Postwar Memories

Tania Bruguera

From: Bruguera, Tania “Postwar Memories,” By Heart / De Memoria -Cuban women’s journeys in and out of exile-, Edited by María de los Ángeles Torres, Texts by various authors, Ed. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, United States, 2003, (illust.) pp. 169 – 189.
ISBN 1-59213-010-0

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Postwar Memories

by Tania Bruguera

A. Ana Mendieta

An artist is a space for communication. In the artist, reality comes together and through the artist, ideas are received and transmitted. These ideas are part of a moment that returns, and then other artists retake those ideas and carry them forward.

The artwork of Ana Mendieta was part of a conference that I attended in 1986. Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba but left at the age of twelve for the United States. I had seen images of her artwork and these had impressed and fascinated me, but it was at this conference that I learned she had died. A feeling of loss seized me. It seemed unjust that such a powerful body of art should be left incomplete.

I wanted to make a homage. I began to look for her. Her death had frustrated any attempt to meet her. I searched for her through her artwork, through the marks she had left on those who knew her. I imagined that I could eliminate the idea of her death if her artwork could continue. I tried to understand and to learn.

Beyond her own artwork, Ana then became a symbol of returning to the land. Doing that meant also the possibility of somehow belonging, the possibility of having at least the right to belong. From within Cuba, her return became the proof that there really was another part of us that we didn’t know, but that existed.

All this happened almost as a premonition of what would come next, when many of those who had known her changed their status with regard to Cuba, when it was our turn to lose friends, relatives, partners in the latter disappearances. Ana had tried to ignore her “non-existent” condition. She and her exile became metaphors of one of the defining conflicts of my generation. Can you belong without being there? The questions I asked myself in order to understand Ana, I could later ask about each new person who left.

I realized that the most important thing was to rescue Ana from oblivion. Not only because of what she represented, but because of the way she understood how to make Cuban art, to recover an essence.

The artwork I wanted to make through Ana’s artwork was more a cultural gesture than a manufacturing of objects. The object was the point of reference. I was just the archaeologist, the medium. The action was to incorporate her, to make her part of the cultural context, of the reference. It was to give her a time and a place within Cuba, within Cuban art. And what better way to do that than through her own artwork? What better homage than to recognize that this is also a way of representing us? What better way to continue the dialogue?

B. Memory of the Postwar Period

In 1993 the average address book came to have only a few names and phone numbers that could still be read among all the crossed-out lines. Starting over, getting to know new people, getting involved again: how long could this go on?

Trying not to erase old memories, which by then were more idealized, of course, I discovered that the legacy of the artists who had left now belonged almost exclusively to the realm of memory and oral history. There were very few tangible signs of what they had done.

Since this was the medium – which no longer existed with those people who had left — in which I trained as an artist, I wished to comment on my new landscape in the manner that those artists who had left had done with theirs when they lived in Cuba. I wished to recover a certain time, a certain atmosphere, to test whether it was still possible to use certain themes that they had used in their artworks. I reedited their icons, their strategies: the flags, the performances, the discussions, the interchange, the island, the politics, the defiance, the social commentary.

I remember that in Art History classes the social panorama of past eras was taught through artists’ works. They tried to explain those artworks as a reaction in some sense to what had happened around the artists, as a point of reference. The artworks became commentaries on what had happened.

In the Cuban history classes at school, repeated year after year with little variation, they spoke to us — some with more, some with less passion — about the privilege of living and participating in a historical moment. They made us conscious of the benefits we enjoyed thanks to the heroism of others.

I thought I could assume the post of artist as witness who would leave a record of the social upheavals of the era, trying to put to the test the theory of art as agent of change of reality.

The name of this series of works is Memory of the Postwar Period: Postwar, as a metaphor of the circumstances within Cuban art following the wave of emigration of artists in the late eighties and early nineties, an emigration that left among the artists in Cuba a confused sensation of being mistaken; Postwar, as metaphor for the results of a “war” between art and power that had, for the moment, finished its most frontal phase; Postwar, for the similarity at the physical level of the city, for people’s inner lives, for the new social role of art.

