Both Faces of the Moon

Edmundo Desnoes

From: Desnoes, Edmundo. “Tania Bruguera. Both Faces of the Moon,” Arte al Día, Nr. 110, 2005, New York, United States, (illust.) pp. 26 – 31.

Download PDF

TANIA BRUGUERA. Both Faces of the Moon

By Edmundo Desnoes

PATRIA O MUERTE. VENCEREMOS.  A classic slogan of the Cuban revolution echoes in Tania Bruguera’s resonant installation as: ARTE O MUERTE. SOBREVIVIREMOS. Slogans, so dear to the social engineering of Communism, have a Capitalist twin sister in the sound-bites of advertising or even in old recurrent phrases of certain cloying lyrics of my youth: “All or nothing at all.” Slogans are absolutes you cannot avoid repeating over and over again.

Slogans, ditties, jingles, commandments, and mottoes are orders, piercing sound-bites that leave no space to maneuver, that haunt you and adhere, stick to your brain. “I can’t believe it’s not butter” is an attempt to subvert your taste buds;“hasta la Victoria siempre” turns you into a robot that marches from failure to failure and yet claims victory. Slogans are powerful things. They blind you to the ambiguities of existence.

It makes no difference if “history is bunk” in Brave New World or “history will absolve me” in Cuba. Slogans are leeches.

Maybe all systems function through slogans. Maybe to see alternatives is not good for business. The market will take care of everything. Maybe to doubt threatens the authority of the Politburo. The party knows best. To act without thinking is bliss. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, “as Hamlet discovered,” and enterprise of great pitch and moment… turn awry and lose the name of action. “Yet conscience is what subversive art is all about.

Tania Bruguera has consecrated all her creative energies to exposing contradictions, the hidden meaning of blind revolutionary action and rhetoric. The materials she uses, whether it is the Cuban flag meticulously built with human hair or the official image of Fidel Castro suddenly projected in a dark tunnel as we, those who need her work to see things better, walk and stumble on bagazo, the sugar cane detritus after the sweet juices have been extracted from the stalks –all these contribute to her explosive revelations. By simply changing the environment, the lighting, Tania reveals the true content of the official image of patriarchal power. The image is already, by its mere presence, an order: COMANDANTE EN JEFE: ORDENE. True, it was only shown the first day the exhibit opened in the bowels of the Cabana Fortress in Havana, a few steps from the Morro Castle. Then it was ordered removed. But it is already inscribided in the history of Cuban art. Tania was careful to select only the official, approved images of Fidel Castro – but by changing the environment she opened his tunic and exposed his guts. “I don’t care about the niceties of form,” Tania proclaims. But Tania also discovers the true aesthetics of images, symbols, complete environments that we take for granted. A new social reality requires new aesthetics. Tania even surrenders the meaning of her own naked body, covered in the white innocence of lamb’s wool. And this vestal of the Cuban revolution carries a flag of blood. Slogans put you to sleep, they are a form of anesthesia, depriving you of independent thinking and feeling. One must remember that the opposite anesthesia is aesthetics, from the need to perceive, to feel, to come to your senses. Light and sound are crucial to the expressive installations of Tania Bruguera. In Germany, the artist used light as the truth we all refuse to see although it is shinning in our eyes. And without using any of the traditional objects and symbols of the holocaust, Tania terrifying eternity of hearing the cocking of the weapon: the most dangerous moment: the endless instant before death. Light, sound, darkness.

Slogans are disemboweled in this same hallucinating manner: pulling you out of the quotidian and plunging you into a nightmare. Art is a subversive thing of beauty. Tania’s installation cracks open the stubborn rhetoric of slogans. If a slogan is an absolute that takes over your critical awareness, it is in our power to answer, reject traveling on a one way road.

There was a slogan, I remember, launched in 1968 to encourage the people to persevere in the fight for a brighter future. It marked the anniversary, the centennial of Cuba’s first independence war of 1868 “Cien años de lucha,” a hundred years of struggle and, therefore, we should continue and be proud of the tradition. But the people couldn’t accept that after a century we still had to fight and sacrifice, they needed a respite. “No cojas lucha,” do not engage in the struggle; give yourself a break from relentless sacrifice was a common reaction when pressured to fight against insurmountable odds.

There is something to be said about art in a socialist society. Art is taken seriously by the government, the leadership feels challenged and threatened by the metaphors of painting and literature. It is the opposite of the open society where artists are court jesters entertaining the citizens with mocking comments that are usually ignored. You complain, you let off steam and yet everything remains the same. In socialism you are always in danger of being repressed, denounced. And you feel important because the regime takes you seriously. Freedom is the very air an artist breathes –but it is also important to be taken seriously. I take Tania Bruguera seriously and her siren songs very seriously. I believe Tania, as an artist is not destroying but rescuing the living atmosphere, the blinding light, the very air we breathe in a radical revolution; actually revealing the impossible dreams of the Cuban revolution.

During the “zafra de los diez millones,” the sugar cane harvest of 1970 when the government proposed a bumper crop of ten million tons of sugar, the country struggled but barely managed to reach seven million after every single stalk of cane yielding sugar was harvested. It was a failure, yet the week after the failure was announced, a new slogan hit the island: “convertir el revés en Victoria;” the people must transform the setback into victory. The “v” of revés, setback, jumped out of the text and became a humongous V for victory.

I would say that such a feast is only possible in the realm of art, in the realm that allowed Don Quixote to thrust his humanity upon a cruel world. That is what Tania Bruguera has done with the many setbacks of our island into artistic victories.