Can we ever analyze Ana Mendieta’s art independent of her tragic death? Should we?
As good little art history students, we’re taught to look at the art itself, not the artist’s life (or death). Van Gogh wasn’t a nut–he just had a distinctive aesthetic. However for women artists, as well as artists of color, trans artists, queer artists or any other marginalized artists, removing the personal from their artwork has concrete detrimental effects to the understanding of the artist’s work. The personal is, of course, political.
In 1985, Mendieta fell to her death from a Village apartment after a loud argument with her husband Carl Andre–one of the Great White Male Artists of Minimalism. Admitting in the 911 call that they were arguing over how he “was more exposed to the public than she was,” Andre was tried and acquitted for her murder. While Mendieta’s fall still remains suspicious, needless to say, Andre’s career has not suffered for it.
As seen in Galerie Lelong’s current exhibition Experimental and Interactive Films, which focuses on Mendieta’s little seen film work and related archival ephemera, Mendieta’s art is filled with imagery of prone bodies, blood and viscera, appearing, in retrospect, hauntingly prescient of her death. Not only delving into the physical presence of women and women of color’s bodies as a feminist statement, Mendieta’s films also contain an eerily ephemeral documentation of spiritual power, often driven by her experiments with various medium-centric technologies.
An essential addition to the recent revitalization of Mendieta’s work, Experimental and Interactive Films is the first New York gallery exhibition solely dedicated to Mendieta’s prolific filmmaking. Creating over 100 films in her short lifetime, Mendieta’s Experimental and Interactive Films appears in conjunction with a larger exhibition Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta, organized by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at University of Minnesota.
Displaying fifteen films, Galerie Lelong features nine never-before-seen Mendieta films, including her first film Untitled made around 1971. In Untitled, Mendieta creates stunningly raw and disruptive abstract patterns on the film by scratching directly onto the celluloid film emulsion, recalling Luther Price’s abject filmic alterations.
While rarely taken separately from her entire body of work, primarily her best known Silueta Series, Mendieta’s films overlap her larger artistic interest in women’s bodies as contested sites or sites for violence. For example, Mendieta’s film Moffitt Building Piece captures the reactions of passersby on the University of Iowa campus after Mendieta poured blood and entrails on a sidewalk. Responding to the brutal rape and murder of a fellow University student, Mendieta forces an unwitting and unsuspecting public to confront a disgusting display of reality or, as some do in the film, ignore the violence completely.
As seen in Moffitt Building Piece, blood gushes, or more aptly, oozes throughout Experimental and Interactive Films. In Mendieta’s very Catholic Sweating Blood, which was the only film in the show I had seen previously at PPOW Gallery’s group exhibition Skin Trade, Mendieta’s beautiful face hovers against a black background. Slowly and imperceptivity at first, blood begins to bead on Mendieta’s forehead before dripping down her serene face. Likewise, Mendieta’s Dripwall–positioned directly beside Sweating Blood–introduces blood into an interior space as blood slowly trickles and then pours down a wall.
Discovering new means for documenting women’s bodies, Mendieta’s X-Ray depicts her dedication to experimentation, as well as subversive feminist gestures. In X-Ray, Mendieta uses a Cinefluorography unit, a medical tool usually employed for diagnostic and research procedures. In Mendieta’s hands, she takes us inside her own head, filming her own X-Rayed skull while talking. An unquestionably unsettling and disturbing film, Mendieta fractures the feminine ideal, which is largely related to shallow surface perceptions of attractiveness.
Not only investigating the internal physical nature of bodies, Mendieta’s films also convey bodies in nature as two films–shown side by side–reveal. Despite its short length, Mendieta’s Energy Charge is perhaps my favorite video in the Galerie Lelong exhibition. In Energy Charge, a darkened figure walks across a bleak shadowy landscape and stands in front of a tree. Suddenly in a flash, the figure disappears, leaving an electrified red stain on the tree with its hands up. Like a recording of the energy remaining after death, Energy Charge depicts Mendieta’s ghostly exploration of spirituality.
Mendieta’s Butterfly enacts a similar form of haunting transcendence. Employing a 16-channel video processor in order to create the grainy effects in the film, Mendieta stands surrounded by a frequently evolving amorphous colorful background with what appears to be butterfly wings. Not only resembling butterfly wings, Mendieta’s wings could also be read as angelic.
Which brings us to the initial question–what about Mendieta’s death? As seen in Experimental and Interactive Films, a woman with a strikingly individual and strong voice was silenced and her work was unjustly allowed to languish in obscurity for years.
In a recent interview with Artsy, fellow Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco decried the canonization of Mendieta’s work in relation to her tragic death, linking the growing interest in Mendieta’s art with other female artists who died young such as Eva Hesse and Francesca Woodman. As Fusco explains, “I have not continued to participate in the canonization of Ana because I don’t think that it is about her work. I think she’s become a symbol used by many people to address sexism in the art world through personal attacks directed at Carl Andre. Many younger artists exploit the memory of Ana for their own professional advancement.”
In many ways, Fusco is right. The art market loves dead artists, particularly ones that examine difficult or fraught topics so they can herald them as martyrs without dealing with the subjects they explored. However, the truth remains that women–especially rebellious women like Mendieta–do sometimes meet ugly ends, punished for their radical visions or competition with domineering artist partners. That needs to be remembered and honored while not overshadowing the essential power of Mendieta’s art itself.
More than her oft-told death, Mendieta’s art remains both integral to understanding her personal experiences, as well as her continued legacy. As Mendieta once stated, “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe.”