Cuban brings a disturbing Behavior Art

San Jose Mercury
Jack Fischer

From: Fischer, Jack: “Cuban brings a disturbing ‘behavior art’,” San Jose Mercury, January 24, San Francisco, United States, 2002 (illust.) p. 3E. p. 7E.

Download PDF

Cuban brings a disturbing ‘behavior art’

Jack Fisher

Not surprisingly for a Cuban-born child of diplomats, artist Tania Bruguera topic is power.

“When I started studying art, it was a way for me to understand the way things happened in the real world,” says the 33-year-old, whose parents managed to raise her in one hot spot after another, from war-ravaged Lebanon to Manuel Noriega’s Panama. “Politics are inside of me.”

For Bruguera, currently on a four-month stint as an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Art Institute, the topic embraces not just governmental  power but how individuals react to it, and how they wield power with others.

A prime example of her inquiry can be seen at the art institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, presenting the West Coast debut of her video and sound installation “La Isla en Peso” (Island Burden), previously shown at the Venice Biennial. But more on that later.

Bruguera’s work shares space in the San Francisco Art Institute galleries with art by Egyptian-born Ghada Mer, who intends her semi-abstract stitched and painted pornographic imagery on canvas to be a personal feminist answer to the macho stance of first-generation abstract expressionism.

Together the work by Bruguera and Amer reflects an effort by Art Institute President Ella King Torrey and her gallery director of two years, Karen Moss, to raise the profile of the institute’s galleries by reaching beyond the faculty and the Bay Area artists who traditionally have shown there.

Bruguera’s is the third visit to the institute by Cuban artists in less than a year, as a result of a relationship forged when Cuban-born faculty member Tony Labat led a group to the island in 1999. Since then, artist Raúl Cordero of Havana and the three-man art troupe Los Carpinteros have come to the institute for residencies. Moss said Bruguera is the first Cuban artist in recent history to have received a master of fine arts degree from a U.S. art school — the School or the Art Institute of Chicago — and is typical of young Cuban artists who have chosen to remain Cuban nationals and to travel to other countries instead of emigrating. Bruguera has established the first department of performance art at her undergraduate alma mater the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana.

She’s also fairly hot just now, having had work included in biennials — that proliferating form of international art exposition that is supposed to take place every two years but seems these days to occur every two minutes — in Venice, Havana, Johannesburg, even Kwangju, South Korea. A recent morning found Bruguera departing her digs at SFAI for Boston, where she was showing yet another installation at a contemporary art institute.

Trained in performance art, Bruguera says she prefers “behavior art,” a form of her own devising that seems to mean something of a hybrid between performance and installation art.

“Island Burden” is a case in point. It consists of a darkened hallway filled with animal sounds, that opens into a darkened room with eight video monitors. On the monitors is Bruguera herself, acting out what for her is a particularly insidious reaction to power: self censorship.

On one screen, she forces her hand into her own mouth, distorting her own mouth, distorting her features and stifling expression. On another, her eyes roll slowly back in her head, a physical as well a symbolic turning inward. And so forth. The gestures have been slowed drastically and change almost imperceptibly, perhaps a reference to how self-censorship can arise almost unnoticed. The artist’s face alternates on the screens with passages from the poem “Island Burden” (1947) by Cuban poet Virgilio Piñera, a kind of “Howl” for its time and place.

“I like to do ambient work, where I try to put people in a situation,” Bruguera says. “I started out with drawings and paintings, but I couldn’t feel whole in a ny of them. I think this is the medium in which I can get closer to the people who are receiving the work.”

Of course, Bruguera is well aware that messages play very differently to audiences in different countries.

“Every country has certain censorship and self-censorship,” she says. “In capitalist places, it has to do with the economy. As an artist, if you don’t do something that is liked, the corporations won’t buy the work or the collector won’t collect it. In Cuba, it is strictly political, in the sense that there is a responsibility for the artist, who has been raised and educated for free, to not touch some subjects.”

Bruguera is increasingly preoccupied by the way in which the meaning of a work of art changes, depending the culture in which it is presented. “If I talk about Marilyn Monroe in Cuba, it means different things than if I talk about Marilyn Monroe here,” she notes. And while artists outside the United States and Western Europe always have had to address this issue if they wanted recognition outside their own countries, increasing cultural globalization is making it a more complex proposition.

While she is in San Francisco, Bruguera is collaborating on a work at New Langston Arts Center about this very issue. Titled “The Body of Silence,” it is about how people are or are not included in history. But instead of re-creating the piece she performed in Havana, Bruguera is collaborating with a local artist who will substitute her own experience for Bruguera.

“When you have an international audience, one of two things can happen,” Bruguera muses. “Either you talk to the new audience about its own situation, or you act as a translator of yours. I’m trying to see how I can resolve that. Here a woman will use her own icons and symbols and her own relations to reinterpret the original piece.”

Bruguera will create another piece, this one at the San Francisco Art Institute, that explores tea and the rituals that surround it change, based on the cultural context. It was inspired by a visit to India, where Bruguera said she marveled at the ways the English usurpe and transformed the role of the drink.

“We haven’t yet gotten to the point where the same elements have the same meaning for everyone, no matter where they are,” she says. “We may get to that point. But not yet.”