Regarding Ana

with Roselee Goldberg
July 2004

De: Goldberg, Roselee. “Interview I: Regarding Ana,” Tania Bruguera, La Bienale di Venezia, ed. Prince Claus, printed by Lowitz and son, Chicago, IL, 2005, Interview conducted during “Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, sculpture and performance, 1972 – 1985,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004. pp. 8 – 12. 

ISBN 0-9769449-01

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Regarding Ana

with RoseLee Goldberg

Tania Bruguera’s first performance in 1986 was a reconstruction of Ana Mendieta’s performance “Blood Trace,” which the Cuban-born artist Mendieta first performed in Iowa in 1974.

Dipping her forearms into a bucket of pig’s blood, Mendieta raised both hands above her head and then dragged them to the floor, leaving a V-shaped stain on the wall. Bruguera would perform this same work at the Fototeca de Cuba, in Havana, in front of an audience of approximately 70 artists and student friends at the opening of the exhibition “No por mucho madrugar amanece mas temprano.”

For Bruguera, who at 18 years old had just graduated from La Academia de Artes de San Alejandro in Havana, it was her way, she explained, of “bringing Ana Mendieta back to Cuba.” Bruguera would re-perform several of Mendieta’s performances over the next decade, using later an exhibition catalog from Mendieta’s retrospective at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1987 as a guide. Bruguera’s re-performances of another artist’s works were remarkable for their entirely new approach to performance history.

Not only was Bruguera paying homage to an artist with whom she strongly identified, but her systematic reconstruction of each work gave Bruguera insight into the timing and emotional content as well as the iconographic motifs of Mendieta’s work. Such re-enactment of the older artist’s work would prove to be a rich and productive reference for Bruguera’s own performances. It also would shape Bruguera’s views on performance documentation, on curating performance exhibitions in a museum context, and on how one might bring history back to life.

“Ana Mendieta: Earth Body,” an exhibition curated by Olga M. Viso and presented at the Whitney Museum in summer 2004, was the starting point for the conversation that follows.

Interview I

Let’s begin with your first impressions of the Ana Mendieta exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

It was wonderful and very moving to see Ana Mendieta’s work at the Whitney. It was a very comprehensive show, with a broad cross section of material, which was pretty amazing. I liked seeing the many images of performances that have been talked about frequently, but haven’t been seen so much. In particular, the work in which she recreated a rape scene that had taken place on campus when she was a student, (Untitled Rape Scene, 1973) and the presentation of groups of slides of a street work that she had done (Untitled, People Looking at Blood, 1973). These were displayed in vitrines along with other documents related to the work. I was told that Ana had set up those pieces [to be photographed] as if they were crime scenes, or mystery novels, and it’s clear from the way ther were shot that they have a specific hyperrealistic narrative.

Do you think she had intended the slides to be exhibited in this way?

I don’t know. The way the slides were displayed felt so contemporary, those early pieces were so urban, so contemporary, while the rest of the show was beautiful but more … not old but …

You mean it felt dated?

Yes, dated. Maybe because I’m too close to her pieces and know them by heart, I am not so sensitive to them anymore. But it was very nice to find these moments in the show that were less familiar. To find pieces that were like little doors to other narratives, that formed a link with later works,like that of Sophie Calle. I also really liked “Rupestrian Sculptures,” 1981, [Mendieta carved anthropomorphic shapes into limestone grottoes in Cuba], because of the way they give a different perspective to Land Art. In the ’70s, Land Art was “God-sized.” It was about not being defeated by the scale of nature. It also was very masculine. I really enjoyed how Ana turned the idea of Land Art upside down. In her rock and silhouette pieces, she made Land Art into a “micro” system.

She reduced it into personal, internal “explosions” [indentations of her body in the land], which became part of nature. She was the measurement by which to see the universe. At the same time, she was connecting Land Art more directly with its mystical, historical and cultural aspects. I mean, most Land Art is mystical in a way, but she put the mystical aspect in a cultural context -the Taínos- in a specific place -Cuba- and a specific heritage -her own-. This was a very nice subversion. She captured not only a kind of dialogue with nature, but the power of nature itself, and she showed that these were site-specific pieces.

