Raúl Zamudio

‘No man is an island, entire of itself ... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ It seems apt to refer to this passage from Meditation XVII, by the 17th-century metaphysical poet John Donne, when thinking about the Cuba-born artist Tania Bruguera. Not only because Bruguera’s work formally and thematically emanates from her homeland, while establishing a dialogue with the world beyond it, but also because it perpetually absorbs a panoply of sources from both inside and outside of the island, which cohere into her distinct, artistic voice. But Bruguera’s subject matter also alludes to the politics of displacement and social alienation that, in one sense, is a subtext of Meditation XVII. And, like the poet’s ruminations on the interconnectedness of things in both life and death, the pathos in her work poignantly reminds us that no man or woman is an island indeed; which is especially underscored in the trans-cultural nature of her work.

The immediacy of Bruguera’s art, which is simultaneously cerebral and somatic, elegant as well as abrasive, is articulated through a myriad of genres, including video, photography, sculpture and drawing. But it has been through her performance-based work that Bruguera initially received critical acclaim. In an early piece, Lo que me corresponde [What is Rightfully Mine], first performed in Havana in 1995, Bruguera positioned herself, with cotton wool fixed to her naked body, on a sculptural base as a quasi-avian reference – made more dramatic by her bird’s-eye view of the viewers below. Paradoxically experimental as well as honed, the piece distinguished her from her contemporaries, as performance-based practice had, at this particular art-historical moment, taken a back seat. While this brought her much attention, in its wake came references to another well-known Cuban artist who had preceded her: Ana Mendieta.

When Mendieta first appeared on the scene, Anglophone critics exposed their own brand of orientalism by misreading her art through her ethnicity alone. Performance pieces executed in the landscape, which served less as backdrop and more as an integral component to her aesthetic, for example, were reduced to Cuban exoticism or situated anthropologically or tinged with a romanticist view of the other. Like Mendieta, Bruguera’s work operates with signifiers that are ostensibly from her homeland, but her artistic purview resists singular readings, which can be construed, to paraphrase Hal Foster, as the cultural determinism of ‘the critic as ethnographer’.
Apart from Bruguera’s performance pieces, there is a body of work that equally evinces a mastery of materials. Poetic Justice (2002–3) consists of a long corridor, with used teabags fixed to the interior walls and a video played on a small screen embedded in the teabags. The work’s lineage includes the architectonic installations of Michael Asher and Bruce Nauman’s Live Taped Video Corridor (1970; but, while Poetic Justice dovetails into Asher’s explorations on the social nature of space and Nauman’s phenomenology of surveillance, Bruguera augments these concerns by taking them into different territories.

One of the things that immediately strikes the viewer is the subtle pungency of tea. The olfactory serves as an alternative receptor for the work of art, but it also questions Modernism’s emphasis on vision. Modernism’s privileging of the optical was observed by Duchamp in his wry, anti-aesthetic attack, but it was critiqued earlier in an almost off-hand way by what may historically be the first salvo against formalist theory – that is, Nietzsche’s assessment of Kantian aesthetics as having one major flaw: that it is based on vision. Poetic Justice also alludes to other senses. Although one is certainly not inclined to touch it, the piece is highly tactile and motivates a haptic compulsion. The teabags, moreover, have been used and are therefore socially tainted, referring to historical Cuban folk remedies and their export to the Old World with its colonialist past.

The teabags also trigger a quasi Pavlov-like response in the viewer. By retaining the consistency of humidified tea which, in turn, activates the salivary glands through visual cognition as well as smell, Poetic Justice foregrounds the notion that materiality is as saturated with meaning as any sign. Matter, for Bruguera, has narrative potential and this has been a cornerstone of her work. Tea, cotton, bones, hair, meat, shells and dirt are just some of the materials used, not for their aesthetic value alone, but because they are permeated with significance.

Raúl Zamudio is a New York City-based independent curator and critic and host of the talk show Art After Dark