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Born in 1964 in Havana, Cuba
Lives and works in Havana, Cuba

Article

Alom or the obstinate search for the unknown

Alom is addicted to the smell of virgin celluloid, the sweet, toxic fumes of developer and fixer, and the crackle of negatives on their spools. Like any self-respecting photographer, he loves light, but he also has a predilection for the nocturnal and the almost complete blackness of the darkroom (“Dammit, don’t open that door!”). In addition, he is a committed defender of black-and-white photography and the silver gelatin print. I don’t think he has anything against digital technology as such, but when he decides to film he insists on using 16mm film, which is now almost non-existent. And if it’s a little out of date, so much the better! Until very recently, it was the same with his photography, but then the scarcity of 35mm film and darkroom supplies forced him to go digital.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. These are just some of Alom’s technical and material preferences and foibles. I should have started with the basics—for instance with the fact that his entire body of work depends exclusively on something that we in Cuba call “la bomba”, or the rapid pumping and circulation of blood to and from the heart. In Alom’s case, “la bomba” seems to be connected to his camera via invisible cables and tubes—because first and foremost, he is passionate about Life (yes, Life with a capital L), a lover of people, faces and bodies, and, dare I say it, of the faces and bodies of Cubans especially. Present or absent, near or far, known or unknown, what do the denizens of this puzzling patch of earth—which bobs in the sea like a cork, or like a bottle containing an indecipherable message—think about? What do they imagine? Dream? Enjoy? Suffer?

These notions can be observed in Habana Solo (2000), now a classic film of his, in which a mulatto high on a rooftop is dancing, totally engrossed in what he is doing. He dances in absolute, concentrated silence to his own inner music, with the chaotic and dilapidated city of Havana as his backdrop. They can also be seen in Diario (Diary, 2007), a film inspired by the final days of poet and Cuban national hero José Martí, in which a boy smiles innocently from among the mud of the perennially idealized poverty of the Cuban hinterlands. Alom approaches these territories with a profound and compassionate eye that is also critically engaged, to create films like these and photographic series such as Monte soy (With The Mountains I Am One, 2008), which has a rustic flavor and is reminiscent of Martí in spirit.

Still or moving, Alom’s photographic work is always emotional, unsettling and disturbing; it is never cerebral, intellectual or speculative, as might be suggested by its complex appearance or its semblance of Surrealism replete with absurdities and unexplained dark, emergent, hermetic symbols. This is because his images are not objective (i.e. they are not inscribed by default in the DNA of any photograph or film); far more, they are uniquely and decidedly subjective, sentimental, romantic, affective, mystical, and often delirious and crazed. They have nothing to do with the orderly and generally cold and distant ideology that characterizes the majority of conceptual artworks; instead, Alom’s images clearly convey his love and celebration of human exaltation, passion, pleasure in play, fantasy and ambiguity, rather than being products of Reason more prone to absolute, intolerant and even dictatorial outcomes.

This emotive and visceral charge is present in all of Juan Carlos Alom’s work but especially in his filmography, which consists almost entirely of 16mm shorts. At this point, allow me to draw attention to a curious detail: the fact that he develops his films himself, as was common practice at the very dawn of the motion picture. Alom’s works contain strong elements of silent movies, yet they are full of voices, words, sounds and music. While his craftsmanship as a film-maker is almost obsolete in practice, it does afford him a close, brotherly, almost conspiratorial attachment to his materials.

This approach also offers a considerable bonus: technical difficulties often make the formal quality of his images—their sharpness, stability and “perfection”—impossible to control. Instead, quality is at constant risk of being undermined by unexpected flashes from the expired, old, defective or mistreated materials the artist uses. This allows Alom to liberate his materials from their conventional obligations of offering crystal clear, readable images—and where his photographic negatives insist on offering perfect renderings or flawless images and demonstrating their power to reveal objects with noon-time clarity, the artist penalizes their pretentions by damaging their surfaces with cuts and scratches. Alternatively, he leaves them to languish in a drawer, letting time do its work.

