Tania Bruguera is both a Cuban and New York artist who works with performance and installation. Much of her artwork is site-specific and often based on the experience of being at that place, at that time. Bruguera was born and grew up in Havana, Cuba, and this has influenced much of her performative work now. Her works are politically motivated and explores the relationship between art, activism and the social change in works that examine the social effects of political and economic power (as explained in these documentaries). The power and control elements of her political work are inspired by her Cuban past.
Her own definition of political art is ‘the art of uncomfortable knowledge’. As ‘in the end, art that stems from knowing that we actually don’t have all the answers, art that refuses to serve as a moral compass, art that doesn’t ‘make nice’, may be our best hope.’ – Good Intentions.
‘Artistic expression is a space to challenge meanings, to defy what is imaginable. This is what, as time goes by, is recognized as culture.’ – Marvellous Monstrosity
Short term projects allowed her to explore the prospect of more time-based projects within several countries. This included ‘General Strike’ which began with indications to paint on the walls and images of the revolutionary iconographic tradition of several leftist political cultures. “The purpose of this work was to create a space to invite the participation of the audience by enticing people to paint and create its propaganda proposals on predetermined images. The intention of this work was to generate new images to do with the topic of political expression.”
Another project, lasting fifteen weeks, was The Francis Effect, where Bruguera stood outside of the Guggenheim Museum in New York asking passersby to sign a petition. This petition was to try and request that Pope Francis gives the power to Vatican City to allow citizenship for undocumented immigrants. These people, and Bruguera, knew that it would be impossible to achieve this due to the laws of the Vatican, however “the impossible is only impossible until somebody makes it possible.”
Bruguera defines herself as an initiator rather than an author, due to the nature of her work. She creates proposals and aesthetic models for others to use and adapt. She does that through performances by herself and collaborations with multiple institutions and individuals. Her works are often staged participatory events and interactions that build on her own observations, experiences and interpretations of politics. These are namely influenced by Cuba’s political background and the promise and failures of the Cuban Revolution. This provokes viewers to consider the political realities masked by government propaganda and the mass-media production.
One of her most talked about works comes from these inspirations – a series named Tatlin’s Whisper. This is a series of works in which images that are familiar on the news become real and an experience to those in the audience of the performance. This particular series references the Soviet modernist artist Vladimir Tatlin and his works ‘Monument to the Third International’. Within this series she champions free speech through performance and even went through eight months of physical torture in Cuba, where one of her performances was disagreed with. This piece connects to Cuba’s lack of free speech and the performance is where Bruguera invites people to speak freely for one minute, before they were taken off the stage by police. These police were part of the performance, although many audiences did not know this. The mounted police were also asked to do a staged crowd control in several manoeuvres, whish changes the way in which the performance is interpreted. The mounted police were not used in all performances within the series, however they were used in the The Tate performance, London. These performances are normally politically charged, however the one in Cuba was more so as it was two weeks after the US Government re-established relations with Cuba. Bruguera did not know that the government was scared at this time, which made them more dangerous than usual. Although she met with Ruben del Valle, the president of the National Council of Arts, who denied her a permit to go ahead with the piece in Plaza de la Revolución, the huge square in Havana where Fidel Castro held rallies, she was not dissuaded to continue with the performance. However, in December 2014, she was put in a Havanan holding cell and was subjected to 26 hours of interrogation over the piece. During this time, she refused to eat and explained that “behaviour is your best communication tool”. In the months following, she was incarcerated three more times and had twice weekly visits from secret police, which made it twenty interrogations in total. Bruguera was released, although no specific details were released related to this. Later, she gave a statement, explaining that through this time she has grown as a person and an artist:
““When you do this kind of work,” she says, “you can never forget that you are an artist, but it’s hard because you have to be an artist, an activist, a citizen, everything simultaneously.”As an artist, she says, “I am very happy … even if it’s cost me quite a lot. It was beautiful to learn how solidarity feels – we use a lot of important words, without knowing their real meanings – ‘solidarity’ is one, ‘love’ is another, so is ‘friendship’, ‘support’. This year, I actually learned what these words mean.”” – The Guardian.
Above: Page excerpts from Out of time, Out of Place
Further long term projects include that of Tribute to Ana Mendieta, who is also discussed in Liv Wynter and Performance Workshop. This is another site specific piece where she recreates and redoes objects and performances created by Ana, who migrated to the US, and where she carried out her artistic career. This is the project where Bruguera begins to attempt to both deliver and develop political-timing specific concepts. She uses tools such as appropriation, reconstruction, and re-exhibition of Ana Mendieta’s pieces, but in a Cuban context. This stems from her original inspirations of her home country, Cuba, and the idea of art as a cultural and sociological gesture. This work is intended to be the relocation figure of the artist in the history of Cuban culture and as a representative of collective imaginary. What urged her to do more is that the policy of migration in Cuba at the time was silenced by the media and the culture of because of the political impact that it was having.
Throughout her work, Bruguera also uses the concept of arte útil. The literal meaning of this is useful art and art as a benefit and a tool. She uses this to propose solutions to socio-political problems through the implementation of art. This therefore develops long term projects including a community care centre, a political party for immigrants, a school for behaviour art, and invites prominent international artists to workshops every year at the ISA and the Immigrant Movement International (IMI). This links in closely with the political and artistic panels that Bruguera sits on and is invited to every year.
Tania Bruguera’s full CV can be found here and her website can be found here. The home of her artworks is The Tate, however she also has permanent collections of works at many institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana.
To resist is not enough. Use chants as if they were drums to spread the waves of commitment and slogans to highlight all the things that are wrong. But the streets are not enough. Be an active individual: it shows them you are not afraid. Learn the language of power, use the verbs they are scared of, publicly unveil their worst nightmares – act for them, not for us. Behave on a one-to-one scale with those you consider to be responsible. Laugh intelligently but never before you begin. Laugh after your goal is achieved, after your opposition is tricked, conflicted and incoherent because you took their power away with a simple human gesture. Don’t laugh about what they do, laugh about what you were able to do to them. What we know is not enough. Be persistent without tiring others. Use forms and actions that are legible for the resistance but new to the repressors. The time you have is the time they are using to figure out how to respond. Feeling good is not enough: create a political moment. – Frieze