During the Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today exhibition in New York, the Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman interviewed Tania Bruguera about conceptual and ideological influences in Latin American art, the dialogue that her performative work brought to the exhibition, and her practice in the context of "political" art.
What do you think about the representation of Latin American artists in Under the Same Sun and the way that your own work functioned in context?
No show conveys definitive information. I think every show, in a place like the Guggenheim, is in danger of appearing definitive, like a grammatical sentence. I think there are many artists missing, in my view, but the ones that are there, I love. That’s why I wanted to be outside doing this [The Francis Effect], because it is a more raw kind of work. When these kinds of works enter the institution, in general, any institution, they risk becoming clinical, because they get detached from the context that they belong to and which gives them the means to exist.
What defines Latin American art?
Latin American art is extremely influenced by conceptual art. I define myself as a conceptual artist and a political activist, but conceptual in terms of form. And one of the things that a lot of the artists I know found in conceptual art was a way to question the roots of things, and the reason for existence of things. And I think that, for me, is what gives conceptual its raison d’être, in the Latin American context, because it is a way in which you can challenge the kind of ontological situation of things, or the reason for things to exist.
The other influence, I think, is politics. Latin American art—even art that is cool and nice and bourgeois—even that kind of art is in response to politics. I think it is different from other countries, where the place where you live is satisfactory and your basic needs are met. I think in a lot of Latin American countries, we start from a point of anger, a point of frustration, a point of questioning, a point of wanting to understand why this is happening. So, we don’t have the luxury of making a lot of psychological art, or pictorial pieces about pure form. No, it’s more about, what do people need to think about, and what people are exposed to.
What is your favorite work in the show?
I think one of my favorite pieces in the show is Carlos Motta’s piece, because in my case, and his case, we try to enact what Latin American art is, instead of showing it. But I did it consciously. I was thinking, “What should I do that will show people what Latin American art is, in the making, you know?” And I think Carlos did that as well—instead of showing you the result, or an image, it’s making you experience Latin American art, and I really like that. It’s human. It’s critical. And it’s anti-institutional. That’s what Latin American art is, for me.
What did you hope your work would bring to this exhibition?
For me, it was extremely difficult to participate in the show. But in the end, I decided to participate, because I thought it was worth it. In my case, what I could bring is the more political aspect, and the more direct political testimony. Latin America has a lot of performance. And the life of Latin American politics is more performative than political in other places that I’ve seen. You know, it’s extremely theatrical, extremely symbolic, extremely performative, extremely unplayful—pretending to be playful.
I wanted to make sure, as an artist in the show, that people understood that things are extremely complex, and a show like that is only one of the potential doors for entering a dialogue. And I think we are in a very, very good moment now, in the United States at least, of discussion about art and activism, and I’m very happy this is happening. And I hope the institution doesn’t coopt the conversation, and make it easier for people, because the good thing about it is that it’s not an easy conversation.
How do you define your practice within the framework of “political art”?
My work was, at the beginning, about fear. A lot of my work, at the beginning, was about confronting fear, or understanding fear, or even acknowledging that you have fear. And now, I’m more about trying to understand political strategies. I’m not a sentimentalist. I hate melodrama. And it seems very melodramatic, this culture of viral stuff.
I had a lot of discussions about political art, with my friends, who are also political artists. The distinction is when something is at stake, and when you really can lose something. It’s not about, “Oh, yeah, I have a comment about this that is happening.”
Being Cuban, I feel it’s the only thing I can do, be a political artist.