By Ben Mauk
Artist’s full name: Antonio Eligio Fernández; Dates of exhibition’s assembly: 2009 to 2014; Exhibition’s original display location: 8th Berlin Biennale; First manmade objects to reach space: military V-2 rockets launched from Peenemünde, Germany, in 1944; Name of U.S. postwar effort to employ scientists from former Nazi Germany in order to deny the Soviet Union their expertise: Operation Paperclip; Most famous Paperclip émigré: Former SS member and “father of rocket science” Werner von Braun; Location of European Space Agency’s primary spaceport: Kourou, French Guinea; Island nations between Kourou and Cape Canaveral: Haiti, Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, Cuba
In 1966, in cooperation with scientists from Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the Cuban Space Program landed a rocket ship on the moon. Viet Nam Heroico launched from Marianao, Havana—about six hundred kilometers from Cape Canaveral—on September 24; it landed safely in Baikonur, in what is now Kazakhstan, on October 4 of the same year. Today, of course, the name Baikonur is known throughout the world, and the Viet Nam Heroico’s international team of scientists and engineers is celebrated in our history books. The rocket itself remains on display in the gardens of the Museo Municipal de La Habana, surrounded by susurrus palms.
Anyone who would doubt the veracity of this account, compiled by the Havana-born, California-based artist Tonel, would have done well to see the collection of photographs, audio recordings, and historical artifacts on display at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which closed in August 2014 after a two-month run. Tonel’s description of the program, which was led by his grandfather, Antonio Fernández, accompanies an impressive array of images and objects that tell the story of the “Heroes of Baikonur.” Included among the effects are decrepit AM/FM radios (high-tech rocket communication devices, according to the accompanying text), innocuous “Radar”-brand shirts (the uniforms of control-room engineers), and a map purporting to show just where on the small island the rocket was designed, built, and launched. Pictures of the rocket itself (“handcrafted symbol of scientific achievement”) depict an Estes-sized device wrapped in aluminum foil, sitting unattended in an empty courtyard.
So maybe we’re actually in the realm of subjective historical narrative, which is to say propaganda—but whose? Tonel’s Potemkin space program lampoons any and all political positions: the pictures of cheap facilities, bombastically captioned, testify to Cuba’s modest economic might and the redoubtable positivity of Soviet-style historical accounts, yet the imperialist shadow of the U.S. is mocked even more cleverly, by its conspicuous absence from Tonel’s narrative. The artist sends up the war-room pretensions of Cold War projects on both sides, as in a banal photo of what appears to be a disused subterranean station, described as “a stairwell connecting the ‘secret’ and ‘top secret’ levels of the lab.” Like the best Soviet anekdoty—one of the great comic inventions of the previous century—Tonel’s writing is so deadpan it barely breathes.
Each of the major pieces in “Commerce,” the room at the Biennale dedicated to Tonel’s work, is a lost island of cold war history where familiar characters are found speaking a language unknown to the historical record. “Dispatches from the War Zone” depicts Lenin, Marx, and others on a visit to a fictionalized “Kuba.” A second artist’s book, subtitled “Insightful Wisdom from the Financial Papers of A.G. Muskeet,” features a series of graphs created by a fictional Lithuanian economist who weathered the fall of the iron curtain from his perch as Cuba’s first financial advisor. In a graph depicting “ideological purity” over time, a nosedive in 1990 is described with typical cheer as “a challenging market-shock type of event.”
Socialist realism—the art that we tend to associate with the Soviet Union and, by extension, revolution itself—is sometimes derided for what is perceived as its badgering optimism and political obsequence. By wryly embracing these very qualities, Tonel gives us something close to the lived experience of the early days of Castro’s Cuba. The launch of Sputnik (1957) and Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight (1961) were high notes of socialist optimism that happened to straddle Cuba’s revolution. In 1962, the missile crisis forever altered the relationship between the two world superpowers, along with the small island caught in the middle, not yet committed to Soviet-style Communism. It is often left unmentioned that this near-apocalyptic October standoff brought about half a century of U.S. sanctions and poverty-engendered misery for millions of Cuban citizens. (Our subversive efforts continue apace: not long ago, the Associated Press revealed that a series of recent USAID-organized HIV workshops were covers for a bungled effort to foment dissent among young Cubans.)
Of all the cold war synecdoche Tonel might have adapted for his purposes, the space race is one Americans would probably prefer to see stripped of any political element. We would rather let the Apollo missions symbolize human pursuit in its most unblemished form. Tonel’s work is an uncomfortable rejoinder to violent and suppressive tactics against Cuba in our own country’s history, not to mention the V-2 rockets and nuclear-age saber-rattling that helped make the Apollo Program first a historical possibility, then historical fact. The story of space flight, like the story of modern Cuba, has been warped by the high-stakes contest of warring nations. Prodding at the bluster of both superpowers, Tonel enacts a performance of historical redress: a People’s History of the Space Race. By then asking us to question the accuracy of his tale, he conjures the hectoring spirit of the moon-landing conspiracy theorist.
Yet there is always an appeal to “real” history in Tonel’s works. True space cadets will recognize the name Baikonur, also called Leninsk or Zvezdograd Star City, where the Soviets launched both Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1, the latter of which carried into orbit humanity’s first extraterrestrial hero, Yuri Gagarin. That every American child can rattle off the name of Cape Canaveral, but not this other fountainhead of space flight, suffices to explain the work’s title. Speaking of which, have you heard the anekdot about Gagarin’s daughter, who answers the phone one day while home alone?
‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says. ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock. But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’
In Tonel’s work, the final joke is that there is no joke, only life under the banner of political spectacle.
Ben Mauk lives in Berlin. His work is forthcoming in Harper’s Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review.