November – December 2000
From: Fadraga Tudela, Lillebit. “Fragmentaciones y otros vicios secretos en la obra de Tania Bruguera,” La Gaceta de Cuba, no.6, Nov.-Dic., Havana, Cuba, 2000. (illust.) pp. 41 – 43.
Fragmentations and Other Secret Vices in Tania Bruguera’s Work
by Lillebit Fadraga
The process of making a work is, for many artists, a tortuous road whose end is only reached after much reflection, but the result is consumed in very few minutes – even seconds – by a wide assortment, most of the times thirsty, of receivers.
The creative act seems to be then, more than a trance, the moment in which the ideas creators have on art, their view of the world and their most intimate thoughts, which perhaps we couldn’t access in any other way, reach their peak. But how do these ideas arrive at the artists’ minds appearing as finished images or the result of the series of feelings, sensations, reflections and moments of rebellion they shoulder every day for twenty-four hours?
This paper you will read is the end result of a long conversation I had with Tania Bruguera in which we tried to organize, classify and teach as true westerners proud of their lineage something that we all suspect is practically indivisible: feeling. That is, everything you will find here are only moments of concrete reality but difficult to apprehend: please allow us these ravings, at least this one time. You are duly warned.
To group a series of works on the basis of a common topic or of the specific technique of the artist is not too difficult to do in the case of Tania Bruguera. Emigration and the capacity of human beings to “resist while yielding” are, as a quick guess, the most recurrent topics in her production. Performances have been the cohesive element par excellence in more than a decade of her successful art career. These statements, of course, deserve more than two lines (important critics have already made reference to this), but we will overlook it to enter into the actual purpose of this text: the analysis of every large series of works by Tania taking into account three levels influencing her creative process and, therefore, its final result. These are, namely, the ethical, emotive and cultural levels.1
First we will examine what we have called the ethical level, always with an underlying questioning of the artist’s function. In the series “Homenaje a Ana Mendieta” (Tribute to Ana Mendieta), Tania Bruguera’s idea is perfectly verifiable: she is only a medium: “I was only the conduct of an idea, of a person, to a different place.”2 In these works, Tania tried to fuse with Ana, the artist with whom she was trying to connect in an emotional level, dreaming to achieve a sensorial reincarnation through the repetition of her works and performances in an art milieu in which Ana had always wanted to be.3 Two old dreams were thus fulfilled: that of Tania, who had always wanted to meet Ana, when reviving and transmitting Mendieta’s work to her own generation in Cuba, and perhaps that of Ana, always connected to her natal soil by a spiritual umbilical cord. These ideas have the emotional level as a starting point and insert in a cultural level where Tania intended to question the idea of belonging: “how do you belong to a place? What is what really makes you part of it?Is it your decision to be part of it? Is it that you are there although you do not want to be a part of it?”4Because what we call cultural level here is the form in which a collectivity thinks and acts, it is the way it finds to reflect its most intimate thoughts that, in a given way, are also those of many people. Ana’s situation as a migrant turned her into the paradigm of a universal conflict, but very heated and painful in the case of Cuba, and that is precisely what gives so much beauty to this series, because there was in it the desire to draw a spiritual, reconciliatory, bridge between a nation and its children (and vice versa), between art in both sides of the sea and between life and death (Ana).
Memories of the Postwar brings some drastic changes: if in the former the artist took a passive role, conditioned by what Ana had created, in the first and second numbers of Memories of the Postwar, Tania was trying to gather testimonies of a time of changes. In an emotional level, Memories… answered a need conditioned by the very training of the artist, emphasizing action, reaction at the situation in art and that found in art “a way of dialog, confrontation and insertion in reality.”5 I still remember with distrustful nostalgia the times in high school when they taught us that Honoré de Balzac was both an indisputable bourgeois and a writer who in his works became the true “critical conscience of society.” Memories… was an attempt to raise again the question of the responsibility of creators vis-à-vis the society.
Then Tania decided to reestablish certain topics, to bring political topics once again to the cultural dialogue through a direct language and the use of several icons (the flag, for example) and to recover the idea of a cultural space, a space for argument, which could be provoked from the pages of Memory…
This is undoubtedly a key work in Tania Bruguera’s career, not just because of the zeal with which she tried to recapture the cultural atmosphere of the ’80s, but because of the impossibility to continue with it given the sad reality of the censorship which surrounded the project and definitively marked all her later production. After that year (1994), Tania began to elaborate the idea of submissiveness and, with much more determination, that of Utopia, something that is also a frequent issue in her oeuvre and that deserves a separate study. With the series Dédalo o el Imperio de la Salvación (Daedalus or the Empire of Salvation), she offers a project whose assumptions were impossible per se. But deliberately impossible and what was important in the gesture was doing it although its impossibility was well known.”6
From the point of view we here call cultural, Tania had noticed that, in collective thinking, a form impelling individuals to adopt positions against their own will for the purpose of reaching some given purposes was becoming general. And this was what the artist did in a practical way: she invented some flying devices – ephemeral, utopian, unusable – whose users were to adopt various positions with which they could or could not be in agreement. Rising a fist or bowing were “tests” they had to pass if they wanted to reach their purpose: to fly away. This series reflected on the transformation of human thought in a specific situation as the one the country was undergoing at the moment and analyzed the consequences that the concessions made just to do the trip – a desire of physical and spiritual escape – could cause in society. In this series, what is cultural and what is emotional are narrowly linked but, on the ethical level, the artist admits she had wanted to play with the visual canon of art and, when making them, try to find “recognizable objects.” That is, to make works that, just by looking at them, would reveal the hand of the creator, something that together with the signature used to be and still is a well-tried criteria to evaluate art. With the following series Lo que me corresponde (What Belongs to Me) this intention will evolve to the point of questioning what is expected of her “(…) as an artist, as a woman, as a Latin, as a Cuban”7 and there will also be an attempt at redefining these preconceptions. In this stage, the artist intended to weigh up and at the same time play with all the cultural stereotypes lying in wait just around the corner. But also, What Belongs to Me is the return to that intimate space; it is the reconciliation with the workshop, with the slow process of producing the work.
