Intimate Traces: an Interview with Tania Bruguera
with Agar Ledo
Tania Bruguera (Havana, 1968) is one of the leading artist in the contemporary latin American panorama. She has expressed her art through performances, inspired by her land, Cuba, and voluntary emigration. Ephemeral issues become activism, in each of the events she attends, from the São Paulo Biennial (1996) to Kassel's Documenta 11 (2002). She has reached us through metaphors, sometimes violent, other subtle, yet always poetic, making her intentions live on thanks to the message she, aware of the impact she awakens with her actions, creates with her body and the boldness of her emotions.
Although you are know as a performance artist, you claim you create behaviour art, that you are a woman and that you assert said condition in your work; in all your actions you research the role of the individual in society, you fight and suffer. Is art a lifestyle?
Art? Art is a way of surviving life, a way to circulate knowledge, a social area that accepts bold proposals where we see and interaction between social and emotional elements that would be unconceivable or unacceptable in other contexts, the creation of a private logic system, the prelude to philosophy, a free market for meanings. It is a system where all processes are part of the goal, where ethics become aesthetics; where accidents, coincidences, irregularities, everyday life are realized, analysed and systematized; a way to understand reality, to organize ideas based on the information one receives; an escape, a shelter an addiction, a habit, a symbolic malformation, the only solution.
Where does that leave the individual?
The role individuals play in society? I don't know, maybe, above all, being the best person they can; living the fragile balance between ethics and desire. Perhaps that's what my work is all about, after all.
On top of that, I suppose performances require a specific stance and a political and social actionism on behalf of the artists, since they project a very direct message.
In Cuba people are deeply aware of the symbolic meaning of gestures and there is a complex relationship between what is thought, said and done. This dynamics is a good breeding ground for creating metaphors, and if as well as that we have the political dimension of each gesture added to a need to express things that requires space, performances prove to be the best resource.
You got your education in Cuba in the 80s and early 90s, back then although some artist had chosen performances as their means of expression, selecting this discipline must have been brought about by a vocational urge. What latent influences inspired you at the time?
In general when people ask me about the influences in my work, they often assume I was inspired by their same references and expect me to answer Marina Abramovic or Viennese Actionism, yet, I did not actually discover those artists until much later, precisely when someone, upon seeing my work, suggested I should go and see theirs. What really influenced my training, my real reference, was precisely the so-called 80s generation in Cuba and my friendship with Juan Francisco Elso Padilla. What inspired me from the 80s were not specific works, it was more the atmosphere of debate, the creative energy, the different way of looking at society, the exchange of ideas, the emergency, the carefree nature, the defying gestures, the sensation of community, the social movement, the -confident- illusion that art could change reality. Elso transmitted the certainly that the creation is beyond the object, it is in the energy, in the load it can carry. These elements are not tangible, they are substantial, or perhaps they are part of the personal mythology one requires to create. Nonetheless, over the time, I have found other things that are "beyond" the work and the affect it in a cruder manner, things that have to do with the art world and the reality one has to work with and sometimes work into the creation.
It seems as if it grows from within, as if it were your prime vocation.
Speaking of vocation, I think any space that shares social or political emergency is a good place for a performance. However, what led me to that means of expression, as well as the aforementioned aspects, was the need to make a wor that would be received as an experience, not as an object.
Ana Mendieta's trace can be seen throughout your career. What did her work mean to you? When did you discover her?
I came upon Ana Mendieta's work in 1985. I immediately reacted deeply and conceived a tribute to her work that lasted 10 years. This series of works was very important to me at the time because it was a learning process, at the same time as a performance in which the emphasis did non lie in the body or the presence, it appeared in the gesture, in the action. In that piece, my role as artist was not that of a manufacturer, but that of a social and cultural activator; that aspect has remained and appeared in other subsequent works, such as Memoria de la Posguerra (Postwar Memory) and Arte de Conducta (Behaviour Art).
