very uneven event. This year, I wanted to include all the non-profits (i.e. spaces similar to The Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art), the university gallery and museums fully into the project. We asked them to put their resources behind the project and to welcome a component of the exhibition, which I curated in relation to both the overall theme but also each institution's mandate and history.

2. While the biennial has always had an international component, it featured mostly local and national artists. This year, I reversed the proportion. I sought to give greater visibility to fewer local and national artists by selecting more ambitious projects, and to place them in an expanded international context. It's pretty much the same approach as with ART PAPERS. It comes down to one question: how do we use large-scale exhibitions like biennials to strengthen an arts community? This approach allows the participating artists (if they want to) to build relationships with artists from elsewhere, which usually leads to new opportunities. We also invited an number of international critics and curators to the opening, who accepted our invitation because of the interesting mix of artists and the fact that we premiered many new works.

3. The whole structure of the event was changed. This year, we produced a 160+ page guide in advance of the event, to help people navigate the city and find out more about the artists. No such document was produced before. The event has always included a symposium, which has traditionally been held during the opening weekend. I decided to present the symposium in January, months in advance of the exhibition, in order to launch/share a number of questions with people in Québec City. I think it's both unfair and unrealistic to ask people to take in so much art and a symposium in one weekend. Let's face it, as the curator and artists, you've had the chance to consider the question for close to two years if not more. How can we expect people to engage if we don't open up the process over time?

For me, curating is a form of learning in public. I believe that this should inform every aspect of the project from the sites that you choose to the way you structure the event. This year, our main temporary site is in a mall, between the Old City, the Parliament Building, and the Congress Center.

4. Greater emphasis was put on marketing and public relations. We decided to use already-existing platforms to increase the visibility of the event, We did a reception in Toronto, distributed announcements in Miami during ART BASEL MIAMI BEACH, held a press conference in New York during the Armory Show to launch the list of artists, followed by a reception. We have very limited resources for marketing. In this context, we decided to take advantage of the fairs because so many people find themselves there.

DS: What have you learned from curating this Exhibition?

I think I am still too close to it to draw this sort of conclusions. As with every project, I learn most from the artists with whom I am a fellow traveler for a period of time. I had only worked with three of the 36 artists before. I am not the sort of curator who always curates the same people. I maintain significant dialogues with most of the artists I work closely with, but I am very careful not to fall into the trap of always working with the same people. Don't repeat yourself. I think I learned most from Michael Jones McKean's project, which changed at the last minute--something I have absolutely no problem with. In the end, Michael bought 50 acres of land in the northwestern part of the province of Québec. That's his sculpture. When he landed in Quebec City, he rented a car and drove to see "his land." This is a very remote area, with over 5 hours of driving on dirt roads. It's forestry land, which of late has been purchased en masse by Chinese businesses.

So he went up there to take polaroid of his land, after the 24+ hour drive, he returned to Québec City where he re-sited/assembled the pictures in his space, rephotographed them, and included these prints in the installation--which also included a piano, a rug fron Qatar, a crystal, a meteorite, bags of earth, tissue packs, and a slight intervention in the space. Each of these seemingly unrelated objects crystallizes social, political and economic realities, out of which the installation creates a constellation.

His piece allowed me to think of the telescoping of far-away catastrophes whose representation exceeds--or falls short of--our representational standards, into our personal space. Whereas most of the projects are expansive or dispersive, Michael's telescopes the gigantic far-away into the here and now in a very poetic, unassuming, yet haunting way.


Sylvie Fortin  is Editor-in-Chief of Art Papers Magazine and Curator of Manif D'Art 2010.

Manif D'Art 5 runs from 1 May - 13 June, 2010 in Québec City. For more information, visit

Deanna Sirlin is an Atlanta-based artist and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Jonathan Lerner at "Days of Rage" press conference, 1969.

Alex Underground

by Jonathan Lerner

Jonathan Lerner was a radical activist in the Sixties and Seventies, and a founding member of the Weather Underground. His new novel Alex Underground is the story of two young revolutionaries who end up on the lam, and how one of them uses the secrecy and subterfuge of life as a fugitive to explore his gay identity. The novel is loosely autobiographical, but most importantly in revealing that psychology, more than ideology, can underly decisions that superficially seem all about politics. “Take me,” Lerner says. “like millions of other kids then, I was full of idealism, and outraged at the Vietnam War, at racism and inequality. That was genuine and I’m proud of it. But the personas I adopted – political apparatchik, armed militant – never really fit me. I made those choices because I had bought into the idea that they were the only valid path, and because of whom I wanted to be with, and because I wasn’t confident enough to make my own way.” 


