Coco Fusco on Donald Trump, chimpanzees, and why satire is the best form of attack

Wendy Vogel

How does an outspoken political performance artist – one who has withstood controversy for 25 years – respond to the current state of US politics?


How does an outspoken political performance artist – one who has withstood controversy for 25 years – respond to the current state of US politics? For the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco, the answer was to turn to the traditional medium of figurative sculpture.

Tin Man of the Twenty-First Century (2018), which was presented in Art Basel’s Unlimited sector by Alexander Gray Associates, is Fusco’s first foray into public sculpture. The hefty piece, measuring 3 meters high and weighing 140 kg, depicts President Donald Trump as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Fusco originally conceived the work for the sculpture garden of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, after being awarded the Greenfield Prize commission in 2016, and its debut coincided with her solo video exhibition ‘Twilight’ inside the museum. ‘Immediately after Trump was elected, an old argument was resurrected against arts funding. There were also many attacks on opponents of Trump’s policy, directed at artists, activists, Congress, and the press,’ Fusco says. ‘This made me think of two things – the cultural policies of authoritarian states, and the kind of art that authoritarian governments sponsor.’ From the former Soviet Bloc to states in the Middle East and Africa, repressive governments have favored bombastic statuary glorifying their leaders. Fusco decided to parody Trump using this style. The choice of the titular character was simple: ‘The Tin Man has no heart and needs oil.’

To engineer the work, Fusco enlisted the help of artist Chico MacMurtrie. Over sessions at MacMurtrie’s Brooklyn studio, Amorphic Robot Works, they determined the work’s form and tested its structural integrity. ‘I’m more like a garbage collector than a draftsman,’ Fusco says, explaining her research process of gathering and compositing imagery. MacMurtrie and his team then created a structure based on Fusco’s ‘Frankensteined’ ideas, which were themselves based on various interpretations of the Tin Man. The statue’s rotund body contains a skeletal base wrapped in aluminum.

Coco Fusco. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb for Art Basel.
Coco Fusco. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb for Art Basel.

‘Satire is a thread that has run through a lot of my work,’ Fusco says. The Tin Man’s cartoonish humor took its cues from the Ringling site: the campus includes a circus museum in addition to a contemporary art gallery. Fusco describes the use of satire as ‘very effective’ for the audience in Sarasota – a city that largely favored Trump in the 2016 election. Museumgoers posed with Fusco’s statue and fed it fake crude oil. ‘There’s a tradition in illustration, in caricature, in literature, of lampooning people in power. We need to continue it,’ she says. ‘I see the Tin Man as part of the same universe as the giant “Trump baby” balloon.’

As an artist and writer, Fusco has often used her own body to address racial representation, stereotyping, and colonial legacies. In one of her earliest performances, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992 – 1994), she and Guillermo Gómez-Peña portrayed natives of the fictional island of Guatinau. The installation, shown at venues such as the 1993 Whitney Biennial, mimicked the conditions of human zoos. During the Iraq War, she investigated military interrogation and torture at sites such as Abu Ghraib. Her research culminated in several artworks that probed women’s complicity in these acts of abuse and sexual degradation, including the book A Field Guide for Female Interrogators (2008). In 2013, the artist assumed the guise of the chimpanzee psychologist Dr. Zira from Planet of the Apes (1968), in a lecture-performance analyzing predation in human behavior. By enacting roles with highly-charged connotations – a ‘heathen,’ in the case of the Amerindian performance, or an ape – Fusco anticipates strong reactions from institutions and audiences alike. Her humor and parodic skill have steered her works from being read as pedantic. 

Performance, Observation of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist, 2013-2016. Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center
Performance, Observation of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist, 2013-2016. Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

Fusco has consistently mined political material for her pieces, with a particular, personal focus on Cuba. Born in 1960 in New York to a Cuban exile who had fled the revolution, she began developing relationships with Cuban dissident artists in the 1980s. Her recent book, Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (2015) addresses art practices on the political fringe. She has also become a staunch opponent of the island’s restrictive ‘Decree 349’, which inhibits cultural activities not sanctioned by the state. Cuba’s authorities have not responded kindly: In April, she was denied entry into Cuba for the opening of the Havana Biennial. Still, she envisions a future book project that explores younger Cuban artists’ critical relationships with the romanticized ‘golden age’ of revolution.

Known for her work in Cuba, her excavation of suppressed historical archives, and her emergence during the battles in the 1990s over national US arts funding, Fusco has become one of the artworld’s foremost champions of free speech. Her views haven’t always been universally applauded, however: two years ago, she defended artist Dana Schutz against calls for the destruction of her painting Open Casket, which depicts the corpse of the lynched African-American teenager Emmett Till. Fusco also expresses frustration over the obsession with individual guilt that the #MeToo movement has fostered, rather than the call for structural reforms. She recalls an instance at a conference where, after discussing her work, audience members asked her to speculate on the sexual harassment claims against a major artist. ‘I think it is more important and appropriate to discuss the problematics of race and representation, or sexism, and how cultural institutions manage them,’ she explains.

Performance, Words May Not Be Found, 2016, KW Center for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.
Performance, Words May Not Be Found, 2016, KW Center for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.

In addition to showing her Tin Man sculpture, Fusco appeared on a panel talking about motherhood in this year’s Art Basel Conversations program, moderated by the artist and e-flux platform co-director, Julieta Aranda. As the single mother of a 14-year-old son, Fusco finds workplace discrimination against mothers in the artworld to be a pressing feminist issue. It is fitting that, for Fusco’s first presentation at Basel, she will wear several hats – as an exhibiting artist and invited speaker, as a satirist, and as an advocate for structural reform. Though intersectionality has become a buzzword in recent years, as a woman of color making political art, Fusco has lived the concept for decades. As her recent work attests, she has never lost her sense of humor, even in times of political crisis. It may just take a different form.

Coco Fusco. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb for Art Basel.
Coco Fusco. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb for Art Basel.

Wendy Vogel is a writer and independent curator based in New York. She contributes regularly to Artforum and Art in America, among other publications. She is the recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in Short-Form Writing.

Coco Fusco's work was shown by Alexander Gray Associates in the Unlimited sector of Art Basel’s 2019 Basel edition. Discover more artists and galleries who participated in this year’s Unlimited sector here.

Coco Fusco participated on the Conversations panel for ‘Between Production and Reproduction – Career and Motherhood in the Artworld’ with Chus Martínez, Nadine Zeidler, and Julieta Aranda.

Top image: Sculpture, Tin Man of the Twenty-First Century, 2018. Photo courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.