For your graduation thesis you worked on the figure of Marilyn Monroe, who passed away before her time, as did Medieta... (Marilyn is Alive, 1986).
Yes it was quite and early work, I was 17 when I graduated from the San Alejandro school. That series briefly deals with the issue of constructing a myth.
Mendieta paraphrased Barthes saying "the artist's function is not a gift, it is a responsibility".
Sure, because, among other things, that is a contemporary concept of what an artist is. It is not a case of being a "special being" in society, it is a case of realizing that this profession entails a privilege: the privilege to have the time to think, the training for observation, the platform to speak and the attention to be heard. These are all deciding factors that cannot be attained easily in society. So, what do we do with the power we have been given?
Indeed, how do you assume that power you have in front of a group of spectators attentively listening to your discourse of watching or movements?
First thing first, let me tell you that the transcendence and social impact of that "power" is a convention society has assumed, which society itself has restricted, making it, in general, a represented, fictional, relative, limited power. Yet imagining that we transgress our own limits of "power" and trying to do so is the real power we posses.
How does that power become effective?
That "power" lies in making room for an action which everyone attends in search of a meaning which everyone attends willing to go through something that, in other circumstances, they would not tolerate or would not want to undergo. This experience is isolated in a context (which can be a museum or an event classed as artistic) only to make things easier, to make parameters clearer. The spectators' willingness to "hear" and the artist's conscience and desire to be heard create the platform. The intensity of that "power" is a combination of the level of access to the "archive," to the definition of art, and the level of impact, of emotional link that one can create between the spectator and the manifestation of our ideas. Yet the real power is expressed in the impact, how a piece can redefine the evolution of a society, or, simply, of a person. That impact is generally very limited and appears quite rarely, the rest is "landscape," it is decoration; it is mere attempts.
What about the spectator's role?
In my first works, spectators had a very passive role, they were observers, but as the time passes, in a natural communication process, they have started to become part of the creation, either as interactive participants, "taking away," "saving" and "distributing" the work saved in their memories, or as those creating it. Behaviour is a vital part of most recent output, as are spectators. That is why I call these pieces "Behaviour Art" and not performances. Spectators access the processes whereby meanings are (re)defined, the access the narrative course of the work, the platform. For example in y latest series -Vigilantes- el sueño de la razón engendra monstruos [Vigilantes - the dream of reaon breeds monsters] (quoting Goya- I refer to the tension that can be brought about by a state of emotional abstinence, to the relationship between ethics and desire, to the false fortress and to the hidden frailty. Yet in these works, the spectators create the work; I am merely a channel, a supplier. The raw matter for the work is the spectator's conscience, theis sense of social freedom or personal repression. I performed the first piece in the series at the latest Shangai biennial. The spectators had the power to "activate" the work or not, but that activation was directly linked to the sense of freedom each person had in mind. Many people felt a strong urge to do so, but they repressed their feelings; that was what the piece was for them.
Historical and personal references are always present in a complex, yet integrating, discourse, that visitors give in to...
Well, the fact is that in Cuba personal history is a collective experience; personal elements exist in their political dimension. This appears in many of my works. Perhaps it is most evident in Autobiografia (Autobiography), exhibited at the PS1 and then at the Patio Herreriano Museum, in Spain. I currently use that resource, talking from a personal experience, trying to find myself, questioning what things have to do with me, when I have created works inspired by the German or the Indian reality, for example. I try to base my work on experience, not on reference.
I think spectators feel frustrated if they do not suffer when they are subjected to your performances or see your output; it seems as if they have to get involved to the max.