Memory, not to forget continuity.

The artworks that made up this series became a personal, intimate collective experience, because it is experienced in common and because each one of us has to resolve it at personal level at some time. Memory of the Postwar Period is also the name of one artwork that synthesizes the idea of this series. It is the point that holds together the need to think of culture as a collective occurrence and of art as a gesture. It appears as a newspaper, because one can see in it a testimonial space that presents notes rather than theses in its commentaries; because it is a point of reference for opinions; because of its assembled character, because of the immediacy of its need for self-expression. Even though by the time we read it, a newspapers way of framing things, of responding to them, of explaining them, may not be the same, it continues to have historical value, a value that resides in the possibility it gives us to know what was being thought at a given time and place; to find out what had happened from the voice of a witness.

The strategy of this artwork lies its mimetic force, its existence on the borders of its own illusions, its virtual coherence in its way of appearing and circulating, the confusion, the gesture, its role, the desire not to lose the testimony while a moment was being crystallized.

This artwork was assembled on two occasions, each time with a central theme. The first, the Postwar Period as symbolic condition of the situation within art; the second, on emigration. I tried to begin a discussion and leave a record about matters that I felt were at that moment blurred in public opinion at the same time that they were themes or places of coincidence in the investigations of various artists or theorists. The collaborators were artists, critics, curators, researchers, gallery owners, art students, and in general everyone who takes part in the world of the production or circulation of art.

This artwork owes a debt to its place of origin, Cuba, and to the moment that it lived within Cuban culture. One of its main objectives was not to exclude anyone from either side of the sea, rather the contrary, it tried to be a bridge, a neutral space for coming together.

C. The Trip

The Trip is an artwork that is like a ritual. Every element that formed part of my past, every object that contained the memories of times past, was broken and packed into brown paper bags, and the bags tied with ropes of twine by which they could be held if one wanted to carry them, as one carries what one lives.

Within the bags were maps that helped me find certain ethical roads that I followed, or that turned out to be false; books that led me to other places; drawings that had accumulated; clothes-, debris from my house in construction, the trash from the very exhibition in which the artwork was being shown.

But one of the most important elements was the correspondence I had kept up for almost twenty months with the man who had up to then been my companion of six years.

He had decided to take a trip to Mexico that kept being prolonged, as he asked for new exit permits and new visas and repeating the permit requests, until the meaning of his presence in that place began to change and we gradually came to understand that he had emigrated: one more who had decided that this was the chosen way to resolve certain conflicts, as part of a feverish joint aspiration in which possibly all of us took part.

The first exhibition at which I showed this artwork tried to analyze the different ways of resolving both the social situation and the artistic position through various personal moments. This artwork was placed at the end of the line, next to the door, ready to be taken as hand luggage or to be seen as an accumulation of memories that have been taken out, or that are already in that strange dimension of belonging outside of ourselves. It is an artwork that tries to capture an instant, to freeze an action.

Later I began to see the relation between what had happened to me and many other people’s stories. Friends who had letters as a means of communication. Some people who had left in one way or another forever and who had need to perform a similar ritual, although under other, more insurmountable pressures: of having to leave the country where they were born, of having to pay for it with an act of renouncing what they had been.

That was when I decided that the next time it was exhibited, I would change its condition of accumulation for that of the island of Cuba. It would be a metaphor for the island built through the act of renunciation, the renunciation by others of its past, of its future. It was a metaphor for the price of an island made from the memories of so many lives lived and packed away for the time when they could come back to pick them up. My memories were transformed into a simile for the memories of those who were no longer here, because they had left the country. The gesture I had made, my personal experience, had gained a new dimension. Just as they had taught us in school, our past life came to form part of a process, a collective development; each one of us contained the concept; each one of us was the country.

D. Life Raft

This is a project (as it can only aspire to becoming a work of art) for a monument to those who have died trying to get to the other side. A funerary artwork in the end, black marble is used for the lifesaving planks; size, the average height of a person in Cuba, 1.65 meters [or 5 feet 5 inches]. Between each slab of marble, a timber, forming a line that suggests half the structure of a boat. The image can only be completed when this skeleton is united with its reflection in the marble. Between each plank, cotton for caulking so that the boat will not sink: as a healing element, as a sign of salvation.

