Bruguera’sInstallation view of Tania Bruguera’s “Untitled (Havana, 2000)” (2000), sugarcane bagasse, video (black and white, silent; 4:37 min.), and live performance with four performers of Cuban descent, MoMA. (image © 2018 Tania Bruguera, photo by Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources)

Last month, two events became entangled in the Gordian knot of Cuban exile and its divisive narratives: the suicide of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart (known as Fidelito, son of the late Fidel Castro) and the opening of Tania Bruguera’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.  The first incident unfolded the tragic story of a member of the family that has been ruling Cuba for over 60 years. The second marks a recent MoMA acquisition of an installation-performance that Bruguera made for the Havana Biennial in 2000, where it was censored.

Bruguera has achieved a big reputation in contemporary art, specifically in the field of social practice, granting her important commissions in the US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. She began as a sculpture and performance artist after the fall of the Berlin Wall, known in Cuba as the “Special Period.” In the last decade, however, she has become a notorious dissident after making a series of critical projects that trace the genealogy of authoritarian thinking. Her criticisms of totalitarian structures are openly influenced by Hannah Arendt’s theories — Bruguera even named her ongoing project after the German-American philosopher: Instituto de Artivismo Hanna Arendt.  Needless to say, the cultural apparatchik of the island has declared Bruguera’s approach ideologically unacceptable, banning her work from official spaces and art institutions, including the Havana Biennial.

Perhaps Bruguera’s most blatant attempt to disrupt the police structures of the Cuban regime occurred in 2014 at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, where she installed a podium and an open microphone to promote a discussion about the future of Cuba. The project, titled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” was Bruguera’s brilliant response to the era of the Cuban Thaw, prompted by the Obama administration, in which the US progressively dismantled the economic embargo without interfering with Cuban internal politics. Nonetheless, “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” was declared illegal by the authorities and the artist was arrested just before Christmas, then shortly thereafter released when thousands of messages of protest from activists and support groups abroad inundated social media.

If Bruguera’s work aims to examine totalitarian structures, Castro’s private life is a larger problem she had to deal with to accomplish her mission.  It is not a secret that the mythical comandante transformed his own life into a nebulous matter. Castro passed away in November 2016, after vanishing from the public eye during his last three years. After 2008, his brother Raúl Castro took over the presidency and Fidel spent a length of time at home due to a severe cancer. The Cuban leader started to act as a retired celebrity from the Cold War, wearing Adidas colorful jumpsuits while being interviewed by CNN, TELESUR, and Al Jazeera. Despite his decadence, the heroic figure full of masculine allure and wearing an idiosyncratic guerrilla fatigue, remained fixed in the collective imaginary, an image that is difficult to erase. The everyday life of Fidel’s various wives, lovers, and siblings remained invisible, except for some press on his defector daughter Alina, who lives in Miami and hates her father beyond his death. But the life of Fidelito, Castro’s elder son born of his first marriage to a Díaz Balart patrician and a discreet bureaucrat working in the public administration, remained a gray zone until his suicide last month.

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Video still from Tania Bruguera’s “Untitled (Havana, 2000)” (2000), augar cane bagasse, video (black and white, silent), and live performance. 164 x 39 ¼ x 13 1/8 feet (image courtesy of the artist, photo by Casey Stoll and provided by MoMA)

Sugar cane was planted and developed as the ground for a rising economic system in the Caribbean in the 16th century, long after the Spanish conquest and during colonization. In 1941, Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban anthropologist coined the term ‘transculturation’ in his book Contrapunteo Cubano del Tabaco y el Azúcar, an influential comparative study of sugar cane and tobacco trade that challenged Eurocentric approaches. For Ortiz, the development of a colonial scheme of cultural exchanges and assimilation for subaltern cultures was only explained by Western anthropology through a process of acculturation. A counter punctual examination of sugar and tobacco, the two dialectical sources of production within the plantation economy modeled in Cuba (and the Caribbean), showed how this rural mode of exploitation that is linked to slavery — being Cuba one of the most important slave trade enclaves between the 16th and 19th centuries — originated a new and dynamic way of thinking. The coexistence of difference therefore produces a syncretic and a non-passive way of thinking. Ortiz observed: “sugar is made with a collective rhythm” and as such it represented even in revolutionary Cuba the nation’s identity for some years.

