Ana Mendieta's Films
Ana Mendieta was a friend and colleague. She was a brilliant artist. Her vision was as intense as her life – an outspoken, volatile, oftentimes angry woman. I saw Ana perform 'Body Tracks' in 1982 at Franklin Furnace in New York City. Its starkness and brevity were memorable. For the performance, the audience entered and sat down. The performance space was empty except for a large bowl of animal blood mixed with paint and a large piece of paper pinned to the wall. A record of drums of Cuban Santeria rites was playing. Ana entered, strode towards the bowl and dipped her hands in the mixture. She raised her arms, palms out pressed to the paper, then pulled down towards the floor leaving a bloody trace. The drumming continued and she left the room… Ana Mendieta fell to her death from Carl Andre's 34th floor apartment in New York City in 1985. This work is dedicated to her memory – as a fighter who refused to compromise or give in to physical or mental pressures.1
– Nancy Spero
Penetrating the blackened interior of Galerie Lelongin Chelsea, New York, the projected light on the far wall illuminated a close-up of Ana Mendieta's young face streaked with rivulets of blood seeping downward. The viewer's gaze straight ahead was compelled in the darkness to the focal point of the exhibition, Sweating Blood (1973), which marked the horizon line of discretely spaced rectangles framing the 15 experimental films made by Mendieta from 1971 to 1975. The artist, later renowned for her performance pieces, photographs, sculptures and her 'earth-body art,' emerges in the exhibition Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films (February 5 – March 26, 2016) as an early innovator from her days as a student at the University of Iowa.
Mendieta (1948–1985) was born in Havana. Her father, Ignacio, initially a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, had been arrested by Fidel Castro for participating in the US led Bay of Pigs invasion. After her father's arrest in 1961, the 12 year-old Ana was air-lifted, along with her older sister Raquelin, as part of Operation Pedro Pan, to a Catholic orphanage in Dubuque, Iowa. She and her sister were thereafter shuttled between foster homes in Iowa during their teenage years, and they would not see their father again for eighteen years. While wrestling with recurrent feelings of rage, anger, displacement, and loss, Mendieta discovered in the visual language of art a means to mediate the brutal rupture with her family and native land, within a historical, political and psychophysical matrix.
She attended the University of Iowa and received a BA in 1969 and an MA in painting in 1972. But Mendieta soon jettisoned painting to enter Iowa's burgeoning graduate programme in Intermedia Arts, where she worked with such visiting artists as Hans Breder, Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, and Robert Wilson. Emphasizing process and the body, and the relationship between art and the viewer, these performance-based artists informed Mendieta's turn towards documenting her ephemeral, performative works in the formats of video and photography.2 The new technology of Super 8 film was inexpensive and portable, allowing Mendieta to shoot independently outside in both urban and rural landscapes.
Most important were older female contemporaries who were exploring notions of female embodiment and alternative modes of representation, among them Nancy Spero, Carolee Schneemann, Dotty Attie, Hannah Wilke, and Mary Beth Edelson. Emerging in the early 1970s, these artists were concerned with analyzing multiple historical perspectives and cross-cultural mythologies of ancient goddesses. Themes relating to the research and interpretation of 'The Great Goddess' were featured in feminist journals like Heresies, which dedicated its spring 1978 issue to the goddess. For these women artists, the constructed meanings of corporeal presence were paramount and demanded the recognition of a still evolving language of female subjectivity and acknowledgement of the socio-cultural circumstances impinging on the female body. Mendieta's pain of exile was displaced to ritual performances involving the transformational body, culture rewritten on the body itself and within landscape. Spaces of awareness and possibility were carved out, and yet, shifting and fluid within her artistic practice, tracing the artist's search for meaning. Exile was embodied in the spaces between absence and presence, concealing and revealing, which Mendieta performed and recorded. Drawing from new genres of performance, earthwork, and video art, Mendieta developed ritual experiences to recreate a dialogue between the landscape, culture, and the body in such works as her on-going Silueta Series (1973-1984). Photographs and videos documented these private ritual performances on site, which were then formatted in public spaces.
