Tania the Guerrillera

Rosa Martínez

From: Martínez, Rosa. “Tania the Guerrillera,” 2001


Tania the Guerrilla

by Rosa Martínez

“The guerrilla is a social reformer”

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara1

“The artist may die, especially if the artist is dedicated to an art as dangerous as therevolutionarystruggle, but what will not die is the art to which (she) has devoted (its) intelligence…”

Fidel Castro Ruz2

“I always wanted to make a responsible art”

Tania Bruguera

At the Congress of Russian Intellectuals that took place in Moscow in 1932. Stalin appropriated a concept authored by Lenin and referred to those intellectuals who used ideas to transform their subjects and advance the revolution as “engineers of the soul.” This pairing of a technological term and a spiritual concept was used to suggest the subtle combination of methods designed to modify people’s consciences. In the first few years of the Russian Revolution, it looked like a tentative opening might allow the vanguard to contribute to the creation of the New Man, but by 1932 Stalin had already clearly delineated the guidelines of “social realism,” destined to reflect with its emphatic figures an art that was easily understood by the masses and served an obvious propagandistic objective.

Today the logic of liberalism imposes itself on the planet. The new totalitarianism of globalization and “one thought” has us believing that the market is an almost natural force which regulates the economy, emotional dialogue, and even creative impulses. In comparison with the servility of socialist realism, the myth of the free artist and the defense of a pure and autonomous art has been extolled by such U.S. theorists as Clement Greenberg. But Greenberg’s continued collaboration with the CIA leaves no doubt about his own position, which was neither as pure or intellectually free as what he attributed to the West.

Who can still believe that there is such a thing as “free” art? Institutions of higher learning, which impose order, define the disciplined process by which the social space is organized: its canons, academies, spectacles. In capitalist societies, those in power use the media to “shape” the masses and the new “engineers of the soul” are the marketing experts.

As Rasheed Araen has said, the old anti-imperialist rhetoric doesn’t help us name the new enemy nor prepare us to confront the New World Order. In the battle of images unleashed by the quest for dominance, can art –which is minority and elitist in the context of contemporary iconography’s hyper-production–  create an emancipatory politic? Can it have an active role, one that’s not purely testimonial?3

Tania Bruguera responds with a spirited yes to these questions. For her, art is at once testimony and guerrilla warfare. It’s a witness to the times in which it’s created and a liberating action to combat the oppression of the present: “My personal battle is to unmask the strategies of power. I want to analyze how power manipulates the individual, how it makes her or him submit, how it vanquishes.”

For a project commissioned by Arte all’ arte in San Gimignano, Italy, Tania decided to replicate various instruments of medieval torture in a transparent material, because torture and control today are more sophisticated, more subtle and perverse, more indiscernible than before, but in fact more effective. In this context, art becomes an instrument for discovery, for listening, for the production of images which translate the conditions in which  we live, but which also serves as a weapon against the uniform will of the powerful.

As Michel de Certeau said in “L’Invention du quotidien”4 , it’s unique to the powerful to define the “theater of war,” the framework of operations, the grand strategies, while the weak are left to devise behavioral “tactics,” since they are in an alien camp and can do nothing but slip in between the threads of the web others have spun.

The guerrilla fighter articulates random and uncontrollable manipulations against totalitarian space. She attacks with the polytheism of learned practices, the effectiveness of surprise, and the immediacy of the unexpected. From the moment she associates her own name with that of Tania, the only woman to accompany Che Guevara in the trenches, Bruguera takes on the philosophy of believing in the potency of the weak to combat oppression, and this identifies the artist as a social reformer.

This is the second time in her career that Tania Bruguera has played with the notion of identity. The first was with Ana Mendieta, in an attempt to confront the concept of exile, guided by a desire to recover a historical figure and a vision of Cuba that was getting lost. Now, as she connects herself with a personality such as ‘Tania La Guerrillera,’ she does so not only through the coincidence of her own name, but also with the desire to reconcile her origins, as much from the perspective of a child of a revolution that changed the face of her country, as from the need to re0invent the purpose of art and gamble on its transformative qualities in the face of the impositions of the dominant powers.

In Cuba, the Revolution has had many successes, but it has also taught the Cuban people guilt and submissiveness, and has used emotional blackmail to make them feel that they owe it everything. In the series “The Burden of Guilt,” Tania Bruguera explores ways of surviving a harsh political climate, before a father figure who’s at once authoritarian, dominating, and protective.

Between love and hate, submission is at its core and advantageous negotiation: You surrender your will in exchange for something else, which is, in general, survival. This idea of sacrifice and submission is performatically relived through Tania’s own body. In one performance, she stood naked as she rubbed herself with the fat of a lamb, then knelt and bowed, aligning her own head with that of a sacrificed animal.

In another performance (from “The Burden of Guilt” series), this one presented in her own home during the celebration of the VI Havana Biennale (1997), she alluded to the sacrifice made by Cuban’s indigenous, who ate dirt until they died, a form of protest before the colonizing oppression of the Spaniards. It exemplified the pain of having to swallow their own context, of poisoning themselves with their own soil.

