January – February 2004
From: Negrín, Javier. “Una Tribuna,” Gaceta de Cuba, Sección Artes Plásticas, Enero-Febrero, 2004. La Habana, Cuba.
by Javier Negrín
Precisely that: a miniature public square from which to speak to the masses, an agora set in a hall to express, with the epic tone the case requires, positions of principles on a state of things, the exact space for the perfect word. This is, after a first look, the work exhibited by Tania Bruguera at the National Museum in November. In one of the temporary halls, she improvised a tribune and, to specify the context in which it should be understood, she “filled” the rest of the space with the sound of a large number of slogans which have come forth in the more than forty years of Revolution. The title, Autobiografía (Autobiography), intended to point out how the entire life of the artist, or rather of the Cuban individual, has been amalgamated with a political process of which the platform is a good symbol, how private and public aspects of her existence get mislaid, urged by the needs of the macro-social project (oratory needs, in this case, of a political autos-da-fe). Perhaps because of that peculiar amalgam, when the artist invites the audience to interact with the piece using a mike on the platform, she mentions that with her action she will revive moments of her individual past, as if the slogans were a sort of “acoustic fairy cake” to activate affective memory. At least in the case of the curator it worked, judging by the words with which she accompanied the show.1
From this point of view, the work would be the remembered recount of a past that, because of the special characteristics of the Cuban case in recent decades, has structured the life of the individual on the basis of political perspective. And to make the mnemonic exercise more effective, the catalogue, as a newspaper, compiles in its headlines the slogans the loudspeakers voice, thus working as a previous score for the receiver ready to use the mike. But the piece could also be seen in the light of former pieces by Tania and, precisely resorting to memory, understand it as part of some obsessions that have marked her poetics.
In the ‘90s, Tania carried out a series of visual arts actions in which silence constantly appeared. Lo que me corresponde (What Befits Me), El pesode la culpa (The Burden of Blame) and Cabeza abajo (Head Down) may be described as performances in which silence was a metaphor for a situation of repression of the subject, commonly having to do with censorship. The metaphorical representation of the way in which conflicting voices were (self)silenced with a given corpus of ideas taken up by those in power was framed in the larger topic of the artist: the capacity of the individual to resist by yielding. And in her performances Tania bowed down in very peculiar ways: swallowing the papers she had written with a trembling hand a moment before or eating earth, this last action the one used by Cuban Indians to escape the violence of Spanish conquistadors, by resorting to the extreme way of suicide.
If in works like those she was clearly the victim — an aspect reinforced by always appearing naked — and the audience played the role of power-victimizer – an indiscreet voyeur sniffing around from the comfortable and false position of having nothing to do with the traumas Tania recalled –, this situation changed with La isla en peso (The Island in Weight), exhibited in Casa de las Américas on May 2001. The work, a sort of sound environment, may be described in the following terms: Spectators entered into the entirely dark gallery while they heard lamb baas everywhere. After feeling their way into the hall, they discovered some TV sets over their heads from which Tania “looked at them”, alternating her face with fragments of Virgilio Pinera’s poem which was the title of the work. Then the couple artist-receiver changed their roles: the former acted as power and the latter was the subjugated one, one of the lambs under surveillance.
Autobiography, judging by what has already been said, is another sound environment. At the beginning it seems spectators take on the role of power in the piece. At least, the stage is there so they can improvise their aringatore facet, the leader of human flocks, with plain decorations before which they play at exercising power with their words, with the necessary height for an optimal sensation. But two things are noticeable. First: the mike is placed in a way speakers have their backs to the virtual audience and, therefore, turn their harangue into a sterile dialogue with the wall. The second, the obsessive repetition of the same slogan through the loudspeakers, distorts rather than stresses its contents and mobilizing potential. Saturation turns the patriotic slogan into pure sound which the receiver’s peripheral sensitivity can perceive. This last aspect is reinforced by an ironic remark slipped by Tania in her collage of slogans. If we listen attentively, in the back sound the words “Freedom or Death” are repeated over and over. A view of the first page in the catalogue offers an explanation: “’Freedom or death. This will always be the Cuban people’s cry,’ Fidel proclaimed. Hoy, n. 265, nov. 14, 1959, p. 1.” By accepting the text literally, it becomes the will of perpetuating a war clamor turning it into a monotonous drone, a spiel that has lost all the calling power attached to it in its origins.
Thus, the eventual happening of the receiver on the platform is deceptive in more than one way: the person on the platform is not playing to be the power, but acting on the spaces power reserves to create an illusion of participation in governmental management. This is the only way in which these words directed nowhere and emptied of vitality because of their repetition can be understood. Words, well, slogans reduced to a state as precarious as to be similar to the silence in the performances or the baa in “The Island in Weight.”
This may be a perverse way of understanding the piece, but it is justified by the intention of integrating it with the previous work by the artist. And also, in passing, to an ethical tradition within Cuban visual art creation that has intended to turn art into a forum for political debate. A tradition that, as we know, had its breaking point in the repeatedly mentioned ‘80s, but that could have been foretold much before. Because, we must not forget, in this very museum where Autobiography was presented, other platforms, silent but no less accusing, rested: those of Antonia Eiriz to which, perhaps unwittingly, Tania’s work was rendering tribute
1 See Corina Matamoros: “Las cabezas trocadas. Editorial” in Autobiografía. Una exposición de TaniaBruguera (Autobiography: An Exhibition by Tania Bruguera), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, October 21, 2003, special edition.