What Alom does has much to do with time—time that is lost or wasted; memories that are blurry or imprecise; remembrances almost forgotten and expunged—rather than the real time kept by our watches—which keep us from confusing day with night, or the moment with eternity. The time of everyday life (and historical Time) is always present in Alom’s work, albeit far below the surface on occasions.

Juan Carlos Alom’s photos and films always reveal small histories, stories or fables, many of which are extremely enigmatic and incomprehensible, appearing to take place in the penumbra of the mind, in those non-places that are so common in the landscapes of contemporary art. Two examples of such works are his very short films Sombras espesas (Deep Shadows, 1998) and Evidencia (Evidence, 2001). So, what are these works saying? What do they mean? I’ve never had the temerity to ask him myself, but their strange mix of theatricality, sexuality, rituals and blood sacrifices removes them from the fevered realm of the mind and places them into the physical, corporeal and carnal territories of muscles, membranes and mucus that shake and vibrate excitedly, and drip, secrete and emit fluids.

At other times the dramas depicted in his films and photos happen in daylight, in recognizable locations with real and identifiable persons, like the musicians in Habana Solo, whom Alom asked to play a solo, or like the motorcyclists of Una Harley recorre La Habana (A Harley Tours Havana, 1998). These are real stories and characters, but they are intertwined with the imaginary and the fantastic. Alom is narrating real and imaginary histories of our country but without establishing great distinctions between them, because they always depict the same, unique reality.

After all, we must recognize that our country’s history and our own individual lives look a lot like the stray dog or the old lady wrapped in a coarse nylon sheet rather than a cape, who insistently press ahead, battling against the rain and winds of a hurricane in his electrifying and hypnotic film Reportaje (Reportage, 2002)—or like the mound of crazed ants in Habana Solo as they gyrate and spin, not knowing how to carry their prey—a succulent dead cockroach, or possibly the body of one of our own Gregor Samsas—to their anthill. Have we ourselves not lived through many Kafkaesque situations in our own “tropical paradise”, especially in our encounters with the socialist bureaucracy?

Rather than focusing for too long on objects, people or environments, the aesthetic of Alom’s photos and films (which do not appear to be clearly distinct from each other) explores movements, rhythms and transitions. So instead of being forced to declare an objective, narrative or poetic intent for viewers to follow, the artist attempts (or maybe not, since his actions are dictated by intuition and spontaneity) to render his viewer incapable of ‘unwrapping’ any of his images. His works are not packaged like gifts to be opened merely pulling on a ribbon; the works of Juan Carlos Alom contain no such ‘gift’.

Many might think that his images are hermetic, like oysters jealously guarding their pearls or the secrets of their beauty and meaning. But I don’t think that is the case. The only secret would be that the work can be accessed directly by entering without warning, without turning a rusty (philosophical, political or aesthetic) key. Instead, it is better to force the lock and enter with urgency. But on doing so, you keep in mind that you do not know what to look for inside. Far more, you will find yourself having to wait for a second or third opportunity, like the survivor of a shipwreck awaiting the seventh wave, which will finally carry him safely to shore. But I’m sure Alom isn’t going to be waiting for us there like a kind concierge; he’s simply a lover of the simple and confusing things in life—and that’s what distinguishes a real artist from someone who just films and photographs for reasons such as fame and fortune. Perhaps the best way to characterize Alom is to describe him as someone dedicated to the engaged, passionate search for … something, although he doesn’t know what.

Orlando Hernández, 2015

Daros Exhibitions
Bibliography
Selected titles in our library

Art x Cuba. Contemporary perspectives since 1989 = Kunst x Kuba. Zeitgenössische Positionen seit 1989 = Arte x Cuba. Perspectivas contemporáneas desde 1989. Exhibition catalogue, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany, September 8, 2017 - February 18, 2018, curated by Andreas Beitin, and Tonel. With texts by Luis Camnitzer, Elsa Vega, Sujatha Fernandes, Jacqueline Loss, Roberto Zurbano (et al.). Cologne, Wienand, 2018.

