Cuba, performance and society’s relationship to its history
It is always easy to interpret an artist’s work through the lens of their background. If that artist is from a country such as Cuba, as Tania Bruguera is, it is extremely difficult not to. The island remains an anomaly on the global stage: a survivor from an earlier era, a failed Utopia, a place romanticized and reviled in equal measure, from both without and within. When Bruguera writes of her intention to address ‘the subtlety and seductiveness of power’, one cannot help thinking of the Cuban people’s persistent loyalty to their former president Fidel Castro, despite the crippling economic and human rights deprivations that the country had to endure under his rule. However, through her performances, events, installations and social interventions Bruguera has worked hard since the 1980s to create situations that reflect not just the dynamics of power within her country but also in a broader way on the nature of society’s relationship to its own sense of history, to its hopes, desires and ethical conscience.
For a recent event at London’s Tate Modern, Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008), Bruguera enlisted the help of two uniformed policemen mounted on horseback. Using techniques developed to control rioting crowds, they marshalled the gathered audience around the gallery space with the quietly awesome authority with which the large animals endowed them. Bruguera was exposing behavioural responses in the obedient audience that are ingrained on many levels: respect for men in uniform, fear of animals and passive subjection before an art work and a performer. She tapped into a similar vein a year earlier with her project Trust Workshop, devised for the 2nd Moscow Biennale. Nervous but compliant visitors were asked to pose with semi-tame animals such as an eagle or a monkey for photographs taken by Moscow street photographers (who normally offer their services to tourists in Red Square) beneath a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared Bolshevik secret police...