Portrait of an Artist: Tania Bruguera

Hugo Huerta Marin

From: “Portrait of an Artist” Anteism Publishing. 2017.

Anteism Publishing

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Portrait of an Artist: Tania Bruguera

interview with Hugo Huerta Marin

Hugo Huerta Marin

Would you consider censorship as the core aspect of your work?

Tania Bruguera

The core of my work is based on the idea of how power works, espe-

cially in regards to censorship. So, in that sense, yes.


Would you say your work is about a wound but also about the healing process?


My work is about a wound. It’s about something that hurts, and it

hurts because I don’t understand it, or it seems unfair to me. On the

other hand, maybe more than a process of healing, it is a process of

giving hope to others by telling them, “Okay, your wound exists,

but you also have the rest of your body; try not to concentrate on the

wound.” I would love to complete the healing process for others, but

it is only the injured person in question who can do that.


What is the biggest challenge you have encountered while making

a new piece?


There have been so many…What was once a challenge, later became

a modus operandi incorporated into my artistic practice. Te biggest

challenge is the idea of power in itself. There was a time in my career

where I transitioned from talking about problems, to trying to solve

them. I moved from a moment of representation, to sharing concrete

proposals that could possibly make a difference. I think that when

this shift happened, the challenges associated with my work also

changed. When artists complain or “weep” through their art with

no real solution – thus making it a barren process – art becomes a

comfortable place for some governments and conservative societies.

The great challenge comes, not when the artist identifies the pro-

blem, but rather when they decide to make a change by inventing

parallel worlds. These – although imaginary – can be dangerous for

the status quo. When I refer to power, I am referring not only to the

powers within a government, but also to the structures of power wit-

hin the art world. Challenges keep changing. For example, when I

was younger, the challenge at the time was to create an artistic lan-

guage that could reach the masses – language that the neighbor, the

nanny or the curator of MoMA could understand. Te next challenge,

imposed by the work itself, was how I could become an international

artist without losing the urgency of the work. Currently, I’m facing

the challenge of talking to politicians as an artist. People in power –

whether it’s a president or ten-thousand people on the streets – need

to understand art as an instrument for social change. An artist needs

to incorporate art into everyday political issues.


Is documentation an important element in your work?


It’s a nightmare. Documentation is an important part of my work,

but I have neglected that part a lot.


It seems that you have had a war against documentation.


It is nearly impossible for me to think about documentation when I’m

doing a performance. In that moment, I’m not thinking about the fu-

ture, nor of the possibility of an exhibition about it the following day.

Instead, I’m thinking about the present, and that’s the beauty behind

performance art. In my opinion, the best form of documentation is to

run into a spectator eight or ten years after the performance and they

reminisce and recount their feelings and thoughts after witnessing a

particular work. Te best documentation is the emotional memory of

the viewer. I firmly believe that documentation cannot replace the

experience itself, because in doing so, it defeats the purpose of per-

formance art. The way I’ve tried to cope with this is seen in Tribute to

Ana Mendieta, where I re-contextualized the work while attempting

to preserve the original tension between the work and the viewer,

and tried to see if those issues were still relevant or still creating fric-

tion. I did not attempt to replicate the original image, but rather, I

tried to update the conflict came from the original work. Sometimes,

this required creating a new image, different from the documented

one. Te interest lies in the transformative process of the work, not in

the specific action or its image.


Can we talk about the genesis of the Ana Mendieta series?


I was eighteen years old. I noticed that all the “important” artists we

studied in school were solely men, and that there were no iconic fe-

male figures for me to look up to. Some friends showed me a postcard

of Ana Mendieta, and a mutual friend told our group that the next

time she would come to Cuba, he would introduce us. But unfor-

tunately, Ana Mendieta passed away before that could happen. Upon

hearing the news of her death, I felt a strong emotional void, which

was further exacerbated by the emigration of some people I held close

– my boyfriend, my teachers and my friends. During this time, ano-

ther aspect of her work manifested; the trans territorial character of

national identity. I therefore decided to express myself through Ana

Mendieta. Simultaneously, I understood that Cuba was not the image

of a man carrying fifty years in power, nor were the pictures of the

colorful masses. Cuba was a philosophy of life. Tat day I decided

that my work would be Cuban, but not through the use of its colors,

landscapes or national symbols, but because I felt it could be a diffe-

rent way of portraying the world.


Is she still an important influence for you?


Yes. The way she has influenced me has changed over the years, but

she still is an important influence in my work. In the beginning, I was

very interested in her works on Jaruco and the idea of going out of

the white cube and creating ephemeral art. Later, I became interested

in how she dealt with politics. She was very political with regards

to Cuba, feminism and her own position within the art world. Ana

Mendieta adopted Land Art in her own way, and that was an impor-

tant lesson. I am still influenced by works such as Rape Scene, or People

Looking at Blood, where her work merges with the lives of others. But

one thing that will always influence me is her love for performance.


She studies the reaction of people.


