Covered in Time and History/Le Temps et l’Histoire Me Recouvrent
Jeu de Paume, Paris, France
16 October 2018 – 27 January 2019
Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) was a pioneer in the American art world in the 1970s and 80s, developing what she called “earth-body” art. I came to know her work then, in the process of developing a course on women and art at a time when this was a very new subject. I found the way she used her body in relation to earth, water, and fire, exciting and challenging to understand. We could only access her performances and earth sculptures through photographs, but it turns out that she also made over 100 short films of her work. These films were recently digitally restored.
It is my good fortune to be in Paris for this exhibition that focuses on 20 of her films and a number of related photographs. Watching the films, considering her words and actions, is mesmerizing and fascinating. At the Jeu de Paume (the Parisian museum specializing in photography, film and video), we move through a series of darkened rooms in each of which six to eight films are projected onto the walls, with her words inscribed nearby. It is silent – the films have no sound. The effect is meditative.
The work that first attracted me is from 1976: Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) made in Oaxaca, Mexico. Filmed against the night sky, a huge female figure is outlined with an armature of fireworks. Lighted and exploding, the bright red figure glows in the dark, exuding smoke and flares, gradually dying out. Why is this so powerful? It is like a magical appearance on a mountain or in a desert, forceful and so present, impossible to ignore. And then, with a few final mini-explosions, it disappears. I love what the title tells us: Soul, Rocket Silhouette. And I think, wow, this is the artist speaking, referencing her own body and spirit, and it’s a powerful statement.
Mendieta began the ‘silueta’ series of works in 1973, producing over 100 before her death in 1985. This early work, Imagen de Yagul, (Yagul, Mexico, 1973, photograph) is a good place to consider her inspiration. In her own words, she explained:
“In 1973 I did my first piece in an Aztec tomb that was covered in weeds and grasses—that growth reminded me of time. I bought flowers at the market, lay on the tomb, and was covered with white flowers. The analogy was that I was covered by time and history.” (Lecture at Alfred University, NY, 1981)
Mendieta lies naked and still on the ancient stone, her body covered with the flowers, connecting with ancient peoples and beliefs, locating herself as part of that memory, part of the earth that holds all that remains of the past. From this initial work, Mendieta moved on to sculpting earth to reflect her outline. At first this shape rose strongly above the ground and she lay within it (as in Burial Pyramid, 1974), but soon she relied on just the simplified shape, treating it with different materials such as blood or gunpowder. I actually laughed out loud watching the film of Birth (Gunpowder Works) from 1981. She built up mud in her silhouette, located near a stream. For a minute the camera focuses on the hollowed out torso with water rushing around it and then suddenly –- a big explosion and smoke streaming from its centre. What a metaphor for ‘birth’! She had already experimented with a similar idea in 1979. For Volcano she built a deep silhouette that tilts on a diagonal, suggesting a mountain; from its centre a fire glows and shoots out smoke and flames.
Personally, I love these representations of woman on fire, exploding while giving life; perhaps one might also say, blowing ideas out into the universe. But for Mendieta, the process and image are deeply personal and reflect the reality of her own experience. Consider her life: born in Cuba in 1948; in 1961 at 12 years of age sent to the United States with her sister because of the Revolution, separated from her parents until they were able to join her later in the 60s, and from the country she loved until the 1980s. Not surprising, then, that she worked intensely with the land evoking the island that was home, and with water not just as life-giving, but also for its island reference. As well, for Mendieta making art was ritualistic, an aspect of her performance that is clear in all the films.
Notions of birthing ritual come into play in the film Mirage (1974). The camera is static, placed close to the ground in a landscape with trees and plants. The focus is a small mirror in a wood frame leaning against a tree in which we see the artist reflected, sitting on the ground. She is very still for almost two minutes, immersed in the nature around her. We notice that she appears to have a huge stomach when she begins to stab it with a knife and then pulls out handfuls of feathers, tossing them around her. It is difficult to convey the beauty of the scene, the sense of unreality due to the mirror reflection and the sudden violent act. How to ‘read’ this action? Perhaps this is a meditation on the mother who must give up her child and the sense of ripping apart that both mother and child experience.
One of the most beautiful images of these films is Creek (July 1974). Filmed from above, Mendieta lies naked in the creek, posed with her back towards us, on a diagonal framed by parallel forms of rocks and plants. The water bubbles and rushes around her and she does not move. We watch this for over three minutes—time to take in all the details, the colour of the plants, the layers of rock, the beauty of her form and the dark spot that is her head. The artist is an island, a homeland.
There is so much to consider with these works. Mendieta’s use of blood in some works evokes ancient rituals but also, powerfully, violence against women. Consistently she references ancient traditions and myths, devising personal rituals that make sense for her. I was struck by the power and attraction of these performances that seem simple but turn out to be quite complex and, especially with her use of blood, sometimes hard to watch.
One particularly ‘electrifying’ film that for me expressed how riveting is the work of Ana Mendieta is Energy Charge (1975). It is very short (49 seconds) and I was drawn to watch it over and over. What we see is a very large dark tree with great stems spreading out across a still-light sky. The foreground is dark, and as our eyes adjust a small dark figure appears before us in the gloom and walks to the tree. The figure leans against the tree and reaches her hands up on the trunk, stays still, and suddenly she is a flash of brilliant red, and that red shoots up the branches, and then it’s over and dark again. It sounds so simple, yet the excitement of this brief performance is palpable. Life-giving nature, the tree of life, the inspiration and energy the artist requires to create her rituals – it’s all here.
In 1981 Mendieta was invited to speak at Alfred University (Alfred, New York). Fortunately, her talk was recorded, and a niece who is a filmmaker incorporated her voice with related images of her works. The film is included in this exhibition. It is striking to listen to her explaining how she moved from painting to performance, and how important was the notion of art making as ritual. To see her films, to hear her voice, caused me to mourn, once again, her untimely violent death. Through her fearless performances and her use of non-traditional technologies, Ana Mendieta moved beyond traditional artistic forms in ways that are now taken for granted. Thanks to the dedication of those involved with her estate, her work is visible around the world and should establish clearly her contributions to our history.
Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
Photo credits: All images are hyperlinked to the original source
For another perspective on Ana Mendieta’s life and work read The inexorable lifeblood of forgotten feminist artist Ana Mendieta