I do not aim to make spectators suffer, I want to make them think. True, I have use fear, or "discovery," as a resource to create a situation in which spectators' senses are alert and could be more susceptible and receptive to the message, but these are resources, not goals. Sometimes spectators suffer because they think I am suffering during my presentations. I am going to let you in on what could be one of the darkest secrets kept us performers: the duration, the resistance, the endurance, really gets to the spectators, but, really, the most difficult aspect of being still in one same position for three hours and a half or spending two days living in a gallery is the process whereby one could be doing or feeling during that time. Nonetheless, once you start, it is as if you went to another dimension, one where time is not important, one where only intensity, the exchange of energy, the message, the experience, is important. I do want spectators to get involved to the most possible extent, since art as an experience that runs parallel to reality should have a dimension that is more intense, more concentrated, so that one can experience it by thinking; dispelling laziness, or mental indifference.
Why explore the limits of physical pain in order to communicate? I am thinking of works like Cabeza Abajo (Upside down), Lágrimas de tránsito (Transit Tears), from 1996, and, especially, that time when you ate earth from your house in Havana, El Peso de la Culpa (The Weight of Guilt).
The truth is that for a long time that came as a very natural way to conceive my output. I did not consider the physical pain or the sacrifices they could require. I merely thought about the communicative and symbolical value. I recall that in the middle of one of my first performances (I started doubting my primary school. I had to stay still, standing to attention in front of that plaque, for about an hour, although I felt as if I had been there forever. That was how we proved our duty. Who knows if that event and the idea of collective sacrifice marked my training, my way of understanding things during that time. Or perhaps my pain threshold is above average, perhaps the parameters of regular violence in my reality were different; our body is the limit. I use my body as a space for reality, not for representation.
Nature always appears in your work; we see a fusion of the artist with the germ, with the earth. What role does Cuba play in your work?
Cuba is something I will always be attached to. It is hard to "get rid of" Cuba emotionally, since it is a very important part of my life, but also because it is a symbol in its own right, a social experiment that others are aware of and regarding which everyone passes judgment and everyone asks our opinion because we were born here. So being from Cuba is like having a permanent pass to a debate on reality and strategies for social composition. It means having access to an archive of desires and preconceptions about social issues in the minds of our interlocutors, who, in general, see the evidence of those desires and preconceptions in Cuba society. Hence, every time I create a work, people try to connect it with their own preconceived ideas about Cuba, and try to force the perception of said ideas on the work. Cuba appears in my output not so much as a reference but as a way of structuring, of seeing reality; as a political conscience. Subjects are something else. One cannot get caught up in a single reality. One has to evolve and keep on incorporating the realities one experiences; otherwise, I would be lying to myself and living in a false bubble that would make me self-exorcise myself, as I would be alienated both from my own context and the references I used.
Guilt, responsibility, emigration, fear, torture, these concepts appear in your work. Still you also research reality through art. The artist's power that we referred to before seems to demand you are committed to a certain cause.
More than being committed, I try to understand reality through art. So I get obsessed with certain subjects until I understand them or find a sort of solution in my head that is linked to my behaviour before society. I learnt to see reality through art, I learnt to use art as an instrument for postponement, as the access to a possible reality, as the realization, albeit temporary, of a desired reality. A space where everything can exist, even if is mental construction. One of the advantages of being an artist, in my opinion, is that one can be whatever one wants. Society gives us the space to redefine behaviours, viewpoints, opinions. In that process, we can "pretend" we are " scientists" and work on the latest advances in science to make art (like Stelarc's lates pieces), we can be contractors (like Santiago Sierra), or simply humans (like Marina Abramovic). We can do and be whatever we want, without the commitment of continuity or responsibility, because, in all, art is a laboratory, nothing more and nothing less. We artists can be the guinea pigs or the researchers, that is one of the first differences an artist to detect.
Your "committed" spirit can be seen in actions like Angola (1997), on Cuba's participation in the Angolan civil war.
That work was the representation of a historical fact I came upon.
You now live in Chicago and, opposed to Ana Mendieta, you are not an exile. The issue of emigration and belonging somewhere else can be seen in your work...
