The Organizing Past

Rachel Weiss

From: Weiss, Rachel. “The Organizing Past” To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art, Ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2011, (illust.) pp. 229 – 239.

ISBN 978-0-8166-6515-0

Download PDF

The Organizing Past

by Rachel Weiss

The exodus and Special Period had been blows against the body of collectivism and solidarity.  Bruguera, who straddled the two moments of Volumen Uno and The Baseball Game, felt, the loss with particular force, and her 1993-94 Memoria de la postguerra had the utopian ambition of bringing the dispersed, broked body of the new Cuban art back into a totality -not Orly among those in Havana but rejoining them with those who had Leith, no matter how provisional and fragile that reunion might be.  With Memoria, it became clear that the collective was as much a figure of mourning as of generation.

Strategically, and sarcastically, Bruguera produced Memoria de la postguerra as an underground newspaper that collected work from across the diaspora, and its unpublishable compendium concluded with a list of 106 Cuban artists whos had left. Memoria embodied the camaraderie -protective, jumpy, benighted, and blasphemous as ever- of the new, chastened present.  But for all of Bruguera’s mournful introductory tone (“Postwar, for its resemblance to the physical condition of the city, the interior state of the people, the social nature of art,” read the front-page editorial), the paper was marked by a strange mixture of torment and silliness.  With its ambiguous logo (the Kettering either the work of a rushed street graffitist or else a victim’s last words, dripping in blood), mock promotional campaigns (matching plastic ashtrays), articles with a dubiously journalistic gloss and news from the front, Memoria was a difficult work to parse, roving among mourning and malice, anguish, and disdain.  Ceballos caught the mood with her Psychiatric Exam of a Post-War Artist, diagnosing “a noteworthy collapse of the upper cranial area” because of “an excess of cognitive information.  Long period exhibited at work on theoretical Works and torced concepts,” and prescribing “five or six months of rest in the Swiss Alps, or in Cayo Largo” as the cure.

The war was over, and Memoria was at the press conference, held at “the Center for the Salvation of Plastic Arts, in the capital.”  A painter confirmed the rumors, Rafael López Ramos reported, “Although an armistice has not been signed.”

Among these photostatic documents was not Licking and image of the members of the distinguished Ditch Diggers and the Laboratory of Anthropological Armaments working in the Eastern village of Pilón, nor of the Section of Projects of Social-Military Insertion, who today have bases in some city in Venezuela or travel ubiquitously around various countries in Latin America.

Asked by this reporter about the possibility of a rejoining off forces by the army known in bygone days as Young Art, he responded with a la laconic “No comment…”

The question that the artist could not answer precisely was the one regarding the Exchange of prisoners and the repatriation of war refugees who remain for the most part in Camps supervised by the UN in Mexico and US.  Nonetheless, he announced that the matter would be discussed in a meeting attended by both parties at the Prado Museum, neutral territory offered by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

Memoria de la postguerra was proof: solid, concrete Proof of everything that was in danger of evanescing.  And, with that squarely on the table, it kept returning to the question, what next? Rejoining forces? “I do not know to what extent or with what views the ranks will again restructure themselves,” Bruguera wrote, “A new army advances, along with the survivors, with the given lessons of history, exhausted and alert in other areas, all youth grown violently old.  And the latent need, awaiting, again dressed as a Bride at the gates of legitimacy still with transcendental hardships…. Will we again wait another decade for the forge? Will we again stay by the side of the road, maimed and resigned? Will we again hope to relieve ourselves the center of the World at the wrong moment? Do we have enough time left?  These are the fifteen minutes that again have been our lot.”

The first issue of Memoria came out in November 1993, in the depths of the Special Period.  The second issue was published in June 1994, if anything an even worse moment.  It hit a nerve: its compendium of bitterness, nostalgia and mockery revolving, more or less, around the theme of migration (including a snapshot of two jubilant balseros) was apparently too much.  The paper was censored before it could be distributed, its editorial team was subjected to treats and intimidation (one of them was detained), and that was the end of it.  The work had succeeded in the eternal artistic goal of exceeding its own limits: it had “entered the larger society, not as an artwork but as an event,” and that had been its downfall.

Bruguera stopped working for some time after that, and when she resumed it was in a changed voice.  “I felt I had compromised, and at the same time I worried about how one continues to make work under such circumstances.  Do I bend to their demands, or do I do my own work?”  She shifted to solo performance, transforming her body into the suggestive site of suffering at which the political was lived and the generalities of society became concrete.  Bruguera treated live performance as a possible escape from the typical representational status of a work of art and, therefore, a potential route back to the everyday, a reconnection with a Cuba beyond the new cultural cottage industries. Paradoxically, although performance offered “the immediacy of the need, the intensity of life, and the freedom of the ephemeral,” her embodiment of the form led to a brooding, bruised, and cloistered work.  The new Cuban art of the 1980s was a forceful referent in the 1990s, present in-because of- its absence, present as both dirge and insistent.  It was an impossible and contradictory legacy, something to reject and to recapture, and anguishing loss and a failure better left in the past.

Bruguera was another of Elso’s students, and she bore his imprint deeply.  Returning to the idea of human flight that her teacher had identified with pre-Columbian myths about shamans and transcontinental unity, Bruguera’s version instead conjured and image of incipient catastrophe and radical isolation.  In repeated performances of Estudio de taller (Studio study) she hoisted herself into metal straps “that act as the bars used by censors,” and slumped from the highest part of gallery walls, naked and wordless.

