Artist Profile: Tania Bruguera – Art for Social Change

by STEPHANIE CORLETO, contributor, thirteen.org

photo courtesy Art21/Studio Bruguera

Tania Bruguera has eaten dirt in Havana, herded crowds of museum-goers in London, and organized for immigration reform in Queens. Born in Cuba in 1968 and currently residing in New York, her interdisciplinary practice takes many forms as she continues to explore the nature of power structures and their effects on society’s most vulnerable groups.

Some of Bruguera’s earliest work took shape in visceral, body-centric performances connected to her Cuban heritage. Her 1997 piece The Burden of Guilt (El peso de la culpa) was based on a legend that the native Cubans performed a collective suicide during the Spanish occupation. In a final act of rebellion and passive resistance, the native Cubans ate dirt until they died. Bruguera ritualistically repeated this gesture, combining small amounts of Cuban soil and saltwater in her hands and consuming them while wearing a butchered lamb carcass. Through this act, Bruguera embodied the history of Cuba and the current reality of her homeland where there is hardship and denial of freedom.

As her career progressed, Bruguera expanded her focus to a global examination of power. Her series Tatlin’s Whisper provoked viewers to consider the relationship between political realities and the sterilization of images in mass media through a method that Bruguera calls Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art), art that focuses on the reaction and behavior of those who witness and participate in the work. Bruguera’s fifth performance of the series  took place at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall Bridge in 2008. Museum goers’ trip to the Tate was disrupted by two mounted officers using techniques learned in the police academy to control rioting crowds. Groups of visitors were divided, then crowded together as the mounted police circled, unable to leave or enter the space when the entrance was blocked — all without an announcement or wall text naming the artist and title. By having the piece appear to be a random event, Bruguera illustrated how the state’s power is used to coerce groups and exposed the ingrained, passive responses of viewers in the face of authority.

In her most recent work, Bruguera coined the phrases Arte Útil (Useful Art) — art aimed to transform aspects of society through its implementation —  and Political-Timing Specific, a method where the piece is dependent on political circumstances specific to the moment when exhibited. Her project Immigrant Movement International embodies both of these terms with its mission to, “help define the immigrant as a unique, new global citizen in a post-national world.” Since 2010, Bruguera has lived in Corona, Queens as part of the project, embedding herself in the multinational neighborhood. There she works to create a community space that collaborates with social services organizations, elected officials, and artists for immigration reform, as well as create programs to empower immigrants through English classes, legal help, and impromptu performances.

Want to learn more about Immigrant Movement International and how Tania Bruguera explores the politics of repression? Tune in to Art21 on THIRTEEN — Friday, November 7 at 10pm.