What is art but a temporal space of freedom?

By Marisol Salanova

Artists are expected to stretch the boundaries, push the envelope and break the rules. Someone could say that there is no limit to their creativity especially in performance art. But the truth is that many times the audience or the authorities stop them because they are endangering themselves, others, or the social established order. How far is too far? How weird is too weird? Freedom of the artist probably has a limited time which depends on external acceptance and other factors such as political. Just a few months ago the aestheticized morbidity of French artist Adel Abdessemed shocked the world by his solo show at the Pompidou Center in Paris which had some artworks where there were animals dying. Other artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jan Fabre caused similar controversies before, turning the museum into a place for extreme reflection. It is supposed that their way of go further help contribute to changing the world in an artistically fruitful manner.

Cuban installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera seems to be very interested in the role of the museum as an active forum and the influence of art in society. Some of her works examine the relationship between apathy and anaesthetization of the images in the mass media, an important social problem in the last years in all the developed countries. For example, during her performance Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (Tate Modern, London, UK, 2008) she was exposing behavioural responses in the obedient audience respecting men in uniform or having a passive attitude during an exhibition or a performance. She enlisted the help of two uniformed policemen mounted on horseback who pushed the gathered audience around the gallery space using techniques developed to control rioting crowds. Although the artist was providing a space of freedom visitors answered by complying with the oral instructions of the officers and the imposing physical and historical presence of the horses used as repressive means.

Some controversial performances create a tension between the viewer and the viewed: Chris Burden asking a friend to shoot him, Ana Mendieta lying face-down, half naked, tied to a table and covered in blood like she was raped, Marina Abramovic inviting viewers to injure her… What do we do with this violent surplus? In her book The Human Condition (1958) the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that violence is mute and guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom. Perhaps art gives voice to violence making it more visible so is easier to combat it. Bruguera’s work calls on us to reflect on prevent gun violence and mass shootings starting from the ideas of freedom and self destruction. During her performance Self Sabotage (Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 2009) she sat at a table reading a speech about the concept of survival, stopping from time to time to hold a gun to her head to play a real-life game of Russian Roulette which is a potentially lethal game of chance. The gun was truly loaded and the artist was finally stopped by audience members and fellow artists who were suffering all along. Bruguera’s body had become an element of protest beyond the abyect as Viennese Actionists did in the middle of the last century. I understand it is an act of resistance against oppression at a given time, in a given space, for a specific duration. Probably this perception of time in moments of grief and stress is very unique because it builds a temporary space of freedom that no one can take away.

*First time this article was published in Ivorypress magazine Turn On Art.