Projected onto the walls of the main gallery space and an interior adjacent gallery, the horizon line of discretely spaced films created an intimacy and an interaction as well as dialogue among her films. The silent shape-shifting of Mendieta's body-form on the walls evoked an activating presence, a feeling of life pulsating, emerging, developing, and decaying not captured in her still photography. While her photography and films have been until now primarily interpreted as documentation, this focused exhibition at Lelong on early experimental films clearly demonstrates Mendieta's developing visual language as a cognitive thought process, created as much through the making of films as through her performances and sculptures.
Sweating Blood (1973) exemplifies one of Mendieta's strongest recurring themes: blood. Filmed as a close-up self-portrait, the artist appears as though in a trance, with only a flicker of closed eyelids and pulsating throat muscles, her face otherwise still. Handsomely nubile, her face is ringed with an areole of black hair parted in the middle and pulled tightly back. Drops of blood begin to fall slowly from pores on her forehead hairline. Her upper brow appears to sweat blood, trickling downward with the pull of gravity onto her check. Is this the scene of a crime or the emergence of saintly stigmata? Or a martyrdom? Is it the dream-like appearance of the inner self, a psychic life, erupting onto the exterior fold of skin, at the very seam of individual being? The film medium offered the pulse of duration, blood in motion as a life-force streaming outside of the body, exposing a wound, a rupture, a transformation, and life ebbing and flowing, a very different experience from looking at a still photograph. Time was an important theme in both Mendieta's art practice and production.
Time as duration is traced in Galerie Lelong's adjacent gallery, where there were five more films, a series of photographs, and ephemera, physical artifacts from Mendieta's Estate, which the gallery represents: cassette tapes, film reels, and a notebook with a sketch for Sweating Blood. Here the visitor could see the percolation of the artist's nascent ideas and developing technical strategies. Photographs documenting sequences from the work were mounted on the walls.
Mendieta and Nancy Spero, the author of the opening description of Mendieta's performance Body Tracks, shared a deep affinity for each other's work soon after meeting in 1978, spending many hours discussing their individual methods and common themes.3 Both artists were seeking a contemporary language of gesture via the figure-within-context in order to reinsert women as active protagonists within history, in a broad mingling of Western and non-Western cultural influences. As feminists, they articulated critical perspectives on the normative representations of the female body in history and myth, tracing the trajectory of these related representations.
Mendieta explored the means to recover memories of place and to represent spiritual and psychic struggles. Although the specific genres and techniques of their artwork were quite different, both Spero and Mendieta emphasized the possibility of creating new symbols for representing multiple aspects of the female body/psyche by reinterpreting ancient ritual and myth in order to decipher the realities of the present. Both artists aimed to refigure rites of passage and reconceive metaphors for the transformative cycles in nature: life and death, growth and decay, a unity of body and spirit. The characteristic psychic intensity of their different oeuvres attests to the expressive extremes of human rage and desire, materializing gestures of exorcism and laconic lyricism usually allied with magic and the ecstatic arts.4
Within a key on-going series, the Silueta Series (1973-1984), Mendieta reinterpreted older mythologies in a contemporary language of ritual. She identified symbols for the body and its absence within specific sites, explored the permeability of binary categories of nature/culture, and sought performative means to represent rites of passage and bodily/spiritual transformation. In preparation for the first of the Silueta's, Mendieta researched the multiplicity of Latino cultures and especially, Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion which attributes a universal energy in continuous circulation through all beings, matter, space, and time. In the Silueta Series, she used animal blood to viscerally evoke both transubstantiation in the Catholic tradition and transformation in Sateria religion within nature as the life force. Employing basic elements, such as earth, fire, and water, Mendieta performed earth-body sculptures, documented by photographs and videos, using her own body/silhouette traced within the continuum of landscape, to be transformed by nature in response to her own acts of alchemical intervention. Mendieta re-presented in these earth-body sculptures the extremes of ecstatic bliss and abjection, anger and desire, building an oeuvre ranging from violent fire pieces to quiet contemplative works.
