Tania Bruguera: Confronting, Not Conforming

Tania Bruguera: Confronting, Not Conforming

Despite the art world’s reputation as fearless provocateur, the threat of censorship always looms. MoMA’s decision to buy and display Tania Bruguera’s once banned, politically charged performance is a testimony to the awareness that art is an agent for confronting and not conforming. 

It has been almost two decades since the activist Cuban artist Tania Bruguera staged her provocative work Untitled (Havana 2000) — or rather attempted to. The performance had originally taken place in a military bunker used as an execution site and torture cell for dissidents of Fidel Castro’s regime at the 7th Havana Biennial. By covering the entirety of the bunker’s floor with rotting sugarcanes, a small television on the ceiling showing Castro’s propaganda videos and with four nude men performing a series of ceremonial actions, Bruguera had made a very risky statement by criticising the corruption and censorship within the Cuban regime. The performance was shut down within hours but it would nevertheless become a pivotal moment in her career.

By covering the entirety of the bunker’s floor with rotting sugarcanes, a small television on the ceiling showing Castro’s propaganda videos and with four nude men performing a series of ceremonial actions, Bruguera had made a very risky statement by criticising the corruption and censorship within the Cuban regime.

18 years later Untitled (Havana 2000) has come back to life, though not in its original setting. The work has found its home at the MoMA where Bruguera had the tunnel-shaped bunker recreated in plaster, even replicating the smells of damp and decaying sugar cane with the help of scent specialists so as to maintain the specific environment and atmosphere that is equally as important as the performance itself. So how could this performance, made specifically in reaction to the corruption and censorship carried out during the Cuban Revolution relate to our own current political climate? MoMA’s initiative to display Untitled (Havana 2000) now rather than when it was first acquired by the institution in 2015 is in itself telling. During a preview of the performance, Bruguera said its themes “are especially important to discuss in the Trump era”. Yet 18 years later we wonder whether the performance could still resonate with an audience that has not suffered through Castro’s oppressive regime. Can we navigate a work that is supposedly time and site-specific and still draw something from it? Bruguera firmly believes so, saying that “it translate[s] to MoMA’s international and multi-generational audience”, bringing to light what it means to live in a time where coercion and oppression are rife.         

In the supposedly liberal West, one could be let off the hook for thinking that the sequester of artworks and banning of artists is a notion of the past but the reality is quite different. A recent string of events not only within the art world but also in politics has shown that free speech is not something to be taken for granted. We needn’t look very far either: just a month ago, Manchester Art Gallery controversially removed the Pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse from its exhibition because of its depiction of misogyny. Similarly, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a petition to remove Balthus’ Therese Dreaming for its potentially disturbing sexual nature gained thousands of signatures in only a few days. All this can be viewed in light of the #MeToo movement which has undoubtedly had an effect not only on the types of artworks and stories that we choose to tell, but the people we choose to promote.  

Yet 18 years later we wonder whether the performance could still resonate with an audience that has not suffered through Castro’s oppressive regime. Can we navigate a work that is supposedly time and site-specific and still draw something from it?

Even outside the debate on gender equality, traces of censorship and coercion are palpable and this is particularly true in the US. With regards to censorship of information, Trump is known to have blocked off communication with several news outlets claiming they churn out what he deems is “Fake News”. Perhaps many of these actions under Trump have been brushed off as somewhat ignorant and oftentimes comical but are in reality a mild form of censorship that could lead to something much more sinister and dangerous if left unchecked. Perhaps Bruguera is right in saying that “we need to stop looking and start thinking”.

Naomi Purswani

Image credit: Estudio Bruguera