Work in Progress: Tania Bruguera and What Belongs to Me

Ariel Ribeaux
July 1999

From: Ribeaux, Ariel. “Work in Progress, Tania Bruguera y lo que nos corresponde,” Heterogénesis, July, Sweden, 1999 (illust.)

Work in Progress: Tania Bruguera and What Belongs to Me

by Ariel Ribeaux

In the early years of the century, in Brazil, during the legendary Modern Art Week, one of the artists in the Brazilian vanguard, the movement that was to be known by the term of anthropofagy, entered a religious precession walking opposite the crowd accompanying the saint. I do not know whether art history includes this action as the first – or, not to be absolute, one of the first –performance in our continent. I would dare consider it as such, and as the expression of an idea and an attitude. (Suffice it to think in the strength and power of religion in our continent and all the more so in the early years of the century.) Not much has been said about this and I believe this has to do with its spontaneity, with the fact that performances as a phenomenon in the field of visual arts were not yet defined, assumed or respected by art theory1  and, especially, in what has to do with the way they were received. That is, the procession involved as a participant in this performance was hardly aware of its participation; it had not been called as a participant or as a spectator, that is, the ephemeral nature of his proposal and its anonymity were added to the gesture of the artist. The provocation had no effect. The work, or rather the proposal, failed because it did not go further than the intention.

Performances as a form of expression in Latin American visual arts began to take force in the ‘70s, but their real explosion was in the second half of the ‘80s. In the case of Cuban art, its situation was similar to that of Latin American art in general. Even so, the work by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera may be considered a unique case in Cuban art in the use of performances as a means for artistic expression.2

Now well, to speak of Tania Bruguera’s work we must start by a necessary reference and it is the work in performance of another Cuban artist, mythic Ana Mendieta. Tania’s work gained international status after what she did with Ana Mendieta’s work. More than with a desire for appropriation, Tania resorted to Ana’s work as an artist’s need to find and show common points, of concluding the oeuvre of an artist left incomplete by her death. Both are Cubans, women, artists, living in two antipodal contexts from the political points of view. The idea of working with Ana’s oeuvre as a basis became a gesture of reflection on emigration, on the feeling of belonging in a given space, on the identity of Cubans over and above any border.3  Before her series on Ana Mendieta, Tania had based her graduation thesis in San Alejandro School of Visual Arts on the figure of Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn is Alive, 1986), a project on which she reflected on the myth, on the idea of women and the place beauty should have. I consider that Tania Bruguera’s work, differently from that of many Cuban artists, has as a starting point a combination of an intimately visceral and individual essence with what takes place in her cultural and social context. This does not take into account the mystic essence and feminist connotation some critics have wanted to attribute to her to propitiate a “eucharistic” consumption of the work or perhaps an author’s withdrawal.4  And also – and increasingly so, I would say, with the points of contact between these and others in the global level, turning themselves, and turning their discourse, into an exhibition of the collective vital flow.

Although Rostros Corporales 1982-1993 (Corporal Faces 1982-1993) – on the homonymous performance by Ana Mendieta, 1982 – underlines this feeling of tribute to the quoted artist, another performance made three years later in England, also a tribute to Ana Mendieta (in which Tania is lying like a dead body while she is submitted to cremation, a very close relationship to several of Ana’s performances like Body Print, Iowa, 1974), offers a most complete dimension of Tania’s work and of one of her concerns: time. The duality present on Tania’s work – mainly in her performances – is then interesting in this sense: the intrinsic ephemeral nature of the performance is subverted, attenuated or contrasted by the possibility of lengthening the process through time. In a work like Memoria de la postguerra (Postwar Memory – 1993), newspaper-performance defining her attitude towards what was taking place in Cuban art and society during the early years of the present decade, a product of collective creation that was left unfinished because of several contextual circumstances, is seen as a series and retaken five years later from a more plural point of view but including, and even reinforcing, the initial assumptions originating it. Thus what is ephemeral is prolonged through the continuous nature of the project. The notion of temporary fugacity accompanying many of her works (even the stills from her performances are exhibited in prints showing the contact image, an image that is not finished in the traditional sense and that makes its documentary nature evident) is subverted if they are considered as a process.

Memoria… is also a definition of Tania’s position vis-à-vis creation: giving a greater value to the process than to the final making of the object. This work represents a punctual moment in Tania’s intentions and concerns as an artist, because apart from being a sociological gesture – inherited from the most generalized discourse of Cuban art in the past decade – it is the first time she resorts to the idea of work as a collective creation, a fact that shows some empathy with many of her later performances.5  In Cabeza abajo (Head Down), for example, besides borrowing for her work the title from a book by a friend, Tania resorted to the collaboration of a group of persons (artists, art and art history students, critics, curators, gallery officials) on which she walked and whose hands she tied and set flags on as if they were conquered territories. Apart from rumination on the relationship between art and power, guilt, responsibility, repression and silence or ideas which are the spinal cord of other words like emigration or memory, Head Down and the above-mentioned one, show the intention of building a work as everyone’s experience. That is why I consider What Belongs to Me, an exhibition held in the artist’s house in 1995 and also the title of a series grouping various works and performances, an enunciation intentionally intended to be assumed by anyone in spite of the individuality of the pronoun used.

One of the most commented performances by Tania, because of the feeling of physical aggression, was that she held some years ago in her house in Havana, in which she was eating earth from a flower pot for hours. The general comment was that it alluded to the precarious economic situation in the country: the lack of food. I believe that over and above this obvious interpretation, the idea of eating earth implied the pain of sacrifice, of having to assume and crudely swallow her own reality, having to digest its context in a more terrible way, something that, no matter how much she would want to, is impossible to evade.

