Ana Mendieta could be considered one of the most complex contemporary artists of the 1970s. Since her very publicized death in 1986, in which she fell out the window of her New York apartment, Mendieta’s life and work has been categorized as everything from feminist, to Latino, to performance art.
The current show at the Whitney, Ana Mendieta: Earth Body presents us with a retrospective of the most significant fifteen years of her short career. There is no categorization of the artist, but the exhibition becomes more of a timeline in which we understand the evolution of the work and the artist’s own conception of her performances. Earth Body is a didactic and inspiring glimpse into Ana Mendieta’s world. We are led to understand her work and to conclude what she tried to portray through her performances, but the viewer is not challenged to question the nature of the artist’s performance. This is not necessarily a negative aspect, as the categorization of Mendieta’s work has had a lot to do with her highly publicized private life and tragic death. The exhibition is laid out like a timeline that clearly demonstrates the manner in which one stage of Mendieta’s work led to another.
Mendieta left her native Cuba with her sister at the age of twelve and came to the United States. She went to school in Iowa, where her development as a performance artist has its roots. As a student at the Intermedia Program at the University of Iowa, she was introduced to the conceptual and body-oriented practices of the 1960s and applied them in order to portray the cultural conflicts in being an expatriate, and expressing the cross-fertilization of her Caribbean and North American identities. Mendieta’s work is not only directed towards cross-cultural and lost identities, but also embraces feminism. The feminist aspect became part of her work at the beginning of her career, especially with one of her first performance-based works BodyTracks. Body Tracks marks the beginning of this exhibition, thus the first section of the timeline created in this comprehensive presentation. In Body Tracks, Mendieta performs by “painting blood” with her body and arms. The body acts as the main mediator between the artist’s expression and the paper. She controls the markings, thus refusing the objectification of the female body.
The performance aspect of “Body Tracks” led Mendieta to create the most significant body of work of her career, the Silueta Series, where she integrated her naked body into the natural landscape, or created silhouettes using found materials from the environment. These performances were usually documented with 35mm slide film, 2 1/4 negative film and Super-8 Color film, and were mostly executed in private, exclusively for the camera. The performances play with her actions as she appropriates ritualistic sessions from different cultural traditions. The juxtaposition of photographs and silent films blends smoothly in the exhibit. The films are not shown in dark rooms, but rather projected as moving photographs hanging on the wall, thus allowing the work to transcend film and photography and feed from one another.
The exhibition follows the evolution of the Silueta Series from its very beginning, with “Imagen de Yagul,”
were she lays her body inside an Aztec tomb with white flowers contouring her body, to her “combusting” silhouettes made out of gunpowder. Mendieta started the series by forcibly trying to incorporate her body into the landscape. There is longing in the staging of her performances, which is enhanced by the appropriated sacrificial rituals and their silent documentation on Super-8 Color film. The work then evolves so that her body is no longer physically present in the environment, but is implied by the silhouette made from the materials within the landscape. Most remarkable out of the Silueta Series is “Corazon de Roca con Sangre (Rock Heart with Blood),” a Super-8 color silent film in which Mendieta takes a rock in the shape of a heart and covers it in blood, and then places her naked body face down on top of it. This ritual turns into a silent act of desperation and longing, which is seen as a sacrifice to a means that will never be literal, but rather metaphorical.
In 1980, Mendieta was able to return to her native Cuba through the help of and involvement with cultural organizations in New York comprised of young Cuban exiles devoted to the diffusion of Cuban history through cultural exchange between Cuba and the U.S. This allowed her to visit Cuba on a regular basis between 1980-83, and marked her progression from the Silueta Series to her abstract silhouettes titled Rupestrian Sculptures. These were carved goddess-like silhouettes on the rocky outcroppings of Jaruco, near Havana. She named these figures after Amerindian goddesses from the Ciboney and Taino cultures, thus bringing the Silueta Series back to its roots, and therefore to a final destination in its progression. Mendieta’s years in Cuba are presented in the show’s context right at the heart of the section of the Silueta Series. Even though this creates a break in the chronological fluidity of the presentation, it does emphasize the conclusive nature of this “back-to-the-roots” stage.
The search for identity in Mendieta’s work came to an end with the conclusion of the Siluetas Series. The temporary nature of her work was soon left behind and she started working on making independent sculptures. Mendieta would no longer seek to incorporate her figure, but would rather alter elements found in the environment. She began to draw on freshly cut green leaves and would do so with a wide range of instruments, involving nails, needles, spoons and ballpoint pens.
The markings remained on the leaves as they dried, thus becoming part of them through the different stages of natural alteration. Mendieta interpreted this alteration as the leave’s own performance, thus emulating the ephemeral and time-based element of her own performances in her earlier work. These leaf drawings are unsatisfactory in concluding the exhibition’s order of presentation, but this is mainly due to the fact that its evolving process was truncated before it could be fully developed and finalized. The artist’s premature death becomes daunting without being explicitly mentioned on the wall text, and this feeling is much more effective because it does not satisfy the natural process in which the exhibition flows until that point.
Olga Viso, curator of the exhibition, compiled a cohesive and detailed collection of the artist’s life’s work by rendering without glorifying, and feeding the audience with a fluid progression of the life and works of an artist without encouraging the viewer to question the non-sensical behavior in her performances. The lack of this challenge allows freedom to actually enjoy and understand the work, and therefore restrain from the need to categorize, but rather create a niche of its own. The exhibition acts as a retrospective, but also as a re-introduction to how to interpret the work of one of the ground-breaking artists of our time.
Ana Mendieta: Earth Body is on show at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 19th.