Migration and Neglect

Pablo Helguera

From: Helguera, Pablo. “Tania Bruguera explora la relación entre dejar la patria y no tener casa,” Éxito, 13 de marzo, Chicago, United States, 1997 (illust.) p. 20.


By Pablo Helguera

The fame of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera goes beyond the limits of the island where she is and has given her the unusual chance – among Cuban artists – of going out and exhibiting in the great art international epicenters: New York and Sao Paulo, as well as Europe and Canada. In her two month residence at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, Bruguera offered classes, lectures and seminars and ended with an installation/performance project in which she showed her work last weekend at the Gallery 2 847 W. Jackson Blvd. She touched two topics of great impact in our society which are not usually dealt with together: immigration and the homeless.

In her installation/performance entitled Art in America: The Dream, Bruguera had two people outside the gallery who, as immigration agents, asked for information from those attending and demanded an ID to enter which was returned to them at the other end of the gallery. Once this phase was behind them, visitors met with two other women officers who aggressively questioned them about their political, social and economic affiliations, again from the forms in the Immigration Service.

Once this point was left behind, visitors found themselves in a darkened room with a yellowish light similar to that in the underground viaducts in downtown Chicago where hobos and neglected people in the city live. A reality that most of the inhabitants in this city do not accept as that of the urban environment in which we live was recreated with cardboard boxes, dirty pillows and sheets, scraps and old shoes strewn everywhere.

Several characters or actors walked about the space adopting the archetypical role of the homeless, rummaging through the garbage, asking for money and then curling up in a corner wrapped in a pile of old rags. A character obsessively accommodated some cardboard boxes giving them the name of rooms in a house; a girl walked the place with a sign reading “I am hungry.” In a corner, with candles and a cigar, was Bruguera herself telling the fortune to the audience with a pack of cards and doing other rituals of a Cuban origin.

“I had come with a very specific idea of what I wanted to do in this city,” Bruguera explains. She was invited by the Bronx Council for the Arts, an organization which contributed a series of residences of Cuban artists in various cities in the United States.

A Hidden City

Bruguera has always dealt with the topic of Cuban immigration in the United States and her project already was on this subject. She intended to make an installation with a series of flying machines in a medieval or Renaissance style based on the idea of the desire to escape the island. But when she arrived here, her original idea changed: “Some friends took me to some nooks in Chicago at night and explained to me that the city had various levels and that there were homeless people in the subways.”

Bruguera saw communities living in cardboard boxes in the Lower Wacker Bridge, whose existence impressed her. It was a city within another city.”

“Homeland” and “Homeless”

Immediately, Bruguera began to use the idea of the homeless to establish a relationship with that of immigration. “I made an connection between the words homeland and homeless,” she explains. “Not having a home is like not having a country. Just like the homeless, immigrants are nomads and form their own groups to defend their rights. Both groups suffer a certain loss of nationality, because they both exist in wastelands.”

“The harsh living conditions of those who migrate are comparable with the condition of people who lose their jobs, those who are thrown out of their houses or are discriminated against by society,” wrote Bruguera in the essay for her exhibition. “Both groups suffer, must assimilate new forms of life and have to get used to the ill-fated fact that their situation is practically changeless.”

To make this relationship even stronger, Bruguera chose only Cuban immigrants for her performance (among them Ricardo Fernandez, Nereida García-Ferraz, Raquel Mendieta, Achy Obejas, Alejandra and Paola Piers, Marlo Showfer, Maria Torres and Teresa Wiltz).

Bruguera says the project was trying to communicate the relationship of desolation shared by both groups. “I wanted people to feel this situation, to gain an awareness of what was happening, of the condition of immigrants.”

With much penetration, Tania Bruguera presented a work that deepens into topics that any Latin American immigrant has suffered. “I am so interested in the topic now that I want to go back to Chicago to explore it more in depth,” she says.