Freeing Tania Bruguera

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Jori Finkel for The Art Newspaper

Deep into Tania Libre, the new documentary that explores the artist Tania Bruguera’s fraught relationship with the Cuban government, comes a particularly intimate moment. Sounding a bit more sheepish than usual, Bruguera admits that she was attracted to one of her interrogators during her detention in 2015.

She not only experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of her harassment and imprisonment, she says, but also some form of Stockholm syndrome, the condition by which hostages can become attached to their captors. And she believes she is not alone, seeing these afflictions as a near-universal condition of a population that survived Fidel Castro’s regime.

It is the kind of insight that comes from intense therapy sessions, and here it comes from a two-day-long, therapy-like conversation between Bruguera and the psychiatrist and trauma expert Frank Ochberg, which provides the format and substance of the new film. It is a risky premise: the 73-minute documentary, which has a one-week run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (from 19 May), consists almost entirely of this dialogue, save for clips of Bruguera’s button-pushing performances. (She is also due to speak on a panel about art and social commitment with other artists at Frieze New York on 6 May.)

Film as a form of arts activism

The documentary was produced and directed by another risk-taking artist: Lynn Hershman Leeson. As the feminist conceptual artist tells it, she made the film on “lunch money” in between exhibitions of her own works, which focus on the seductive dangers of surveillance, cloning and other techno-futurist fantasies we already live with.

During her career, film-making has become Hershman Leeson’s most visible form of art activism. “To jail or punish artists for doing their work is such a violent form of repression, like having your tongue cut out,” she says. “I see this as a way of making people aware of these vital wrongs.”

Hershman Leeson’s previous two documentaries also show artists who have been oppressed or suppressed. !Women Art Revolution (2010), a sweeping history of around 50 years of feminist art-making that took nearly that long to make, began with videos of friends made at home with a borrowed camera. “I didn’t see it as a film,” she says. “I didn’t know how to make a film, but I thought it was the most interesting thing happening at the time.”

The documentary gives female artists recognition long denied by museums as well as the market, and treats feminism as a serious political movement that grew out of Vietnam-era activism. Narrated by Hershman Leeson, the film covers works by Howardena Pindell, Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler and Ana Mendieta, among others, and weaves together dozens of one-to-one interviews. (Acquired by Stanford University, California, the full interviews are now online.)

One highlight is the interview with a feisty Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s founding director, carried out in July 2006, just three months before her death. She remembers working as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art (from 1969 to 1977) and asking its then president, David Solinger, for a raise so her salary would match those of her male counterparts. “He said: ‘The budget, the budget, the budget,’” Tucker recounted. “I said: ‘The New York Times, the New York Post, the Daily News.’”

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