The idea of sacrifice has been dealt with in several of her works, although from various points of view. In Lágrimas de tránsito (Transit Tears, Wifredo Lam Center, 1996), in the midst of several works recreating an artist’s workshop atmosphere – the space for creation -, Tania was hanging from the ceiling of the gallery, full of bleeding pieces of cotton and with a heart – mimicking hers – also bleeding and beating in her hands, as in an offering. A consubstantial sacrifice to creation, an individual sacrifice to remain in a place, a sacrifice for the wear implied in maintaining a sincere and honest attitude on what you think and express.

After mentioning the importance in Tania Bruguera’s work of the process – which at times can be undertaken as a rite – and the fleeting moment in which the work “is there”, it is also interesting to verify the link existing among the materials she uses to materialize her ideas. Although Tania is not a strictly conceptual artist, what is conceptual in her work – even the elements she uses – becomes evident as a methodological basis when her pieces or performances are conceived, as is a certain intention of minimalism (especially in the case of drawings) that is present as a structural element. A large number of Tania’s most recent performances have included the use of a ram, a purely symbolic animal, or things having to do with it: skin, bones, fat, and others. In El peso de la culpa (The Weight of Blame – Havana, 1997; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela, 1998), the skeleton of a ram hangs from her neck like a shield. An entirely vulnerable shield if one thinks on the meaning of that animal, comparable to the person using if for defense purposes, an implication of carrying on his or her shoulders a blame similar to that of a ram; in Body of Silence (Copenhagen, Denmark, 1998), Tania is naked, surrounded by ram meat.

The artist herself has defined her work as an answer to her cultural environment, where what is strictly personal and intimate fuses with what is collective and social trying to create works in which the line between reality and art is erased. I believe that, for better or for worse, we are the reflection of her work and all that space for guilt, responsibility, silence and sacrifice, whether we want it or not, is finally the one befitting us.

1 I am referring to Dadaist actions (Arthur Cravan, Duchamp’s friend, taking his clothes off in a New York exhibition before a select and elegant audience; Jacques Vaché on the stage of a Parisian theater dressed like a British officer pointing a gun at spectators scandalized by Apollinaire’s eroticism) which in a certain way may be considered, with our end of millennium eyes, as precedents of performances or performances themselves. Dadaists made explicit their interest in gesture more than in works if the gesture ran against common sense, morality, rules, law, and so on, in a certain way defined by the term épater. Later, although in a wider sense, the idea of the gesture, of what is ephemeral, of the impossibility to commercialize a given art product and the interrelationship among various forms of expression to achieve a new product that would be all of them and at the same time none, was taken on by the Nouveau Realisme, the postwar movement conceptually led by Pierre Restany, which had French artist Yves Klein as a pioneer and predominant figure.

2 What I intend to say is that although towards the end of the ’80s there were artists who took on performances as a means of expression (I am thinking on Abdel Hernandez in the baseball game by artists, critics and students of the Higher Art Institute [ISA]; in Angel Delgado, an artist who was sent for several months to prison together with ordinary criminals because of a performance – he defecated in public on the Granma newspaper, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, at the opening of the exhibition “El objeto esculturado” (The Sculpted Object — 1989) – a sample that marked in historiography the end of the revolutionary and questioning decade of the ’80s in visual arts, an action considered the trigger that showed that the assimilating capacity of the institutions on criticism of the Cuban political-ideological system had reached its limit) this did not mean a systematic continuity of performances as a defined medium in the in the work of an artist. This is why I talk about Tania Bruguera’s uniqueness. In the present decade, the number of performances has increased substantially in Cuban art. On May last year the First Performance Festival was held and the second one was held on May this year.

3 “What started as a simple tribute began to take other connotations when (…) towards the end of the ‘80s an almost massive migration of Cuban artists and friends started. All of them began to disappear. All energy was located on leaving Cuba. Ana had been looking for the Cuba she had lost; I was looking at what Cuba was loosing.” [Interview with Tania Bruguera by Valia Garzón. Text for the catalogue of the sample “What Belongs to Me” (drawings, photography, videos and the performance Silence), Espacio Colloquia, National Modern Art Museum, Guatemala, April 1999. Italics are mine.]

4 A category proposed by Cuban art historian Tamara Diaz Bringas in her graduation thesis “I Am Another” (Arts and Letters Faculty, Havana University, 1996), in which the concept of the heteronymous is applied to the work of various Cuban artists in the present decade. A sort of “hand wash” in which the author holds accountable a fictitious being for the conceptual assumptions of his or her work, an irony that should be seen from the point of view of evading the action of censorship (I have already mentioned the polarization of Cuban art in the last two decades, in keeping with the exceedingly politicized education those who were born after 1959 have been submitted to), but that does not work because of the simple fact that the authors are known, thus putting into evidence a sarcastic paradox, a kind of game with the cards on the table with those representing the institutional power.

5 Besides Memoria de la postguerra, a paper where artists, critics and others were invited to participate with their works on a given topic having to do with the moment the country was living, I am thinking in works like Estadística (Statistics): a Cuban funeral flag that took four months to make with the hair of various persons and which retook the symbol of rebelliousness. I also think on Silencio (Silence), a performance made in the above-mentioned exhibition in collaboration with the author of the present text, in which two persons let a thread coming out of their mouths get entangled little by little until it does not allow them any movement, a metaphor – apart from other possible readings – of the traps in which our own words can make us fall, of the possibility of becoming the victims of our own words.