With El peso de la culpa (The Weigh of Blame), Tania seems to be returning to the type of work dialoguing with what is social. About the ethical background of this specific series, she says: “(…) it was the thesis that, in the end, what artists hope for is freedom, not in the political meaning of the word, but freedom in the spiritual sense and freedom from the very ties imposed by their knowledge of how to make works.”8
In the emotional level, The Weight… – and we should remember the image with which the series began in which Tania eats mud with the skeleton of a lamb hanging as a shield and a burden at the same time – is very close to her experience with censorship, because it is an apology to submissiveness. This is the way the artist found to make us remember the passivity with which we frequently change and lower ourselves before fear, before guilt. It is the idea of motivating, before a shocking image, the discovery of this need for inner freedom, for rebelliousness we have silenced during centuries of civilization.
Since this text shows a trend to compartmentalize, it cannot omit that which, always generalizing, divides Tania Bruguera’s work into two big stages: a first one whose main interests were to communicate, transmit, inform, dialogue with her generation (and whose paradigms are to be found in Tribute to Ana Mendieta and Memories of the Postwar) and a second one, where silence and ideas like those of responsibility, punishment and submissiveness prevail. This is not the place to analyze the cause of this dramatic transition,9 but we can try to decode it through the presence and repercussion that choosing performance as her main means of expression has had in the work of this artist.
When she made the series on Ana Mendieta, Tania used performance not as an initiative of her own, but as an echo of what Ana had chosen. As has been already mentioned, Tania’s intention was to show those who graduated with her the creative strength of an artist who was practically unknown in Cuba, although she had visited us and had worked here. In her capacity as a medium, Tania only reproduced what Ana had done before.
Memory of Postwar, apart from being a periodical, was a gesture intended to give cohesion to the generation of the ’90s and rescue a universe of debate and social commitment in art that although it was never completely lost, was beginning to appear in a much more concealed way. This gesture implied the emergence of a new communication channel among the artists themselves (the periodical) and between them and the audience. It is also important to point out that, in the original project, the first number was to be handed out by the artist herself in the inauguration of an individual exhibition with the same name in the Plaza Vieja Gallery in 1993. There Tania intended to embody a person handing out fliers or some type of propaganda (the term advertising was not too popular at the time) which fitted very well with the general idea of the sample: the paths of art in a stage of violent changes, of imminent dollarization and the need to foster spaces to channel the creators’ concerns.
The second stage may be located in time in 1994 and implied the disappearance of the collectivist projection that Tania’s production seemed to have acquired in works as the one described above. Silence began to acquire prominence, together with the idea of punishment. Undoubtedly, performances, which the artist would never leave – or at least has not left up to now – served this purpose. Performances allowed her, among other things, to establish a more direct contact with the spectators, since it makes them share, undergo, the individual experience – whether submissiveness or self-flagellation (The Weight of Blame, Head Down, What Belongs to Me) the artist suffers.
When Tania undresses or punishes herself (eating earth, letting ants bite her, covering her entire body with a suffocating dress with nails and mud) before the audience, she materializes in her body a series of physical humiliations and sufferings that are a clear metaphor for human suffering. The ephemeral nature of the action itself is thus more closely related to life as a transit in a period of affronts and affliction which we must face with individual doses of optimism. But I believe the greatest importance in having chosen performance as a means of expression is that, as an urgent event, it is very difficult to point out, to reprimand. This could have been – and now I am speculating – one of the unconscious legacies that the specific situation of censorship we have already mentioned made her.
In one of his most beautiful poems, Constantine Cavafis described a man who wanted to escape from a city where all effort he made was a “written condemnation.” The poet’s pronouncement is that this would follow him everywhere because “Just like you ruined your life here / in this small corner, you destroyed it in the entire earth.”10
I have brought to mind these lines because I believe that in Tania Bruguera’s work there is a latent interest in taking on responsibilities, establishing a direct dialogue that although does not mean to change things, at least urges us not to forget them, not to avoid them. It is the belief that life improves (restlessness is already a symptom of it) here and now, what backs a production that for a decade continues to urge to action, to expression, to social insertion and to the need to find in art a specific usefulness, a way to change against all prejudices and damage in today’s art and world.
1 These series are: Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (Tribute to Ana Mendieta), Memoria de la postguerra(Memory of the Postwar) – although reference is mainly here to the periodical rather than to the series –, Lo que me corresponde (What Belongs to Me), Dedalo o el Imperio de la Salvación(Daedalus or the Empire of Salvation), and El peso de la culpa (The Weight of Blame).
2 Tania Bruguera, Interviewed in Tejadillo 214, August 19, 2000.
3And to which she did integrate, although modestly, after her individual exhibition at the Museo de Bellas Artes, her participation in the Salon de Fotografía and her actions in the Escalera de Jaruco.
9This is the central topic of the chapter devoted to Tania Brugera in my Diploma Thesis “De la memoria y otros aires comunes: censura, religion y ruptura en la plástica cubana de los noventa (On Memory and Other Common Things; Censorship, Religion and Rupture in Cuban Visual Arts from the Nineties), Facultad de Artes y Letras, 1999-2000 course (Unpublished)
10Cavafis, Constantine, “The City” (Translation into Spanish by M. Castillo Didier). In Litoral, Ed. Litoral, UNESCO, Malaga, Spain, 1999, p. 69.