In 1998 a friend gave Tania Bruguera a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, knowing that she was interested in “power issues, how power negotiates space and how power communicates,” Bruguera says. “I read it five times in a row and still didn’t understand a lot of things. At first I saw it in terms of power relationships between the two main characters. Now it seems more emotional, about a dysfunctional relationship.” She’s wanted to stage Endgame as a participatory installation ever since, and each of her six pieces at Rhona Hoffman includes a maquette of a space she plans for this staging, illuminated by tiny lights in the darkened gallery. She wants viewers to walk through several spaces to lie on beds and poke their heads through holes in a wall, where they’ll see two actors in a central circular room: Hamm and Clov, the play’s dying man and his servant. Her Endgame will be performed for 12 hours, but viewers will decide how long they’ll stay.

Bruguera, who has another Endgame-related work at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of “Not I: A Samuel Beckett Centenary Celebration,” worried that her maquettes at Hoffman wouldn’t convey Endgame’s emotional content. So for each one, a film with “similar dilemmas to those of the play” runs on a video monitor behind the maquette. “Movies are the contemporary way to learn about ‘correct’ or mainstream emotional responses to situations,” she says. The maquette accompanied by Blue Velvet shows the projected layout of the stage. Another showing a space with seven doors and seven corridors is accompanied by The Bicycle Thief, in which a “kid sees his father become totally humiliated and demoralized,” Bruguera says. “There’s no way he’s going to admire his father again.” Here, once you enter a door, you won’t be able to go back through it.

Bruguera was born in Havana but, because her father was a diplomat, lived in Paris, Lebanon, and Panama as a child. Her French school in Lebanon encouraged students to “question the meaning of everything, to go and find the truth while at the same time you know there is no one truth.” Returning to Cuba at 11 required adjustment: “In Cuba you have to memorize things, and there is only one right answer. There were many symbolic activities that at first I didn’t understand. On some days commemorating national heroes, we students would stand beside their statues in shifts.” Bruguera learned the importance of gesture, and to think in terms of sacrifice. “You are part of a group, not on your own, working for a major humanistic goal that you might not achieve right away.”

At 15 Bruguera joined a collective that performed in the streets and in abandoned buildings, creating everything from costumes to music. Beginning to see art in social terms, she got bored with the expressionist paintings she’d been doing. She entered college in 1987, an exciting time in Cuba; influenced by perestroika, the government “was giving a little more flexibility.” The professors were no longer Russians but idealistic young Cuban artists. She began a project, which lasted nine years, based on the work of Cuban-born visual and performance artist Ana Mendieta. In 1995 Bruguera was invited to do a residency in the United States; other invitations followed, and she moved to Chicago, then entered the School of the Art Institute in 1999 to study performance.

As her international reputation grew, Bruguera continued to return to Havana to present new pieces. But when she offered these works of political and social commentary elsewhere she found that “foreigners saw only my aesthetic strategies.” Hoping to rediscover the collective approach and the integration of art and society she’d found in Cuba, she began to encourage nonartists to produce works in response to hers. For The Body of Silence her performance had consisted of surrounding herself with raw lamb meat, to suggest submissiveness, and writing an unofficial history of the Cuban revolution, then licking the text off the paper. In London a Scottish man took off from that idea, reciting a poem by Robert Burns, while in India a Muslim teenager did a play about dowries. Interactivity is meant to achieve a similar result. Startled by homelessness here–“in Cuba, usually if you’re homeless a family takes you in”–Bruguera did a performance in which “you had to leave your ID to get in and had to take the tests immigrants take to get your ID back.” All these performances depend on context, but what attracts Bruguera to Endgame is that the setting is vague and the “communication and affection beween the two guys seems timeless.”

Tania Bruguera

When: Through Sat 2/4

Where: Rhona Hoffman, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-455-1990

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper, Flynn.