The artist is absent: Notes on TANIA BRUGUERA

Daniel Quiles
Autumn 2010

From: Quiles, Daniel. “The Artist is Absent: notes on Tania Bruguera,” Arte al Día International, No. 132, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2010 (illust.) pp. 42 – 47.

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The Artist is Absent: Notes on Tania Bruguera

by Daniel Quiles

If there is no longer a center of the international art world, New York at very least remains one of a select few sites for what Pierre Bourdieu long ago called “position-taking”: the articulation of an aesthetic position in relation to a larger field of cultural production1. This past spring saw several art institutions in and around the city institutionalizing performance and participatory artists, attempting to reconcile the event-based work with its historical nemesis, the museum2. As a result, previously oppositional practices suddenly found themselves in conversation: the autobiographical performance art on view in The Artist Is Present, MoMA’s retrospective of Marina Abramovic, the “relational aesthetics” embodied by conversations in the emptied rotunda of the Guggenheim for two works by Tino Sehgal, and Tania Bruguera’s confrontational arte de conducta, or “behavior art,” premised on the provocation of viewers and institutions, in her mid-career retrospective at the Neuberger Gallery at SUNY Purchase (part of the First Annual Neuberger Prize for Emerging Artists)3. If there is a link between the first two artists, it is their shared emphasison presence-in Abramovic’s case, that of the artist herself (the eponymous work at MoMA featured the artist sitting at a table with spectators for the entire duration of the show), and in Sehgal, that of the viewer, who engages in a choreographed social encounter with trained participants. In contrast to these two artists of the moment, Bruguera offers an overlooked yet incisive critique of presence in event-based art, one that ultimately does not spare even her own strategies.

Curated by Helaine Posner, Tania Bruguera: The Political Imaginary amounted to a radical self-interrogation on the artist’s part. The first clue of this design was the choice to have participants other than the artist performing several of her event-based works. Bruguera’s artistic career began with Tribute to Ana Mendieta; (1985-1996), a series of reenactments of the her predecessor’s performances two decades prior to Seven Easy Pieces (2005), Abramovic’s cycle of “reperformances” of canonical performance artists’ works; from the start, Bruguera understood prior performances as potential scores. Both artists had others performing their earlier works in their recent shows, but in The Artist is Present the performers were standing in for the artist herself and her well-known personal history, while in On the Political Imaginary the works split into two quite different categories: early performances based on interactions between the naked body and organic materials such as Studio Study (1996) and The Burden of Guilt (1997), and Arte de Conducta pieces of the 2000s, which hinge on interactions with viewers staged in architectural settings. While in the former, performers were restaging Bruguera’s own acts of physical endurance; the latter had originally featured participants other than the artist. In certain of these works, actors functioned as anonymous bodies: naked and shivering in the dark in Untitled (Havana, 2000), or uniformed, marching back and forth on an elevated walkway and repeatedly cocking a gun above the heads of spectators in Untitled (Kassel, 2002). The transition from performances requiring the physical presence of the artist to events that the artist need not attend is embodied in the changes of title: from references to the artist’s studio or psyche to mere places and dates. Bruguera’s career echoes the gradual de-individualization of performance-as-biography from the 1990s to the 2000s (this trajectory has occurred before in reverse: the happenings and Fluxus events of the 1960s gave way to feminist and identity based performance in the 1970s)4.

Bruguera has not only questioned the role of presence in eventbased art, however, but also that of the event itself. One of the most illuminating aspects of On the Political Imaginary was its inclusion of the architectural tableaux of more recent Arte de Conducta pieces that have incorporated public presentations. These included the much-discussed Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version) (2009), in which viewers at the Havana Biennial were permitted one minute each of “free speech” while standing at a podium in an ironic quotation, complete with trained white dove, of a famous 1959 speech by Fidel Castro. At SUNY Purchase, Bruguera presented remnants of this event’s staging: the props such as a stage, a podium and microphone, a video camera (with footage of the original event playing in the viewfinder), and a gold curtain backdrop5. While some critiqued this work in 2009 as optimistically implying that globalized art could pry open restrictions on culture in autocratic regimes, the restaging evidenced the original’s artificiality, lack of spontaneity, and profound insufficiency. The one-minute format analogized the spurious freedom of the Biennial as a whole, as opposed to any liberatory effect6. Arte de Conducta works have provided their own critical distance through architectural cues at the same time that they have functioned as political or art-world provocations. A wall projection representing Untitled (Bogotá) (2009), another of the artist’s recent controversies, offered a different take on the life of the art event. The original work consisted of a paramilitary officer, a FARC guerrilla and a refugee simultaneously addressing an audience while cocaine was served on a tray by a waiter. Rather than reconstruct its architectural conditions, here Bruguera designed a wall projection of a website that is tracking the ongoing internet responses to first-order accounts of the project. The “behavior” instigated by these events is not limited to their duration; it encompasses the circulation of informal and critical discourse through which an increasingly larger audience experiences the work secondhand. 

