Thursday, August 30, 2007

Where Is Ana Mendieta?

Ana Mendieta was a Cuban performance artist who lived in New York in the 1970’s. The title Where Is Ana Mendieta, not only refers to the suspicious circumstances of her death, but to the nonexistent presence of the work of women artists in mainstream exhibitions, to the absence of work that portrays the aesthetic rooted in Latino cultural identity.

Mendieta boldly explored women’s identity, sexuality, and spirituality in pieces that were deceptively simple. Her work was constructed from the elements themselves, dirt, water, and light in their most basic forms; her themes revolved around the ideas of burial, rebirth, submersion in the natural world. From a perspective beyond the dominant culture's construct of nation, a construct of governments, the hegemony of conquerors, Mendieta's work reverberates with a older, indigenous idea of nation. It challenges the viewer to envision an idea of nation and identity based on a direct relation to the Earth itself.

In a series entitled Tree of Life, Mendieta flattened herself against a large oak tree. She is naked, covered with gesso and paint to simulate tree bark. Where does the tree stop and Medieta begin? Where do we stop and our connection with nature begin? Simply done and deeply resonant. I immediately saw a connection between this piece and a Mexican/Chicano idea of rootedness to place that is not hemmed by borders, but by history and ancestral links to land, to nature itself.

In another, untitled series, Mendieta is shown in a series of photos. Again, she is naked, this time in an isolated field. Next to her is a skeleton. The photos show her climbing onto the skeleton, embracing it. She creates a powerful image of the life/death cycle, as well as a quintessential Latino commentary on mortality. At the heart of existence, life and death are united in an eternal embrace. In the midst of life, its fullness, its lushness, its sensuality, Death is constant companion. While modern, European-based culture constantly seeks to avoid aging and mortality, there are traditions that accept its centrality. Mendieta brilliantly illustrates that death is both the beginning and endpoint of all things.

Mendieta worked closely with a variety of feminist artists, but did not label herself as feminist, and I understand the reticence in using the label. The women's artistic community did not offer a truly supportive relationship, and while she had meaningful connections with individual artists, her work was not be adequately appreciated by feminist and post-feminist critics. In a nutshell, Mendieta did not invent a new relationship to body and Earth, she reclaimed an ancient one, but was never embraced by the 'larger' artistic community.

I was profoundly moved by her work. The work is poetry, visual poetry, poetry made flesh. These are clear, visceral, and direct images that I hope to use as a touchstone in my writing and performing, particularly in performing. I want to tell a personal and universal story with my body, and Mendieta has created a standard for me, as well as strengthening and deepening a physical lexicon.

Blocker’s writing is dry and extremely formal, making this difficult going as a reader, but don't be dissuaded by that. I wonder if some of the density of language was more an expression of Blocker's own inability to grasp and express the power and simplicity of Mendieta. However, the book sings when Blocker allows the work to speak for itself.

ISBN-10: 0822323249
ISBN-13: 978-0822323242


Jane Blocker is a specialist in contemporary art and critical theory. She offers courses such as Art Since 1945, Contemporary Art, Alternative Media: Video, Performance, and Digital Art, as well as courses on gender and sexuality, and 20th century theory and criticism.

Her research has focused primarily on performance art as it developed concurrently with postmodern, feminist, and constructionist theories. Her first book, Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity and Exile (Duke University Press, 1999), considers the artist's work in relation to the performative production of identity. What the Body Cost: Desire, History, and Performance. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), her second book, critically examines the historiography of mid-twentieth century performance. Her current book, called Seeing Witness: Essays on Contemporary Art and Testimony, examines the witness as a privileged subject position by analyzing installations, performances, photographs, and films by such artists as Alfredo Jaar, James Luna, Eduardo Kac, Christine Borland, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and Ann Hamilton.

In addition, she has published the following essays: "This Being You Must Create: Transgenic Art and Seeing the Invisible," Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (2003): 192-209; "A Cemetery of Images: Meditations on the Burial of Photographs," Visual Resources XX, no. 2 (May 2004) ; "Binding to Another s Wound: Of Weddings and Witness," in After Criticism: New Responses to Contemporary Art, edited by Gavin Butt. (London: Blackwell, 2005); "Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino," Performing Arts Journal XXIII, #1 (January 2001):18-32; "The Art of Renters," in From Your House to Our House, exhibition catalogue (Atlanta: Nexus Contemporary Art Center, 1999); "Woman-House: Architecture, Gender and Hybridity in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?," in Camera Obscura 39 (November 1998):126-150; "Ana Mendieta and the Politics of the Venus Negra," in Farquhar, et al, eds. (Un)fixing Representation, special issue of Cultural Studies 12, #1 (January 1998):31-50; "The Bed Took Up Most of the Room," in Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, eds., The End(s) of Performance (New York: N.Y.U. Press, 1997); and Nancy Spero/Leon Golub: Contemporaries, exhibition catalogue (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, 1997).

Lisa Alvarado


msedano said...

good question. one of my favorite galleries in Los Angeles is, where the walls often feature woman artists.

Manuel Ramos said...

Lisa -- When you make it to Denver I hope you have a chance to spend time at the CHAC gallery and Museo da las Americas. These two (and others, of course) have featured several excellent artistas from Colorado and elsewhere, many with that "aesthetic rooted in Latino cultural identity" that you describe.