Relational undercurrents. Contemporary art of the Caribbean archipelago. Exhibition catalogue, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, USA, September 16, 2017 - March 4, 2018. With texts by Tatiana Flores, Michelle A. Stephens, Tonel, Laura Roulet, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Nelson Maldonado Torres (et al.). Long Beach, CA, Museum of Latin American Art, 2017.

Cuba. Tatuare la storia. Exhibition catalogue, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea PAC, Milano, July 5 - September, 12, 2016, Zisa Arti Contemporanee ZAC, Palermo, Italy, October 7 - December 18, 2016. Edited by Diego Sileo, and Giacomo Zaza, with texts by Diego Sileo, Giacomo Zaza, Giulia Ingarao, Antonio Leone, and Antonio Eligio (Tonel). Milano, Silvana, 2016.

Iconocracia. Imagen del poder y poder de las imágenes en la fotografía cubana contemporánea = The image of power and the power of images in contemporary Cuban photography. Exhibition catalogue, Artium, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, June 26 - October 4, 2015, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, January 29 - May 22 , 2016. With texts by Iván de la Nuez, and Omar-Pascual Castillo. Madrid, Turner, 2016.

Caderno de exercícios pedagógicos. Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. Art education booklet. With texts by Bia Jabor, Luis Camnitzer, María del Carmen González, Sofía Quirós. Rio de Janeiro, Casa Daros, 2015.

Cuaderno de ejercícios pedagógicos. Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. Art education booklet. With texts by Bia Jabor, Luis Camnitzer, María del Carmen González, Sofía Quirós. Rio de Janeiro, Casa Daros, 2015.

Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. A selection of Cuban art form the Daros Latinamerica Collection. Exhibition catalogue, Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, September, 9 - December 13, 2015. Edited by Katrin Steffen, with texts by Hans Michael Herzog, Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Tonel, Orlando Britto Jinorio, Luis Camnitzer, Orlando Hernández, and Juan Antonio Molina. Zürich, Daros Latinamerica, 2015.

Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. Uma seleção de arte cubana da coleção Daros Latinamerica. Exhibition catalogue, Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, September, 9 - December 13, 2015. Edited by Katrin Steffen, with texts by Hans Michael Herzog, Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Tonel, Orlando Britto Jinorio, Luis Camnitzer, Orlando Hernández, and Juan Antonio Molina. Zürich, Daros Latinamerica, 2015.

Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. Una selección de arte cubano de la colección Daros Latinamerica. Exhibition catalogue, Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, September, 9 - December 13, 2015. Edited by Katrin Steffen, with texts by Hans Michael Herzog, Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Tonel, Orlando Britto Jinorio, Luis Camnitzer, Orlando Hernández, and Juan Antonio Molina. Zürich, Daros Latinamerica, 2015.

Notebook of pedagocical exercises. Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. Art education booklet. With texts by Bia Jabor, Luis Camnitzer, María del Carmen González, Sofía Quirós. Rio de Janeiro, Casa Daros, 2015.

The spaces between: contemporary art from Havana. Exhibition catalogue, Belikin Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada, January 10 - April 13, 2014, Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden, February 8 - April 19, 2015. Curated and with texts by Tonel, Keith Wallace and Cecilia Andersson. London, Blackdog, 2014.

Berger, Sebastiaan A.C.. Cuba. Arte contemporáneo = Cuba. Contemporary art. La Habana, Ceiba / Madrid, Turner, 2012.

Weiss, Rachel. To and from utopia in the new Cuban art. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Cuban artists' books and prints = Libros y grabados de artistas cubanos. 1985-2008. Exhibition catalogue, Grolier Club of Manhattan, New York, USA, May 20 - August 1, 2009, and other venues. With texts by Linda S. Howe and Tonel. Winston-Salem NC, The Cuba Project, Wake Forest University, 2009.