Bruguera’s Arte de Conducta experiments, having effectively subverted the event-based work’s reliance on presence or authenticity, rely instead on provocation-not the modernist or postmodernist varieties (the engineering of heroic or critical scandals) but the instigation of even minute behavioral changes in the spectator. This mechanism of Arte de Conducta leaves the viewer an important role, while simultaneously folding all response and discussion generated by the work back into its field. The audience at Untitled (Bogotá) sniffs cocaine; Cuban authorities condemn Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version); viewers at SUNY Purchase retreat uncomfortably from the claustrophobic confines of Untitled (Havana, 2000); all along the artist can stand apart, ostensibly free of responsibility for the “situation” that results while paradoxically claiming authorship7

A recent performance that was not included in the retrospective, Self-Sabotage (2009), staged at the Pabellón de la Urgencia at the 53rd Venice Biennale, confronted a potential problem of this formula. Sitting at a table and speaking into a microphone, Bruguera alternated between a text about art and politics – “artists should self-sabotage their relationship with others, with the world of art, by provoking and not pleasing them, and especially not pleasing the institutions” – and three rounds of solitary Russian Roulette. Her speech was rushed and broken, as though the text was merely perfunctory. What sense can be made of such a disturbing act? Perhaps it is a picture of provocation turned upon the provocateur. The personal appearance of the artist endemic to performance is reintroduced into Arte de Conducta and subsequently she faces the quandary of stimulating her own “behavior.” She resorts to extremes, to cheap self-shock, before which her call for political art pales in comparison, rendered a dead script that is repeatable but emptied of conviction. All that remains is the affect-the involuntary, almost imperceptible squirm – that Bruguera experiences as she squeezes the trigger. In this fleeting short-circuit, performance and participatory art find shared, dystopian limits.

1Pierre Bourdieu, Field of Cultural Production, trans. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 30. Following Bourdieu’s logic, these shows are the most visible, even though they are not the first, engagements of event-based art by MoMA and the Guggenheim; The Artist is Present is the sixth in a series of shows related to performance that included, among others, a concurrent display of works by Joan Jonas and an earlier survey of Tenching Hsieh, while at the Guggenheim the Tino Sehgal show was following up on Theanyspacewhatever, a larger survey of relational practices from the 1990s to the present, and Abramovic’s own Seven Easy Pieces in 2005.

2See “The Next Act: Issues in Contemporary Performance,” consisting of Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Against Performance Art,” Caroline A. Jones, “Staged Presence,” and Joe Scanlan, “Fair Use,” Artforum (New York), May 2010, pp. 208-221. Lambert-Beatty harshly critiques Abramovic (p. 212) and Scanlan links Sehgal to “The Average” (p. 221), while Jones takes a more contemplative position that sees all four artists—she includes Jonas in her discussion—as engaging dialectics of presence and mediation.

3See Helaine Posner, ed., Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, exh. cat. (Milan: Charta, 2009)

4Among many others, Liz Kotz’s recent text Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008) surveys many of these examples, tracing them back to John Cage’s scores for 4’33” (1952). One might question why the event had to be depersonalized again, if this had already occurred in the moment of the neo-avant-garde, and surely the answer would have to do with the larger shift away from identity politics in the art of the last fifteen years. While too large a topic for this essay, it is no doubt a history of which Bruguera is but one chapter, with her political subject matter of recent memory—state terror, censorship, insurgency, and migration, among others—having less to do with sexual or racial identity than general orders of political experience.

5The event was in fact restaged on the night of the exhibition opening, although apparently few audience members participated in “free speech,” perhaps affirming the inherent site-specificity of the first iteration. See Eleanor Heartney, “Tania Bruguera,” Art in America, April 4, 2010. 

6This work provoked consternation not only from the biennial’s organizing committee but also the performance artist Coco Fusco, who charged that Bruguera had been made a tool of the state. See the review of 2009 Havana Biennial and exchange of letters between Claire Bishop and Coco Fusco, Artforum, Summer 2009, pp. 121-22, and October 2009, pp. 38-40.

7In a June 2010 email exchange with Bruguera, she wrote: “I do not create situations but conditions for things to happen.”