Drawn by the flames

Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros is seeking to set Madrid's Matadero cultural center alight with their forthcoming incendiary installation of some 600 meters of luminous woodwork

Cuban artists Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Castillo in front of a test of the work they are preparing for the Matadero
Cuban artists Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Castillo in front of a test of the work they are preparing for the MataderoÁLVARO GARCÍA

A morning spent in the Madrid studio of Cuban artists Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Antonio Castillo, better known as Los Carpinteros, provides an excellent display of humility. It is to witness how the shared creative process of two people with singular visions works - sometimes advancing in the same direction, other times following opposing paths or with one serving as a distorting mirror for the other.

And if the motive for your visit is to check up on the progress of the work they are planning for their first exhibition at the Matadero Madrid contemporary art center, scheduled for the end of January, that humility is double.

The duo's installation involves no less than 600 meters of patterns made up of illuminated wooden strips to be stretched around the 800 square meters of the old refrigeration chamber at the former Matadero slaughterhouse in the capital's Legazpi neighborhood. The Abierto x Obras space, where the Matadero's Site Specific program takes place, has been operating since 2007 in this disturbing place, where the walls and ceilings still bear the signs of a fire begun by neglectful squatters in the 1990s.

Its director Manuela Villa first invited Los Carpinteros to get involved in Abierto x Obras over a year ago - "it was a dream to have them here," she says. It got Rodríguez and Castillo thinking: "We wanted to make a special piece, not simply bring one of our works and show it in the Matadero, but create something that was inspired and really connected to the place," says Castillo. He remembers it struck them that "the place was burned in that way and that the fire was part of the esthetic it retained, as they didn't paint the room, but left it as it was."

The technique of the sculptures in Plaza de la Revolución always fascinated us"

For the project, Los Carpinteros - who have been installed in Spain for the last three years but still maintain their Havana studio - salvaged an idea that had been running around their heads for a while. "The technique of the sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana always fascinated us; we wanted to work with it," Rodríguez explains. The method, known as "back light drawing," is normally used in commercial advertising, but, Castillo explains, in Cuba it has been employed for political propaganda giving rise to a kind of "revolutionary pop art."

"The drawing is made with several strips that are separated from the wall by a few centimeters; behind are several channels with light that is projected around the surface and illuminates the silhouette of the character in such a way as to deify it."

The sculpture of Che in Havana
The sculpture of Che in HavanaCORDON PRESS

A computer screen shows a photo of the sculpture of Che on the Interior Ministry in Havana. "It's located in the plaza, the Mecca of the revolutionary ideology and when its shape is illuminated on the façade, which is 10 floors high, the effect achieved is truly epic, almost religious," they say.

At first the idea was to use the technique as an artistic joke - to create a kind of heroes' gallery on a domestic scale. "When they gave us the Matadero project it turned 180 degrees, it became much more abstract and we focused solely on the representation of a dramatic thing, extreme, like it is a burning room," Castillo says.

Los Carpinteros' studio in Madrid is a laboratory of ideas. They are now working on a piece they will take to next year's Arco art fair with Ivorypress, while from the wall hangs the sketch of the gigantic, 13-meter-long güiro-bar - a güiro is a kind of percussion instrument lined with notches - destined for the recent Art Basel Miami Beach show.

The name Los Carpinteros comes from when they were at art school in Havana - the original group, founded in 1991, had three members, but Alexander Arrechea decided to leave to work solo in 2003 - because they were always walking around looking for wood for their pieces. This obsession with construction and design is one of the marks that identifies them. They admit they work at the limit where things can seem so functional that they move away from the classical concept of art, but that language, sometimes half industrial, is one in which they recognize themselves and has worked to attract the likes of architects such as Norman Foster and Arata Isozaki.

On this occasion the Matadero installation consists simply of the representation of a fire. Behind the strips of wood, fitted into a gutter are two lines of LEDs, one orange and one red, to create a new blaze in the Matadero. "There is only one little piece in place and you end up hypnotized looking at it," says Villa.

The piece is rich in meaning. "In this case it might be linked to the history of the place, to the fire that happened here. But what's more we are in flames right now and the fire could also be a social, a political reference, as well as a sensory element that transmits peace," she says.

Rodríguez and Castillo are keen for people to come to their own conclusions, but nevertheless want the work "to reverse the effect propaganda has." "Instead of contaminating," they hope, it will be "something purifying."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS