Every gesture is a political act

Silvia Höller

From: Höller, Silvia. “The Every gesture is a political act,” Portraits. Silvia Höller and Gerarld Matt. Ed. Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln (illust.) p. 7 – p. 51.
ISBN 3-86560-084-0

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Tania Bruguera – Every gesture is a political act

by Silvia Höller

Political power structures, the postcolonial disavowal of culture and the ongoing process of cultural homogenization comprise some of the themes coming within the purview of Tania Bruguera’s artistic activity. The point of departure in much of her art concerns the individual’s understanding of him or herself as part of a collective historical and contemporary social memory. Born in Havanna, in 1968, Cuba has in one form or another invariably constituted the starting point for her work. “For me Cuba has always been a place in which personal concerns find collective expression. Every gesture is a political act”, she claimed in an interview with Octavio Zaya, held in 1999. As daughter of the Cuban ambassador to Lebanon and later to Panama, she was brought up within a highly political environment and was thus confronted at an early age with, among others, such political crises as the Lebanon invasion or the Panama conflict. There resulted from this early experience a heightened sensibility and critical eye for political strategies and the mechanisms of power, characteristics which continue to form the leitmotif in all of Bruguera’s creations.

In Estadistica (Statistics) from 1995-96, a piece which had taken her several months to complete, she fastened to the Cuban national flag numerous bound and sewn together tufts of hair to produce a funerary flag. The myth of collective suicide among the native inhabitants of Cuba during Spanish occupation by means of ingesting earth served as metaphor for the question of political guilt, as thematised in her performance El peso de la culpa (The Burden of Guilt), 1997-1999. In imitation of a ritual ceremony she consumed earth with salt; as a symbolic reference to the oppressive weight of subjugation she draped and bound across her naked shoulders a slashed open and disembowelled lamb as representative of the missionary consciousness of the colonial conquistadores. Even in death the hope of an ascendant spiritual independence was celebrated. Both pieces belonged to the series Memoria de la Postguerra, in which Bruguera treats the work of Cuban immigrant artists of the late eighties and early nineties. In the performative staging of natural elements, the sacrificial rituals of archaic cultures of nature and in the invocation of magic and universal energies could be observed traces of her intensive engagement in the work of Cuban born, North American artist Ana Mendieta. At the age of thirteen, shortly after the disappropriation of property ordered by the Cuban government and on the initiative of the American Church and consent of her parents – who remained behind in Cuba – Mendieta was brought to the United States. In Mendietas’ work is reflected the power of symbols and ritualistic practices of the indigenous peoples of America. Owing to Bruguera’s affinity to this subject, Mendieta initially assumed the role of a sort of artistic mother figure. She occupied herself with the work of the late artist with whom she had never been personally acquainted – and who died in 1985 at the young age of thirty seven – with an almost obsessive élan: Between 1986 and 1996 she reconstructed numerous of Mendietas’ performances, an undertaking which also became a quest for the traces of her own cultural identity.

The question of identity, arising as it did in the fraught context of historically conditioned cultural conflict, was clearly accentuated in the performance El cuerpo del silencio (The Body of Silence), from 1997-1999. Much like a cave dweller surrounded by a mountain of lamb meat, she held in her hands the official book of Cuban history; with a pen she began correcting it’s content which, almost as an act of self-censorship, she then removed with her own tongue before finally effacing them altogether. The performance drew to a close by the artist endeavouring to devour the pages in the book, thereby literally ingesting the history of Cuba.

Until way into the nineties, perspectives on the former colonial territories considered “backward” or “underdeveloped” were to remain, almost per definition, precluded from the cannon of modernity – at most serving as an intellectually stimulating source of new concepts for further development in the language of forms as elaborated by the European avant-garde. For the forming of intellectual theories and cultural-scientific discourse these regions have only recently been perceived as detracting counterparts to the hegemony of western historiography which, moreover, are consequently to be taken seriously. It was in lieu of this development that in the nineties the art biennales in São Paolo, Istanbul, Johannesburg and Havanna were established, all of which have meanwhile acquired far more than a mere peripheral importance: They have subsequently become the driving force behind the avant-garde providing new models for a culture of difference in the process of globalisation, hence steadily gaining in international influence.

Tania Bruguera’s work is exemplary of this paradigmatic shift. It is no coincidence that her most spectacular installation Poetic Justice (2001-2003), 2003 was first shown at the Biennale in Istanbul and only presented at the Biennale in Venice, in 2005.

The idea for the gigantic installation Poetic Justice, comprising 700.000 brewed teabags, was conceived during the artist’s extended visit to India. Densely stacked and lined up to form two walls between which ran a narrow aisle, the teabags came to represent a monument to the disingenuous organisation and exploitation of colonial work and resources. By means of a number of monitors the size of small tea sacks and concealed in the narrow grid of mass-production, she introduces historical dimensions drawn from different epochs; these recollect the autochthon culture, the product of which was later to become a global consumer good bearing an English trademark. A crucial aspect which underscores the visual experience of this soft wall of cushions is the intensive aroma. Bruguera activates all the senses of perception – axiomatic for all her work in more recent years – in order to open up a total emotional experience designed to stimulate participation of not only the intellect but the senses as well. In a similar manner, her installation Untitled (Havana, 2000) at the Biennale in Havanna, in 2000, had already tended to release a sense of disorientation among viewers, which then swiftly developed into an inescapable sense of anxiety. Bruguera covered the floor of a dark tunnel of a former prison with sugarcane, the putrefying smell of decay thereby permeating the space to the point of suffocation. The only source of light was supplied by a monitor positioned at the end of the corridor which showed recordings of Fidel Castro at leisure. It was only by means of the intermittently flashing light that one was able to perceive the naked forms of the workers mechanically repeating everyday gestures. Perceived as a work of political provocation, the exhibition was closed down a day after it opened.

In her installation at the Documenta 11 in Kassel Untitled (Kassel 2002), Bruguera reversed this principle. By passing through a black corridor the visitor reached a darkened room sporadically illuminated by the glittering and flashing of a spotlight which, due to its blinding effect, rendered all visual perception impossible. The sounds of a weapon being loaded and ominously approaching footsteps evoked the emphatically realistic illusion of the torture practices of a totalitarian regime or even the prelude to one’s own execution.

Whereas the sound forming part of the Kassel installation had an auxiliary function, the purpose of which was to facilitate heightened sensual experience, in the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien’s project space, the element of sound plays a predominant role. The sound installation which Tania Bruguera produced in Chicago, her home for part of the time, is less a thematisation of political oppression than a treatment of the complex strategies of political communication. Contrary to what one may expect, the title “Portraits” refers to the effects of politicians or rather the effects their speeches have both on the masses and on the individual (“Portraits”!). The message in the speech is substituted by the reactions thereby induced among the public. The artist selects a series of key speeches by leading political personalities such as Gandhi, Hitler, Churchill etc.; the rhythm, temper and the speed of each of the speeches is translated into musical notes with the aid of a musician and a computer expert. The score, thus produced, is then made audible by a choir which intones it by clapping. The speeches, translated in this way by musical applause, are reproduced in an empty, white room by nine small white loudspeakers grouped together in pairs and positioned at a short distance to the wall. On the wall itself are to be found the names of the politicians together with details relating to their respective speeches written in an almost invisible white script and set against a white background. In the white cube, the responses of applause are superimposed on the various speeches. The significance normally attributed to the spoken word is hence dissolved and what remains are acoustic moods, which facilitate the spectator in differentiating the emotional colour enclosed in each of the speeches. Thus released, the emotion suppresses the content and, in so doing, induces the masses to become the unwitting receptacles of strategies of political power. Hence, political communication is exposed as an instrument which functions subliminally by manipulative means of suggestion. Bruguera insists that the emotional dialectic between agens and reagens is essential to the communication and exercise of power and she accentuates this relationship by literally reducing the viewer to tears: With a chemical substance similar in potency to that of teargas, she thus makes very tangible to each of us the effects brought on by mass hysteria.

To demonstrate the flip-side of suggestion as an instrument of manipulation, Bruguera then stages repression – the other face of doctrinal politics. The second part of the work “The Dream of Reason” is dedicated to this aspect and draws on the motto contained in the title of Francisco de Goya’s famous work, the Caprichos (1797): “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”. Whenever reason has been lulled to sleep by political indoctrination, so awakes the moloch of the totalitarian state. As a contrapositive to the image of applause from inside, Bruguera has armed personnel march in to guard the white cube. An echelon of military dogs patrols the project space. Acclamation from within and repression from without are the two faces of power now made perceptible, each of which, for Bruguera, representing the twin constituents of political communication: She characterises both as “Portraits” – at which point she then dismisses us in the rather troublesome understanding that it is, in fact, we who are meant.