I was very excited to see Ana Mendieta’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery but I very soon became disappointed due to its, how to put it, lack of humanity in spite of the fact that the whole show shouts ‘I am human…look at my blood’. I think the brutalist Southbank building does not help with its raw monumentality because the work comes across as too monotonous minutes after arrival. Stephanie Rosenthal, the curator of the show, filled six or seven rooms with two ideas repeated to exhaustion and the result is cognitive flatness. So, yes, in a way that institution became an obstacle between the viewer and the artist’s work. Having said this, I think that the institution as obstacle is the problem of Ana Mendieta’s work and life as a whole and it has to do with the experience of the educated Latinamerican that wants to please the gringos and eventually, be accepted as part of a quota or, in other words, because of her marginality. Let me explain.
For many years Ana Mendieta attempted to create a sculpture in the sky made out of smoke -a sculpture that would materialise for a very short moment, change shape, face out and disappear, leaving a trace on the camera film and in the memory. This unrealised work characterises the spiritual and ephemeral nature of Mendieta’s work and her obsession with ‘transubstantiation’ which, as I will explain, is a key component of the Latinamerican (and Catholic, in general) way of understanding life, change and death. In other words, we are doomed until we are not. This happens through salvation and cannot be explained by logic. It can only be understood through faith. Therefore, the latinamerican spirit is profoundly paradoxical to the point of non sense but that is what is what it is.
In her essay on Mendieta, Stephanie Rosenthal says: ‘Throughout her life, Mendieta fought to cast off established classifications (body art, land art, performance art, feminism) and by never quite fitting into any of these recognised forms, she located herself in areas that had previously remained unoccupied. The in-between nature of Mendieta’s work also stemmed from the way in which she saw art as inseparable from her body, her life and her cultural heritage’. I think this is wrong and it is actually the exact opposite. Ana Mendieta seems to be obsessed with categories to the point of making them (apparently) disappear. She is obsessed with the exhibition of her body which does not equate to ‘be inseparable with her body’ but the contrary. Her relationship with her cultural heritage is manipulated by her to the point of making an artifice out of what is supposed to be understood and perceived as Latinamerican. In other words, she is the result of the way the US academic institutions want to box the Latinamerican, how to put it….. conundrum into a series of very strict categories. I think that the problem with Mendieta (and probably the reason of her own death) is that she becomes trapped into her own construction. She is her own Latino Frankenstein.
It is true that she was part of that group of artists whose works no longer fitted the conventions of exhibition making and the collecting of art. This meant that the ways in which artists presented their work took on a new importance and led inevitably to a blurring of the line between documentation and artwork. She used to study in Iowa with Hans Breder at the University. Breder became her partner and her artistic life was produced, encouraged and developed in that institutional academic environment. She passed from ‘painting’ to the ‘inter-media’ course and there she realised her first performance and also her first earth body sculptures, Untitled (Grass on Woman), 1972. These were followed by performances, such as Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations) and Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) which explored transformations affecting her own body and Blood and Feathers and Chicken Piece which topped into both Viennese Actionism and the rituals of Santeria.
In fact, ‘Imagen de Yogul’ was created in 1973 during her second visit to Mexico where she stayed in Oaxaca and became interested in Pre-Columbian culture and rupestrian cave paintings that mingle into a Latinamericanist concoction that seduced the US academic art establishment as ’authentic and primitive’ in the same way it had done it with the Mexican Revolutionary Avant Garde of Modotti and Weston. Those of use who were born in that tradition cannot truly relate to that and find it as a ’gringo construction’. In that identification between motherhood and earth embodied by indigenous deities, she develops what she calls ‘a deep connection’ between her own body and the earth: ‘I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own sihouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). It is a return to the maternal source’. So she basically embarks in this career of carving her silhouette in the land and while doing that, she takes the opportunity to position it against what she considers the ‘macho’ Land Art of Robert Smithson, for example. Is this art or chess? She seems like a strategist making clear movements that would take her farther on in the academic and cultural elite world in the US. The way she talks about her own art is so distant and calculated that she seems to be more confortable talking about her body in a conference room than having sex. It all comes across as a series of rhetorical and artistic strategies than actual connective art. And maybe this is the reason why her retrospective comes across as such a cold experiment in something that seems (or pretends to be) what it is not. To be continued.