Words Brit Parks
As if a body could tell a life. As if flesh is more human than stone. It is fitting that the world has taken an inordinate amount of time to find Ana Mendieta. It’s as if the collective force of women in history and the weight of her death were plagued with the pace of an archeologist using a brush to remove dirt from an ancient skeleton, the pacing of a breathless angel. Mendieta’s work transcended all formal logic the moment it was performed in 1969. She was attending The University of Iowa in a new program termed ‘Intermedia’ that was begun by the famed artist Hans Breder in 1968. Breder is credited as one of the first to use video as an art form. He pioneered this avant garde academic regime of conceptual performance art that extended into new mediums.
Here I will state my stone cold presence before committing more ink to page. In 1996 in a series of unforeseen circumstances, I wanted to study art and ended up at The University of Iowa for one year. I was allowed to participate in the Master of Fine Arts Graduate Workshop in Intermedia led by Hans Breder. I knew Ana Mendieta has studied there with hazy childlike knowledge that was an entirely guttural reaction but I possessed no language for her or art at that time. I followed her legacy of exile to be saved. It was factually introduced early that we were not allowed to say her name, nor bring up her work. 23 years later I still feel cold when I think of the scene. Mendieta had moved to Iowa from Cuba as a child refugee in exile. She and Breder had an intensive relationship. They defined a new space in art at quite an unsuspecting institution. Medienta’s initial work of her covered in mud as part of a tree, her body dug in a shallow grave with a wildflower covering, and her performance work where she emulated Cuban rituals were paramount to creating this boundaryless space. I have always felt like Breder and Mendieta, both from distinct countries afar from The United States defined a new form of the unknown, a new exile. Mendieta left the school and Breder with an Master of Fine Arts and married one of the most well known sculptors in history, Carl Andre. At 36 years old she fell 33 stories from their New York apartment. Andre was put on trial for murder and aquitted however the controvery is still active to this day. You will still find women in protest in front of the MOMA in New York pouring red paint and shouting for justice as it is highly suspected she was pushed and he was let off as she was framed as a hysterical female artist bent on body outlines. In 2014, I took the last class of my Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Jane Blocker who wrote one of the first and most highly revered books on Mendieta in 1999 came to guest lecture. I had been aware for 18 years that my work was deeply steeped in Mendieta’s ghost. She was my teacher of the meaning of exile. I have rarely written about her as the weight of her work and history have flooded me into a laden halt.
The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York held the first survey exhibition of her work in 1987. The next significant point was in 2011 when The Art Institute of Chicago held a retrospective of her work. Galerie Lelong & Co. has been the exclusive representative of the Estate of Ana Mendieta since 1991. Those are dry facts. Those are dry facts that have an odyssey coursing through their meaning.
I have perhaps thought Medieta was too difficult to write about as her language was trenched out of the land with her own hands. There isn’t a translation. In that space, we feel the most compelled to understand any offering as such. Mendieta made offerings to silence. To herself. To Cuba. To exile. To her ancestors. To dirt. “Perceiving herself as in exile, Mendieta used her art to heal herself, thus provoking and perhaps healing others.” Jane Blocker, Where Is Ana Mendieta
If I had a pile of guitar pedals this is the moment I would hit the fuzz pedal. To speak to an artist’s work requires kneeling. It requires kneeling to someone, somewhere. Is it Isis creeping around with a gauze trap. Is it Helen of Troy looking for glue for a ship. Is it Kim Gordon writhing with a guitar in more ways than it knew how to drip dreams. I think Medieta is singular. I think she calls to a void in the history of women. I think it is a universal call. I think she was a child refugee in exile alone at 12 in 1961 in The United States. I think her work was behind and ahead of its time in every conceivable formal drawn conclusion.
A recent exhibition of her Silueta series was the catalyst for my own broken silence on my reverence and strange bound history to Mendieta. She went back to Cuba as an adult and carved out silhouettes in stone. There are many spellings of silhouette in many languages, and somehow they all sound alike. It is a word that goes beyond language as she does. It is a minimal reference to an outline of a body. Her body of work sees the body outline in fire on a Mexican river as an elegy, it sees wet mud already in decay with her as a mold, and it then sees stone. Stone is the cavity that has kept the secrets of our ancestors safe. We know their lives due to the permanence of stone. Mendieta never made an uninformed decision. She was making those precise decisions on the heels of the hysterical woman complexes stinging her. It is almost 2020. The complexities are as hot with fire as they were then. I think she knew that would happen. I think she knew the meaning of elegy. An elegy is a form we set ablaze to memorialize. We make it more permanent by its disappearance. These carved stone cavities will be on earth with its life. Someday there will be another, encountering her work with no words of explanation. They will hear the call echoing from the stone, they will hear her message of exile. They will also be able to crawl into her silhouette and take shelter. She is exile and shelter embodied in continuum.
“The making of my silueta in nature keeps the transition between my homeland and my new home.” Ana Mendieta
Images courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
Bacayu (Esculturas Rupestres), 1981 / 2019 [Light of Day (Rupestrian Sculptures)] Black and white photograph
40 x 55 inches (101.6 x 139.7 cm)
La Venus Negra, 1981 / 2018
[The Black Venus]
Black and white photograph
39.25 x 53.5 inches (99.7 x 135.9 cm) (GP3515)
Untitled, 1981 / 2018
Black and white photograph
39.25 x 53.5 inches (99.7 x 135.9 cm) (GP3516)