Bruguera’s nudity in performance, like her intense concentration, stillness, and silence, created a problematic, difficult intimacy.  In El peso de la culpa (The burden of guilt, 1997), she stripped the carcass of a lamb -a “Shield”- to her body.  With a glazed affect she knelt before small bowls containing saltwater and dirt, methodically mixing and eating them until she could not continue.  The work, performed in a room of her house in a marginal area of Old Havana, confronted her audience with the surrender and degradation of her act, and humiliated them with their voyeuristic status.

Bruguera’s highly repetitive and ritualized actions, very ordinary in themselves, accumulated psychic force through their multiplication.  Toying with the inevitably theatrical pall of somatic performance is a risky way to work, in which the solo presence, the atmosphere of dense gravity, the slowness and repetitiousness, can easily slide into self-importance and moralizing pretentiousness. These dangers became even more acute as Bruguera’s professional success slowly moved her into the new upper class and therefore out of the conditions of daily abjection on which her work often dwelt.  She began to address the problem by no Langer performing in the work, instead hiring her neighbors.

They appeared, memorably in Bruguera’s work for the seventh Biennial in 2000.  The piece was staged in nearly total Darkness in one of the Cabaña fortress’s stone vaults.  A small television hung from the ceiling placed a loop of historical footage of Fidel Castro, mostly seen in more “human” moments.  The video had the effect of deheroizing the figure represented with such enormity in the media; it was affectionate effect, which somehow shredded the enforced affection of the official representations.  Those images hovered in the darkness, and Only after some time viewers became aware of the presence of naked men in the room, performing various small, Soutine gestures -bowing rhythmically, rubbing themselves in motions something like washing.  The performers, presumably, were there to communicate, but their “messages” were indistinct to the point of illegibility.  (“A gesture,” says the artist elsewhere, “is about repeating an action from everyday life and putting it into a conscious space.  The gesture creates an atmosphere.”)  The entire space was carpeted with rotting sugar cane that exuded and overwhelming, sweetly sickening stench, finalizing the work’s air of claustrophobia, mystery, and dread.  The work suggested private things, pain, an exculpating tangle of sensations and possible meanings.  “You are alone here,” her accompanying text read, “or not.  You are implicated….  You’ve been standing there for some forty years, or maybe five minutes….  Your feet sink in the milled, useless and infertile sugarcane as you head back Howard the greater Light.  (Have you always walked this way?)”

Throughout the 1990s, though, Bruguera became more and more unhappy with her work, even as the invitations to residencies and exhibitions abroad multiplied.  Bruguera’s had been a kind of mourning work, but it short -circuited that task by resolving too easily into Art.  A whiff of false sense trailed the work’s indelible images and its angst, and a plan gently obligatory tone.  The work’s existentialist perseverations became their own subject.  Bruguera, maybe more than anyone else, had been obsessed with longing for the earlier times -not so much for their politics as for the intensity and humanity of their Bonds, and the sense of shared responsibility for each other that had underlain everything.  That sense may indeed have been mostly a myth, but it was one that had accumulated a lot of traction over the fallow years.  After a couple of stillborn efforts to revive her newspaper.  Bruguera settled on an approach that returned to one of the earliest gambits of the new Cuban art: teaching.  She opened the Taller Arte de Conducta in 2003 with the stated goal to “created space for creation and discourse” focused on “the limits of the social body.”  The Project is Bruguera’s own quasi-utopian gesture that Fosters an artistic interaction. Arte de Conducta advances a more sociological kind of art, not necessarily, or not exclusively, based in Bruguera’s own work but heavily influenced by core commitments to social agency and honest Exchange.

A characteristic sensibility and focus developed in the student’s work, mucho f it playing on the Edge of legality.  The law in question tended to be those pertaining social conditions, the Black market, and so forth, rarely touching on directly ideological concerns.  Various Works provided “services,” often of dubious value: Luis o Miguel, authors of the ¿Está en la lucha? Telephone Surrey, mustered a one-night performance at the Cienfuegos train station consisting in the offer to mind people’s bags, since there was no baggage checkroom there.  The team of Celia y Yunior hung around in front of courthouses and offered themselves as witnesses for weddings (two are required by law) and, in a series of related actions, repeatedly married and divorced each other (there is no legal limit.)  The marriages had a number of resonances: for one thing, marriage (to a foreigner) is one of the few legal means for leaving the island; for another, marriage (between Cubans) is rewarded by the state with a free buffet for the wedding party -a bonanza that people often resell on the black market.  In another piece the artists took on the government’s campaign to save electricity by living without power for six months, then exhibiting the work in the form of the null electric bill.  Such work engaged in a kind of game with the ubiquitous systems of control, highlighting the continual fluidity on both sides as people invented new ways to circumvent regulations, which were in turn modified to neutralize the innovations, and so forth in an endless corkscrew of impediments.  The works proposed a “third way” to deal with institutions, neither obeying nor disobeying, but using the laws in ways that were not foreseen.

The habitual, mostly petty, criminality that had become standard was a source of humiliation for people at the beginning of the Special period, but it was soon integrated and naturalized: these works seemed pointed at that cycle of personal absorption and degradation.  The encompassing nature of the regulatory state was pushed into the foreground, as was its absence of persuasive operative logics: the state as ideology had been replaced by the state as police, watchdogs, inspectors, and petty bureaucrats, a penetrating disciplinary apparatus standing in for moral certainties.

Bruguera’s workshop was the most concerted, programmatic, and systematic of the efforts to make things (as good) as they once were, to remove the neo-prefix from the Cuban avant-garde, to reclaim, as it were, its ability to “reclaim the pasts.” Rather than just endlessly recycle them.  But even that effort, brilliantly positioned between the institutional and its counter, the international art world and local situation, has yielded an intense sense of straining at limits that seem more than anything else to be internal.  Even art of withdrawal, as it turned out, an art framed in something like the opposite of asseverations, will eventually frame its own paradigms.