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Tania Bruguera’s Untitled (Havana, 2000) 

There is nothing but darkness. Every instinct in your body is telling you to turn around and leave. Every fiber of your being is shaken to its core. You don’t know what or who is around you. You are stripped of all your senses. How is it that when your eyes don’t see, your brain activates a chain reaction in your body? Fear. You have been instructed to walk forward, in silence. You hear distant sounds of footsteps moving towards you. You’re not sure because you can’t see anything. You don’t know where you are. You read somewhere that it is a tunnel. But you don’t know whether that’s true. A tunnel, by definition, has an exit. You are not sure you will exit this. Or, anyway, exit it as the same person you were when you entered it.

Tania Bruguera’s Untitled (Havana, 2000) is currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art. It was initially shown 18 years earlier, during the Havana Biennale in 2000. The potency of Bruguera’s vision was, ironically, confirmed by the authorities who shut it down only hours after it had opened. The work was presented in the Cabana Fortress, which had been used as a jail for “prisoners of conscience” from colonial times through the early years of the Cuban revolution, when members of the counterrevolutionary opposition were tortured and executed there.

Effectively, when you walk into the piece you’re immersed in complete darkness, heightening your other senses. You are hit with a very powerful smell of what you begin to realize is rotting sugarcane. Sugarcane is the symbol of the sugar industry, which has a strong association and history with the slave trade and the development of a major economy in the Caribbean that was entirely based on sugar. As you begin to walk into the piece, your eyes slowly adjust, and you realize that there is a light source: A television monitor in the ceiling, presenting found footage detailing Castro both in private and public lives – swimming in the sea, but also giving speeches. There’s a crucial moment where he removes his shirt to reveal his bare chest, to prove that he does not need a bulletproof vest: He is invincible. In contrast to this, there are four performers who stand naked around the monitor, almost as if they’re guarding it, resembling the atlas figures in roman antiquity that would guard a situation or a person in power.

From the second you enter the tunnel you know that this piece will never leave you. The intended psychological impact, as well as the darkness, invite you to stop looking and start thinking. In the advent age of social media, this installation takes on an unusual turn. It forces us to slow down and think as much as we are trying to look, in order to begin to experience on a more sensorial and corporeal levels, the histories that the piece seeks to enunciate.

In a short video piece that is featured on the MoMA’s website, speaking about the piece, the artist herself declares, “what you learn with you body, you never forget.” There are few words that can be used to accurately relay the experiential qualities of the installation, but no review can ever do justice to that which we are condemned never to forget: that which we learn with our bodies.

Untitled (Havana, 2000) is on view through March 11, 2018.

Tania Bruguera: Untitled (Havana, 2000) Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources/©2018 Tania Bruguera

New York, Beirut