All this in a repeating structure, suggesting an unpredictable finitude, anonymous, incapable of naming any of those who form this space, becoming a monument to silence.

E. Fear

This was an obsessive act in which I first drew near the island (“The Trip”) and picked up one of the bags. I took out the cotton that it held while walking toward the monument (“Life Raft”). I began using the cotton over and over to caulk the planks of that “boat,” with the hope of thus “avoiding” a capsize. The cotton was a symbol of the desire to absolve all the pain, so that it would disappear, so as to avoid it.

After determining my frustrated intention, I would go toward a boat, broken and laden with the history of its own uselessness, docked in a shipyard. I would put into it the rest of the cotton from the bag, a bottle, and my body. It was a trip without point of departure nor point of arrival, which was death just as it was a dream. An action that was an offering just as it was a desperate solution.

F. Statistic

This is a funerary flag. It originally took shape as the idea of a wall on which I would place, like the marks that prisoners make in their cells, hair from anonymous Cubans, grouped into small locks and tied with thread. Later, trying to make a direct reference to Cuba, I retook one of the motifs used by Cuban artists, particularly those of the “generation of the Eighties”: the flag.

The base is black fabric. On one side, the hair, tied together with red, white, and olive green threads, substituting for the real colors of the flag. On the other side, the black thread with which the hair is sewn to the fabric shows, black on black, the flag’s pattern. It becomes one of those banners that are placed outside a house to indicate mourning.

I used the hair because it is an element that in Cuba, as in almost every culture, is considered the place where all the energy, all the force of thought of a person concentrates. This is why, in the Afro-Cuban religion, the hair is one of the parts of the living body that are most utilized for controlling someone’s “head,” their thoughts, their decisions, The sense of tying down with the threads is in this case taken literally.

This is an artwork with the force of ritual, which begins from the action of looking for the hair and rolling it up, through sitting down every day for months to sew the Cuban flag, like in the colonial era. In that era the women of the household would gather or they would go to the another patriot’s house, and they would sit down to sew this same flag, which at the time was not the national emblem but a standard of revolutionary and independent ideas. It was an act of conspiracy and solidarity. It was being useful while the men were at war.

During the nearly four months that we were making this work, each time friend came to visit the house, my assistant Peria and I would give them a needle and we would explain to them the idea behind the work and what had to be done. We talked about everything.

This flag has another part, which is made from the perspective of those Cubans who live outside of Cuba.

G. Head Down

Head Down takes its name from a poem and the title of a book by the Cuban poet Carlos A. Alfonso. It was first exhibited at the alternative gallery Espacio Aglutinador in Havana.

A trench separates the public from the space where the performance unfolds. The floor is carpeted with artists, critics, art and art history students, people of the world of art. As in other artworks, the audience at whom the work is directed is part of it, the subject of study, of analysis, of discussion.

Everyone is sprawled on the floor, face down, on their sides, every which way, on top of each other. The only person not in this position stands waiting patiently next to some flags. Personal and sexual traits scarcely exist, eliminated by a coating of flour. From the back, emerging from the imitation lamb’s wool vestment and raising up over the persons head, is a banner. A banner just like the ones that lay about on the floor; incorporated like those of the Japanese samurai, who put on flags according to the new lords for whom they have to fight and conquer and defend territories.

The background music begins. It is played by the Experimental Sound Group from ICAIC, the Cuban Cinematic Arts and Industry Institute, and the songs of the Cuban Nueva Trova movement, symbols of the new revolutionary ethics.

The principal character takes a flag and begins to walk over the bodies sprawled on the floor. She stops, stoops to get closer to the bodies, to one in particular. Ties on a ribbon of the same color as the flags. Takes a banner just like the one she carries on her back. Keeps walking on top of these people. Stops stoops to reach one of the bodies. Ties on a ribbon that is clearly a piece of the flag, using it to cover the mouth. Rises, drives in the symbol of her triumph — a flag, which the body stretched on the ground has to hold up. Marks her own body by tying a ribbon onto it, too, as a trophy following the victorious action. These actions are repeated. Tying up the eyes, the hands, the ears, the mouths, the feet of the others, always leaving her triumphal banner and marking her body with a ribbon.

