I am really passionate about the visual arts, in part, I think, because the field has few, if any, rules at this point. Long gone are the times when artists were restricted to oil paint on canvas or marble on pedestal. Even Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 diagram, charting modern art’s movements in a more-or-less orderly succession of discrete paradigms, seems hopelessly outdated as a means of representing the creative landscape. Today’s artists mix and match at will, readily combining the modernist injunction to search for the “new” with the postmodern impulse to reject aesthetic hierarchies and sample freely from the past.
Alfred Barr's Diagram
Tania Bruguera represents this fluid situation like few other artists working today. Born in Havana, educated in Chicago, and now mostly based in Paris, she has, over the last decade and half, emerged as one of the most influential forces in the global art world. Her work has been shown at the biennials of Venice, São Paulo, Istanbul, Gwangju, Moscow, Santa Fe, and Havana, as well as Documenta, the quinquennial exhibition in Kassel widely considered to be the apex of contemporary art. Earlier in 2010, Tania had her first museum retrospective, a tremendous honor for an artist still considered in the early part of her career. That show, organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, also yielded a beautiful catalogue.
I, myself, fell in love with Tania’s work when I first saw it at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in 2004 – and I have been following it ever since. To me, it uniquely combines poetry and politics, body and intellect, observation and participation. It often takes the form of performances, some featuring Tania herself, others deploying actors or activating the audience. The themes vary, too, although they are almost always political and often reflect on Tania’s native Cuba along with the motifs of surveillance and freedom.
Goya, Disasters of War
To me, Tania’s work constitutes a crucial advance, combining, as it does, the fields of political and performance art. In regard to the former, she is continuing a project of artistic witnessing pioneered by such figures as Goya and Picasso and energized in the 1960s by feminist, anti-war, and postcolonial movements. In regard to the latter, she draws on such sources as Allan Kaprow’s scripted yet improvisational Happenings, the anarchic antics of Japan’s Gutai group, and the ludic body work of the Viennese Actionists, like Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch, who sought to overcome the separation between artist and medium in an act of collective transference. Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American artist of mystical femininity, is an important reference point as well.
Günter Brus, Selbstbemalung
Herman Nitsch, Orgien Mysterien Theater
Ana Mendieta, Silueta Works in Mexico
These influences have inspired such indelible works as The Burden of Guilt (1997-1999) in which Tania recovered a Cuban legend about the conflict between the island’s indigenous peoples and the invading Spaniards. Unable to resist the conquerors, the natives committed collective suicide by ingesting dirt, an act that is echoed in the Cuban phrase comer tierra (“to eat dirt”), to survive in the face of calamity. In the performance, Tania donned a lamb carcass and consumed a mixture of dirt and salt water for several hours. It is a gesture of nearly unbearable poetic intensity, characteristic of so much of Tania’s work.
Tania Bruguera, The Burden of Guilt
Another favorite is Untitled (Havana, 2000), a performance in which the audience was invited to enter a cave-like tunnel. There, amidst layers of rotting sugarcane (the cash crop of Cuba’s colonial economy), they encountered naked men (the indigenous population strapped of their humanity? the slaves working the plantations?), as well as a television screen with looped but silent footage of Fidel Castro’s speeches (the liberation from the yoke? the failed promise of revolution?). Like all the best art, the piece enjoined a multiplicity of meanings, a situation that was only heightened by the Cuban authority’s decision to close it after just one day.
Tania Bruguera, Untitled (Havana, 2000)
More recently, Tania returned to Havana to stage the extraordinary Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version). Having installed a podium and microphone, she invited members of the audience to ascend to the stage and speak completely freely for one minute. After a long pause, a woman followed the invitation weeping as she grasped the microphone. Two people in military dress placed a white dove on her shoulder, a reference both to the universal symbol of peace and a famous speech by Castro. Almost forty others followed, enacting a freedom not readily granted by the Cuban authorities.
Indeed, in the days following the performance, the country’s arts administrators renounced the comments made in the course of the event, claiming that they had discredited the Cuban Revolution.
There are many more brilliant works in Tania’s oeuvre, including a growing number addressing global issues from the effects of neoliberalism to new forms of policing. All of them will come up in the conversation she will have at the CHF – an event that is certain to be one of the highlights of this year’s Festival.
What promises to make Tania’s CHF appearance particularly fascinating is her interlocutor: Hamza Walker. One of the country’s leading voices in the field of contemporary art, Hamza is the Associate Curator and Director of Education at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. The “Ren” is one of the truly great art institutions in our city, a bastion for the avant-garde, and a veritable barometer of what is (or soon will be) important in the art world. In his role at the Ren, Hamza has organized some of the most important exhibits of the last years, many of them – including Black Is, Black Ain’t; Meanwhile, in Baghdad...; and A Perfect Union... More or Less – overtly dealing with political issues.
I can’t wait to hear the conversation that will develop between Tania and Hamza and to see what insights and surprises the two will have in store for us!
One last note – like all our programming in the visual arts, this event is made possible by Richard Gray whose generous gift underwrites the annual Richard Gray Visual Art Series. Thank you!
#103: Sun, Oct. 24 11:30 - 12:30 PM
Tags: contemporary art, performance, oppression, politics, The Body