Are those tunnels embodying the prison of our knowledge or of our certitudes? They have a false horizon. Wandering towards the light at the end of the tunnel as in Plato’s cave, we do not know if we will come across the exit or if it is only the light towards the next corridor that guides us. It appears that those tunnels generate feelings of claustrophobia, stagnation, uncertainty and perhaps also frustration. They represent the emblem of the contemporary world where all our dogmas have been overthrown and where we do not know where we are going.“
Between 1954 and 1962, in the midst of the counter-culture movement, two prophetic works by Aldous Huxley were published: The Doors of Perception and The Island. In the first one, the American writer gave shape to his theory of the “island-universe” as a symptom of the growing individualism of society: “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances, we are by ourselves. […] By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.” In these times of Pandemic, the world is no longer a “global village”, it has become an archipelago of solitudes and Huxley’s prophetic words seem more accurately tuned than ever. For Dagoberto Rodriguez as well, the island is a metaphor of the human being and his condition of isolation, a reflection on the global insularity in which we live “where the closeness of the other is sometimes seen as danger”, while isolation is also characteristic of our “virtual world”.
In many respects, the concept of island concentrates the most pressing issues affecting our so-called “Liquid Society”: human relationships become flexible rather than sustainable both on a personal and collective level, consumption patterns have been expended to all aspects and activities of life, from a communitarian and globalized way of life we acknowledge the passage to individualism and a forced isolation, we become more aware of the ecological crisis and its brutal consequences such as rise of the oceans and the lack of water, this new gold that will make us all disappear… This vital force of water, which binds and connects, which engulfs and submerges all our individual and collective lives, threatening and peaceful, unpredictable and omnipresent, is the condition of our contemporary societies.
In the spectrum of the Pandemic, the search for a terra incognita, a bulwark against boredom, stagnation and immobility could be metaphorized by the aspiration for unknown islands, as the auspicious place for a regeneration of society or a more radical “tabula rasa”. A world in reduction or a microcosm, the island is also perceived as a garden of Eden, a heaven or a refuge in many mythologies. Drawn by the visual vocabulary of urban infrastructure and engineering, Dagoberto Rodriguez’s metaphorical and symbolic work is certainly conscious of this polyphony of meanings. An attempt to rethink the societal dimension of insularity emphasized with the pandemic and the increasing digitalization of the world, Island to Island, the latest iteration of his long-term exploration of the concept of “heterotopia”, extends his immersive Tunnels drawings (2019). His islands are the ultimate destination of these Lego tunnels acting as portals towards a dehumanized world in a constant state of deconstruction/reconstruction. In the same vein, Island to Island are monumental watercolors depicting enigmatic seascapes filled with mysteries and the inexplicable presence of undefined architectures of accumulated industrial objects that may just as well be technological ruins from a future civilization or monolithic archipelagos of a pristine wilderness. A response to the Covid crisis and its consequences, the series is also inspired by the powerful memory of the thousands of islets in the Halong Bay during a recent trip in Vietnam. Dagoberto Rodriguez was dazzled by the beauty and uniqueness of its 1,969 submerged limestone karsts as “a gigantic terrain that has been flood […] they [islets] are like individual people or spaces where only one individual could live”. As a matter of fact, the artist draws islands under construction, reinforcing the constructive aspect of the organization of society but it is hard to determinate either if it is a reorientation of the motif of the island towards futuristic utopias or dystopian Brave New Worlds (1932).
Islands and Ruins
Island to Island depicts the fast decay of contemporary Lego cities as uninhabited vestiges which have been eroded and petrified into unusable rocks by time. By adopting mineral forms, those of immense stones or rocks, like landmarks in a sea, his islands are also the sign of appeasement of the conflicting tensions between man and Nature and the possibility of a point of reference, to which to fix oneself. In L’île déserte (1953), Gilles Deleuze wrote, “It is no longer the island that is separated from the continent, it is man who is separated from the world by being on the island. It is no longer the island that is created from the bottom of the earth through the waters, it is man who recreates the world from the island and on the waters.” In the same direction, Dagoberto Rodriguez also relies his conception of “island” to architecture by focusing on the act of production of worlds in island forms. Therefore, his islands are constructed, architected, humanized and not natural wonders: they are islands of a post-human becoming.