Spero revived Mendieta's redemptive ritual Body Tracks (1974) with her own Homage to Ana Mendieta at the Van der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany, on April 23, 1991 (and in subsequent performances). Spero sought to revive Body Tracks to point to the female subject's control over her own representation and sexuality; rather than a call to utopian matriarchy, Spero offered a recognition of the structuring principles of marginalization and representation. Within the Museum's context, Spero ventriloquized Mendieta's performance in a dialogue, unraveling the political as a manifestation of personal landscapes and tracing the psycho-topography of individual memory and collective witness. Spero's dual recreation harnessed images, as Mendieta wrote, 'to have power, to be magic,' by literally affirming embodiment in absence.5 Spero's discharge of emotions is distanced as a symbolic moment of conveyance – of authenticating witness to the contingency between the individual body and the social body, the private and the public. While renewing and refiguring rites of passage, Spero linked her doubling of Mendieta's action in Body Tracks to the metaphysical power of transformative cycles. Mendieta had used her own ritualized, bloodied body as a metaphor for sacrifice and transformation, but her performances' poetics of erasure echo intuitions of her untimely death, her fall from Carl Andre's 34th floor apartment.
Death is eerily evoked in Mendieta's film of her own skull in X-Ray (1975), a vanitas piece, made by deploying a cinefluorography machine. The black and white contours of her skull move while she reads nonsense syllables, vibrations of which fill the gallery. We peer inside her ghostly head and see her moving jaw. The sounds are reminiscent of Dada-babble at Cabaret Voltaire from 1916 or Antonin Artaud's nonsense syllables appropriated by Spero in her breakthrough paper scroll work combining text and image, Codex Artaud, begun in 1971. The clinical and objective, x-ray and sound waves, are tinged with mystery and incomprehension. Mendieta displays simultaneously the limitations of visual and oral language, even in the possibilities of their alliance.
Moffitt Building Piece (1973) is perhaps one of the most powerful films in the exhibition, and it too focuses on death, but on violent death and its aftermath, the scene of the crime. Mendieta responded in several projects to the murder of Sarah Ann Ottens, a student beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed in her dorm at the University of Iowa on March 13, 1973. Seeking the means to reveal the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women, Mendieta staged the aftermath of the brutal rape scene, described in the newspaper, in a performance at her apartment. Entitled Rape Scene, the artist tied herself bent over a table for two hours and remained motionless, her naked body smeared with cow's blood. She used the journalist's words as her guide to vivify the reality of the crime and invited students and faculty to visit her apartment in order to discuss the trauma of rape, their fears and reactions to the horrific murder, so that they could bear witness together to emotions they might have otherwise repressed. Consciousness raising, or sharing experiences, was a form of awareness and empowerment early on in the Women's Movement.
Like an opening scene from a David Lynch film, Mendieta clandestinely shot Moffitt Building Piece from the inside of a car looking out on a banal storefront in Iowa City for her film about the murder. Instead of positioning the viewer in the interior of the victim's apartment, we view a façade, a sidewalk, a door, and what appears to be from a distance a puddle of blood. As the camera closes in on the puddle, we can see that there are meat-like viscera among the bloody mess. Using a Candid-Camera technique (a TVprogramme, 1960-67), Mendieta had spilled animal blood and meat on the sidewalk, and then filmed the reactions of passersby. People's reactions varied from degrees of shock, embarrassment, noticeable concern, or indifference. Here had been, perhaps, the scene of a crime and an attempt at cover-up. Some people came close to the blood to inspect it further, and others veered away in disgust; some glanced and carried on, while others were blind to the periphery, or feigned blindness. A woman in white poked the puddle with her umbrella and walked on. The audiences, both gallery visitors and passersby in the film, are complicit as voyeurs, a common theme in film and still photography since its inception, as the apparent 'evidentiary' power of the chemical trace and illumination bear witness to a past event in time and place. Mendieta's use of blood as a medium and a symbol is layered and complex, depending on the context and overall theme of each film. Moffitt Building Piece indicts viewers because by watching we are witnesses, and we have an obligation to confront a problem shared by us in our community. The artist confronts us with blood, asks us to feel the wound, in a sense, and to question, take action or seize the momentum. Even Mendieta's contemplative films are thresholds to the activation of sensibility and the energy of being-in-the-world that moves through us.
