Leading artists, critics and curators protested in London, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Rotterdam last month against the arrest of the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the confiscation of her passport. On 18 April, participants including the UK artists Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger and Bob and Roberta Smith took to an open microphone at Tate Modern, London, to spend one minute saying whatever they liked—the concept behind the work Bruguera tried to stage in Havana’s Revolution Square in December. She was charged with a breach of public order, resisting arrest and the intention to commit a crime.
“Boycott the biennial”
There have since been calls to boycott the state-funded Havana Biennial (22 May-22 June), which opens this month. Ironically, the offending piece, Tatlin’s Whisper, was first staged at the 2009 edition of the event. But Bruguera, who is stranded in Cuba, says that she has effectively been denied participation in the 2015 biennial. She says the organisers are only willing to stage her work if it takes place in an arts institution, not the street. However, “one thing nobody knows… is that since I did the first version of Tatlin’s Whisper, I have been [unofficially] banned from all the institutions”, she says. “I even tried to send a project through the Ludwig Foundation in Aachen to its sister institution [in Cuba], and the Cuban director said that the idea was brilliant but should be done by another artist. Thank God the Ludwig said, ‘No, this is Tania’s work; it can’t be done by someone else’.”
The Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo, the art historian Gustavo Buntinx and the Dominican artist David Pérez Karmadavis have distanced themselves from the biennial in support of Bruguera and other artists, including El Sexto, a graffiti artist who is in custody for planning a work critical of President Raúl Castro.
In a letter, Galindo wrote that she did not want to “enjoy privileges while others are repressed”. She planned to stage her performance, Caña, in the town of Quivicán, independently of the biennial. But after her letter was published, she learned that she would need the organisers’ backing to access the sugar cane fields the work requires. An independent curator working with Galindo conveyed the message that it would be “best” not to stage the performance at all.
Inside Cuba’s art world, the reaction has been more ambivalent. Lázaro Saavedra, last year’s winner of the country’s National Fine Arts Prize, asks whether her performance would have had an impact. He says: “Tania knew perfectly well that they were not going to allow her to do it.” A recent graduate of Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte, who was in Bruguera’s performance studies programme, says that the piece made, at best, a “moot point”.
The Cuban curator and critic Gerardo Mosquera, who organised the biennial in the 1980s, is outspoken about the suppression of artists’ voices in Cuba. He says it is naïve to think that improvements in diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US indicate that the Cuban authorities are becoming more liberal. “As measures aimed at opening up dialogue [take place], the authorities will exert more control over the population to prevent this from developing. The response to [Bruguera’s] piece proves that,” he says.
Mosquera notes that the biennial is among the few opportunities for Cuban artists to receive international attention. “Cuban artists have not shown solidarity with Tania because it could spoil their chances of showing and selling their work to curators and collectors attending the biennial,” he says.
Bruguera also blames self-censorship. “When you are trying to domesticate a wild horse, you have to [use] brute force. But when the horse has been broken in, you only have to tap it. The art world in Cuba has been domesticated,” she says.
Tania Bruguera: “No lawyer will represent me”
The Art Newspaper: What do you think about the calls for a boycott of the Havana biennial?
Tania Bruguera: “Everybody should do what his or her conscience dictates. When I heard about the boycott, I went to see the director and said: “I have come to tell you that I had nothing to do with it. But, ethically, I have to tell you I am very happy that somebody is acting in solidarity with me.” I’m not going to encourage the boycott, but I am going to welcome anybody who is acting in solidarity with me, because right now, that is very hard.”
Why is it hard for others to support you?
“The problem is that [the Cuban government] is a master of creating fear. My friends who are artists and curators have been taken to government offices and spoken to for hours about my case. The censorship has been very smart. First, they say: “We won’t let you exhibit; we’ll crush you or make you disappear as an artist.” This is what they want to do with me. They have not been able to, but give them more time and they will achieve it. They marginalise you as an artist, turn you into the plague so that nobody wants to talk to you. After that, they open you up to economic censorship. They look for what hurts you the most.”
What is the situation now?
“I find myself very vulnerable. I have seen around seven lawyers. I have shown up to law firms randomly, queued up, but nobody wants to represent me. People are terrified because it is a case of the state against me. If they confront the government to defend me, they could lose their licence to practice.”