Now at MoMA, a Work That Fidel Castro Banned 18 Years Ago

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A review by Martha Schwendener for the New York Times.

Nearly 18 years have passed since the artist and activist Tania Bruguera first mounted — or attempted — “Untitled (Havana, 2000)” at the 7th Havana Biennial. Critical of the post-revolutionary politics of Cuba, it was shut down by censors within hours. Much has changed in the interim. Fidel Castro, the revolutionary turned authoritarian leader whose image is at the center of her installation, which includes black-and-white video images, died in 2016. And art institutions have fully embraced the kind of performance and participatory art Ms. Bruguera makes, which uses live human bodies as a medium.

“Visceral,” “sensorial” and “immersive” are words Ms. Bruguera or MoMA have used to describe “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” which is recreated here. These have become keywords to describe not just art works, but arguments for how art itself should be experienced. Ms. Bruguera also claims that she is “not representing the political but provoking the political” and that we as viewers need to “stop looking and start thinking.”

To experience the work you’ll probably start by standing. The wait for viewing is about 45 minutes. Four people at a time are allowed into the dark space. You approach an arch and a faux-cement atrium with rust stains, simulating the old fort in Cuba where “Untitled” was originally mounted. You walk on sugar cane, which crunches underfoot. As your eyes adjust, you see four naked men along the wall, bowing and brushing themselves off, as though brushing off history. A museum guard stands in the corner, like a sentry.

The four-and-a-half minute video is shown on the ceiling, its images of Fidel Castro taken mostly from a propaganda film by Estela Bravo: young Castro, strutting in Havana or on his wedding day; old Castro, wading in the ocean. The most affecting image: Castro opens his uniform and bares his chest, revealing that he is not wearing a bulletproof vest — a gesture of bravado and vulnerability.

“Untitled (Havana, 2000)” has a rich and complicated history. Ms. Bruguera, a native of Cuba, made several proposals leading up to the 2000 Biennial — all of which were rejected by official censors. Finally, she proposed a performance inside the tunnels of the Cabaña Fortress, an 18th-century structure in Havana that had been used to house and torture prisoners from the colonial period to the early years after the Cuban revolution.

Her original title, “Engineers of the Soul,” was cribbed from the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, where Stalin declared that “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks” and that artists were the “engineers of the soul.” This later became a rallying cry for state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Ms. Bruguera says in the MoMA exhibition materials that the censors prohibited this title. She chose the name “Untitled” in homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an exiled Cuban artist known for his post-minimalist works and who died from AIDS-related causes in 1996.

 At the Biennial in 2000, word of Ms. Bruguera’s work spread quickly. Visitors lined up to experience it before it was closed. All that remained was the tunnel with the sugar cane, a kind of installation-memorial to its brief life.The current iteration recreates that work but is, by necessity, an ersatz version. The tunnel at MoMA is a plaster recreation of the Cabaña Fortress. I was informed that a scent firm was consulted to create (or enhance) the artificial smells of sugar cane and damp basement.

“Untitled (Havana, 2000)” borrows aesthetic motifs from earlier art, like the nude figures in the infernos of medieval and Renaissance painting and the heightened, theatrical video and picture installations of Bill Viola and Alfredo Jaar. Ms. Bruguera’s tableau vivant engages historical themes and makes you feel uneasy, vulnerable and empathetic for the victims of Castro and other regimes.

However, the claims around this kind of work — “being” rather than representing politics, and producing active rather than merely passive viewers — are rather grand. Is performance and participatory work truly more affecting and galvanizing than, say, Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War” etchings (1810-1820) or his “May 3, 1808” (1814), which recounted the wreckage inflicted by Napoleon’s armies. Or Picasso’s iconic “Guernica” (1937), painted during the Spanish Civil War?

In recent years the art world has enlisted philosophers like Jacques Rancière and Jean-Luc Nancy to help us think through some of these issues, considering not just what art is in an image-saturated age, but what we mean exactly by active and passive viewing, human subjects, community and political engagement. For Ms. Bruguera’s part, “the political” clearly spills out of the gallery. Along with the installation, she held workshops in what she calls “Art Utíl” — utility art for activism. The museum also took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times with the text, “Dignity Has No Nationality,” linking to her social practice work in partnership with the City of New York and the Queens Museum, in creating immigrant projects that have been both lauded and criticized for not always connecting with established (non-art) immigrant-rights organizations.

Embraced by historians and critics of contemporary art, Ms. Bruguera is often used as an example of an artist — like Thomas Hirschhorn — whose work goes beyond representation and individual contemplation and activates viewers. While I was standing inside “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” a fellow visitor leaned over and whispered in my ear, “What do we do now?” Just walk to the end of the tunnel, I suggested. But the question could be extended much further: Invited into these conversations about politics, immigration and art, and viscerally provoked, what do we do now?

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