Speech Disorder: Claire Bishop on Tania Bruguera at the 10th Havana Biennial
Bishop, Claire, Artforum International
WHENEVER PEOPLE LAMENT the homogenization of global biennials, a special case should be made for Havana's. Located in a country suffering the longest economic blockade in modern history, the Havana Biennial has, since its inception in 1984, placed post-colonial theory and Southern-Hemispheric relations at the forefront of its activities while consciously eschewing the mediation of Western centers. However, for all the innovations this independence has produced--the Havana Biennial could be said to stand historically as the model for today's discursive, transnational biennials--the flip side is a paranoid control of cultural expression that takes the form of government censorship. As a result, the event's most recent edition, which took place this past spring, was a disappointingly mute affair; innocuous artistic expressions of antiglobalization sit unproblematically within the anti-imperialist discourse of the Cuban authorities. The bulk of the work in the main exhibition venue at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana was grindingly mediocre, with very little of the social, interdisciplinary, and research-based art that has come to be a hallmark of Western biennials. Instead, dated forms of installation art abounded (rooms filled with tires, leaves, sand, etc.), as did an aesthetic that the Mexican performer Silverio pithily summarized as "overproduced with no budget." Still, some smaller venues in the city hosted rewarding displays of work by older artists, such as Luis Camnitzer at the Centro Wifredo Lam, and a Leon Ferrari survey at the Casa de las Americas; the latter was far more faithful to the vision, range, and political commitments of this senior Argentinean than the concurrent retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The most striking exception to the general mood of the biennial, however, was a project appropriately titled "Estado de Exception" (State of Exception), held over nine nights at the Galena Habana. Organized by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Havana-based curator Mailyn Machado, this series of nine exhibitions was Bruguera's farewell to the art school she has run from her home in Habana Vieja since 2002--the Catedra Arte de Conducts, an informal institution dedicated to producing a new generation of Cuban artists who work politically with their social reality. For each day of the project, Bruguera and Machado curated a different group show from work produced at the school, organized around themes such as "Jurisdiction," "Useful Art," and "Trafficking Information." These short, sharp interventions, many of which dealt with issues of censorship, Internet restrictions, and social taboos, often outstripped everything else in the biennial in terms of subversive wit and relevance to the Cuban situation. For one work, Alejandro Ulloa simply placed on a plinth the most expensive piece of computer equipment in Cuba: an anonymous gray cable for connecting a data projector.
Each of the nightly exhibitions also included pieces by one of the many visiting artists who have taught at Bruguera's school, among them Dora Garcia, Thomas Hirschhorn, Adrian Paci, and Artur Zmijewski. Of these, Elmgreen & Dragset's 24/7/365, 2009, was the most memorable: Two young men sat on chairs at either side of a bed, then stood up, undressed, and spooned on the bed, before dressing and sitting again. These actions were repeated for the four hours of the show, as if on a video loop. The piece's directness and unabashed homosexuality resonated well with the efforts of Bruguera's students' to engage in ad hoc forms of journalism and activism--often making use of legal loopholes--as ways of addressing the complexities of life under Castro. "Estado de Exception" stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the biennial, which showed a near-total absence of curatorial direction--perhaps inevitably, given the makeup of the team (nine curators, all from the Centro Wifredo Lam) and the generic character of their chosen theme, "Resistance and Integration in a Global Era. …