Don't stare at the sun. Works from the Daros Latinamerica Collection. Exhibition catalogue, Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu, Torun, Poland, June 6 - September 13, 2009. With texts by Agnieszka Pindera and Johanna Zielinska. Torun, Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu, 2009.

For you / Para usted. The Daros Latinamerica tapes and video installations. Exhibition catalogue, Daros Exhibitions, Zurich, April 25 - September 6, 2009. Edited by Katrin Steffen and Domingo Eduardo Ramos. Zurich, Daros Latinamerica AG, 2009.

Marinelli, Claudio. Una colección de arte cubano. Selección, análisis, opiniones, polémicas y aventuras de un coleccionista. Caracas, Editemos, 2009.

Visionarios. Audiovisual en Latinoamérica. Catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, May 18 - June 15, 2009. Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2009.

Cuba. Art and history from 1868 to today. Exhibition catalogue, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, January 31 - June 8, 2008. Edited by Nathalie Bondil, with texts by Aylet Ojeda Jequin (et al.). Munich/London/New York, Prestel; Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, 2008.

Cuba. Arte e historia desde 1868 hasta nuestros días. Exhibition catalogue, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, January 31 - June 8, 2008, Groninger Museum, May 17 - September 13, 2009. Edited by Nathalie Bondil, with texts by Aylet Ojeda Jequin (et al.). Munich/London/New York, Prestel; Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, 2008.

It's not neutral = Ez da neutrala = No es neutral. Exhibition catalogue, Tabakalera, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain, July 19 - October 5, 2008. With texts by Joxean Muñoz, Luis Camnitzer and Eugenio Valdés Figueroa. Donostia - San Sebastián, Tabakalera, 2008.

Pabellón Cuba. 4D - 4 Dimensions. 4 Decades. Exhibtion catalogue, La Habana, Cuba, 8th Biennial 2003. With texts by Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Tonel, Manuel Piña (et al.). Berlin, b_books, 2008.

Visionários. Audiovisual na América Latina. Exhibition catalogue, Itaú Cultural, São Paulo, August 5-10, 2008. With texts by Jorge de La Ferla, Arlindo Machado (et al.). São Paulo, Itaú Cultural, 2008.

Puntos de vista. Zeitgenössische Kunst aus der Daros-Latinamerica Collection. Exhibition catalogue, Museum Bochum, Bochum, Germany, June 2 - August 26, 2007. With texts by Michael Nungesser and a dialogue between Hans Günter Golinski and Hans-Michael Herzog. Bochum, Museum Bochum, 2007.

Espinosa, Magaly. El nuevo arte cubano. Antología de textos críticos. Santa Monica, Perceval Press, 2006.

Mirar la música. Fotografías de Juan Carlos Alom. Exhibition brochure, Lonja del Comercio, December 2006 - January 2007. With texts by Orlando Hernández, and Franklin J. Díaz. La Habana, Lonja del Comercio, 2006.

El otro lado del alma. Synkretismen in der zeitgenössischen kubanischen Fotografie / Syncretism in contemporary Cuban photography. Exhibition catalogue, Fototeca de Cuba, La Habana, February 12 - March 6, 2003, Kornhausforum, Bern, January 21 - March 20, 2005. WIth texts by Natalia Bolívar (et al.). Zürich, Edition Oehrli, 2005.

Mapas abiertos. Fotografía latinoamericana. 1991-2002. Exhibition catalogue, Fundación Telefónica, Madrid, Palau de la Verreina, Barcelona, November 2003 - January 2004 (simultaneous exhibitions). Edited by Alejandro Castellote, with texts by Alejandro Castellanos, Rubens Fernandes Junior, Juan Antonio Molina and Iván de la Nuez. Barcelona, Lunwerg, 2003.

Octava Bienal de la Habana. El arte con la vida. Exhibition catalogue, 8th Habana Biennial, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam, La Habana, Cuba, 2003. With texts by Rafael Acosta de Arriba, Hilda María Rodríguez Enríquez (et al.). La Habana, Consejo Nacional de Artes Plásticas / Centro Wifredo Lam, 2003.