Exactly. People can pass by her artwork and have no clue that it is

fine art. In my opinion, it’s influential to me because that’s what I’m

trying to do with my work – creating art that is incorporated into life.

She did this in a masterful way.


What comparative issues are there between creating a work for a public

space, such as Untitled Havana, 2000, and creating a work to be installed wit-

hin a museum context, like that of Tatlin ìs Whisper #5 at Tate Modern’s

Turbine Hall?


We can use the same work over again because MoMA bought it, and

this is exactly what is happening right now. Untitled Havana 2000 was

made within the institutional context for a museum, as part of the

Havana Biennale. This event occurs every three years as an exhibition

space, and the energy of the place is very powerful.


The same happened with Tatlin’s Whisper #6.


Exactly, that would be a better example. I think there’s something

interesting about Cuban art and perhaps the art in other socialist

countries. In these settings, art replaces spaces of freedom that can-

not be found anywhere else. An artist is given much more credibility

and visibility than an activist, and this gives the artist a responsibi-

lity – to think about all the things that occur inside and outside of

the performance, and within or outside the institution as part of the

function of the work. Another big difference is that when you create

a work within the artistic context, you are somehow “protected” by

the institution and it allows you to create a playful moment in that

space, compared to what happens when you work outside the insti-

tutional context. In such a case, there is no such “protection” of any

kind, you must use a completely different language, because you are

no longer talking to curators but to police officers instead. In this

case, symbolism is speculated about less, and therefore you have to

work with the history and the tensions of the place and the context.


The Burden of Guilt, Memoria de la Postguerra and el Susurro de Tatlin are all

such strong titles that seem to complement the work. How do you decide

to name your work?


Well, I was inspired by Marcel Duchamp (laughs). When I was a

student, I identified the importance of titles. The art school I attended

in Cuba was very conceptualist and contextualist at the same time.

We were taught that the title of the work had to provide informa-

tion which the direct experience didn’t, in order to lead the public

in some way – within all possible interpretations. For instance, the

title Tatlin is understood as a work about communism and utopia. The

work eventually becomes an image, and images can change the mea-

ning of the work. Therefore, you can find that interpretation in the

title. This is why I translate the titles of my work; to preserve what I

am communicating.


What is the difference between an activist and a political artist?


Good question. In my opinion the difference is that the activist uses

strategies and tools that are effective and “proven”. Te artist is inte-

rested in creating new tools without being completely sure how they

will work. We must be very aware that the work of the political artist

must work politically, as it is very common to see artists who claim

to be political artists for the simple fact of using political images –

that’s not political art. Te political artist is looking for a reaction and

to engage the people. I’m currently using a concept called artivist –

wanting to change society like an activist, but through art.


How would you define Arte de Conducta “Behaviour Art”?


The material and the language used in the work represents

the behavior. As a result of this, the metaphor occurs. To create a so-

cial statement through behavior.


Has making money changed the way you make art?


What money? (laughs). I cannot say money, but let’s say access and

privileges that have the potential to have an institutional impact, and

this is something important. Te privilege of being an artist gives me

a certain responsibility of which I must be aware.


By giving voice to the voiceless, is the concept of resistance assumed in

your work?


Look, I think it’s dangerous to say that I “speak for the voiceless”.

Everyone has a voice and has the ability to use it. Te problem lies in

those who do not want to listen. There is a tendency to individua-

lize things; there is a tendency to focus on the person and not the

problem. The art world must get educated and transform in order

for political art to be properly achieved. Political artists should not

become celebrities, because this will fuck up the work. When that

happens, the authenticity, impact and respect are stripped away, and

it takes a lot of effort to earn that respect as a political artist. Political

art is not an art to consume; it is an art meant to engage and trans-

form. No matter what happens to you as an artist, your main concern

should be to transmit the message and get the people to engage with

the problem that you are trying to solve.


In that sense, do you believe that this concept of resistance is implicit in

your work?


¿Qué quieres decir con resistencia?

What do you mean by “resistance”?


I’m referring to the idea of imposing what you think, feel and see through

your work.


Yes, I believe there is a resistance. It is an excellent word that should

be used more often in these kinds of conversations because art is a

battle itself. Having visibility does not mean that you are going to

have an impact. Tere is a resistance in that you need to understand

when the artist should be present, and when the artist should leave.

In this way, a public space is created in order for other people to use.

I believe, that as comfortable it is for the status quo, it is very dan-

gerous for the artist to speak “for” others. The artist should speak

“with” others.


You have talked about “aesthetics of ethics”. What is your concept of beauty?


My concept of beauty manifests itself in an ethical gesture that pro-

poses another way to operate in the world, and I call it ‘aest-ethics’.


You have referred to the audience as citizens and not as spectators in your

performance. Would you agree with Marcel Duchamp when he said that

“the audience does half of the work”?


I absolutely agree with Marcel Duchamp’s statement. I also agree

with Allan Kaprow when he said that the public should disappear, as

well as with Joseph Beuys when he said that everyone is an artist. As

it happens, that is the linear sequence of my current research. I think

we have reached an era where everyone believes they are an artist.