It’s interesting how you respond to Mendieta’s narratives.

I think she worked in two different ways with narrative. In the rape piece, or in the other work, when she poured blood on the ground outside her house and took pictures of people stepping over it seemingly quite unconcerned (Untitled, People Looking at Blood, 1973), she was creating situations that would provoke a strong response in the viewer, who was an element of the piece itself. The presentation, the strategy, is hyperrealistic, a hyperrealism that doesn’t try to represent reality but to be inserted in it. Also, the documentation looks more like a police report than an artistic shot. I really liked that. That was one form of “narrative.” The other is more anthropological, cultural, about the heritage of ritual and custom. I find those pieces in which she sets the viewer up for a response more interesting. It is all about the viewer’s experience.

What about the use of film, which was strongly featured in this exhibition? Several of Mendieta’s more than 70 films were transferred to video, and projected almost life size, alongside drawings or still photographs from performances.

I think the way they installed the films was very successful. I even liked the room where three different films, all related but from separate pieces, were playing at the same time. But at one point the exhibition became too clean for my taste. Some pieces looked two-dimensional, like the wood pieces (Untitled, Totem Grove Series, 1984), as though they were made for galleries. The energy, the experience was lost. It was transformed into objects. But that’s the way of art history, it’s a vacuum cleaner.

Which are the key pieces for you, since you actually began your performances in 1986 by reconstructing Mendieta’s early pieces?

Almost all of them, at different times, have been important for me, and I reconstructed most of them, at least the ones that were available at the time through documentation mainly from the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s retrospective catalog from 1987. I did all the silhouette pieces that were on the floor at the Whitney. I re-did all of the photos and I reproduced the performance in which she traces blood with her hands on the wall. And I invented others. Then I destroyed them all. I don’t have much documentation, because the idea of the piece was not about the object but about my gesture. I do have some photos of the last one, which I made as a kind of farewell. It was a piece in which I combined a lot of her elements and a lot of my own.

Did you do them in her name?

Yes, I used her name and titles but changed the date. They were dated after the year I reconstructed them, like 1986 or 1996. It was an attempt to try to make her live again, in a way.

To bring her back to life?

Yes, to bring her back to life through her work.

You once told me that remaking her work was a way of bringing her back to Havana.

Yes, to Cuban culture. At the beginning it was a kind of homage to her, a very emotional homage of trying to actually connect with her, through her work. But then it became something else, more like I was trying to avoid the fact that she was dead, a form of denial probably. And then it became a political gesture about the people who left Cuba, and about trying to put Ana into Cuban art history. Of course Ana did that herself, and she was part of Cuban art history by reputation, but I wanted to make it a fact. I decided to finish the project the day two art history students from the University of Havana came to me because they were writing a thesis about Ana’s influence in Cuba. Then my work was done. This is what I wanted, for people to acknowledge her significance. I think for me, reproducing her work was not so much about individual pieces but more a feeling about the work in general. I wasn’t keen on “nationalism,” but rather with a connection to culture as continuity. And i asked myself how can you do something that is Cuban at its core, but at the same time, belongs to others without being exotic?

How is Mendieta viewed in Cuba in 2005?

Now she is an inevitable reference and everybody acknowledges her. But it’s interesting how the politics in Cuba have changed. Cuba now is trying to absorb artists like Ana or Félix González Torres into its history, something that once was a contested attitude. Félix also is very big now in Cuba, although he’s not part of Cuban art history in the same way, because he didn’t connect to it as Ana did. He’s reference, his context is other than Cuba. Both of them have added a human aspect to Land Art and Conceptual Art. Ana made these human, grandiose structures, and Felix took this “cold” philosophical movement and made it human gesture, a personal experience. I think, in fact, that this is one of the contributions of a lot of Latin American art, in general, to the contemporary art world. Maybe because our reality is so immediate and so precarious, maybe because we are more aware of ourselves, because that’s the only resource we have, we add a warmth to those big movements.