Mendieta's art not only reworks ancient and more popular forms of mythology, it also courts mythology and notions of magic ritual. Energy Charge (1975), begins with a cool-gray, wintery landscape of lifeless barren trees trembling against a white horizon. Soon an abstracted figure emerges and walks diagonally toward the trees until she appears as a Silueta absorbed within the trunk of a massive tree. The Silueta raises her arms and turns brilliant red, igniting the gloomy landscape. The branches of the trees become ruby red and the fiery figure vanishes. It is as if the silhouette's cyclical menstrual blood began circulating through the pulse of nature during the springtime rejuvenation of the earth, giving back life. Mendieta created the red figure with a 16-channel video processor, but the technologically enhanced body within the landscape, tracing the threshold of the skin that covers the body united with the earth, prefigures Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece, 1976), with its burning wicker effigy arrayed in explosives on a beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mendieta continued to inscribe her silhouette and contour shape into the landscape. She made gunpowder, blood, and firework silhouettes, and buried herself in sand and sea. Mendieta blended her body with many elements and dissolved back into nature: 'I have been… exploring the relationship between myself, the earth, and art. I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me, using the earth as my canvas and my soul as my tools.'
Magic and transcendence are invoked in many films, especially Butterfly (1975), in which a naked Mendieta fades in and out of a wave-like background of shifting kaleidoscopic colors. Grounding the psychedelic array are the stationary arc of her hairline and pubic triangle. The flickering elusive forms around her eventually coalesce into radiant, fluttering wings. Strength and vulnerability are again thematic hallmarks of transformation. The effects were manipulated by Mendieta with a sixteen-channel video processor which assigned arbitrary color to various levels of brightness; these were then filmed on the playback monitor with a Super-8 camera, the pulsating fluctuations of electronic metamorphosis.
Filmed during a summer programme in Mexico, Dog (1974) features an ordinary street view in San Felipe, Oaxaca. Far in the distance is a silhouette of a creature on all fours ambling slowly toward the unpaved foreground. The creature is wearing a fur skin, and lumbers hesitantly, almost crawling. We finally guess that the creature is Mendieta, perhaps naked, and covered only by the fur skin draped over her body. A man walks up the street, ignores 'the dog', and walks onward. A woman and a boy pass next to her, and are indifferent. The artist remains on all fours, draped with skin, still crawling and vulnerable, uncertain, dragging, and retreating, a wolf-child. 'All bodies can only pretend to be upright; all are down here, constitutively interconnected and subject to an end...All can only pretend to have a good conscience.'
DEBORAH FRIZZELL PhD is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history and theory.
- Nancy Spero, ‘Artist's Statement,’ Xeroxed exhibition hand out, April 23, 1991, n.p. Ana Mendieta's close friend and fellow artist Nancy Spero wrote about being in the audience for Mendieta's 1982 performance, Body Tracks (Franklin Furnace, New York). As an homage to her friend, Spero recreated Mendieta's Body Tracks at the Van der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany, on April 23, 1991.
- Kaira M. Cabanas, Ana Mendieta, Pain of Cuba, body I am, Woman's Art Journal 20, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999): 12-17.
- Author's interview with Spero from notes, 5/30/03. Both Mendieta and Spero had represented the contingency of the individual and social female body within a patriarchal culture. Mendieta had documented her performance on the theme of violence against women, Rape/Murder (1973), after a series of students were raped at the University of Iowa, at a time when Spero was documenting institutionalized violence against women in Torture of Women. Other A.I.R. artists focused on analyzing the depiction of the female image as represented in ritual and myth, such as Mary Beth Edelson, who collected everywoman's tales, tracing social and spiritual transformation; Dotty Attie, who juxtaposed fragments of texts and images to interrogate art history and establish a female subjectivity. But Spero and Mendieta achieved a level of continuous critique and an intensity of pitch – of rage and anger – as well as an ecstatic energy that was absent in the work of the other members.
- See Spero's library, especially, Maurice Bessy, A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural (New York: Spring Books, 1970); Maurice Tuchman and Gail Scott, Fifty Tantric Mystical Diagrams (Los Angeles: Ahmanson Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1969).
- John Perreault and Peter Barreras del Rio quote Mendieta in Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective (New York: New museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), 28. See also, Michael D. Schwartz, Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). Schwartz describes Jewish magical texts of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, defining the ancient roots of magic as bridging gap between internal experience and external behavior in ritual, and functioning to transmit the message of culture. Scribal activity was defined as an act of interpretation; oral performance or incantation texts were reserved for evoking healing, prosperity, invisibility, virility, wisdom, love and hate. Ritual served to trigger memory, and magic was tied to authority, according to Schwartz.
Michael Duncan, ‘Tracing Mendieta,’ Art in America, 87, no. 4, April 1999, 154.
Karl Steel, ‘With the World, Or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf-Child of Hesse,’ Animal,Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphant Books), 34.