The “conquered territories” then begin to modify the landscape. There are two views, one in which the spectator, from above, can see all that has been described; the other, in which the public sees only a phantasmagoric character who walks around creating a setting of red flags, until at last she breaks through the encirclement formed by the trench. With flags and ribbons in hand, the character advances, beginning to perform the same action on those bodies who are watching the performance, on the public itself she disappears.

The mass of people who were strewn about the floor slowly begin to rise, throwing off the flags and ribbons and abandoning the set.

H. Daedalus, or, Empire of Salvation

When I left Cuba for the first time, as an adult, I went to England on a two-month fellowship. They gave me a study and a space for exhibiting the results of what I created there.

Like any other artist under these conditions, I was drawn to the museums. I soon found myself looking at works of art that I had never dreamed to see in the original. In my delirium I remembered my friends, my students, my family; with all of them I had used many of the pieces I was now looking at as references, as objects of study, as comparisons, as commentaries, as points of departure.

Specifically I recalled a student who at that time was creating art full of references to Brueghel the Elder, and here I was standing in front of the piece on which he was basing his work. I felt a kind of impotence to think that the student was the one who should be there, getting so much more benefit out of it for his own work, growing before these other pieces. I began to wish that he was here, then I wished that another of my students could be. I recalled many people. I wished they all could be here, that they all could have this possibility.

Then I created flying devices. For leaving Cuba. I began to enumerate the possible ways of getting out. Each one became a device, each one an attempt.

Icarus had been a reference in an earlier work. Thinking of all the nuances of this mythical symbol, I remembered that in an exhibition in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, an artist had based a piece on this figure in the 1980s, before the artists of his generation had decided to emigrate definitively. In his installation Icarus fell onto a surface of broken mirrors (broken at the moment of impact?). I remembered how appropriate the symbol was for representing what was happening back then, but those mirrors no longer reflected the way we –the artists living in Cuba and those who later emerged- now assume the act of leaving Cuba.

Searching for the roots of the myth, Icarus appeared next to the inventor of the wings: Daedalus. They were father and son. Both were trapped on an island, prisoners of their own movements, of their former loyalties, inside the labyrinth Daedalus himself had constructed for the same King who now condemned them to be devoured by the Minotaur like any other enemy. With help they managed to escape their own prison. They reached the shores of the island, with no other way out but the infinite, impossible sea. Daedalus, the inventor, used all his talents, all his knowledge, all his tricks to flee. He built wings for the two of them, warning about approaching the sun too closely. The warning was a metaphor for the attitude with which one should assume this action. Icarus died because of his youthful and inexperienced anxiety. Daedalus, with more experience, watched painfully as his son fell and was lost. His attitude allowed him to continue, with this image of warning, to the shores of other kingdoms.

The image of Icarus was transformed in line with the way many had to burn their own ships to be able to leave Cuba. Daedalus, who learned the lesson, who kept his distance, who recognized his advantages and his limitations, created his own means of escape. Just like him we have learned, by looking, how to assume the risk of leaving Cuba by another means.

Each of the pieces that make up this series shows a way of constructing the possibility of leaving Cuba. This is only discovered when the device, which has been hung on the wall without revealing its purpose, camouflaged like one more part of the landscape, reveals itself when someone decides to put it on, when someone “activates” it by putting it on. The way the device has to be held, how the body has to adapt to the mimicry of its motions, is how one discovers in which ways an escape from the labyrinth can be invented, which actions can make it possible for us to adopt a position of departure.

The devices are made from discarded material, found objects. In Cuba nothing is thrown away, everything becomes prime material for fixing something else that is broken. I wanted to adopt the attitude of the National Movement of Inventors and Rationalizer’s. They are in charge of fixing up old and almost unusable machinery with whatever is at hand, by substituting mechanisms and pieces from other machines.