An Excerpt from Alex Underground 

(Penpower Publishing, 2009)

It’s 1970. Alex and his best friend Doug have provoked a campus antiwar rally into riot. To get away from the cops, they go on the run, and end up joining a work brigade to Cuba. While there, an indictment is issued for the riot. They convince the Cubans not to send them home with the rest of the brigade, since they’re afraid they’ll be busted, and instead to send them to Europe. There the boys hope to create false identities so they can return directly into the U.S. radical underground. As this passage opens, they have spent a week waiting, in Havana’s Hotel Deauville, for seats on a flight out, and discussing how they will survive. One of those ideas, suggested by Alex, is to trade sex for money. Orlando is their Cuban government minder.

To listen to the excerpt, please click "Play" above.

In the morning, Orlando comes looking for them, with another copy of Time and the news that they are to have seats on the Tuesday flight to Prague. Unless perhaps something should change before then. “Come,” he says. “I will take you out from here a little while. It’s very boring, yes?”

They get into his Chevy Bel Air and cruise along the Malecon, windows down; Alex sits in back, the wind tangling his hair. It is Sunday, still early but already hot. The ocean looks oily and thick today, sucking in and out. It has been very boring, yes, and now Alex, visually starved, doesn’t know where to look first. Ahead, along the gracious sweep of boulevard toward the cluster of modern towers in Vedado? To his left, at the beautiful continuous façade of old buildings facing the water, each with its peculiar and snazzy flourishes too subtle to take in at this speed - and all discolored, weathering, starting to crumble? Or down the narrow side streets that lead to the dark heart of the city, which try to capture his gaze as they flash past? From the shadows of their five-story tenements people pour out, to stroll and idle along the sea wall. Boys and shirtless men clamber over it and down, to the low shelf of coral rock where they dip and play, cast fishing lines, spread towels and stretch out to sun - on a bed that looks as uncomfortable as coarse gravel. But suppose you were tired, feeling cramped, thinks Alex. Splayed out on your back down there, you could almost get away. You wouldn’t see Havana at all, just the horizon of water and sky, the blank of the sea wall over your head. You probably wouldn’t hear the endless music and talk, the rumble of cars each with its muffler ten years past replacing – but only the gentle arrhythmic hiss of water swelling through porous rock. If you felt hemmed in all week, it might be soothing. It might be worth it.

“Is there any something you need?” Orlando inquires. Doug asks once more for false passports, launches into a repeat of his argument for them. Alex is surprised; they had not discussed bringing this up again. Doug is demanding and petulant - as if Orlando himself could easily produce the documents but chooses not to, like a parent withholding an allowance in arbitrary punishment. But Alex doesn’t hear that. He hears Doug the forceful, Doug the visionary, bold Doug who knows what’s needed and what’s what.

But anyway Alex, in the back seat, is hardly paying attention. He is intoxicated by the gorgeousness of Havana, by its urban denseness here at the edge of the sea, by the Sunday morningness of this moment in it. He wants to be out in the city on his own - on foot, exploring down narrow streets, stepping through to shadowy courtyards, climbing down to the water, himself, to see.

Orlando, a good-humored dissembler - which qualifies him for this politically sensitive and responsible job – does his best to jolly Doug out of it. “Passports, compañeros, no, I cannot.” He lifts his hands from the wheel and shrugs grandly. “I can offer you some little things. Toothpaste, perhaps? Some clothes for where you are going?”

“Actually,” Alex voices a sudden idea, “I’d like to get a haircut.” He is still imagining sophisticated pickup scenes in French hotels. A tangle of long hair will be fine if he only wants to bum floor space off hippies. But he is into this idea of sex for money – excited by it, sure he can make it work. A neater appearance will be called for. He’ll have to be able to make it smoothly past doormen and into classy cocktail bars.

Orlando seems to love this idea. “So. We go to Coppelia now for ice cream, and after I take you to the shop for the haircut. Doug, you also?”

“Probably not,” Doug says, with the trace of a sulk, about the passports - but Alex thinks it’s at the suggestion he should get a trim. Alex can’t imagine his friend without the springy mass of dark curls. He would like to crush them softly, with open palms, to either side of Doug’s head; how close their faces would be then.


The barber shop is back near the Deauville. To Alex’s delight, Orlando announces that he must drop him off, to walk back alone afterwards. “I take my children now to my mother’s house – every Sunday for lunch,” he says with the same apologetic grin he had used to shrug off the plea for false papers. Doug waits in the car while they go in and Orlando arranges things with the barber.

“This is my compañero Miguel,” he explains. “Everything is settled, he is happy to give you the cut. So you see how to go back? Just down this street to the Malecon, and you will have the hotel soon on your left.”

