The impossibility of instantaneous, mass spectatorship of Tania Bruguera’s Untitled (Havana, 2000), currently installed at the Museum of Modern Art, is a challenging antidote to our milieu’s visual practices. Bruguera’s work intervenes in the representation of conflict by implicating visitors into a material environment that articulates this tension spatially. In doing so, she collapses the space between conflict and observer, in a manner that challenges assumptions of distance and disengagement. Admitting only five individuals at a time into a pitch-dark room which does not allow—nor would be cooperative with—photography, the re-staging of Untitled employs strategies of repetition and material history to tease out rich dialogues around totalitarianism and labor, in a manner that can only be reproduced by the artist.
Untitled was first created for the 2000 Havana Biennial for which the theme was “Close to One Another,” a concept meant to consider issues around communication in a globalizing world. Bruguera’s installation was originally presented in the vault of the Cabaña Fortress, where numerous people were incarcerated, tortured, and executed for opposing political leadership from the colonial era until the early part of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. Though considered an important Biennial for the presentation of critical contemporary art, under Fidel Castro artists were not permitted to create works that critiqued the country’s leader. Untitled was the only work of Bruguera’s several proposals that was accepted, and only because the artist withheld her plan to include a reel of propaganda footage of Castro.
Bruguera’s installation at MoMA is a large, long room that remains completely unlit throughout the duration of one’s experience. On entry, it takes a several strenuous minutes for one’s eyes to adjust completely. The first sensory encounter is with the overwhelming scent of pressed sugarcane, followed by the feel of it thickly piled under one’s feet, crunching as they walk. Eventually, four naked men become visible. Appearing almost ghostlike, they stand stationary while quietly rubbing their hands, dusting themselves off, and slowly bowing. Hanging facedown above them, a small television plays silent black-and-white footage of Castro orating, greeting civilians, and partaking in leisure activities. When the organizers of the Havana Biennial learned of this footage, they quickly shut down Bruguera’s project.
Certainly, the reel of clips is an arresting inclusion. Castro’s image on the small, suspended screen represents the only agile body in the space; he moves freely through the environs he inhabits. A repeating clip of him unbuttoning his shirt, smiling as he reveals he is not wearing a bulletproof vest, emphasizes the lack of bodily vulnerability his position accords him. This resilience, Bruguera’s work articulates, can only exist precisely through the countering vulnerability of civilian bodies, which is made possible through controlling and censoring. And it is, of course, this very censoring that had Bruguera’s work shut down in 2000. In the context of Untitled’s re-presentation in the U.S., this dialogue is still urgent in that it recalls numerous current instances of state censorship and control, including the U.S. federal government’s recent threat to destroy art made by prisoners of the Guantanamo Bay Prison. In Bruguera’s words, state censors believe “the artist does the work for [the state];” that the work should be self-censored. However, Bruguera’s work was more than a rebellion against the controlling of creative and political thought; in this work, she subverts the relationship between resilience and vulnerability, disrupting the seemingly impermeable governing system.
Castro’s resilience is subverted by the vulnerable, listless movements of the naked performers atop the sugarcane; historically Cuba’s largest export. Bruguera’s employment of the visceral is absent of any gimmicks or appeal to affect. In her avoidance of visual representation that can be consumed from a safe distance—in which, say, the viewer inhabits the conflict-free environs of exhibition space where they momentarily perform empathy and proliferate photographs—the artist reconfigures one’s access to a specific history. She engulfs the visitor into a material relationship to which they are historically implicated. Bruguera points out that the audience bears witness while still possessing the privilege to leave; however, the material environment compromises any ease of mobility, suggesting the superficiality of this gesture.
Repetition as an artistic method functions both within Untitled and in its presentation and re-presentation. Between the 2000 Biennial, the current MoMA exhibition, and the few additional instances of Untitled’s re-staging in between, the work was installed with consistency, yet will have gained and lost meaning with the context of each iteration. Though this work speaks to the local histories of Cuba and the Cabaña Fortress, the multi-sensorial presentation does not privilege sight nor offer access without implication. Its re-presentation in a North American museum unwittingly converses with the original Biennial context, where there was an unexpected influx of American tourists in attendance who desired to see Cuba in a certain way—embedded but viewing from a distance. The shift from the Cabaña Fortress to the U.S. museum collapses a perceptual distance and plays into Bruguera’s interest in the transformation from observation into active citizenry. In her words, “I don’t want to represent a political situation but to create a political situation.”
- The Biennial shut off the electricity around Bruguera’s work, which in turn affected projects around hers and resulted in many artists protesting. The Biennal then removed the video component of the work and banned the performance. The sugarcane installation was all that remained for the length of the Biennial.
- “Stuart Comer in Conversation with Tania Bruguera,” Tania Bruguera, Untitled (Havana, 2000) (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 9.
- Comer and Bruguera, 5.
- Ibid, 7.
- Ibid, 9.
Magdalyn Asimakis is a New York and Toronto-based curator, art writer, and PhD candidate at Queen's University.