“There are things that you are experiencing. And what you learn with your body you don’t forget. It’s almost like a process of learning about a country, about the people of a country, through all your feeling, all your senses.”
–Tania Bruguera on Untitled (Havana, 2000)
I pause in the threshold and the luscious odor of fermenting sugarcane washes over me, a knot forming in the back of my throat. A few steps further, I trudge through sugarcane husk and my eyes strain, trying to resolve their texture in the near blackness of the tunnel space. Within seconds, I am dizzy, until the sounds of hands rubbing turn my attention to four individuals, forming corners of a square around a cube monitor dangling from the ceiling. It plays propaganda film footage of Fidel Castro swimming, giving speeches before massive crowds, and, in a provocative gesture, unbuttoning his military uniform to show his bare chest, comfortable without a bullet proof vest. Does it suddenly feel humid, or did the massive wall text–declaring Bruguera’s intention to create the sensations of Cuba for her public–prime my eager self to get swept into the environment with my imagination?
Performance and installation are tricky media, especially when it comes to the mission of democratizing art. Is the long line to enter the work, the hype, all a hoax? Despite my reservations about how socially-engaged and “practically useful” Tania Brugera’s “artivism” could be, I left her iteration of Untitled (Havana 2000), on view at the Museum of Modern Art through March 11, invigorated and ready to champion the potential of this ephemeral, non-translatable medium. Burguera’s installation is pointedly political and remarkably accessible without sacrificing subtlety.
At least there is ample reading material to occupy us while we wait in line — an essay and interview between the curator, Stuart Comer, and Bruguera await inside.
Given my initial skepticism, you may wonder why I woke up early, power-walked uptown in 9am Sunday rain, and visited MoMA twice in one weekend, all to see this work. There are several reasons, among them: the intrigue of an artwork being banned does wonders. A central theme of the piece is the consequences of expressing subversive ideologies, thus, it was most fitting that authorities shut down Bruguera’s first presentation of the piece at the 2000 Havana Biennial mere hours after the installation opened; this act of censorship cemented the power of art, and this work in particular, to provoke.
For the Havana Biennial, Bruguera staged the work in La Fortaleza de la Cabaña, a military fortress dating back to the colonial period that served as a prison and torture facility throughout history, like for the counterrevolutionaries following the 1959 revolution. That this setting for a site-specific, artistic response to authoritarianism was coopted then deemed too rebellious by the government is the strongest possible endorsement of Bruguera’s statement with the piece.
As much as Untitled (Havana, 2000) feels distinctly Cuban, resonances with larger political trends that extend to the present are hard to ignore. In the current national political and social climate in the U.S., we see the bubbling up of activism on a weekly basis surrounding issues ranging from sexual assault to gun control. We are also witnessing an outpouring of critiques of our current president, contrasted by emphatic support from his steadfast base. And concerns over censorship are also at the forefront of discourse with a president who dismisses the press as spreading fake news.
Presenting this piece eighteen years after its initial creation and in a distinct political condition, Untitled (Havana, 2000), feels uncannily relevant. As Bruguera states in an interview included in MoMA’s mobile guide: “Right now, in 2018, I think the world is going towards the fascination with ‘strong political figures,’ and I think there is always good in being reminded what happened with that fascination.”
Monumental and bilingual (Spanish on left, English straight ahead) wall text.
Intrigued? So is the Hyundai Commission of the Tate Modern in London, because they recently selected her as the next artist to create a work in Turbine Hall, opening in October.
Learn more about Tania Bruguera’s approach:
- MoMA webpage on Untitled (Havana, 2000)
- The New York Times: “Now at MoMA, a Work that Fidel Castro Banned 18 Years Ago” (February 15, 2018)
- The Art Newspaper: “Tania Bruguera’s banned Havana performance comes to New York” (January 30, 2018)
- Americas Quarterly: “Portfolio: The Art and Activism of Tania Bruguera” (2016)
- Tania Bruguera, “Introduction on Useful Art” (2011)
- Guggenheim video from when Bruguera was a Hugo Boss Prize finalist in 2016
- As a Radcliffe Fellow 2016-2017, her fellow presentation was titled “Aest-ethics: The Role of Ethics in Political Art“