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With Fidel Castro in decline and his Communist experiment consequently up for review, Cuban politics and culture are more fascinating now than ever. Fortunately for us, three exhibitions in Toronto provide a prime window onto the current scene.

At the Royal Ontario Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Culture is presenting a concise and well-considered exhibition of work by Carlos Garaicoa, arguably Cuba's most celebrated contemporary artist.

Further downtown, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MoCCA) is exhibiting a suite of new works by Jose Toirac, another contender for top billing.

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And at Edward Day Gallery, a group exhibition titled Pacemaker charts the anxious heart of a nation, including works by both established and emerging artists.

Garaicoa's work at the ROM is typical of the kind of oblique commentary that permeates Cuban art. Direct, defiant criticism of the state is seldom seen; instead, the losses of liberty and peace of mind, and the Kafkaesque frustrations of daily life, are more subtly suggested. Thus, the dance between the state and its artists continues.

Much of Garaicoa's work attends to the architectural legacy of Havana, fast eroding as a result of the country's financial disarray and urban mismanagement. The strongest works here are Garaicoa's wall-mounted photographs that give a before-and-after account of buildings that have collapsed or been demolished. In one panel, he shows us a historic building; in the next, he gives us the open wound in the city where it once stood, with its ghost form traced in thread suspended on pins and affixed to the picture surface. The works are beautifully made, delicate and cerebral, sounding a note of quiet lamentation.

Garaicoa is also showing a large sculptural installation fashioned from rice paper, wire and light that suggests an imaginary city glowing softly in the gallery, as well as a selection of his book projects: accordion-fold works with architectural pop-ups that serve as utopian proposals for the city that could be. Here, as in all of Garaicoa's work, the craftsmanship is superb, which gives a kind of galvanizing force to his dreaming. Writer Jorge Luis Borges is an inspiration; subjectivity triumphs over the confinements of circumstance.

Toirac is another important figure in Cuban contemporary life, and his works have addressed a range of political issues, from the legacy of Che Guevara (one video recuperated archival CIA film footage of the slain revolutionary leader's corpse), to the promulgation of the Cuban Communist "brand." (An early series of his paintings paired images of Castro with perfume logos -- such as Opium and Obsession -- lifted from the pages of American fashion magazines.)

Humour and wicked visual wit are potent tools in Toirac's artistic arsenal, and he uses them again in his new work currently on show at MoCCA in an exhibition titled Parables. Here, historical and contemporary images of Castro culled from the media (Toirac is a connoisseur of clippings) are paired with episodes from the story of Jesus, presented in the form of text passages beneath.

In this way, Toirac shows us Castro in 1960, delivering his famous First Declaration of Havana address (the image is shot from above and behind Castro, looking down upon the multitudes), and beneath it a description of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. We see six-year-old castaway Elian Gonzales after his return to Cuban soil from Miami, Castro's arm firmly wrapped around his shoulder, and beneath it we read: "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Simply and incisively, Toirac lays bare the mechanism of ideological control that has seduced the hearts of the Cuban people, subdued dissent and held the Communist project together for nearly half a century. He also underscores how photography has been deployed as a tool in that process. It's all right here.

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The Pacemaker exhibition at Edward Day Gallery was originally organized for display in Havana during the opening days of the Havana Biennale this spring. When Cuban government officials thwarted its presentation (various government agencies made incessant changes to the show's venue), its curator Magda Gonzales-Mora decided to mount the show in Toronto instead.

Pacemaker takes more risks than these other two shows -- many of these artists are younger and less consistently accomplished -- but it also offers some exciting discoveries. Paradoxically, it is the better-known artists who disappoint. Sandra Ramos's video installation gives us scenes of Havana street life coupled with the sound of a heartbeat and imagery from an electrocardiogram. But the piece is sentimental and overly simplistic, without the flavourful precision and intellectual edge that we find in Garaicoa or Toirac.

Yoan and Ivan Capote, two brothers who are increasingly exhibited outside of Cuba, are also showing work that feels a bit soft-headed and easy, such as Yoan Capote's Intrinsic -- two brick-like blocks of plaster bisected by a wad of American cash.

The strongest work in Pacemaker is by the lesser known Rodolfo Peraza, whose projection work For Your Safety strikes a note of deft subversion. Peraza has created a lexicon of little human figures modelled on the generic man/woman symbols used to demarcate public washrooms. In his works, he places these figures in various predicaments, many of which can be read as comic commentary on the fate of the Cuban people.

In For Your Safety (the title itself speaks of a suffocating paternalism), the figures' heads detach and float away, only to float back down again, buoyed by parachutes. In another sequence, a head detaches to become a kind of blazing sun that then sets elegiacally behind an imaginary horizon. The idea of the body separated from the head is a common motif in Peraza's work and speaks to the struggle to integrate thought and deed in such a restrictive society. Another work by Peraza in the gallery's exterior courtyard consists of a series of disc-shaped signs with the same little figures. One figure is swimming, and his thought balloon overhead holds the image of an airplane (en route to Miami?). The fantasy of escape is never far beneath the surface, but Peraza keeps it light.

Escape is also the subtext of Erik Garcia's Landscape, a thin, eight-metre-long backlit photograph depicting an ocean scene. The camera looks out to sea, and it's clear that the image is a composite of many photographs fused together over time. Only the initiated, however, would know that the scene is shot from the north-facing coast of the island, the embarkation point for many desperate departures. This location, however, cannot be substantiated. Is this a beach scene or political critique? Who's to say?

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Lazaro Saavedra's darkly comic cartoon projection, Ojovideo Corporation, is another high point of Pacemaker, featuring a cast of gremlin-like creatures in search of their runaway eyeballs. (Insight, and the defence of discernment, are the subtexts here.)

It is Elsa Mora's Heartache, though, that feels like the warm core of the show: a suspended photograph of a heart penetrated by hundreds of silvery acupuncture pins, which seem to sprout from its tender flesh. Pain and healing are commingled. With this image, Mora articulates the sometimes harrowing nature of inner life, to be sure, but she also suggests the ailing heart of Cuba itself. Looking at her work, we feel that pulse, and that heart's imperilled struggle to keep on beating. The Cuban people have had to endure their share of broken dreams. The show makes us wonder with empathy: What must they face next?

Carlos Garaicoa continues at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum until Dec. 31; Pacemaker: Contemporary Cuban Art is at Edward Day Gallery until Oct. 3; and Jose Toirac's Parables is at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art until tomorrow.

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