People are driving the iconography and the images with more exper-

tise. A clear example of this is found through Instagram. Tis leads to

questions such as: What kind of artists we are creating? What is the

role of art? What is art for?


How do you think things have changed in the art world for Latin American

artists over the last few decades?


There is definitely more visibility even though we still have to face

many stereotypes. It is important to remember the Latin American

criticism. It explains the artistic process from a Latin American pers-

pective. Often, critics from other places do not understand the social,

historical, anecdotal and emotional origins that a Latin American

work refers to. For example, if you work with images of violence or

poverty, some critics might interpret them in the wrong context,

resulting in things like porno-misery. It is important to fully unders-

tand the complexity of certain realities in order to present them to

other groups of people that are not aware of them.


How does a museum contribute to a project like Immigrant Movement



It can contribute by allowing the flexibility to adapt to the ideas and

needs of the project. It is exhausting to work on an institutional pro-

ject and having to invest more time trying to change the institution,

rather than making the project itself. It is better to look for natural

allies and try to work with institutions that fit with the way you

work, and the way you think about art. Te institution must unders-

tand that working with a community that has a different experience,

means that the work must be flexible. I was very lucky to work with

Creative Time and the Queens Museum because they were institu-

tions that trusted me. It is far more important that institutions rely on

the artist, rather than just providing the artist with money.


How would you describe your relationship with art galleries?


Horrible. In 2011, I decided to leave all the galleries that were repre-

senting me and I stopped showing my work in museums altogether. I

wanted to make a statement regarding my position against the inade-

quacy of institutions to exhibit works such as Immigrant Movement

International. Galleries, in my experience, like my work as an artist,

but once I decide to work with them, they want me to start doing

things that are unnatural to me – I have often been asked to draw,

paint or make videos.


A product.


Yes – a product. Working with galleries proves to be difficult because

we do not agree on the definition and functions of art. Also, in my

opinion, galleries are not very creative. If they can’t come up with

a traditional way of selling your work, they are either not interested

in representing you, or they want to change the way you make art.

Instead of being innovative, they turn it into a boring business, just

like the art market. On the one hand, I do not think that the artist is

a producer, and on the other hand, who owns the work? Where does

it circulate? What are its effects in these conditions?


Many artists have grown up in totalitarian regimes and have based their

work on their restrictions, for instance, how to overcome and rebel against

them. Tey then go to free countries like the U.S. and find that the art does

not work anymore. It seems that freedom “paralyzes” it. Have you ever

found yourself in this position?


Yes. There is a certain myth and fascination with censorship and its

creative capacity. I think it is dangerous because it can rationalize

the unjustifiable. Censorship forces you to focus and think of the es-

sential, but this does not mean you become a better artist. On the

other hand, I don’t think a free society is necessarily free. In reality,

freedom only exists within oneself, and not in society. I think we are

living in a time of global totalitarianism. In some places, this tota-

litarianism manifests itself through legislative abuse and elsewhere

through imposed and unquestioned economies. In the end, cen-

sorship against freedom of expression has many variations. There

are also many risks when the work is in reference to the removal of a

specific context. The transition is difficult, and the work often loses

levels of complexity because it is made for a new audience and a new

context. During this process of adaptation, an artist’s creativity may

relapse. Trough the negotiation process, a new structure of cen-

sorship can coexist along with the new creative space.


What are your thoughts on the rise of the artist as celebrity?


I consider it dangerous because I believe it is another form of dicta-

torship. Te only benefit of being a celebrity, is that your message

reaches a much larger group of people.


Where do you go to be alone?


In my head. And I’m there all the time (laughs).


At what point in your career did you feel like you were successful as an artist?


When I succeeded in creating a community that would discuss

the issues that I deemed urgent and that were not spoken about by

other artists. For example, I created the Behavior Art School, project

#YoTambiénExijo “I Also Demand”, and Arte Útil “Useful Art”.


Do you worry about being overexposed?


Yes, because overexposure can damage the work in a significant way.

It is also important to understand the use of “exposure”. Capitalistic

societies often work in a formalistic way and can make things

superficial, and one can fall into that trap. The main purpose is not

what you do, but why you do it.


Do you have any recurring dreams?


I’ll tell you what my recurring dream is: a world without borders,

where people are valued by what they do, and not for what they own.


What was the first record you ever bought?


Well, I didn’t buy it because you couldn’t buy records in Cuba. But

I had a mixtape of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; which are still my



Marcel Duchamp once ended a symposium by saying that he thought the

great artist of tomorrow “cannot be seen, should not be seen, and should

go underground”. Do you agree?


This is what I’m trying to do (laughs).


What inspires you the most?


I wouldn’t use the word “inspires” but rather, what “motivates” me

– and what motivates me is seeing an injustice and knowing that it

should and could be different, and that there is a possibility of change.


What is the most honest thing you can say about yourself?


I’m scared – I’m scared of giving up and losing strength. I’m afraid of

being afraid.