In “Studio Study,” presented in 1996 at the Sao Paulo Biennale, she made reference to personal sacrifice by standing still in one place, suspended from the gallery ceiling, covered with cotton and offering a still beating heart in her hands. In all of these performances, her body is subject and object of representation, a mediating element enduring wear and pain while keeping up a sincere and honest attitude, directly implied by the reality from which she speaks.

In contrast to these projects, “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” presented at the VII Havana Biennale, which took place November 2000, did not include the direct participation of the artist as performer. The spectator was invited to enter a subterranean space that appeared to be a tunnel. Sight was lost in a faraway, endless darkness as one’s steps caused a creaking on the thrashed cane that carpeted the floor and emitted a thick, sweet odor. As her/his eyes got used to the darkness, the spectator began to distinguish the figures of various men standing upright in that disconcerting place. On reaching the end of the tunnel and turning to look back, it was possible to discern a dazzle of natural light at the entrance, the figures were more sharply silhouetted, and on the ceiling there could be seen a small television monitor on which appeared images of Fidel Castro.

The symbolism associated with the light and darkness, the presence of sugarcane (the essential currency of the Cuban economy), the willingness of demystify and humanize the leader of the Cuban Revolution, and the presence of the five men executing repetitive gestures came together to create an allegory about Cuba’s political and social situation. In their everyday gestures (washing teeth, scrubbing a shoulder, bowing) these characters represent the people and evoke the kinds of tasks under which oppression, submission and the desire for change are hidden. In this way, the artist plays with the simulation and repetition of empty gestures that slowly erode awareness of what has been established by institutions.

Tania Bruguera has affirmed that one of the missions of her artistic journey is to heal wounds, and to detoxify the body and soul: “My art has to have a real function for me, it must solve my dilemma, or help other people reflect and make changes, or at least think about certain topics.”

This is an art that joins memory and occasion, the fundamentals of the past and the fortuity of the present to create an open-ended parable. Tania’s performances are like a journal in which she keeps detailed notes of the ways authority tries to suffocate her, and in so doing demonstrates not only that the personal is political but that the political can become personal. Her art establishes a bridge between history, the present, and possible ways of confronting conflict. If there were ever times in which engagement and shock were necessary and positive, Tania has concluded that today direct action only leads to repression, making it necessary to articulate other tactics, more fluid, more grassroots, more constant but equally blunt.

This defense of the healing power or art comes from her own experience: The emotional and intellectual micro-transformations of artistic messages can modify conduct and cleanse the soul. In the same way that for psychoanalysis to work the patient must make a direct decision to seek therapy, to be a guerrilla requires a personal will and discipline that can’t be imposed but must be assumed, and which are in fact born “of the deep conviction of the individual,” as Che Guevara said.5

For Tania Bruguera the personal battle is to keep from growing weary, to continue insisting, to speak out at every opportunity, and to recognize that the problem is at least in part internal as much as external…. That’s why her work translates so well from personal cure to social healing, because both are so closely related. Her patient reconstruction of the place where she lives is her attempt to make it more comprehensible to herself and others, expressing her doubts along the way, which are also shared by many around her. Her work serves to articulate that which the people cannot say because they don’t have the language to do so, nor access to the space in which to do it, but above all because of fear of what they might lose if they talk.

With great consistency, Tania takes on varied artistic languages, taking risks and assuming uncertainty, always exploring irregular territories. Her versatility and interest have led her to create newspapers – “Memory of the Postwar” (1994); works that reflect the origins of exile and its resulting losses; sculptures in the form of flying machines that don’t quite work – “Daedalus, or the Empire of Salvation” (1995) and which alluded to the king who imprisons his architect in the labyrinth he himself was forced to design. And to top off all this, we must add the series of performances about submissions and guilt that we’ve referring to above.

After going through all these processes, she now wants to return to her origins, to her first battles, integrating all the wisdom that’s been accumulating. She wants to re-issue her newspaper but not in print, rather in oral project this time. Using rumor itself as material, this new piece will create an invisible and collective performance, because rumor also shapes souls. Tania wants to direct herself toward an art of behavior, rather than representation, to continue to demonstrate that the weak can become strong, and that the battle continues.

1 Quoted in the article “¿Qué es un guerrillero?,”Published in the newspaper Revolución, February 19, 1959. Reprinted in the magazine Tricontinental,  no.113 May 187.

2 Quoted in Alvarez Batista, Gerónimo. “Che: una nueva batalla,” 1994; published by Ed. Pablo de la Torriente, printed in France by the Sección de Rotativistas de Sindicato General del Libro de Paris.

3 Zulian, Claudio: “Arte y artistas en la Guerra de las imágenes,” Revista Lápiz, no. 163, Madrid, May 2000, p.23.

4 Michel de Certeau: “L’Invention du quotidien.”

5 Rosado Eiro, Luis y Suarez Ramos, Felipe: “Una mancha azul hacia Occidente,” Historia de la Columna Invasora No.8 Ciro Redondo, Ediciones Verde Olivo, Havana, Cuba, 1999.