Detained, grilled, denounced: Tania Bruguera on life in Cuba – and her Turbine Hall show
Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist and activist, is sort of talking about a project she shouldn’t talk about. She is the latest artist to take on Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commission – its details a secret until the installation is opened with theatrical flourish on 2 October. And she is enjoying the suspense: she has been dropping tantalising clues on her Instagram account that take the form of images of well-known paintings. Clue No 1 is Caillebotte’s Les Raboteurs de Parquet, an impressionist work from the 1870s that depicts three artisans scraping down the wooden floor in a bourgeois apartment. Clue No 2 is Holbein’s Ambassadors, which shows two beautifully dressed men standing next to a table loaded down with intriguing objects.
For Bruguera, who is 50, art, activism and politics are not matters to be carefully untangled and set apart. Her work is always in the service of a political idea. It is arte útil – useful art. She grew up in Cuba in a well-connected family. Her father served as a diplomat, loyal to the regime to the end of Fidel Castro’s life. She studied in Cuba and the US, and her life is largely divided between the two countries.
She considers herself a revolutionary, but has become a thorn in the side of the Cuban authorities. She has been detained repeatedly, interrogated on more than 40 occasions, and denounced in newspapers as a CIA operative.
She is currently campaigning against law 349, which is due to come into force in December and has been condemned by Amnesty International. It states that artists must have a permit from the culture ministry to undertake any artistic activity. “That means you cannot just exhibit paintings in your home, or do an alternative theatre play. These are called artistic services and you have to ask permission. The government is saying it has to be art that fulfils revolutionary ethics. Of course, they never explain what revolutionary ethics are.” Inspectors are sent round to check up, and infractions can lead to fines or confiscation of artists’ IDs – the official licences they already need to operate. Does she still have her ID? “I still have it. They wanted to take it but I had an exhibition at MoMA [in New York] and it was hard for them to justify it,” she says.
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