April 29, 2013

Playing With Fire (And Shadows): Ana Mendieta in Exile at the Johnson Museum

Print More

Ana Mendieta carves metaphors into the earth. In Mendieta’s 1974 silent film Untitled (Grass breathing), the grass sighs. Almost imperceptible at first, the heaving grows stronger, unveiling indentations in the sod. Someone has carved a rectangle in the grass. The rectangle crinkles, then liquefies — an oddly isolated earthquake in an otherwise placid landscape. But in a minute or so, the violent throes subside. The exhausted grass patch, incisively engineered, comes to rest. All we see, once again, is grass caressed by the wind. We are left only with questions: What lurks beneath that grass patch? Why does it move? What is the purpose of this act of fleeting violence?  Mendieta’s poetry slightly demystifies her ritual-like performances, films and photographs, “my whole body is filled with want of Cuba / I go on to make my work on the earth / to go on is victory.” The “earth-body art” Mendieta pioneered in the ’70s and ’80s, establishes connections between the land and the human body, and also tears them apart.

Since Feb. 2, a quiet corner of the Johnson Museum’s second floor has served as a screening room for three of Mendieta’s finest films: Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), Untitled (Grass breathing) and Untitled (Burial Pyramid). Running for just over three minutes, each film was shot on luxuriantly pigmented Super 8 film. The screenings are part of the exhibition “Ana Mendieta in Exile,” co-curated by Hannah Ryan, Ph.D. and Margo Cohen Ristorucci ’13, a former Sun news editor. The exhibition, inspired by “Feminism, Post-Feminism and Cyberfeminism” taught by Prof. Maria Fernandez, history of art, focuses on Mendieta’s 1973-1977 Silueta series in which she travelled between Iowa and Mexico. Through her travels Mendieta left imprints of her silhouette on the ground and often filled these depressions with innocuous fragments of nature like rocks and twigs, or grim reminders of violence such as gunpowder and blood.

The drama of Mendieta’s work is matched by the tumult of her life. Writing in Woman’s Art Journal, Columbia University Prof. Kaira Cabanas, art history, paints a fiery portrait of Mendieta. The Cuban-born artist was exiled from her homeland at 12-years-old, when Mendieta’s father fell out with Fidel Castro’s factions. Growing up, Mendieta struggled with life in orphanages and foster homes. Culture shock, coupled with severe racism, exacerbated Mendieta’s isolation and sense of displacement. Her youthful traumas significantly informed her bold and prolific work, which came to a tragic end when she fell to her death from the 34th floor New York City apartment she shared with her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. The controversy surrounding Andre’s eventual acquittal has never really subsided.

Mendieta’s engagement with art began through painting, which she studied both as undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Iowa. Dissatisfied with painting because it “wasn’t real enough,” Mendieta joined the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program. In 1973, Mendieta’s M.F.A. colleagues turned up at her apartment, at her invitation, only to be appalled by a gruesome scene — Mendieta, naked and splattered with blood, had been tied to a table. Her apartment had been wildly ransacked. That dispiriting scene was “Rape-Murder,” one of Mendieta’s early performance works. Depicting the aftermath of a brutal rape was Mendieta’s response to the series of rapes terrorizing the University of Iowa that year. As Cabanas notes, the presence of Mendieta’s body — the female body ravaged by male aggression — gave the “victim” an identity. She could not be ignored.

At the Johnson exhibit, Mendietta makes trauma visible and personal. An untitled black and white photograph of an earth carving Mendieta executed at Montana de San Felipe, Mexico, potently prefaces the films. Positioned at the end of a corridor, adjacent to the screening room, the photograph appears very much like a grave. Yet, a highly tactile mound in the shape of Mendieta’s body rises from the pit. Body and earth truly become one.

Imbued with an overpowering sense of the sacred, Mendieta’s Silueta work tends to evoke a minefield of ideas. “Ritual,” “exile” and “landscape” were among the stream of loaded terms that came to mind as I sat about five feet away from the glowering screen. But in those moments, I was too drawn in by the startling flow of images — the earth that refused to be quiet, the brilliant thing that flickered for minutes and then passed away as if nothing had ever happened. Even to someone with only a vague idea of the rich cosmologies that sculpted the pre-Industrial American landscape, it is clear that the title and form of her works make associations with ancient rituals and landscapes inescapable. Mendieta does, in fact, evoke the rituals of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban that fuses Yoruba, Roman Catholic and Native American religious beliefs. During a 1972 performance, Mendieta drew upon the priestly ritual of sacrificing a white cock. She rubbed herself in blood and rolled around in white feathers, essentially becoming the sacrificial bird. As a child, Mendieta learned about Santeria through the stories told by her family’s Afro-Cuban servants. While exiled in the US, Mendieta found great comfort in Santeria, as it provided a connection to her Cuban roots. An important notion in Santeria permeates Mendieta’s earth works: The earth is a living being from which one may draw power.

In the film Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), Mendieta plays with fire. She thrusts her body into the earth, creating a stark imprint, a moment in which her body merges with the earth. We do not see her, but her body is undeniably present. Suddenly, a flame begins to crackle and cut through the white silhouette. As the fire leaps and flashes, the once dormant silhouette becomes the scene of a riot. The burning silhouette stuns with the weight of its symbolism and rage. The amalgamation of body and earth recalls the burial of the dead, while the animated, burning silhouette suggests resurrection. In Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), as in several of Mendieta’s works, there is too much to take in. But Mendieta goes on, plunging into contradictions and traditions and the victory is hers.

Ana Mendieta in Exile closes at the Johnson Museum on May 5.

Original Author: Daveen Koh