“The nature of her work was transitory; it either took place in time, or was destined to be reclaimed by the earth.”
“All that is solid melts into air.”
It’s been a week since Ana Mendieta’s first ever UK retrospective closed at the Haywood Gallery in London and I’ve spent every day of that week attempting to pin down my argument, to articulate the experience of the exhibition into a firm and reflective line of thought. But that seems precisely the point. Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.
Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba and sent to the US when she was 12 in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. During the late sixties, she studied painting at the University of Iowa and developed strong and forceful performance pieces that utilized her own body. The full range of her practice- which incorporated performance, film and sculpture- has often been overshadowed by the tumultuous tale of her unsettling death in which she fell from the 34th floor of an apartment she shared with her husband, the minimalist artist Carl Andre.
Fortunately, the Haywood didn’t become entrenched in the dialogue of personal drama but focused instead on the life, power and themes of the art she produced. Moving through the exhibition, which was curated chronologically, felt like moving through a process of absorption with the artist in which her body blended increasingly with elemental materials of blood, fire, earth and water. And as her physical body seemingly faded, a sense of the transformative force of nature arose. Therefore, a focus on key three stages (body, outline and elements) can help to emphasize the culmination of an incredibly unique artistic perspective in relation to corporeality and its connection to the earth.
Stage One: The Body
Mendieta is often venerated as a feminist icon and bearing in mind the first three rooms of the exhibition, it is easy to understand why. The initiation into the visceral hits the viewer as they enter the space. Mendieta’s body appears in full view, squished up and distorted against panels of glass, altered and masqueraded under wigs and heavy make-up and covered in facial hair. These works explore concepts of corporeality, the politics of hair and the social and cultural implications of gender performativity. Projected video works Source (1973) and Sweating Blood (1973) focus closely on singular body parts, milk being pumped out of a breast uncomfortably and ox blood dribbling from Mendieta’s forehead and fixed gaze. Viewed in conjunction with other famous feminist works of the 1970s, for example Abramovic’s Rhythm series or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, this exploration of the fluidity and form of the female body is deeply symbolic. The repetitive use of blood in the second room of the exhibition ties in closely with 1970s French theorists such as Kristeva exploring the concept of abjection and the subversion of the boundaries of the acceptable and presentable female body. A clear commentary on violence against women can be seen in Untitled (Rape Scene, 1973) that focuses around the real-life rape and murder of a young student nurse. Mendieta re-created the scene, placing her bloodied and naked body over a table and inviting guests to her apartment to be shockingly confronted with the enactment. However, even in Body Tracks (1974) in which the artist dipped her arms in blood and dragged them down a wall in a ritualistic gesture, the movement and energy of Mendieta is still at the forefront. Mendieta’s blood works were also inspired by Afro-Cuban spiritual Santeria practices, installing them with a powerful aspect which she viewed as “a very magical thing.” Blood, for Mendieta, could be seen as a positive force in healing, sacrifice, initiation or exorcism. So, whilst she can be closely correlated to personal-is-political abject ideals, the pattern and rhythm of her body tracks connote the force of her presence and the organic energy of life.
Nonetheless, the artist is, very overtly, present.
Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) 1972
Stage Two: The Outline
The second stage of Mendieta’s work approaches the dynamic of the female body in relation to the landscape. She created her first ‘earth-body’ sculptures, named Siluetas, up until 1981. In these works, outlines of her body are marked into the earth with leaves, mud, ash and hair. She frames these contours with fire, flowers, fruit and candles. Mendieta recorded these performances through photography, carving the etchings into the soil and leaving them to the will of nature. The collective repetition of her silhouette against various backdrops evokes notions of space and belonging. As Mendieta was forced out of her homeland, she appears to be seeking a home in the earth. There are instances where the outline rises like a mound of the soil, grave-like, decorated with patterns or vertically planted sticks. Puddles of wet clay-like earth create a fluid boundary around the mounds, emphasizing the transitory nature of the piece. Soon the water will evaporate and the soil will shift away, just as the body of the artist has fallen slowly away before our eyes. We no longer see Mendieta’s body parts, displayed defiantly and forthrightly, and in fact we are denied them. We have an impression, we know, that Mendieta was once physically there yet the fragile impermanence of the silhouettes appear like a surrender to a more powerful force.
The artist is, becoming, absorbed.
Stage Three: The Elements
We all want to leave a trace, to alter the minds and landscapes of those we love. Mendieta’s Siluetta’s engaged with her corporeality yet disengaged from it by focusing on more organic materials and elements. But what does the landscape mean to us today? We are taught in the Western world to believe that the individual is powerful; we build cities in the sky from concrete and put our own egos at the core of our being. We are aware that our bodies are flimsy and fleeting in comparison to the forceful stability of mountains, volcanoes or forests yet how we are, truly, linked to it to the landscape that surrounds us?
In the final shift of the exhibition, we are presented with the late work of Mendieta of the 1980s in which she changed direction and began to create sculptures of wood and precise drawings incised on leaves; concentrating solely on the elements. Also included in this section is paintings and sketches of simplified female forms inspired by cave paintings such as the Venus of Willendorf. This final shift seems to disintegrate the concept of the individual entirely replacing it with material, the elements of wood and leaves, repetition and pattern. In the narrative of art history, therefore, this sentiment is potent as the cult of the unique genius artist is so inherent at its core. We all know the big players of art history and venerate their names like gods, those (mainly masculine) icons who supposedly pushed forward a singular linear progressive vision of art. Mendieta’s absorption opens up a space beyond this narrow definition leaving it free for the collective and the previously marginalised, beyond the ultimate ego-driven goal of modern status. As both a female artist and an ethnic minority, Mendieta is speaking from the borders. Yet, whilst this dialogue could be interpreted in feminist terms, her ultimate goal feels more humanist, linked to the fragility of all women, men and living beings against the power of our planet. Nevertheless, Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.
Totem Grove, 1985