Putting on the lamb

Sarah Bayliss
October 2004

From: Bayliss, Sarah. “Putting on the lamb,” ARTnews, vol. 103, no.9, October, New York, United States, 2004, (illust.) p. 21, pp. 164 – 167.

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Putting on the Lamb

by Sarah Bayliss


In 1980, When Tania Bruguera was growing up in Havana, her mother enrolled her in art school, thinking that it would keep her out of trouble.  “Usually, secondary school in Cuba is in the morning or the afternoon,” says Bruguera.  “The art school had both sessions, so my mother wouldn’t have to worry that I would be out in the streets.”  Besides, her mother told her, “it won’t hurt to study art.  It’s elegant.”

Bruguera’s audacious approach to art may not reflect the kind of elegance her mother envisioned.  Most of her performances have explored such issues as violence, censorship, submission to authority, and human resilience, which have defined Cuban life since the revolution.  In these pieces, Bruguera has performed nude, worn a headless lamb carcass, ingested dirt and paper, and yanked a flock of stubborn sheep through the streets of Ghent, Belgium, with a bit clamped between her teeth.  After Bruguera’s mother learned that she was performing naked, “she tried to make me swear I wouldn’t do nude performances anymore”, says the 36-year-old artist, who received an undergraduate degree at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte and M.F.A. in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I said, ‘Don’t ask me that!”

Despite its visceral nature, much of Bruguera’s work has an unexpected grace.  “Tania’s art has a formal quality and a poetic nuance to it,” says Gary Garrels, chief curator of the department of drawings and curator of the department of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  “It’s not just slamming you in the gut or hitting you over the head.”

Bruguera’s art career has taken her from biennial in Venice, Kwangju, Istanbul, and São Paulo to the exhibition Documenta, in Kassel, Germany.  When not traveling to participate in these and other international art events, she divides her time between Chicago and Havana, where she is founding director of the Cátedra Arte Conducta, a performance-art program at the Instituto Superior de Arte.

Sitting in an East Village café during a recent visit to New York, Bruguera, dressed in a black T-shirt reading “There is no enemy,” talked about her politically charged and visceral performances.  Her T-shirt, she explained, was one of several she designed and was giving away to friends.  Others read “Never forget your first revolution” and “It is easier to be used.”

“I took the original Cuban revolutionary slogans and transformed the into a kind of advertisement and changed their original meaning,” she says.  “That’s more or less what’s happening in Cuba.”

In her performances Bruguera often addresses the dynamics of repression.  For the Ghent piece, The Burden of the Guilt III (1999), she chose to use sheep, usually perceived as docile and innocent animals to underscore the idea of “submission as an act of survival,” she says.  (In fact, the animals were quite stubborn.)  Her nudity in pieces like these, she explains, is a way to symbolize vulnerability.  In The Burden of the Guilt III, attired only in an eviscerated lamb carcass worn like a piece of armor, she methodically swallowed small balls of dirt mixed in salt water.  First performed in her Havana home in 1997, the piece was inspired by a legend about native Cuban Indians who, under attack by the Spaniards, committed suicide by eating dirt in order to avoid being captured.  During her performance, the police stopped by Bruguera’s house to find out what was going on.  “I had a permit for a party,” she says.  “I said I was just doing a little something for the party.  I have learned how to negotiate things.”

The Cuban curator and critic Gerardo Mosquera, who is adjunct curator at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, nicknamed Bruguera and her peers the “weeds,” based on their resilience and ability to take root and flourish in Cuba’s harsh social and economic environment during the early 1990s.  “They came out very  strongly in a difficult situation,” says Mosquera, who also mentions Fernando Rodríguez and the collective Los Carpinteros in this context.  After the collapse of Soviet Union, Cuba could no longer depend on Russia for material support, and the United States tightened its embargo, making it especially hard for Cuban to earn a living.  In addition, a number of Cuban art stars, including José Bedia, Carlos Estevez, and Consuelo Castaneda, emigrated from the island, leaving the art scene intellectually depleted.

Mosquera says that today, “to a certain extent,” the government is more permissive toward the current generation of political artists, in part to avoid another exodus.  And since art is now exempt from the U.S. trade embargo, some artist can actually earn a good living selling their art internationally, while remaining on the island.

“The international art world has recognized Tania and other artist, and that helps then in Cuba,” says Holly Block, executive director of the New York nonprofit gallery Art in General and coauthor, with Mosquera, of the 2001 book Art Cuba: The New Generation (Harry N. Abrams).  And, as Mosquera points out, “Tania has always been a cultural activis; her work is political in a good sense.  She is not handing out pamphlets, but she is touching on very critical issues.”

On of her best-known political works, which debuted at the Seventh Havana Bienal, in 2000, is Untitled (Havana, 2000).  It occupied La Cabaña, a former military prison.  Visitors had to walk through a darkened tunnel as they trod on rotting sugarcane stalks.  Passing by ghostly figures in the darkness -in fact, four nude men brushing, rubbing, and slapping their own bodies- viewers encountered a TV monitor showing excerpts from Fidel Castro’s televised appearances.  The exhibition was shut down after a day, ostensibly because of the male nudity.

