Tania Bruguera takes over the Turbine Hall to remind us that we’re more powerful together
I’m a 20-something-year-old male, and I can’t remember the last time I cried. But here I am, standing in a small room, an enormous number stamped onto my hand, and a strange organic compound in the air is making visitors tear up around me.
There isn’t much else to see here. At least not right away. You and two or three hundred others will need to work together to see anything at all. But that’s sort of the point. Tania Bruguera doesn’t want us to think about communities or nationalism; one is about what is shared and the other is about who doesn’t belong.
The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is a vast space. With over 35,000 sq ft of room to show art, this former industrial building has given artists like Louise Bourgeois, Rachel Whiteread, and Ólafur Elíasson the opportunity – and challenge – to realise some of their most ambitious projects. Now, Bruguera is doing something that’s never been done before in its 18-year history. Instead of a large sculpture or technically demanding video installation, Bruguera is thinking beyond the gallery by looking outside of its walls.
The space is occupied by a huge, horizontal mural – except, you can’t see the image unless you and many, many others get together and activate the heat-sensitive paint that obscures his image. The image which is eventually revealed is a portrait of a young Syrian refugee named Yusef, who fled to the UK from Homs, western Syria, and is now studying medicine. But it is the title of this artwork that makes the strongest statement – a single, ever-growing number. The number of people who migrate in the year, plus the number of people who die trying to move. It’s a profound, shocking and terrible number. The number stood at over 10 million on the opening day of the commission.
“Sometimes society makes you feel like you cannot make any change because you’re just a little person nobody cares about” – Tania Bruguera
However, speaking with Bruguera, it becomes clear that she doesn’t have time for pessimism. “Sometimes society makes you feel like you cannot make any change because you’re just a little person nobody cares about,” she says. But in the face of this negativity, she retains a clear sense of purpose: “My art is centred in the people.”
“We have to start looking back at things that have happened when we don’t get together; when we worked in nationalistic ways and not collaborative ways,” Bruguera says. In the face of right-wing politicians playing off fear, education is both a powerful result of her art and an effective tool.
Watching the news and hearing about the wrongs of the world isn’t education, far from it. If anything, the constant stream of negativity causes more harm in her view. “The way in which capitalism has co-opted every area of society, where even the news should be something to follow developments in the world, has become anaesthetised. Events that appear and disappear, in a psychotic way.” Bruguera’s use of this concrete number, by stamping it onto your hand and simulating crying amongst strangers in a confined space all speaks to this weird combination of tragedy and distance that defines today.
Bruguera is an artist who has faced a tremendous amount of struggle. Born in Cuba, she’s witnessed state censorship headfirst. “The first time I was interrogated by the secret police, was because my father turned me in,” she told BBC. This happened in 1993, where Tania explains, “that’s what happens in a country like Cuba, where everyone feels like they have to save themselves.”
In response to the crisis of the world, Bruguera has consistently pushed for art and artists to be useful. A kind of thinking which is also at the heart of the art world right now – examples include Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group, nominated for the Turner Prize for innovative and artistic means of finding out what really has happened in war zones. In keeping with her grassroots, collaborative approach to making art, Bruguera has often found herself initiating and organising projects. She’s set up a community centre and political party for immigrants, established an art school, and – after being arrested for protesting a new censorship law in Cuba – founded The Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR).
In conversation with Bruguera, she moves seamlessly between larger ethical questions and the everyday realities that people experience. You get the sense she doesn’t see them as that separate. After proclaiming, “We need free education, all over the world,” she breaks down the vocabulary used about immigrants. Instead of seeing immigrants in “a capitalist way” by asking what they can produce for us, we should remember they are people. “They give us more than just producing an object – they give us another point of view, they enrich how we see the world, and they compensate for some of the things we are missing.”
Despite her strong political ideals, Bruguera is not naïve. There’s a long history of radical voices being celebrated by the establishment – Colin Kaepernick as the new face of Nike is just one recent example. “It is very easy to co-opt a political intention and to manipulate it,” she responds. “For me, political art is one that is not an easy piece. It’s not easy to swallow or to understand. You have to do your work as a citizen. To understand your own role in the political world.”
“If you are a political artist, you need to always politicise. Even this interview.”
Politically-minded artists working in a timely manner have certainly captured the heart of the art world in recent years. The last two winners of the Turner Prize have come largely outside of the standard gallery circuit, and have seen their art as having a deeply political, social function. Tania Bruguera taking on the Turbine Hall Commission is another example of this trend. And while she’s “very happy to have more colleagues who are coming around to political art”, she adds that it is “a little sad that the world had to go to this state, with Trump and nationalism in Europe, for people to wake up. Ideally, we should be doing this all the time”.
As our conversation comes to its end, touching on her arrests, her protests, her endless work for migrants, I thought about the students in Cuba that she had helped inspire – and artists around the world who saw themselves as political actors with bigger societal aims.
Why risk it all for art?
“You have to understand why you do what you do, because it is a hard road to take. There are many moments in which people will try to buy you. There are many moments when people will try to break you, and you have to know what you believe in order to fight for it. But it’s possible. We can do it.”
Bruguera grew up as the Cold War was coming to an end, and has been pioneering a grassroots, activist approach to art well before Occupy and Momentum burst onto the scene. Her work speaks to some of the most crucial ideas of art right now, and her life reflects the most significant geopolitical shifts of this century. She’s taken on one of the largest commissions in the art world, but on this global stage has turned towards the local.
Tania Bruguera’s 10,143,493 runs at Tate Modern until 24 February 2019. Admission is free – more information here