I thought of my character as part of this association. These devices would be the prototypes for mass production and would be distributed to all Cubans for leaving Cuba.

A few examples:

Absolution is made with leaves of the royal palm, the symbol of Cuba. It opens up with the person who carries it folds, bends, worships.

Illusion is a transformed bicycle, covered in parts with paper. When it is carried, the body takes the position of closed fists held high. The weight of the steel is the symbolic equivalent of the burden of undertaking such a decision.

Another device is a corset of metallic cloth in which we put the body, which only begins to move when another person, who has put on the gloves connected to the figure, moves his or her fingers, and begins to move the strings of power.

These are artworks in which a certain fragility coexists with weightiness, to speak of the condition of leaving Cuba.

I. Art in America (The Dream)

In 1997 I was selected along with four other artists for a two-month resident fellowship in the United States. Each of us went to a different city. Mine was Chicago.

The myth of being in the United States, of exhibiting there, although it is not exclusive to Cubans, has among us a whole history of well-founded ideas, of prejudices, of predispositions, of false beliefs, all of which made me think of the title of this piece.

When I arrived at the School of the Art Institute, where they received me, among other things they recited to me a list of people that I would supposedly know, since they have to do with art. Among these names I recognized that of Nereida García-Ferraz, a person I had tried to meet, since I remembered her as one of the makers of a documentary on Ana Mendieta that had greatly impressed me and had been one of the reasons propelling me to make the piece on Ana.

I called her up that very afternoon. Kaky Mendieta was there, the cousin of Ana who had given me the facts that were vital to my work. We spent the whole time talking about Cuba while we ate, about the Cuba she had left three years earlier, about the Cuba I had just come from, about the Cuba we once lived in, in our memories; they were all the same, all different.

They began introducing me to the people who formed part of that community, which like all communities is particular to its own circumstances. It was rather like a kind of circle, like a trip that begins and ends at the same point. I was with people who were family and friends of Ana Mendieta. Friends who shared parts of her everyday life, of her achievements, of her final moments.

This was the first time I had lived inside a Cuban community in the United States. I saw how it really functioned, how it did and did not fit the myths that exist about such communities. For the first time my work on the emigration changed its reference point; now it was not about the loss in Cuba, it was about the loss of Cuba.

This coincided with a tour I made of the city with some friends so that I might appreciate some of the local architecture as well as some of the more interesting, if lesser known, sights. At one point they explained that the city was multi-layered, with different levels along the lake shore and beyond, which served a multitude of purposes, both planned and unplanned.

On one of those levels, there is a road that goes underground and winds around the very foundations of the city. Along that road there is a submerged city, a place where human beings take refuge from the cold. The people living there along the margins and without walls are homeless.

I became fascinated with this notion of a city within a city. On top, visible; on the bottom, free of the problems of weather but invisible to the traffic whizzing by was a landscape of bedding in which the chairs, rather than places of rest, serve as watch posts next to cardboard boxes that give the illusion of living rooms, bedrooms — in short, a home.

I was especially impressed by the similarities between homeless and immigrant groups in the way, in order to protect themselves, they create trenches around the communities they build, devising their own “safe” spaces in which they maintain their own language, traditions, culture and ways of being from past lives. These communities also function as a city within the city, as a city under the city.

In Cuba as in most countries, the housing situation is one of the most oppressive problems we face, although for the moment at least there are no homeless people, neither as individuals nor much less as a social group. So for me Lower Wacker seemed a different world.

But as I began to spend time there, the name given to the people of Lower Wacker, homeless, echoed for me the literal translation of the Spanish word “patria,” homeland. The relationship between these concepts of “home” and “land,” to define a concept rendered more abstractly in other languages, created a connection for me between the homeless and the homeland. Immigrants, like the homeless on Lower Wacker, lack a home on their own land.

As I began to think about the two groups, I realized there were other connections between their situations. Both communities have to convert their nomadic existences into a way of life. Both suffer from a certain loss of citizenship: the homeless, because they exist in a kind of no-man’s-land; immigrants –in my thinking, Cuban immigrants in particular, – because by leaving the island they abdicated their right to return and became a kind of pariah.

