A report by Tessa Solomon for ArtNews.
In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art acquired one of Tania Bruguera’s most famous works, Untitled (Havana 2000), which debuted at the 7th Havana Biennial. The theme of that exhibition was “Closer to One Another,” an exploration of mass communication since the new millennia. The artist had set up her presentation inside a military vault within the Cabaña Fortress, which had historically been a site where Cuban counterrevolutionaries were imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases even killed. Visitors were met with a quietly explosive piece: a vast, darkened space, its floor lined with milled sugarcane.
As viewers made their way through the darkened space, they would discover nude male performers seeming to scratch themselves while a video of Fidel Castro played on a tiny monitor. With its provocative critique of the strange power dynamics that guide life in post-revolution Havana, the work embodies Bruguera’s practice, which often involves provoking viewers into considering visible and invisible means of governmental oppression.
Bruguera was born in 1968 in Havana, Cuba, where she observed failings of the Cuban revolution, which gave way to economic hardship, creative censorship, and unchecked forms of power for officials. At the age of 12, she enrolled at the Escuela Elemental de Artes Plásticas in Havana; her mother, according to Bruguera, believed it would keep her daughter out of trouble. Bruguera’s early work focused on her own body as a site for social critique, often by subjecting herself to physical pain. In the 1996 performance, titled Studio Study, a nude Bruguera stood atop a high pedestal while pinned to the wall by metal restraints buffered by cotton. In her hands were slabs of raw meat.
In time, Bruguera expanded the definition of performance art into participatory events. Her audiences—sometimes unknowingly—became her collaborators. She has staged elaborate performances with institutions that have garnered her a Guggenheim fellowship in 1998 and a showcase at the Venice Biennale in 2015. In 2003 she developed the notion of arte útil, roughly translating to “useful art”—art that transcends representation to offer practical solutions to social issues. “Art and ethics cannot be separated in this practice,” Bruguera once said. “They are interdependent, they define each other.” Such art has invited backlash from the Cuban government, who regularly curtail her performances. Bruguera was arrested three times between December 2014 and January 2015, and was detained most recently last month en route to a Black Lives Matter protest in Havana.
Below is a guide to some of Bruguera’s most incisive performances.
Tribute to Ana Mendieta (Homenaje a Ana Mendieta), 1985–96
Among Bruguera’s most provactive early works are her site-specific reenactments of performances and unrealized projects by Ana Mendieta, the feminist Cuban artist who fell to her death in 1985 at the age of 36. Bruguera started by producing these reenactments for her thesis at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, and she continued doing them for the next 10 years, re-creating works such as Mendieta’s famed series “Siluetas” (Silhouettes), from 1973–81. Mendieta’s practice centered the spiritual marriage of abstract female forms and earth, and in the “Siluetas,” she left imprints and made carvings of her body into the earth, decorating the silhouettes with natural materials such as twigs, flowers, fire, and even animal hearts.
Bruguera performed her tribute to Mendieta in Havana, during a period where a heightened number of Cubans were immigrating to the United States. The act symbolically reclaimed Mendieta, who experienced a traumatic migration to the U.S. as a child and who has traditionally been considered largely with respect to U.S. art history, for Cuba’s artistic heritage.
El peso de la culpa (The Burden of Guilt), 1997
Bruguera debuted this performance in 1997 at her home in Havana as part of the series titled “Memorias de la posguerra” (Memories After the War). During the performance, which spanned roughly an hour, a nude Bruguera slowly consumed native soil mixed with salt water meant to symbolize tears. Throughout, a headless lamb carcass hung around her neck. The act was an allusion to the myth that, during the Spanish colonization of Cuba, Indigenous people ate nothing but dirt, a choice of death over captivity.
“Eating dirt, which is sacred and a symbol of permanence, is like swallowing one’s own traditions, one’s own heritage, it’s like erasing oneself, electing suicide as a way of defending oneself,” Bruguera said of the performance. “What I did was take this historical anecdote and update it to the present.” In later versions of the performance, a Cuban flag woven from human hair hangs behind Bruguera, a literal representation of the audience.