By intertwining different temporal scales, Dagoberto Rodriguez summons the registers of “retro-futurism” to convoke a time coming, when our ultra-connected and technology-infused civilizations, disconnected from natural ecosystems, would have dried and been reduced to the engineering ruins and desolate landscapes engulfed under rising waters. As such, Dagoberto Rodriguez testifies to the potentially destructive power of technology over nature. He gives a vision of humanity overwhelmed by its own inventions. These architectural fragments erase man’s constructive gesture in exchange for the return of natural cycles. An impression of peace emanates from these drawings since life has deserted them. Without narrative, without individual memory and collective consciousness, there is no more heritage to pass on but only remains. Can we imagine the conservation of these ruins of waste as valuable relics left by our civilization? In this perspective, the series stands as a warning signal of the fragility of ecological balances threatened by global warming.
Immobilization of Time and Futuristic Ruins
Ruins are an artistic motif inherited from the Renaissance and developed with German Romanticism which has become particularly important today with the first industrial heritage ruins, in an era of economic turmoil and natural disasters. In these watercolors, the motif of the ruin is evocative of a pure time, undated, whose rubble no longer has time to become ruins. We have passed from the time of ruins to the “time in ruins”, wrote Marc Augé…
In Island to Island, megalithic motifs and waste of “superstructures” interpenetrate and merge, between primitivist and techno-scientific imaginary, voluntarily rejecting all legibility and functionality to give themselves in the opacity and compactness as archaic rocks in suspension. They are made of Legos as an elementary game and a simple constructive system. Their geometric form is also reminiscent of pixels or Tetris game, as a construction mode of “a digital visuality” symptomatic of our digital times. Hence, the past and the future are constructed jointly, and their construction space is often also a space of negotiation in Dagoberto Rodriguez’s work. These drawings lead to confusion regarding their troubled temporality: were these islands built, then abandoned, and deserted again? Under what circumstances did these islands become deserted? They evoke both the passage of time and its immobilization as well as a meditation on the future. Imagining the ruins ahead of time, integrating their future into a design project, is one of the possible ways of defying the time of the ruins. Objects of delight, melancholy, mediation on the future of our civilization, ruins also express the fragility of nature, the vanity of our technological race forward, our relationship to time, solitude and death. From a critical and ecological perspective, perhaps these islands are a metaphor for the 7th continent, a gigantic patch of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean.
A Robinson Crusoe Syndrome
Historically and narratively, insularity is also conducive to the emergence of a new society, a territory associated with aspirations to utopia as well forms of resistance … but it is also a serious threat when it comes to exercising a politics that can be populist or authoritarian. Isolation due to confinement was not so new to Dagoberto Rodriguez but rather a reminder of many memories of stagnation during the Special Period in Time of Peace.
In Cuba, the sea shapes all existence: its unique climate and strong weather conditions with floods, rising waters and frequent hurricanes and torn skies, in contrast to the absolute calm that reigns. The sea is a natural geographical barrier that conditions Cuban’s people, a political and mental border that separates thousands of existences from the rest of the world.
The artist connects the Cuba’s history to a geographical and political isolation. He grew up in Cuba in a socialist environment, “a failed utopian state” and remembers a childhood spent on the shore collecting pieces of driftwood to make miniature boats or observing wooden boat builders at work. He has always lived in a constant state of urgency and movement: the urgency of living in a totalitarian country with constant material and food shortages, the urgency of living in transit, when he emigrated to Europe before settling in Madrid, while remaining nomadic as an artist. He also carries the heavy history of his uprooted family, both in the maternal and paternal branches, since most of his relatives tried to exile themselves in search of a better life, like so many Cuban families broken by the separation, trying to reach “the other shore”, the Eldorado of the United States, “the paradise of capitalist utopia”.
However, if this personal context is obviously underlying this series, by drawing non-localizable islands not explicitly referring to Cuba, the artist relates to the notion “utopia” by seizing it in its etymological sense: the existence of a non-existent space or “the place of nowhere”. The desert island can represent an archetypal image for the beginning of a world but might also reveals he failure of totalitarian ideologies. That why the artist describes water as a solid, dangerous, abrasive materiality, in contradiction with its natural fluidity and malleability. In Cuba, water comes to crush with all its weight these families broken by emigration and violent separations.