The following year at the Venice Biennale, Bruguera startled audiences with an installation of eight video monitors that showed her performing such self-deforming acts as tearing at her lips with her fingers; distending her mouth with her tongue; violently pulling at her dark, curly hair; and rolling back her eyes.  An accompanying sound track played the clamor of bleating lams.  Titled Island Burden, the piece, also shown that fall at LiebmanMagnan Gallery in New York, alluded to self-censorship in Cuba.  But gallery visitors found as well that it reflected their own feelings of confusion, horror, and sadness during the weeks after September 11.

Bruguera’s childhood experience living abroad when she was between three and eleven made her aware of how violence and upheaval affect people.  Her father, a Cuban diplomat, brought the family to places such as Lebanon and then panama, where they resided during the American invasion in 1989.  Her father and mother -who is secretary and a translator- are now divorced; both now live in Cuba.

Not long ago, Bruguera came across an old videotape while she was cleaning her house -it showed a birthday party in Lebanon.  “The whole family was in the living room.  You see the cake and then, out the window, the tanks passing by,” says Bruguera.  “This gives you some ideas about where my work comes from.”

At art school in Havana, Bruguera started out studying traditional drawing and, encouraged by one of her drawing teachers, Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, she began experimenting with performance art.  “He said that art can just be an expression of yourself, not something to be collected,” she says.  Bruguera also became intrigued with Ana Mendieta, the Cuban expatriate performance artist and a friend of  Padilla’s.  In her series “Silhouettes,” Mendieta made impressions of her own body in the landscape, using mud and gunpowder, among other materials.

When Mendieta, whom Bruguera never met, died in 1985, Bruguera became obsessed with her.  In 1987 she began reenacting Mendieta’s performances in Cuba, where Mendieta had made ephemeral artworks in the landscape.  “I had this crazy idea that I could make Ana alive by pretending she was living in Cuba and was doing new work,” says Bruguera.  “I used myself as a promoter instead of an artist.”

In the 1980s, prominent Cuban artists started emigrating en masse.  Promoted by the Cuban government while they lived there, they were effectively eliminated from the country’s historical record after leaving.  “When you leave, it’s as if you are being erased from the culture,” says Bruguera, citing the expatriate trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, whose CDs were removed from the music stores.  “They immediately started to promote the new people and say, OK, they left.  We don’t need them.  We have these young people.”

This phenomenon had a profound effect on Bruguera, one of those “young people,” whose feelings of loss were compounded by Padilla’s death in 1988.  “It was very hard because these people were my friends, my colleagues,” she explains.  “I said, ‘You know what” I can’t erase then from my life.’  And the Ana Mendieta project became a symbol of how Cuban Americans who left the country are also part of the country.”  In 1992 Bruguera’s solo exhibition at Havana’s Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, titled “Ana Mendieta,” was conceived as the late artist’s first “solo show” in Havana.

Soon after, Bruguera became interested in trying to revive the spirit of the Cuban art world of the 1980s.  To that end, she began publishing a newspaper of artists writings, Memoria de la Postguerra, and distributed the second issue at the Fifth Havana Bienal, in 1994.  The two issues included a list of 105 artists who had emigrated from the island as well as essays, including a satirical article drawing comparisons between Cuba’s banana production and the art world.  Bruguera gave potential contributors trinkets -key chains, ashtrays- bearing the newspaper’s logo. She was advised by a government cultural official not to put out another paper and stopped publication after the second issue.

To be censored as an artist, Bruguera says, is to “push the boundaries in some uncomfortable way where people don’t know how to respond.”  She considers the newspapers one of her best pieces -not because it was censored, but because it got people talking.  “One thing that frustrates me about art,” she says, “is the idea of utility” -that people believe art should not be useful.-  For Bruguera art can and should have a measureable effect.  Her Mendieta project, she says, was “useful” because “by the end, everybody in Cuba knew who Ana Mendieta was.”  She had been relatively unknown on the island before that.

Bruguera says that she does not sell photographic documentation of her performances, but her large installations sell at her Chicago gallery, Rhona Hoffman, for about $20,000 to $75,000, with sculptural pieces going for between $15,000 and $30,000.  Drawings, some made with coffee or cotton on linen paper, cost between $3,000 and $6,500.  A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands, Bruguera is currently at work designing a complex installation based on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, which she says will be finished late next year or early in 2006.  She is also participating I the Shanghai Biennial, opening this month.

Speaking about her past and future projects, Bruguera reveals that her favorite piece is an untitled installation created for Documenta 11, in 2002.  “The asked me to do something related to Germany.” She says.  Considering Kassel’s importance in manufacturing ammunition during World War II, Bruguera set her installation in a space in which viewers were assaulted by blinding, 700-watt bulbs, simulating the conditions of an interrogation.  A man stood in the space, appearing to load and reload a gun.  When the lights went out, people saw a video presenting the names of 100 locations that have been sites of political massacres since World War II.

“It was not about the visual.  It was about feeling something,” Bruguera says.  “I think politics is an ephemeral thing that changes.  Cuban politics is ephemeral.  An art is ephemeral.  In every big artwork, the human part is what lasts.”