From Ana Mendieta’s “Body Tracks” series, 1970s.
It’s all too easy to scoff at raw, bloody, chthonic feminist performance art these days. Hell, it’s all too easy to scoff at just about anything that whiffs of pussy power. After all, this is 2010! No need for histrionics, right? We’ve been liberated, reborn. We’re fierce and comfortable, right? We’ve seen it all a hundred times before… rrrriiiiiight?
Then again, what Alice Miller said about scorn holds a lot of sway: “Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings.” In light of that assessment, whether one chooses to roll their eyes or not, Mendieta’s (earth-)body of work, and the circumstances under which she died, resonate as much right now as they did in the 1970s and early 80s. (Although, come to think of it, there were plenty of eye-rollers then, too.)
In any case, on the 15th anniversary of her mysterious death, I’m lighting candles for Ana Mendieta and wondering what comes next.
Untitled performance, 1972.
Ana Mendieta (18 November 1948 – 8 September 1985) was a Cuban-American interdiscplinary artist. From 1972 to 1985, she produced numerous films, videos, site-specific installations, prints, drawings, sculptures, organic assemblage pieces, and performances. From Wiki:
Much of Mendieta’s work may be considered strongly feminist by some; it is in essence autobiographical. One theme in her early performance art was violence against the female body. Later, Mendieta focused on a spiritual and physical connection with the land […] which typically involved carving her imprint into sand or mud, making body prints or painting her outline or silhouette onto a wall. During the last 2 years of her life she started creating “objects”, mostly permanent sculptures and drawings. It was her intention to retain the connection with nature via the vibrations of the natural elements she continued to use in the works.
Feather Woman, early 70s.
Her “earth-body art” is a fusion of two movements: earth art and body art. “I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette)… I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth… I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body…”
With her Silueta series (perhaps her best known work), Mendieta sculpted the female body, or its imprint, from blood, earth, wood, gunpowder, flowers, leaves, weeds, sand, her own flesh. These imprints were then photographed or captured with Super-8 film.
“Arbol de la Vida” and “Imagen de Yagul” from her Silueta series, late 70s.
Another image from her “Body Tracks” series.
Examples of Mendieta’s work as a grad student in Iowa, early 70s.
Mendieta was born in Havana. In 1961, aged thirteen, she was exiled from Cuba along with her older sister, Raquelin. Her parents, vocal opponents of the revolutionary government, decided it was not safe for their girls to stay. The Mendieta sisters relocated to Iowa, where they were shuffled in and out of various government institutions and foster homes. Conditions were harsh and sometimes downright abusive. Beatings, isolation, bullying, etc. Mendieta persevered. When she was 17, her mother and brother rejoined in the States. By then, her father was in a Cuban prison, and she would not see him again for many years.
Mendieta went to college, earning her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1969, an MA in Painting, and eventually an MFA in Intermedia. In her early twenties, she abandoned more traditional modes of artistic expression, saying “the turning point in art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I want the image to convey and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.”
Earth Goddess, early 80s. “There is no original past to redeem; there is the void, the orphanhood […] There is above all the search for origin.” Ana Mendieta
Over the course of her brief but prolific career, she lived and worked predominantly in NYC, but also spent time creating works in Mexico, Italy, even her homeland of Cuba. Themes of rape, revolution and blood dominated her early work, then she moved on to more abstract feminine themes, with pieces that explored the boundaries of humanity with nature, personal identity and universal belonging.
Glass on Body Imprints series (1972)
She was, according to accounts from friends, family and colleagues, a passionate and feisty young woman with a lot of ambition and forward momentum. She could be self-absorbed and difficult, but also capable of heartfelt displays of affection and gratitude to her loved ones.
She died on this day in 1985 after falling from the open window of an apartment on the 34th floor of a building in Greenwich Village. The only possible witness to her death was her husband, famed minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who she had married eight months earlier. An affluent, accomplished darling of the museum circuit in NYC, Andre was tried for murder, and eventually acquitted in 1987. His lawyer described Mendieta’s death as accidental, perhaps a suicide.
However, police investigators and journalists, as well as dozens of Mendieta’s outspoken friends, remain unconvinced. A doorman on the street testified that he heard Ana screaming “no, no, no” in the moments before her death. Pleading, he said. Andre later made contradictory statements to those he gave detectives who came to his home in the wee hours of the morning after he called 911. There were scratch marks on Andre’s face and arms and signs of a struggle in the apartment.
The exact cause of Ana Mendieta’s death may never be known.
Now in his seventies, Carl Andre still lives and works in NYC, averaging two to three exhibitions a year.
Several posthumous Mendieta curations over the past decade have done much to mend the huge rift that opened up in NYC cultural circles in response to the shocking nature of her death, and the subsequent, supposed whitewashing of Andre’s reputation. After viewing the Whitney’s 2004 retrospective of Mendieta’s work, her colleague and teacher, John Perreault, said:
You can tell that Ana Mendieta is about to make it into art history: her last name only is on the cover of the dramatic, blood-red catalogue that accompanies the new survey of her art now at the Whitney.
When I saw that, it gave me shivers.
All is forgiven, Art World. She broke a lot of boundaries; she broke a lot of rules. Her shocking death for a time divided the art world, but now we can be healed.
Untitled (From Silueta Works in Mexico)