Pulsiones. Fotografía cubana contemporánea. Exhibition catalogue, VIII Bienal de la Habana, Biblioteca Nacional, La Habana, Cuba, 2003. With texts by Elvia Rosa Castro and Sandra Sosa Fernández. La Habana, Arte Cubano Ediciones, 2003.

Sentido común. Exhibition catalogue, Galería Habana, La Habana, Cuba, March 2003. With texts by René Francisco (et al.). La Habana, Galería Habana, 2003.

Mundos creados. Latijn-Amerikaanse fotografie. Exhibition catalogue, Noorderlicht 2002, Fries Museum, De Manege and Princessehof, Leeuwarden, September 8 - October 13, 2002. With a text by Virginia Pérez-Ratton. Groningen, Stichting Fotografie Noorderlicht, 2002.

Viva la vida. Kuba - eine Begegnung in Bildern. Bern, Benteli Verlag, 2002.

Block, Holly. Art Cuba. The New Generation. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Juan Carlos Alom. Evidencia. Exhibition catalogue, Galería de Arte La Casona, La Habana, September 7 - October 27, 2001. With texts by Eugenio Valdés Figureoa (et al.). La Habana, Galería de Arte La Casona, 2001.

Shifting tides: Cuban photography after the revolution. Exhibition catalogue, published in conjunction with the exhibition held at the Los Angeles County Museum, April 15 - July 1, 2001, Grey Art Gallery, New York, August 28 - October 27, 2001, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, November 18, 2001 - February 10, 2002. Edited by Tim B. Wride, wtih an essay by Cristina Vives and a foreword by Wim Wenders. Los Angeles, County Museum of Art; London, Merrell Publishers, 2001.

González Lorente, Margarita. Tercer salón de arte cubano contemporáneo. La Habana, Centro de Desarollo de las Artes Visuales, 2001.

From the negative. Conceptual photography from Cuba. Exhibition catalogue, Parts Photographic Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000. With texts by Christina Vives and Vance Gellert. Minneapolis, Parts Photographic Arts, 2000.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. MaleFemale. 105 photographs. Edited by Vince Aletti and an interview with MadonnaNew York, Aperture, 1999.

Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art. London/New York, Thames and Hudson, 1998.

II salón de arte cubano contemporáneo. Exhibition catalogue, II. Salon de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo, La Habana, 1998. With texts by Caridad Blanco (et al.). La Habana, Centro de Desarollo de las Artes Visuales, 1998.

Juan Carlos Alom. El libro oscuro. Exhibition catalogue, Iturralde Gallery, Los Angeles, March 6 - April 11, 1998. With a text by Juan Antonio Molina. Los Angeles, Iturralde Gallery, 1998.

Sexta Bienal de La Habana. El individuo y su memoria / L'individu et sa mémoire. Exhibition catalogue, 6th Habana Biennial, Centro Wifredo Lam, La Habana, Cuba, May-June 1997. Edited by Nelson Herrera Ysla, with texts by Miguel Barnet (et al.). Paris, Association Française d'Action Artistique / La Habana, Centro Wifredo Lam, 1997.

Utopian territories. New art from Cuba. Catalogue of an exhibition held at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery and six other galleries in Vancouver, 1997. With texts by Eugenio Valdés Figueroa (et al.). Vancouver, Contemporary Art Gallery, 1997.

1er.salón de arte cubano contemporáneo. Exhibition catalogue, I. Salon de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo, La Habana, November 15, 1995 - January 15, 1996. With texts by Yolanda Wood and Rufo Caballero. La Habana, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1995.

Fotofest '94. The fifth international festival of photography. Exhibition catalogue, 5th International Biennial of Photography, Houston, Texas, November 10 -30, 1994. Edited by Fred Baldwin and Liz Branch. Houston, Texas, Fotofest Inc., 1994.

Revue noire. Volume 2, numéros 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 1992-1993. Paris, Revue Noire, 1992-1993.

Artworks