What other thoughts on the exhibition?

The urgency to present performance in a different way. I also thought about the crisis in representing performance, the need for artists to work with the contradictions between the experience and the documentation of the experience. It would have been great if, for example, they had had a young person trying to reproduce some of the performances. This is the big problem of performance documentation right now. How to preserve a performance for history? How to make something that is an experience into an object, or should we leave an experience as an experience? I loved the show, all the research they uncovered, and the catalog, but a problem of the exhibition is how can you preserve performance? I mean there are photos. But I think performance wants to be experienced. It wants to be remembered. The way you preserve performance is through memory, collective memory. And one of the ways to do this is to re-stage the pieces. The problem is that people still have this idea that the performance artist is a special human being, and that only they can fulfill the work. There is this mystique, but it would be much more efficient to restage the performance instead of showing films. Although Ana did make films and she did want to represent them in that way. But I went out of the show thinking that if one day I have a retrospective, I don’t want any photos. I would like someone to restage all of my pieces. In each room, there would be one performance, and you would go from one to the other, and it will be like that for the entire time of the show.

What is your attitude towards photographs of your performances?

Actually, many people have tried to get me to sell the photos of my performances. I am reticent because, as I say, they were made as a reference (for lectures, books or magazines). I want to be able to sell the whole piece, not just the reference of it. If you’re going to work in a two-dimensional space, like a printing space, it’s good to have photos and for the photos to have as much information as possible of what happened in the performance. They also have to have something of an emotional impact. But if you’re going to present it in a space like a museum, I don’t feel very comfortable showing the reference instead of the actual piece. I’ll give you a photo as a little gift, but it’s not for a museum, they are the keepers, an archive, and the piece has to be archived the right way. What needs to be reproduced is not the gesture, not the image that is the result of the gesture, but the implication of the gesture. Usually we tend to give more importance to the afterimage.

When writing about performance, I try to find photographs that have as much information as possible, including information that could be considered emotionally evocative.

I think that photos work beautifully in books, and video works amazingly in lectures. But there are different solutions for different problems. Books can be solved in one way. A lecture is a problem that needs to be solved in a different way, because the goal is different. And then you have the exhibition, which should be the experience itself. And what is happening right now is that people are using exhibitions as if they were books. I would love to sell the piece I did in Havana in 2000. It would be like buying a Sol LeWitt. You buy the right for a painting to be done. In my case, the museum should buy the right for the experience to be experienced, along with as many details and notes as possible. Even if the work becomes a little more theatrical in a way, this is a better solution to access a performance piece, in this case in its historical perspective. For me, when the piece is bought by a museum, it dies, because its meaning will be fixed. Before that point, you are the one defining the meaning of the piece and you have the freedom to find new connections. Every time I do a performance, even if it is the same performance, I change something in it, because I don’t want to get bored. Also, I’m not the same person any longer, and I don’t respect the piece the same way a museum would have to if they bought it. I feel I can play with it. But once you sell a performance to a museum, it dies, although if kept this way, it will die in a better way, in a natural way, without changing its media.

Have you sold any of your performances?

Yes, the MMK [Museum für Moderne Kunst] in Frankfurt, bought my Documenta piece, which was a performance installation, “Untitled (Kassel, 2002).” I loved it because they bought the whole experience, getting to know as much as possible about how to install it. But they will have two problems: Do you reproduce the experience as it was, so it becomes a historically accurate document, or do you re-enact it, bringing contemporary elements to the piece, so it is more alive in a way. That is t he issue about conservation of performance. Do you put emphasis on the historical part of it, or do you try to reproduce the same level of impact? I wish we could solve this problem! The good thing about a museum buying a piece is that they will then have access to so many notes from the artist. They can actually work with the artist, to extract as much as possible about the piece. The museum becomes an archive of emotions and experiences instead of objects. That would be a big breakthrough.

Translated for the website by Jimena Codina