When the Tate Modern opened, in 2000, in what used to be a power station on the south bank of the Thames, in London, the former turbine hall, which encompasses more than thirty-five thousand square feet and is as high as a five-story building, became one of the most coveted and challenging spaces for an artist to fill. In 2005, Rachel Whiteread installed “Embankment,” which consisted of fourteen thousand stacked translucent plastic boxes, resembling sugar-cube ziggurats; in 2010, Ai Weiwei made “Sunflower Seeds,” in which he spread millions of porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds across the floor, like a crunchy carpet.
Last month, the space was turned over to Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist and activist. At first sight, Bruguera’s intervention appears to be subtler: a large patch of the hall’s floor is painted in a dull black; a loud, low-frequency rumbling emanates disconcertingly from massive speakers at the end of the hall. The black paint has weird properties, though, as the first tentative visitors to the exhibition discovered. “My bum’s disappearing first!” exclaimed one woman, whose brief moment of repose on the floor had left behind fleeting, anatomically revealing traces of white, like chalk smears on a blackboard.
“Tania wanted the space to look almost as untouched as possible, but to invite forms of collective participation and experience,” Catherine Wood, the museum’s senior curator of international performance art, explained. The soundtrack, with its sense of foreboding, was created with the help of a sound artist named Steven Goodman, also known as Kode9. The black paint on the floor is sensitive to heat. When it is warmed by being sat or lain upon, it reveals parts of an image hidden beneath: a photographic portrait of a twenty-five-year-old Syrian named Yousef (the museum is releasing only his first name), who fled his country in 2011 and is now in London, working for the National Health Service. Bruguera considers the work a “horizontal mural.” Wood went on, “It is a call to action, because there’s no way that you can see this picture unless you join together with many, many other people, and the heat of your bodies and your energy comes together, and reveals this picture collectively. It’s an almost impossible task.”
Bruguera has made other adjustments to the environs, calling attention to issues of migration and immigration. The museum’s northernmost building, the Boiler House, has been renamed the Natalie Bell Building for a year, to honor a local activist who works with migrant youth, including Yousef. A “crying room” has been installed just off the turbine hall. Inside, visitors are brought to tears by what museum officials described only as “an organic compound” piped into the air. The experience is meant to induce what Bruguera calls “forced empathy”—an antidote to tear-emoji virtue signalling. (A nonscientific assessment suggests that the compound is more menthol than onion.)
To develop the piece, Bruguera worked with a local group called Tate Neighbors. Frances Morris, the Tate Modern’s director, acknowledged that it is a global museum. “But we really do want to be a local museum, and actually we don’t really know what that means,” she said. She added that it had been chastening to meet with local residents and hear that, despite living a few minutes’ walk away, they did not feel invited to its galleries. (Morris did not mention the Tate Modern’s recent heated interactions with some of its other neighbors: residents of a luxury apartment building, who discovered that a newly constructed museum terrace offered a privileged view into their apartments.)
Bruguera said that, during the five months she was in London working on the installation, she did not dare return to Cuba, for fear that she would be arrested, mid-project. She has been detained and incarcerated on several occasions—including the time when, four years ago, she sought to place an open microphone in Revolution Square, so that her fellow-citizens could express their hopes for the country. Her own border crossings have become problematic. “Every time I go, the woman is always, like, ‘Hello, welcome to Cuba!,’ and then my name comes up in the computer and she goes, ‘One moment, please,’ ” Bruguera said, dryly. “And I have to wait until the state police interrogate me and try to convince me to not come again to Cuba. And it’s silly, because the more they do that the more I want to go back.” ♦
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