Tania Brugera: first of all, the truth

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This article is published in number 47 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until November 23, 2021

There are many good reasons why Tania Bruguera is one of the Cubans most hated by the authorities of her country. You can start with the fame that surrounds it: every time it denounces an abuse, the most important cultural institutions and the most prestigious museums around the world raise their voices, and the regime, which made a brand out of the old Castro revolution, does not like be shamed. We could add a second reason: Tania Bruguera made civic activism a work of art and yes, “I worked so hard to keep civil society alive, to shake off fear, to learn to speak in public without attacking. the others “- tells a Vanity Fair – that in the end this has become precisely the aesthetics of his projects.

Of course, his stubbornness also goes into it. At the end of October, he agreed to leave Cuba, as State Security had been pressing for some time. She went to teach in Boston, but on one condition: that dozens of political prisoners be released. And so, from a list of 40 people, she managed to get 26 out. “In the end, the authorities showed that those people were not detainees but kidnapped, to be released not by law but by negotiation.” Do you feel in exile? «No, as soon as I finish my commitments, I return. I want to take all the freedom to enter and leave my country ».

Born in 1968, studying art in Havana and Chicago, Bruguera is fresh from a Velázquez, the most important art award granted by the Spanish government. His works are part of the most prestigious collections in the world and boasts a slew of awards. His career as an artist has built it by investigating the bowels of power, the codes of arbitration and its antidotes, constructing installations and staging considered intolerable for Castroism. For this she has been arrested several times, stopped, insulted, discredited, questioned, besieged at home, in the last year more than ever.

Tania recalls a story from the past, which is another piece of the resentment that the regime feels for her. He told it well in the interview book by Claire Bishop released last year by the Fundación Cisneros. The father, Miguel Brugueras, he was a diplomat very loyal to Castroism. In 1994, when he was ambassador to Argentina, he returned home, alarmed by this daughter who was working on a work (Memory of the Postwar period) by printing a clandestine sheet. That day he invited her to take a walk, to talk about it: in reality, he took her to two counterintelligence agents who interrogated her. “It was very painful. I already had an extremely complicated relationship with my father. After that episode it broke completely ».

Even though Cuban society still lives synchronized in fear, something seems to have broken and perhaps this is why the upper echelons of power are much more nervous. To get an idea, just remember a few episodes. In 2014, with the thaw of Barack Obama, Tania took literally the invitation of Raúl Castro who had urged all Cubans to give their contribution to renew the country. So, one day the artist announced that he would put a microphone in the Plaza de la Revolución, available to anyone who wanted to speak.. “At 5 am the secret police entered my apartment to arrest me. The work did not even begin, but for me this meant a success ». Yet, on November 27, six years later, Tania was in the front row among hundreds of artists who for a whole day camped in front of the Ministry of Culture to protest against censorship. An unprecedented thing. Finally, on 11 July this year, the big protests with tens of thousands of people in the street shouting freedom: “Never had such a thing been seen”, he recalls. “The government did not expect it and is absolutely not prepared to manage a crisis, to open a table, a dialogue, to listen.”

As of this writing, we do not know what happened on November 15th, the day of a new march announced by a civic platform. “But certainly the police have been knocking on the Cubans’ door for weeks and scolding them. He makes a kind of analogue survey, house by house: power, without knowing it, always shows its grotesque side, especially when it is such an arbitrary power ».

Since 2015 Tania Bruguera has opened her laboratory in the Cuban capital, which is a forge of young people, intellectuals and ordinary people and has called it INSTAR, Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism, an experience so brilliant that it deserved the 2021 Arnold Bode award at the prestigious Documenta. Thinking about the German philosopher, the artist has chosen the title for his first solo show in Italy, curated by Diego Sileo, which will open at the PAC in Milan on November 27: The truth even at the expense of the world. Thus, in fact, Arendt had replied during a transmission on German TV in 1964 when they had asked her: “Are there valid reasons for keeping silent about some things you know?”. No, Tania Bruguera also repeats: truth first of all. “Truth for me means understanding the needs of the other and being aware that we are not always right.” Difficult task: “This is why the truth is difficult.” And be careful, he adds: “Truth and politics can be irreconcilable spheres, but lying is still an essential part of any totalitarian society”.

In Milan we will see ten works created along a path of almost thirty years, and it is evident that their strength lies in the rough empathy they emanate. Although largely created within the context of the Caribbean island, with its ghosts, the myth and the failure of a now senile revolution, the images and sensations in this artist’s works manage to shake everyone.

Emigration and exile, for example: for Cubans it means a diaspora of 3 million from the early 1960s to today, a haemorrhage that continues to this day. “For all of us, Cuba always has an expiration date,” she smiles bitterly. Yet, she reminds us that there is a world on the run and that the response of power is always inhuman, everywhere. In these days, at the PAC some camp survivors and their relatives of the ANED (National Association of former deportees to Nazi camps) are sewing the image of a barbed wire that connects the yellow stars on a blue background of a huge European flag. «I’m excited to collaborate with them. I am terrified of lost memory, because it is easy to be unjust and cruel if we forget what injustice and cruelty are ». The sense of art for Tania is all here: «I use art to understand life, what happens to me and around me. Each work has helped me to grow and understand something more ».

A famous work by Tania Bruguera made in 2008 at Tate Modern, when he busted two mounted policemen on the deck of the Turbine Hall: they were giving instructions, such as orders given in protests, to an unsuspecting and eventually condescending audience. “We all need to be able to recognize and connect the different pieces of the same story.” And that story, he repeats, “concerns everyone”. All the more (and this makes the regime’s poppies lose their temper) if he then publicly says: «I am on the left. And to so many leftists who continue to feel in love with the revolution, I say that Cuba is not a socialist, but a country based on a primitive state capitalism that tries to survive history. It is a country in the hands of a military dome that holds its business tight ”. Then, with his sly humor, he adds: “Sometimes I ask my friends: if they’re so tied to business, how long will it take to leave? We do a crowdfunding and we give them the swag. In reality, what they want is power, because that’s what allows them to have capital; without power I am unable to do anything ».

Tania Bruguera is a hurricane woman. And if his surname no longer bears the final “s” of his father, it’s simple: at the age of 18 he took it off, as his first act of revolt. Perhaps his first artistic gesture.

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