Conceived for the 2000 Havana Biennial, this work originally appeared in the Cabaña fortress, a former military bunker and an infamous site of executions from colonial times through the Cuban Revolution’s early years. In the work, the sickly-sweet scent of rotting sugarcane—a potent symbol of the Caribbean slave economy—permeates the near-total darkness of a long tunnellike structure. A video monitor suspended from the ceiling displays televised propaganda of Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro giving speeches, embracing children, and exposing his bare chest as if to prove his invincibility. Four unclothed men, flanking the monitor, stoically enact a series of gestures, from bowing to obsessively brushing their skin. Together the performance, video, and sensorial environment articulate the relationship between citizens and authority in a society with a long legacy of colonialism, slavery, and political oppression.
With this work, which was almost immediately shut down by the Cuban government, Bruguera began to shift in her performances from a focus on her own body to an exploration of the collective body, a means of confronting the inherent contradictions of everyday life in postrevolutionary Cuba. Bruguera refers to her work from this period as arte de conducta, or “behavior art”—aimed not at “representing the political,” but rather at “provoking the political,” she has said. Exhibited in a museum context, this complex project continues to generate questions about state power and the vulnerability of human rights.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Untitled (Havana 2000) is a pivotal work in Tania Bruguera's artistic career. Realized in response to an invitation to participate in the VII Bienal de La Habana in 2000, it consists of a large-scale video installation and performance. Inside a darkened tunnel, mashed sugarcane is piled up to several inches on the floor. The sweet-and-sour smell of fermenting sugarcane is pervasive. At the end of the long space, there is a shimmering light that originates from a small TV monitor, which hanging from the ceiling, displays a black-and-white video of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In it, the charismatic leader appears in different settings, both public and private, delivering speeches before thousands of followers, swimming at the beach, and opening up the shirt of his military uniform to show that he is not wearing a bulletproof vestan image that recurs every other minute. As the viewer turns back to the entrance of the room, s/he realizes that four barefoot, naked men are standing on the mash, quietly rubbing their hands, like Lady Macbeth washing the blood from her hands in William Shakespeare's classic play.
Cuban artists have rarely shown images of Castro, except for laudatory ones, for fear of censorship. Bruguera incorporated images taken from various sources, most prominently a propagandistic documentary by American filmmaker Estela Bravo, a fixture in the Cuban media and known for her pro-Castro stance. In Bruguera's edited video the performativity of power through mass media is in full display in the leitmotif of Castro's opening up of his shirt. The contrast of this show of mortality and bravura with actual naked men gesturing, bowing to the image on the TV monitor, cleaning their bodies, and standing on a sea of mash in putrefaction was explosive.
Publication excerpt from Elvis Fuentes, Excerpt from "Sugarcane, Fidel Castro, and PerformanceArt in Cuba: Tania Bruguera's Untitled (Havana 2000)", post: notes on modern & contemporary art around the glob. 2016.