Desierro (Displacement), 1998–99
Much of Bruguera’s early work used her body to emphasize physical strain as a catalyst for political action. In Desierro, she encased herself in a suit of layered Cuban earth in the likeness of Congolese Nkisi Nkondi, mystical idols which, according to legend, housed spirits tasked with hunting wrongdoers and oath-breakers. The power figures became common among Afro-Caribbean religious practices. In Bruguera’s performance, the Nkondi becomes metaphors for the unfilled social and economic promises of the Cuban Revolution.
Untitled (Havana, 2000)
Artists participating in the 7th Havana Biennial were expressly forbidden to present work that criticized Fidel Castro’s regime. When Bruguera first proposed Untitled (Havana, 2000)to the biennial, she withheld plans to include in the work a looped video of the dictator unbuttoning his military uniform to reveal that he is not wearing a bulletproof vest. All the while, Castro is smiling. Bruguera looks to highlight the dictator’s act of bravado—feigned vulnerability made possible only through his privileged position and military-grade protection.
Surrounding the video are nude male performers who stand atop mounds of sugarcane mash, Cuba’s most lucrative export. The video was not played until the Biennial’s opening day, when lines formed outside the dank military vault for a glimpse. In response, the exhibition’s organizers shut off electricity around the vault, leaving the entirety of the biennial in darkness. Ultimately, the power was turned back on, but Bruguera wasn’t allowed to show the video.
Department of Behavior Art (Cátedra Arte de Conducta) 2002–09,
In the early 2000s Bruguera founded Cátedra Arte de Conducta, a public artwork that also functioned as a participatory art school. The goal was to foster a new generation of less commercially-driven, more politically active artists of the sort that did not typically appear at Cuba’s traditional art schools, few of which taught performance art. Department of Behavior came about shortly after Bruguera returned from Kassel, Germany, where she showed Untitled (Kassel, 2002) at Documenta 11. The artist felt that, because the exhibition was so crowded, she was unable to activate the work’s message, and thus it was unsuccessful—but it led to a breakthrough.
“I started thinking about appropriating the structure and the resources of power as my medium, as my material,” she told Tom Finkelpearl, author and New York City’s former cultural affairs commissioner. “Instead of representing them, I wanted to put them in action; that would be my work.” The curriculum focused on art as a tool for political and social action. The school opened in her home in January 2003 as a two-year program comprising weekly workshops on “Behavior Art” and discourse. In 2009, believing that the work had served its purpose, Bruguera closed the school.
Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008
For the performance Tatlin’s Whisper #5, visitors to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall were confronted by two mounted police in uniform, who aggressively patrolled the space, at times using crowd-control tactics such as closing off gallery entrances and corralling small groups into tight circles. Notions of power are the core of the work—its title refers to Constructivist artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, who designed the Monument to the Third International, an abstract structure meant as a tribute to Communist power. The performance, which occurred at unannounced times, was contingent on the participation of the museum’s visitors, many of whom did little to resist the officers. The piece was an attempt to bring lived realities of some oppressed communities—police brutality, riot suppression—into an art space.
Immigrant Movement International, 2010–15
This five-year project, presented in partnership with New York’s Queens Museum and Creative Time, asked a simple but heady question: What makes a person in the United States an immigrant? For the first year of the project, Bruguera shared a a small apartment in in Queens’s Corona neighborhood with five undocumented immigrants and their six children. During that time, she lived on a minimum wage, without health insurance, to better understand what many U.S. immigrants went through daily. Another aspect of the project saw volunteers offering educational programming, including language, nutrition, dance classes, and free healthcare and daycare services from a beauty shop–turned–art space.
In 2018, Bruguera returned to Tate Modern to stage 10,148,451 for its Turbine Hall Commission. The number, which was stamped in red ink on each visitor’s hand, referred to the amount of people who migrated between countries in 2017, plus those who died during their journeys that year. Like many of Bruguera’s later works, 10,148,451 turned viewers into participants, inviting them to leave impressions on a heat-sensitive floor or to step inside a room next to the Turbine Hall pumped with an organic compound that induced tears. The commission also included the creation of the group Tate Neighbors, a group of 21 people tasked with imagining how the museum could be in dialogue with London’s local community. In response, they renamed Tate Modern’s main building after local activist Natalie Bell. The change was originally intended to be temporary, but the name was formally adopted after the performance concluded.