Felipe Cardeña, a hippie tent to break down boundaries and differences

di Nadira Farah Yaseen

A real workshop conducted over several weeks, which saw the participation of dozens of students from the Venice Academy, concentrating on a painstaking (and at times even almost obsessive) cutting-and-sewing work, which involved discussion and research “in the field”, among junk dealers, fabric retailers and stalls, looking for new fabrics and choosing the right colour and workmanship combinations, ending up in a big party with a psychedelic pop approach. This is was happened during the workshop held in the garden of San Servolo Island, as part of the events of the Venice Biennale, with the purpose of creating an installation with a hippie and pan-religious aftertaste, entitled “The Temple of the Spirit”, consisting of a large tent in genuine gypsy style, although with a mix of the most varied references and influences (i.e. Arab, Indian, African, Berber, and Mongol).

The author’s name? Felipe Cardeña. However, just as happens in almost every project of this atypical and elusive artist, the great tent with a pop nomad flavour was actually created by a group of guys who worked in complete creative and expressive freedom, starting from the artist’s original idea, which they then developed, however, according to their own sensitivity and experience.

This was also the case in the past, on many occasions, with many projects signed by Felipe Cardeña, as can be seen from his websiteor from the numerous testimonies that can be easily found on the web: so the same goes for the documentary film made in Cuba by the artist Desiderio Sanzi (Megusta soñar), who in 2013 went to the island to follow the artist’s tracks through the streets of Havana; or for several workshops put up in China, in 2013 and 2014, in collaboration with art academies of different Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan (in the Hubei Province) and Changsha (in the Hunan Province), which resulted in the creation of large-size collage compositions as well as oil paintings, which resumed the artist’s peculiar language, although revisited so as to be incorporated in a context of local pop folklore, with charismatic personalities of China’s folk culture, such as the young hero-soldier of the Revolution, Lei Feng, set in Felipe’s typical floral background (Lei Feng Project). And this was also the case, once again, in Rio de Janeiro, with the creation in 2014 of a huge painting depicting Ganesh surrounded by flowers, which was made with the help of the street boys of the favela known under the name of ‘Morro do Alemão’, upon the roof of a building, as part of the largest open air art exhibition in the world, called “Deu na Telha”. And finally – as the web informs us once again – this is still the case, in Italy, with the crew of the “Cardeña Street Boys”, who – on their own and in full creative autonomy – make public artworks, such as wall paintings (with the social art project against global hunger ‘Hungry for Art’), and then walls, kiosks and, more recently, even traffic light control cabinets (with the project ‘Energy Box’, in Milan), again as part of social or urban art initiatives.

Therefore, Felipe Cardeña’s work seems to be more and more a collective project based on participation and sharing, often with social intents and purposes too. This is thus the background where we should place, in our opinion, the making of the installation “The Temple of the Spirit,” which involved the participation of the young students of the Venice Academy, in the various disciplines that arts education covers today, ranging from painting (with the creation of a unique trompel’oeileffect inside the tent, whose central pole was painted with a repeated image of Vishnu doubled with respect to the same image depicted on the bottom, thus resulting in a singular three-dimensional effect), to multimedia (with the making of a shortentirely created by the Academy students themselves), music (with the soundtrack of the latter), up to the manual skill of fabric cutting and sewing, as well as embroidery and crocheting (according to a school system that in recent years has been strongly encouraging a revival of these handicraft techniques), in the actual construction of the tent.

Besides, the iconography of the tent itself relies on its own tradition, deep-rooted in the latest contemporary art, albeit with very different interpretations. Just think of the tent built in 1997 by Tracey Emin, entitled Everyone I have ever slept with!, in which the English artist, listed, as usual, the names of all the men whom she had slept with; or of those made in India by Francesco Clemente, in collaboration with local craftsmen.

In the case of Felipe Cardeña, the large tent becomes instead a kind of chancy temple, with no doors and walls, inspired by a sort of religious syncretism that does not dwell on a single form of divinity, but in which the very idea of nature, with its changing and colourful forms, becomes the metaphor itself of the divine, in a sort of immanent spirituality spreading everywhere: talking about this mysterious “Temple of the Spirit,” we cannot help but remember the words of an Arab female poet and mystic, Rabia of Basra, considered the most popular and most revered Sufi woman, who in one of her lyrics sang: “In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church where I kneel/The prayer should lead us to an altar where no walls or names are left/Is there a region of love in which sovereignty is not at all lit,/where ecstasy is poured into itself and lost,/where the wing is fully alive and yet without mind or body?/In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church/that dissolves, that dissolves in God”.

Now, today’s installation of Felipe Cardeña seems precisely to be inspired by a kind of “dissolution in God”, or by a form of pan-religiosity without definitions, priests or boundaries of any kind, suspended between references to an idea of universal peace with a vaguely hippie taste (do not think just of the general decoration of the tent, which is inspired by the iconography found in the dwellings of certain Indian and Caucasian ethnic groups and by the tradition of Sinti and Roma camps, but also of the words embroidered with painstaking accuracy and patience on the outside of the tent, which contain slogans clearly stemming from the Beat Generation, such as “Peace”, “Love”, “Flowers”, “Revolution”, “Flower Power”, etc.), and more generally references to the Indian, Arab, African and shamanic iconography (e.g. Hindu deities, mandala, traditional African designs, esoteric symbols, etc.).

Now, then, the invitation, in the framework of the Venice Biennale, by a pavilion like the one of the Arab Republic of Syria, a country that in recent years has become the focal point of a dramatic conflict and a mass migration exodus, which is bringing to light the weaknesses and impotence of the Western policy vis-à-vis the issues arising from the steady growth of religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and individual cultural, ethnic and religious identities on the other, as well as the problems posed by the increasing standardization and forced levelling of this globalized society, provides a quite particular key to the interpretation of an installation with such a marked pan-cultural and pan-religious approach, to such an extent that it takes on the tone of a real invitation to overcome all religious, cultural and identity differences in favour of one single idea of universal brotherhood. Moreover, its placement in the beautiful and harmonious gardens of San Servolo Island becomes an element of great symbolic power, for an installation with such a strongly inspired title as TheTemple of the Spirit, as if to represent a point out of time, beyond borders and political geography, a place of meditation and reflection that combines and goes beyond all diversities arising from individual spiritual and religious identities. Inside it, in fact, the figure of a deity has been placed, enriched with jewels, knick-knacks, stones and pearls, as a gift offered in the form of thanksgiving by the faithful beyond individual religious beliefs.

The same shared project of joyful and amused collective participation, under the happily irregular and many-sided aegis of the elusive talent of Felipe Cardeña, by large groups of young people from different ethnic groups and backgrounds who, from Europe to Asia and Brazil, up to a multiform and international city like Venice, contribute, all together, to achieving, with their creative energy, the artist’s work, seems perfectly in line with this desire to break down barriers, to share (in a democratic and generous manner) ideas, beliefs, artistic practices, and germs of creativity wherever traceable and identifiable all around the world.

Felipe Cardeña | The Temple of the Spirit

Pavilion of Syrian Arab Republic

San Servolo Island, Venice

Catalogue Maretti Editore

Tent of the Rising Sun