It doesn’t actually feel like a barber shop – more like a futuristic beauty salon that’s been depopulated and left to drift in time. There should be two dozen noisy women in here, preening and being preened, clouds of gas from the permanents and dyes. Instead, there’s nobody but Miguel. Hair dryers like empty space helmets line one wall. A row of work stations runs down the other with form-fitting chairs, like those pilots sit in, facing curved formica counters patterned with parabolas of turquoise and pink. But all the gleam of the place is gone. The room is dusty and dim – some light sifts through its glass front, and overhead a single fluorescent tube is lit. It’s nothing like the barber shops of Alex’s recollection, either (not that he’s been inside one any time lately): no spiral-striped pole, combs in jars of blue disinfectant, chorus of kibitzing gents. Miguel the barber is thin, angular, dark-eyed, his own longish hair in a pompadour. He smiles Alex into a chair and gets to work. He speaks no English, and Alex’s Spanish is rickety, so they don’t bother to talk. Alex tries not to watch in the mirror as his thick, shoulder-length, parti-colored hair – brown, but coppery at the ends where it had been dyed, streaked blond on top from the Cuban sun – falls away in hanks and his neck and ears emerge. He cuts his eyes sideways instead, out the front window, to the passing life of the street. After a while, looking sideways threatens to give him a headache. He shuts his eyes.

He is mildly surprised when Miguel tips him back in the chair, and swathes his face in warm, wet cloths. Surprised, but pleasured. Miguel murmurs something he doesn’t catch – an instruction to relax, perhaps. Alex does. He had not expected a shave. Or the shoulder rub that seems to be part of the package. It is warm in the barber shop, warm under the towels. Miguel’s fingers move with gentle pressure under his neck. Alex dozes a little.

Afterwards, in the narrow, shadowy street, he still feels deliciously out of it. Or deliciously in it. After two months in Cuba, this is the first moment he finds himself on his own – a solitary traveler on a strange street in a foreign city. He feels he can’t walk slowly enough to take it all in. Four men playing dominoes on an upturned crate, six more hovering near to watch – all quiet, concentrating, their group giving off the dark perfume of cigars. Two little boys racing crude home-made scooters. Pairs and trios of older women who have carried chairs to the pavement for a visit. Very occasionally, along comes an old whale of a Plymouth or Ford, its passage slowed to a crawl by the people and the potholes. Solitary girls, single men with shirts off, smoke cigarettes on upstairs balconies and watch the street with rapt languor. Big archways in the front of nearly every building lead in to sunless courtyards. Alex wants, and does not want, to look. What’s in there is too intimate: strung-up laundry, fragments of conversation, dangling wires, walls aching for paint.

At a corner, there is a bar. Its outside walls are only shutters, opened wide to the pavement. Music pours out. Not instruments though: just a man singing – wailing some tale – with his audience of neighbors doing call-and-response. The singer is very black, possibly drunk – he staggers as much as dances – his face elastic with emotion and moist with sweat. The people around him are every color, and all know this song and its story. Alex stops just outside, enchanted. A few people notice and gesture an invitation to come in and drink, but he smiles and shakes his head no. He is happy where he stands. He is high enough just being in this foreign friendly place. He feels safe, and also separate, deliciously disengaged. He had stepped from the barber shop, too, with only a nod to the man whose hands had just been working his shoulders.

Where the street puts him out on the Malecon, he is blinded by the sudden openness, sunlight off the ocean. The Deauville looms dark against the sky two blocks away. He crosses the boulevard and strolls along to take a seat on the sea wall, not quite opposite the hotel. He is in no hurry to go inside again. The next time he leaves the place, it will be for a long flight. People stroll in front of him, a few walk along the rock ledge below, where the ocean quietly seethes. One or two guys catch his eye and would probably stop and start a conversation if he gave any encouragement. Alex only smiles, mutely, vaguely, holding no one’s gaze. He feels cocooned, protected, so much at home - in this moment, in this city, his faulty Spanish notwithstanding: welcomed, made much of, taken care of. If there is no rum raisin, there may be coconut or else guava: to each according to his need. Alex is 22, and has never held a job. He was a student supported by his parents, then for a brief moment he was a locally famous fugitive supported by the radical counterculture. Now he is a foreign comrade supported by the internationalist revolution. He has spent a week in what passes here for a luxury hotel, a guest of the state, required to purchase only his few packs of cigarettes; at the brigade’s work camp, even these had been provided - cigars too, but just for the guys, one per male brigadista each night after dinner along with the regulation thimbleful of sweet coffee. Soon he will be back in the capitalist world, where nothing is free – and on the wrong side of it, where he is celebrity or hero to no one. Soon he will have to make his own way. 


Jonathan Lerner writes on art, architecture and travel. His previous books are the novel Caught in a Still Place and the oral history Voices from Wounded Knee. Reach him at