Coco Fusco—Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

by Janne Hagge Ellhöft

KW Institute for Contemporary Art is known for their survey exhibitions of internationally well-established artists who haven’t received much institutional recognition in Germany so far. With Coco Fusco—Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island, curated by Anna Gritz, Léon Kruijswijk, and assistant curator Linda Franken, they have been first to present a retrospective of the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco. Being indeed her first comprehensive institutional solo exhibition in a thirty-year interdisciplinary career as an influential writer, performance and video artist, it offers an overview of her research-based performance and video work from the early 1990s to more contemporary works made in the last decade.

In the writings of Cuban poet and author Virgilio Piñera, the island is often used as a metaphor for being in a state of confinement. In one of his last poems, however, the lyric subject imagines their rebirth as a metamorphosis into an island: legs become land and sea, trees grow where arms once were and roses form the eyes, the chest turning to sand. It is from this piece that the recent retrospective of Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco, Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, lends its title. The island as a literary trope in Piñera can be read as an expression of his ambivalent relationship to ‘the island,’ that is of Cuba, and one that Fusco seems to share. In the exhibition, her more recent work on the challenges of civic and artistic protest in Cuba is put center stage, presented here as a continuation of her rigorous exploration of oppressive systems by means of performance and video.

The exhibition opens, not unexpectedly, with Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s famous performance Two Amerindians Visiting the West (1992–94), in which they embody two recently-discovered natives from an imaginary island in the Caribbean. In a nod to the iconic emblem the work has become, a floor-to-ceiling photograph shows the couple in a golden cage—Fusco in a leopard-print bikini top and grass skirt; Gómez-Peña wearing a conchero dress, balaclava, and feathered headdress—posing for a Polaroid with a smiling visitor. Conceived as a satirical commentary on the official quincentenary celebration of Christopher Columbus’s alleged ‘discovery’ of the Americas, the work sought to parody the colonial racist practice of exhibiting humans in zoos, museums, fairs, etc. Despite the pastiche staging, some spectators fell for the fiction that the artists had created. Records of the audience’s ambivalent reactions during the performances—ranging from complete dismay to unbound voyeurism and satisfaction about its presumed authenticity—were later worked into the documentary The Couple in the Cage (1993, co-produced by Paula Heredia), reflecting the charged gazes on the performer’s bodies back onto the spectators. Additionally, a series of ten etchings titled The Undiscovered Amerindians (2012) revives a selection of comments from and scenes with audience members in the style of nineteenth-century caricatures and newspaper illustrations. Using a medium in which artists have historically (re)produced racist and sexist stereotypes that Fusco and Peña aimed to deconstruct in their performance, Fusco reflects back on the role of both artistic and documentary practices in these constructions while also expanding the performance’s documentation artistically.

Coco Fusco, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, 1992–94. Courtesy the artist (back left); Coco Fusco with Paula Heredia, The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey, 1993 (front left); Coco Fusco, The Undiscovered Amerindians, 2012. Installation view of the exhibition Coco Fusco—Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023. Photo: Frank Sperling

Moving through the first gallery, a vitrine display with a selection of documentary material attempts to follow-up on Fusco’s lesser-known performances of the 1990s. Although this section covers the largest body of work in the exhibition, it is difficult to piece together all the performance paraphernalia of staged photographs, flyers, props, as well as video documentation. Closer examination reveals how Fusco, like many artists during that time, began to address questions of identity politics in her work by critically examining how violent intercultural encounters in the past shape social relations in the present, albeit in different forms. The performances documented in this section were mostly created either as artistic interventions in public or for the theater stage, thus never conceived for a conventional exhibition space. Here, the challenge of successfully representing performance art in an exhibition becomes quite apparent. While Fusco never stopped working with performance, she soon turned to video works. Yet, performance and video intersect in various ways in her work: in performances specifically made for the camera, videos simply documenting live performances, as well as hybrid forms. This offered ways to get beyond the transience of the live event and to medially expand upon it with research and field work that lies at the core of her practice.

The exhibition continues with video works from the early 2000s, speaking to the broad spectrum of political subjects that Fusco explores in her work. Grouped into four spatial sections and presented without any additional exhibition design, these works are presented in chronological order from the early video installation Dolores from 10 to 10 (2002) that features on security monitors mounted across the exhibition space via her fictional documentary a/k/a Mrs. George Gilbert (2004) on the racial profiling of women during the FBI hunt of Angela Davis to the investigations on the instrumentalization of women and the punishments in prisons during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in which she re-enacts different forms of interrogation.