The harsh conditions of survival experienced by those who leave their homeland are often comparable to those experienced by people who lose their jobs, are thrown out of their homes, or suffer discrimination by the larger society. Both groups suffer from internal strife, sudden change, the need to assimilate quickly to new conditions, and the nearly fatal knowledge that it is practically impossible to change their situation. Both groups must also contend with an overwhelming bureaucracy that is often indifferent if not also inefficient.

The loneliness of both immigrants and the homeless, when they arrive in a new place and have to re-establish themselves, is also, I think, quite similar. Both must develop new skills, if for no other reason than that they are both out of their natural habitats. Their destinies are no longer of their own making, their rights are few and mostly unknown to them. Immigrants, even when they accomplish the immediate goals of their journey, maintain, like the homeless, a certain sense of not belonging, of other ness.

Nostalgia is another point of commonality. The homeless yearn for a time when they had a home, a job, a family; the immigrant longs for a time, held in memory, that is always better. The impossibility of returning to the past serves as a kind of stigma for both groups. The struggle to return to the former way of life, both abstractly and concretely, begins to form their new way of life.

Of course, not all Cubans immigrate for the same reasons, just as not all homeless people arrive at their condition for the same reasons. But both groups suffer oppressive social discrimination, and at best are the objects of pity from those above.

Up to this point my work has dealt with immigration from the perspective of someone living in Cuba and contending with its immediate effects on his or her life there. I have now tried to approach the subject from a different perspective, taking into account the immigrant’s own context and losses, There is much more to be explored and learned here, but this is at least a beginning.

In a performance I did, the participants included Ricardo Fernández, Nereida García-Ferraz, Raquel Mendieta, Achy Obejas, Alejandra Piers-Torres, Paola Piers-Torres, and Nena Torres. The majority of them are Cuban emigrants who left under different circumstances at different times.

The piece was performed on a dark set with only a few yellow lights, in an effort to simulate the tunnel where the homeless live. There were several characters. To enter you had to pass a table where a person with a strict and official air asked you to leave a piece of identification in order to pass, as is done for legal transactions. It was explained that this was a necessary condition for proceeding. It was important this function as a symbolic dispossession of the persons we all are or think we are, due to what we do socially, like not letting certain things be seen.

Another character was set to moving cardboard boxes, named as parts of a house, which kept changing places and kept being made to serve in lieu of a real house. Every time he finished making his new dwelling he had once more to move it all to another place, endlessly. This action, beyond representing the instability of the emigrant’s condition, was a metaphor for the constant search for the lost home.

In another corner a small girl stood with two women who read cards by the light of a candle, which as offering and as illumination let them see the future of passersby. The girl begged for food with a poster. The women were trying to collect money with the only thing they had managed to bring with them to this place they now stayed, their only fortune, their spirituality, their traditions. The cards were read in Spanish by one woman and translated by the other into English, as a metaphor for the effort that has to be made to understand other cultures, and to try to preserve one’s own, which is your only shield.

To leave at the end, when your identification was returned, you had to pass through a process similar to that of the emigrants when they apply for citizenship in their country of residence. The same questions were asked as in the exam for U.S. citizenship. In many cases the audience, who were mainly U.S. citizens, gave the same answers, and the same reactions, that a real inmigrant would give in the real process. People felt the same need to recover their own identity, the same compulsion to finish and to leave without having to worry any more about this torturous situation. This is a work in progress.

I have returned to the United States for four months, and although there is a tremendous difference between what I am going through and the real life of an emigrant, I am having some similar experiences that let me understand in the flesh some of the emotional and practical events that those who have to adapt after emigrating must go through.

Just as Ana wanted to return, conscientiously, to discover a part of her history that was not entirely accessible to her, and took her body as the measure of the world, so have I turned this stay abroad, this process, into a way of entering the life dynamics of a Cuban leaving Cuba; and I have taken my situation as a reference point, searching from the personal for a more complete vision and being more ready to understand Cubans, as we are, in two parts.