Emigration appeared in my early work and it was like a reaction to my context. Around that time, a great amount of artist chose to emigrate. I spoke about that issue because I lived in the art world, because even I had to consider leaving my country, and I helped myself think through my work, I helped myself open up and experience different options of reality. Once I found out how to sol ve that dilemma (in 1996) it was no longer an issue in my work. I now live between Havana and Chicago, a strange combination. I cannot live without Cuba, although I can no longer live only in Cuba. The world is a very big place and that second capital is necessary, although it could be any other. I like the fact that in Cuba people now understand that things are not black or white, that one can get a feedback from other places, test oneself, grow, without giving up one's birthplace.
What role does the notion of rituals play in your work? What does the ritual, a concept that is so typical of Cuba, mean? I am thinking of the symbology of the ram (El peso de la Culpa; 1997-1998), and many other symbolisms that have appeared in your work.
In my output, ritual has been misinterpreted constantly. This is precisely due to what we were talking about before, how the concept of "Cuba" contains a certain degree of exoticis.
Cuban exoticism is, above all else, a social and human exoticis. Indeed, I am influenced by the mystical Afro-Cuban ideology, but neither its religious aspect or its operating capacity appear in my work. To think in mystical terms perhaps derives from impotence, as a solution (or resignation) when faced with the impossibility of accessing changes. That I am interested in. The ritual element my work could have only appears in the series entitled El peso de la culpa, and it was linked to the ritual of everyday life in Cuba, the social ritual, not the religious one. It was more closely linked to the cyclical nature of our reality and its events, its infinitely repetitive character, than to a liturgical cadence. The lamb in El peso de la culpa referred more to the symbolical relationship between animals and human behaviours created by the Western society. Although reality does not adapt to this conception, the lamb is the quintessential symbol of submissiveness, which is something I brought up in the piece.
I have heard you have organized a space for exchange between Cuban and foreign artists in Cuba...
Arte de Conducta is a series of works that, as I said before, focuses on behaviour; it is the medium, the resource and the goal. The gesture is the work. This series is linked to Memoria de la Postguerra, given that they are hyper-realistic works in which the border between reality and construction is blurred. These works appear and develop using the resources of reality and try to be fulfilled and endure in reality. I am not naïve and I know that for a work to exist as art it has to flow along the channels of the plastic arts realm, it has to be "certified." Otherwise, it gets lost in the amalgam of gestures, discourses and events that make up everyday life. This work aims to create a space for dialogue, a space where realities can be exchanged; it means working on the demolition of myths. It is conceived as a school. Exchange is one of the most important events, because in Cuba there is always a kind of magnified fantasy of what is beyond the island.
You have taken part in major international events. What role do curators play at these dealings? I mean, can curators promote the art from a certain place?
Curators, compared to artists, work from historicity, from the context of art. Artists move in and out of that context. Curators can play many roles: translators, editors, anthropologist, organisers, historians, contextualisers, interlocutors, presenters, suppliers, creators of new meanings, muses, haulage contractors... Yet, as an artist, I can say that I want a curator to be a collaborator, who also aims to change the order of meanings, for us to strike up a joint encouragement from which a work can emerge.
What can we expect of your forthcoming exhibitions?
I am in the middle of a new series, I referred to it before, called Vigilantes - el sueño de la razón engendra monstruos. It is basically a diary made up of performances, since I will present a piece a day, for a month. I will also disturb another public context, with a work I am going to carry out on a flight between Chicago and Montreal (where I will spend a month as a resident artist while I create Vigilantes...). I have also been working on an adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Endgame since 1998, for which I will transform the theatre play into a sonic performatic installation. It will be an interactive piece, for which the audience will be essential. The work stresses the feelings of love and dependence, exploring the moment when one decides to surrender one's desires in favour of the desires of the other. Instead of a dialogue between two people, the piece will be the projection of an interior monologue. The work will be about the strength and weakness of feelings. It is, perhaps, my most personal work.
Translated for the website by Jimena Codina