Looking back at Cuba’s history which has endured considerable changes many times of political upheavals over centuries, Dagoberto Rodriguez considers creation as a tool of resistance and collective uprisings. There is no way to escape from an island, a place that is conducive to feelings of claustrophobia, stagnation, insecurity, as Cuba’s endless history, whose future directions cannot be predicted, but creation has always been a “kind of path to liberation”, both a “therapy” and a “refuge” to him. As he explains, his “vision of the world comes from a place that has failed to crystallize a democracy or a dictatorship”. Thus, his drawings always reveal their suspicion towards the concept of utopia and envisaging themselves as spaces of negotiation or as interstitial spaces. From Cuba’s limited access to technology, the artist also inherited a kind of “Robinson Crusoe syndrome”. This is one of the reasons why drawing, with its simplicity of means, is a thread that runs through all his work. Drawing is always a basis for non-building architecture or so-called “paper architecture” in Dagoberto Rodriguez’s universe. It acts both a design tool and a storytelling medium keen to immersion. In itself, each architectural project is an island, an autonomous concept, a closed universe integrated within a larger constellation, a more widespread network, a vaster territory and crossed by social, economic, political issues… Having to do things by himself, step by step, through recycling and inventive ingenuity was his way of finding a new expressive language. Perhaps that’s why all his architectures are constructed in Lego, an elementary game and efficient construction system.
Criticizing Radical Utopias
In a way, Dagoberto Rodriguez seems to reactivate the utopias of modular cities in the air or on the water by radical architects of the 1960s: Yona Friedamn, Constant, Archigram, Superstudio, Haus Rucker-Co Superstudio, Japanese Metabolism. His series recalls dreams of itinerant architectures following Peter Cook’s Instant City (1964) or Gyula Kosice’s Hydro-Spatial City (1947), conveying the utopia of an architecture freed from any anchoring, as a reactive environment. In the 1960, the city gave itself in a capacity of extension and infinite modularity and a freedom. These “megastructures” offered a new model of urbanism, all at once mobile, relational, in phase with technological progress and the new lifestyles of the Western world. The use of systematic forms, such as the urban grid and construction elements such as the Lego in Dagoberto Rodriguez work, serves an organization of the space in search of mobility, flexibility, reactivates the cellular, infrastructural architecture of these radical utopias which were bearers of other modes of inhabiting, organizing and thinking about the social and political life. Thus, Island to Island is also a reminder of Japanese metabolic architect Kiyonori Kikutake’s The Marine City (1963), a project composed of islands whose structure ultimately resembles that of offshore drilling platforms accessed through underground tunnels. The structure of the buildings is set on artificial islands that allow the formation of common spaces. The architectural manifesto defined “metabolism” as a metaphor for the relationship between nature and the city, a biological metaphor for cellular, urban and social renewal. In the metabolic thought, architecture and urbanism, in order to unify themselves, must renew themselves according to “biological” rhythms, but Dagoberto partially natural and technical islands do not present themselves as cities conducive to human development while being shaped from elements of human engineering exhibited as rocks. Rodriguez’s Islands are bio-inspired architectures, which derive from the forms of the rocks but which also paradoxically reveal a “technicized” nature. The relationship of man to technology is coupled with a reconsideration of the relationship of man to nature and of the notion of natural and cultural inhabiting. The artist connects all the layers of the notion of inhabiting—inspired by the primitive model of the desert island—while at the same time exhibiting the island as engineering work in its own right, made up of the aggregates of a world innervated by technology. He gives to see abandoned technological ruins or a vision of nature as a self-constructed machine.
If radical architecture imagined utopia as a “network city”, in contrast, Dagoberto Rodriguez islands are negative utopias, fragments of embryos of thought, paper architectures that became ruins before they could be concretely inhabited. These drawings tell the failure of any utopia.
Islands to Islands series delimites a space where the relationship between man and nature, civilization and its limits in the face of the natural world is at stake and which has become predominant at the time of the Anthropocene. Humanity has tried to control the living world, to domesticate nature while hurting it ineluctably. Against the waves of the ocean, against the storms and ecological catastrophes, one seeks the rescue of the rock. The monoliths of Dagoberto Rodriguez would then be anchors which to catch one’s breath… But strangely, devoid of any living soul, they only keep the memory of static places, stuck in a watery immensity, as an anticipation of the future extinction of our kind, predicted by scientists. Ultimately, for Dagoberto Rodriguez, “Islands are symbols of past events”, “the image of memory itself”.
 Zygmunt Bauman
 Quote from “Poetic Activism: Dagoberto Rodríguez in conversation with Jérôme Sans”, op. cit.