While it becomes clear that Fusco employs a rather pragmatic and unpolished aesthetic, it is difficult to grasp a coherent style in her work. For each of her subjects, different formal solutions are employed, often reflecting on the uses of different media and the ways in which they capture and regulate marginalized bodies. But by using them in the work itself, Fusco seeks to reveal, even subvert, the underlying power dynamics they contribute to or uphold. In Dolores from 10 to 10, for example, workplace surveillance to control and monitor staff is retroactively constructed as evidence of the 12-hour punitive confinement of a female worker by her employer and thus turns the employer’s regulative tool back against itself. The running thread of Fusco’s work lies in a research-based practice to activate the complex histories of oppressive systems in the present, more often than not, through forms of re-enactment. Focusing on such a strategy to critically examine social, political, military, and cultural practices entails a repetition of violence that can be illuminating and discomforting, perhaps even re-traumatizing. For decades the discourse on performance art revolved around an emphasis on the uniqueness and ephemerality of lived experience, while theories on the performativity of speech acts emphasized the normative forces of repetition. Re-enactment offers Fusco the prospect to reveal—or even reverse—the power dynamics inherent in these norms and examine the ways they shape our perception and behavior.

Installation view of the exhibition Coco Fusco—Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023. Photo: Frank Sperling

In the main hall of the exhibition, rows of black fabric divide the space into four triangular niches with four large projections highlighting a more recent body of work that centers the difficulty of artistic and civic resistance in so-called ‘post-revolutionary’ Cuba. Referring to the period following the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in 1959, Fusco actively pushes against the continuous affirmation of the Cuban Revolution by pointing to four specific cases of governmental interference with artists and vice versa. Unlike other socialist countries, Cuba never imposed an official state style, but Fidel Castro’s infamous slogan ‘inside the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing’ became the moral compass for almost every form of public expression.

In Vivir en junio con la lengua afuera (To Live in June with your Tongue Hanging Out, 2018), three Cuban artists—Lynn Cruz, Amaury Pacheco, and Iris Ruiz—gather in the ruins of an amphitheater in Havana’s Lenin-Park to recite a poem by the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Verse by verse, they jointly perform the poem, in which the narrator admits their loss of faith in the promises of the revolution, some form of hope remaining legible between the lines. At the beginning the verses falter, the speakers pause in hesitance, surprised by the currency of the words they recite, but eventually they settle into a powerful rhythm. Persecuted by the regime for his writing, publishing, and homosexuality, there is no official record of Arenas’s work in Cuba to this day. While in the 1970s his work had to be smuggled out of the country, it now had to be smuggled back in. The simple gesture of learning it by heart turns into an act of resistance against censorship and of restoring an incomplete cultural history. Fusco is not only symbolically bringing his work back to where it originated, but also honoring its importance on and beyond the island.

When you immerse yourself in these five films in the main hall, there is an immediate realization: a substantial amount of art and critical thought circulates in Cuba without official record in libraries or museum collections. It is a constant struggle to recollect memories and reconstruct a suppressed cultural history, which artists, scholars, and activists in Cuba and in its diasporic communities are constantly fighting for. In some cases there may be no material record, but only an ephemeral action, a story, or poem passed along in an effort to remember and restore memory, an endeavor proven durable. This series of works is Fusco’s contribution to the collective effort of reinvolving artists in politics and highlighting governmental interference. This provides a corrective to official Cuban cultural and political history, but also challenges prevailing narratives projected onto Cuba that still persist in certain segments of the international left. Therefore, it seems no coincidence that Fusco depicts and includes artists who were initially supportive of the socialist revolution, but later clashed with the government when it became clear that there was no room for significant criticism or protest.

Coco Fusco, To Live in June with Your Tongue Hanging Out, 2018. Video still. Courtesy the artist

The section is framed by the short film La Plaza Vacía (The Empty Plaza, 2012), presented on a smaller screen against the backdrop of the other works. In the video, an expansion of a live performance, the artist herself roams the busy streets of Havana and crosses the, by contrast, empty Plaza de la Revolución José Martí in the city center. With a long shot of the square from day to night facing the glowing murals of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the ministry’s facades, the film demonstrates the square’s emptiness as a symbol of the absence of civil protest, the suspension of political participation, and the hollowed-out ideals of the Cuban Revolution. According to the exhibition’s text, the work was conceived by Fusco as a response to the civil uprisings of the Arab Spring, questioning why similar events had failed to materialize in Cuba. From today’s perspective, La Plaza Vacía could also be seen in light of the Cuban protests against the precarious living conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 when the largest civilian protests against the government since 1959 formed in the streets of Havana. Due to massive governmental repression of the demonstrators, public space has been emptied of protestors once more.

Compared to the sequence of works in the upper galleries, the exhibition design in the main hall creates a much more concentrated atmosphere that actively supports the works by singling them out yet simultaneously pulling them together by centering them in the space. Nevertheless, this does not negate the fact that the section demands a great deal of endurance on the part of the spectator. It also gives the impression that the exhibition is thematically divided into two only loosely connected parts, narrowing down their connections as a continuation of her exploration of oppressive systems through performance and video.

