Purchase For the opening on Jan. 28 of “Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary,” the normally sedate galleries of the Neuberger Museum were transformed by light, sound, smell and live performance. The atmosphere was carnivalesque—the strong aroma of sugarcane mingled with a milder one of tea, while the faint sounds of men marching and guns being cocked drifted forward from a distant room. A performer personifying an African Nkisi Nkonde figure, wearing a mud-covered costume studded with nails, moved slowly around the entryway as crowds poured into the show through two paths. You could wind through a warren of installation and performance areas that alternated between bright, even blinding, light and unsettling darkness, or pass through a central corridor lined with teabags (whence the smell) to a large room at the back. Here actors wearing little or no clothing appeared between two staging areas with open mikes, from which audience members could address the assembled visitors.
Going back the next day was a quieter but no less intense experience. Now a visitor could linger alone or nearly so in the installation rooms and experience their intended psychological impact. A surprising number of the performers from the night before were there, some enacting repetitive gestures as integral parts of larger environments and others appearing for scheduled reenactments of stand-alone events. Several questions posed by the show became clear: How does one restage and re-present site-specific performance and installation works—the most ephemeral of genres—in the framework of a larger monographic survey? What happens to the meanings of works tied to particular sets of circumstances when venues and contexts change? Is it possible for them to be anything other than pale substitutes for the originals? As performance art becomes historicized, these questions grow increasingly urgent, arising as well in connection with reenactments in recent years of classic works like Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, Hermann Nitsch’s Orgy Mystery Theater and Marina Abramovic´’s re-creation of others’ performances as well as her own (including those presented in her current MoMA retrospective).
This exhibition marks Bruguera’s selection as the first winner of the Roy R. Neuberger Exhibition Prize for an “early career survey.” To be given biennially, the award includes an exhibition at the museum and a monograph on the artist. It would be hard to imagine a more challenging initial recipient. Born in Cuba in 1968, Bruguera still maintains a residence there, though since 1998 she has divided her time between Havana, Chicago and Paris. She first became known to the larger art world through various installments of the Havana Biennial, in which her politically charged performances tended to be curtailed or shut down altogether. More recently she has been appearing elsewhere on the international circuit. She continues to mix performance and installation in ways that place audiences in uncomfortable situations and raise thorny political questions. Much of her work concerns freedom of expression, a potent topic in contemporary Cuba. She also touches on the endless cycle of war, the personal and social cost of oppression, and the political efficacy of art.
Not all of Bruguera’s well-known projects are represented in this show. A 2008 intervention at Tate Modern in which uniformed policemen on horseback herded visitors into the center of the Turbine Hall depended on its audience’s innocence of the fact that the action was an artwork. A 2009 performance in Bogotá included the offer of free cocaine to onlookers, and another at the 2009 Venice Biennale involved a game of Russian roulette with a gun said to be loaded. None of these could be reenacted at the Neuberger, a museum of moderate size on a college campus. Nor could Bruguera re-create her intervention at a 2009 art history conference in Chicago, where she turned over her speaking spot to ex-Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn while planting hecklers in the audience; in addition to depending, again, on the audience’s innocence, this piece was too tied to a particular moment (the then-recent presidential campaign) to be successfully reprised. In such cases, standard practice would be to exhibit video documentation, but the artist generally resists presenting her works in this way, believing it diminishes their experiential nature. Hence the decision by curator Helaine Posner to organize the show as a series of reinstallations and reenactments.
Among the works included are several from Bruguera’s early days, when, inspired in part by her compatriot Ana Mendieta, she undertook actions that involved a degree of physical endurance and pain. One of her best known performances is reenacted daily. The Burden of Guilt, first performed at the 1997 Havana Biennial, grew out of the colonial history of Cuba, in particular a story of a collective suicide by indigenous peoples under Spanish occupation who, legend has it, ate dirt until they died. In an homage that also represented an act of solidarity with contemporary Cuban dissidents, Bruguera appeared before an audience nude but for a skinned lamb carcass tied around her body and spent several hours ritualistically mixing dirt with salt water and ingesting it.
At the Neuberger, a roughly 45-minute version of the piece is reenacted daily by a female performer (although it is not clear that she actually consumes the mixture). A second work from this period that is reenacted daily is Studio Study, originally staged at the Centro Wifredo Lam in Havana in 1996. In this largely static work, a naked performer—originally the artist—stands on a high pedestal. She is pinned to the wall by several metal restraints lined with raw cotton, and holds a piece of uncooked meat in her hands.
Even in a museum setting, the viewer’s proximity to these performers is a bit unnerving. But to fully appreciate their enactments of victimhood, one must cast one’s mind back to their original contexts, in which they were tied to the political repressions of Cuba. By the time she presented Untitled (Havana, 2000) at the 2000 Havana Biennial—it is also reenacted at the Neuberger—Bruguera’s work had changed. Removing herself personally, she put the focus more directly on her audience. One of the most effective works in the Neuberger show, Untitled (Havana, 2000) occupies a very dark, long corridor whose floor is covered thickly with smashed sugarcane, making for fairly precarious footing. The pungent smell is almost overwhelming. Visitors are drawn forward by light at the far end that turns out to be a small overhead video screen displaying scenes of Castro giving speeches and being embraced by supporters. Only gradually does the sound of subtle scratching become apparent. Adjusting to the deep gloom, you realize that naked men on the sidelines are performing repetitive movements. Their unexpected presence powerfully animates the space: no longer a quiet womb, it is now a place one shares with shadowy figures whose purposes are obscure. There is a sense of being trapped, possibly endangered. It is hard to remain there long.