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Tania Bruguera

b. 1968, resides in Cuba and the United States

Given that Bruguera is internationally renowned as one of the most active practitioners of performance art, it’s no coincidence that her art was originally an homage to the memory of Ana Mendieta. In the early 1990s, while many artists from the island were emigrating to Mexico and the United States, Bruguera was proposing a comprehensive and evenhanded understanding of Mendieta’s significance, and the need to preserve the cultural dynamics that had been established between them: “Ana had been in search of the Cuba that I had lost, I was in search of what Cuba was losing” (Garzón, 1999, 55). Bruguera’s concern for historical memory was also reflected in Memorias de la Postguerra (Postwar Memories, 1993), an alternative publication that collected, like a time capsule, the circumstances facing the artistic community on the island during this period of conflict in national life and culture.

In its original version, Estadística (Statistic) was exhibited during the Sixth Havana Biennial as an immense background (3.60 x 1.70 meters, or almost 12 x 5.5 feet) for Bruguera’s performance work, El Peso de la Culpa (The Weight of Guilt, 1997). Subsequently, she produced similar pieces in different sizes. Estadística belongs to the series Memorias de la Postguerra, in which the artist attempted to salvage remnants of the collective spirit that animated Cuban art in the previous decade. Bruguera’s concept transformed the connotations of the visual image, as well as the production process itself, into content. The use of the Cuban flag—created in New York in 1849 by the exiles Narciso López and Miguel Teurbe Tolón—resonated with the demystification intended by other artists such as Tomás Esson, Carlos Cárdenas, and Kcho. But by changing materials and creative processes, Bruguera introduced new and unsuspected references.

Creating the piece required the help of many compatriots from all over the island, who donated locks of hair that were sewn onto pieces of fabric. It was a collaborative process similar to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79), which in this case took several months of intense work. Other artists, as well as Bruguera’s friends as neighbors, got involved in the patient reconstruction of an image that has crystallized the capacity for political battle and cultural resistance in the Cuban people since the late 1800s. “The piece has a ritual component,” declared Bruguera, “from the very moment when we gathered the hair, rolled it, sat every day—which we did for months—and sewed it as if we were in colonial times. In that era, the women of the house would get together to sew the Cuban flag, which was a symbol of revolutionary ideas and the fight for independence. It was an act of conspiracy as well as solidarity” (Zayas, 1999, 150).

At a moment in which economic crisis, emigration, and discouragement assaulted the trenches of art and society, to make a Cuban flag together—in a sentimental conspiracy, knee against knee—implied the reinvention of a consensual utopia. The symbol of the nation was reconstructed, literally sewn (a technique linked to traditional feminine culture) by means of a process of intimate interactions between anonymous Cubans, who contributed a bodily attribute that is, according to myths and religions, charged with energy. In the midst of the social commotion of the 1960s, pop artist Raúl Martínez created a piece titled Todos somos hijos de la Patria (We Are All Children of the Motherland). Thirty years later, the flag that Bruguera envisioned was an attempt at a spiritual re-foundation beyond the bureaucratic impersonality of a demographic census.

Performed for the first time in 1997, El Peso de la Culpa (The Weight of Guilt) marked a change in Bruguera’s performances, which sought a greater interaction with the audience and the evident ritualization of the movements. The artist takes on the subjects of guilt and individual responsibility based on a piece of historical information: during the initial years of the Spanish colonization of Cuba, Cuban Indians committed a peculiar form of collective suicide: they ate soil until they died. Using this fact as a starting point, the artist structured an act during which she holds a sort of shield created from pieces of a lamb carcass. In front of the performer, two containers were placed, one filled with soil, the other with salt water—materials from which she modeled earth balls that she slowly ingested in silence over several hours.

The artist explained the ideas suggested by her act: “To eat soil, which is sacred, and a symbol of permanence, is like digesting our own traditions and heritage. It’s like erasing one’s self” (Valdés, 1999, 157). On the other hand, in Cuban street argot, comer tierra (to eat soil) describes the most pitiful state of an individual, the most absolute personal crisis. Bruguera has fused both interpretations (self-punishment as a form of rebellion and the obliteration of the self) with the idea of submission implicit in the animal carcass. Considered in Catholic iconography as a symbol of nobility, kindness, and faithfulness to God, the lamb and its pelt have long been used as a metaphor for evil masquerading under the pretense of innocence. Its central role in the performance “makes one think of a strategy of simulation and irony; in the end, of another form of concealment in that apparent innocence of ‘saying without saying’ evident in Tania’s work” (Wood, 2000, 37).

In El cuerpo… (1998), Bruguera went even deeper into the cycle of submission and obedience. The performer stands naked in a space covered by lamb meat simulating the insides of a human body. The audience could only view the execution of the performance, which started in a corner of the space, through a small opening. Meanwhile, Bruguera wrote corrections in an official history book, in movements repeated over and over again. Terrified by the probable consequences of her actions, she started to lick the text in order to erase it and, seeing it was impossible, ripped apart the pages and swallowed them.

In contrast to the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the Gutai Group, whose main focus was the process itself and an immersion in the “experience,” Bruguera’s interventions have more theatrical roots. The photographic or video images are the essential medium through which the act will endure beyond time, as an icon of forgetfulness and collective neurosis.

                                                                —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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