Coco Fusco, The Confession, 2015. Courtesy the artist (left).
Coco Fusco, The Message in a Bottle from María Elena, 2015. Courtesy the artist (right). Installation view of the exhibition Coco Fusco—Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023. Photo: Frank Sperling

On occasion of the retrospective, KW also commissioned a new piece for the stage, in which Fusco turns to the mythical character of Antigone, famous for turning against the authorities. It is once again video that plays a pivotal role in the play as a means for the artist to interact with various actors around the globe who make their appearance only through prerecorded video calls. Titled Antigone Is Not Available Right Now (2023), Fusco humorously confronts the relentless reactivations of the mythological figure of Antigone. Since the character made her first appearance in Sophocles’s Theban plays some 2500 years ago, the myth has been countlessly adapted in various ways and contexts for her rebellion against the sovereign (she illegally buries her brother and is punished with a death sentence). Fusco’s own adaptation of the material is set in the office of a fictional literary agency that represents the ancient gods in the contemporary world as technological advancements that have apparently made it possible to digitally connect with the deities of the underworld. Fusco plays the literary agent Calliope, who is responsible for selecting projects from boxes full of proposals and managing requests for her clients in numerous video calls. Antigone, it seems, is in popular demand by contemporary activists, scholars, and artists and throughout the play numerous people call in with the agent to arrange a meeting with the goddess. Antigone, feeling misunderstood and fed up with the literary and scholarly treatment of her own personal life, has retreated to a grotto in the underworld. Thus her agent repeatedly declines most of the requests by explaining that the goddess is currently ‘unavailable.’ But not all of them. Some male characters, such as a caricature of Slavoj Žižek or the theater director Peter Sellar (playing himself), receive a video call from Antigone, while a female activist from Iran or a university student are put off. While entertaining to a certain extent, at the end of an hour-long exploration of contemporary discursive economies in relation to Greek tragedy, it remains somewhat unclear if Fusco herself sees much potential in another adaptation of the material, thus not exactly fulfilling expectations of a critical rethinking of Antigone herself.

Being Fusco’s first-ever comprehensive solo exhibition, the curatorial team, made up of Anna Gritz, Léon Kruijswijk, and assistant curator Linda Franken, undertook the challenge to represent Fusco’s artistic practice of the last thirty years in all its complexity. Given the wide range of material and subject matter the curators had to account for, the selection, in places, seems a bit disjointed. Given the already different contexts of the works in the upper and lower galleries, the extended staging in the main hall only adds to this, almost giving the impression of an exhibition within an exhibition. Highlighting her more recent works that address the challenge of artistic protest in Cuba by providing them a literal stage at the center of the exhibition, a link to her earlier work is difficult to identify. Yet, one can sense that each work was selected with the clear intention not only to provide a comprehensive overview of Fusco’s artistic work but also to grant it the institutional recognition it deserves. Perhaps a more determined selection and architectural support throughout the exhibition would have honed this retrospective to the particularities of Fusco’s research-based practice, especially the intersections of performance and video as a key element of her artistic approach, and made the viewing experience less overwhelming. Those who take their time are rewarded with the opportunity to explore an artist’s oeuvre that engages oppressive systems without shying away from ambiguity, and discover works that are striking in their humble and poetic simplicity, consistently offering insights beyond any one specific context.

Coco Fusco, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word, 2021. Video still. Courtesy the artist

In the final work in the exhibition, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word (2021), Fusco rows a small boat around the shores of Hart Island, just off the coast of New York City. Being one of the biggest mass graves in the US, the island has attracted media attention during the COVID-19 pandemic for the burials of unclaimed victims namely from marginalized communities, or victims of the 1980s AIDS epidemic that were separated out as an erroneous measure of infection prevention. Drone shots of the lush green landscape and bright blue water offer a scenery that highly contrasts its subject matter. At times when the need to socially distance prevented us from performing our communal rituals, Fusco delved into the representation and politics of death and mourning by juxtaposing impressive views of a prohibited site, a poetic narration with the subject of deathly disease and the physical impossibility of publicly performing grief. Throwing flowers in the river, the artist smiles, paying her respects to those buried here and elsewhere, numerous as they are nameless. Affected by the beat of the narrator’s voice reciting a poem, and the saturated aerial views of the landscape, Virgilio Piñera’s gushing metamorphosis into an island comes back to my mind.

Janne Hagge Ellhöft holds a BA in Art History and Theatre Studies from Freie Universität Berlin, where she is completing an MA in Art History in a Global Context. She is currently part of the communications team at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024