When Castro’s guerilla defeated Fulgencio Batista’s government, Cuba had a sugar industry stronger than the gambling dens and casinos administered by the Mafia, which was justly demonized by the propaganda of the new regime.  Yet unsurprisingly, after 1958, the revolutionary movement led by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Huber Matos, Camilo Cienfuegos, Ramiro Valdez, Carlos Franqui, Hayde Santamaria, Armando Hart, Melba Hernández, and Ernesto Ché Guevara, grounded its future economic plan in the sugar cane industry. The zafra (harvest season) became the very emblem of resistance during the first years of the US Embargo, driving hundreds of internationalist volunteers from all over the world to Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santiago, and many other rural locations in Cuba to help collect the sugar cane against imperialist forces.

Arguably as evocative as Proust’s Madeleine tiny cake, sugar cane in Cuba has powerful transcultural underpinnings. Its bittersweet scent can trigger an involuntary memory, recovering a time that has long past.  This is precisely what Tania Bruguera aptly capitalized in her piece “Untitled (Havana 2000),” in which the smell of sugarcane activates a stream of memories.  But what is the repressed memory Bruguera aims to disclose?

Bruguera’s installation, originally presented at the Cabaña Fortress during the Seventh Havana Biennial, now perfected at MoMA after various iterations in Kassel, Bogotá, and Venice, consists of a dark, long space, the floor of which is entirely covered with a thick layer of mashed fermenting sugarcane. According to Elvis Fuentes, who wrote the essay for MoMA’s brochure, the original location “played a significant role in the darkest days of Cuba’s political history.” In an interview with exhibition curator Stuart Comer, Bruguera stated that “darkness is used as the opposite of enlightenment (…) The long dark walk through the prison corridor provided time to think through your feelings, to explore your own ignorance of a place where the only light emanating from the image of the one man can be seen, not the eleven million people whom he had the power.”

Four male performers stand naked next to the walls, making somatic body movements such as cleaning their bodies, bowing from pain, and bending their hands behind their heads. This choreography takes place in darkness while a pale ray of light bathes their faces and bodies from above. The dark environment condenses the smell of the sugarcane, producing a soporific, intimate sensation. In the middle of the gallery, a TV screen projects black-and-white images of Fidel Castro in different moments of his heroic, revolutionary trajectory.  The Cuban leader also appears performing the quotidian activity of swimming; this footage, according to Fuentes, was mostly taken from the pro-Castro US filmmaker Estela Bravo’s various propaganda documentaries.

Bruguera’s use of smell as a mnemonic element is mainly indebted to Fernando Ortiz’s study of sugar as well as Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966), a novel that revolves around the imagery and rituals of a plantation system. If the scent of sugar is a Proustian reference, its haptic sensation on the floor also unleashes a torrent of images as vivid and hyperbolic as those in Paradiso.  Anybody who read Lezama Lima’s novel remembers the delirious scene when the protagonist’s grandmother cooks a flan, a confection that transports the reader to images of different eras and remote geographies as in an adventure novel.

Metaphorically, and despite its transcultural potential, sugar cane operates in Bruguera’s piece as a national symbol for unachieved postcolonial emancipation. Moreover, the naked male bodies of the performers are problematically related to the issue of gendered heroism, the counterpoint of which would be the thorny Western fantasy of the body of black male or the mulato after the 1970s, a body that nurtures the industry of sexual tourism in Cuba. The long lines engineered to enter Bruguera’s piece at MoMA (only four people can visit the installation at a time) remind us of those that Cubans have to form in their everyday lives to buy bread, coffee or sugar. The symbolic complexity that the piece unfolds to the audience through a sensorial dispositive is key to understanding the artist’s persistent critique to totalitarian thinking and the perversity of its attack against subjectivity.

Although Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for over 50 years, his private life still remains opaque to the Cubans who inherited his authoritarian regime after his death in 2016. Bruguera’s apt use of the official film footage of Castro subtly addresses this vacuum, which Fidelito’s suicide has only begun to fill.

In addition to these conceptual operations, “Untitled (Havana 2000)” nuances the Museum of Modern Art’s ideological legacy regarding what is to be defined as political art, which began with Alfred Barr’s celebrated diagram of modern art in which Mexican Muralism was located at the core of the avant-garde. In this sense, Bruguera’s work with the scent of sugar cane and the use of its bittersweet memories is a challenge for those who live comfortably in the distance between words and things.

Tania Bruguera: Untitled (Havana, 2000) continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until  March 11.

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Gabriela Rangel

Gabriela Rangel is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn. From 2004 to 2019 she was director of visual arts and curator at Americas Society, New York, and from 2019 to 2021 artistic director...