Let the art come first. This must have been the axiom behind Covered in Time and History, Martin-Gropius-Bau’s 2018 exhibition of twenty-three films and a smattering of photographs made by Ana Mendieta between 1973 and 1985 (edited down from an overwhelming one hundred). In the filmed works, Mendieta often covers her body with materials evoking deep temporalities and elemental energies: earth, rocks, dirt, blood, wood, fire. Similar substances are formed into rudimentary echoes of the body, and subsequently burned or washed away by tides. Always, the work interweaves aesthetic traditions the theoretical and formal preoccupations of the artist’s milieu, 1970s land and body art.
Imperfectly, the Gropius-Bau exhibition resisted a creeping form of amnesia, which threatens to dissolve the artist’s densely symbolic works into signifiers for her tragic life. In 1985, Mendieta fell 34 floors from the Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband Carl Andre, who many still hold responsible for her death. Neighbors had heard the couple fighting, and Andre was arrested but subsequently acquitted. In the intervening years this ruling has been convincingly contested by activists, often under the call: “Where is Ana Mendieta?” To respond is to reckon with two powerful and opposing forces: a body of work that deserves to resonate independently of its maker’s violent end, and the insistence that circumstances of this end should never be forgotten. The ideal resolution – one that rigorously maintains this tension – has proved difficult to maintain.
“Ana Mendieta: Death of an Artist Foretold in Blood” read the title of one report on the artist’s show at The Hayward Gallery in 2013, before finishing: “The mystery of how the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell 34 floors from the window of her New York apartment in 1985 has echoes in the dark, ritualistic images she left behind.” Indicating the degree to which this perception of Mendieta’s work has entered popular consciousness, an artist friend confided: “I’m sure her art was about death. When I look at it, I just see death.” In contemporary art, though, our impressions can so easily be mirages, retroactively projected into the work. And in Mendieta’s case, these projections have a decidedly toxic effect – one that mirrors pop culture’s lucrative cult of sexual violence. The canonical artist is victimized in absentia, and the compound and mysterious emanations of her work become displaced by a fantasized hindsight premonition.
It may well have been an attempt to avoid this problem that led Martin-Gropius-Bau to counter-steer its show into an equally egregious error. Among the exhibition’s extensive press material and wall texts, not one mention was made of the controversy surrounding Mendieta’s death. The omission wasn’t lost on visitors, who filled the guestbook with condemnation. While it’s true that Andre was ultimately acquitted, Mendieta’s legacy has been marked by a widespread refusal to accept his innocence. This intransigence on the part of protestors is well founded; in her essay about the artist, Rosanna McLaughlin reminds us that judge Alvin Schlesinger, who presided over the case, later acknowledged that Andre “probably did it.” In this light, the museum’s failure to tell the whole story rings like an act of neglect approaching negligence.
Arguably, though, misappropriations of Mendieta’s work are a greater threat to her memory than a lack of explicit remembrance. Protestors of Andre’s exhibitions have often made use of poured blood – a strategy cribbed from Mendieta’s Moffitt Building Piece (1973), a video wherein the artist poured chicken blood on a sidewalk and recorded the reactions of passersby. Sound as the protestors’ intentions are, there seems something decidedly counter-productive about reducing an artist’s rich symbolic language – for Mendieta, spilt blood referenced a history of carnal ritual far more than sexual violence – into a flat signifier for her murder.
Speaking with McLaughlin, the artist and scholar Coco Fusco, who has written and commented extensively about Mendieta, reflected that “the people who can’t separate her from Carl Andre and from her untimely death … are obsessed with constructing female experience as victimization. They are not concerned with her art or her life, only with capitalizing on her death to justify fantasies that are neither empowering nor politically sound.” It isn’t the job of every protest to explain the intricacies of an artist’s work, of course. Protests draw attention and raise awareness. But when an artist’s charged imagery is spuriously repurposed, her own tragic death can come to overwrite the complexes of meaning she labored to construct.
Even the most well-intentioned memorial writing can have a similar effect. The recently published Where is Ana Mendieta is a powerful collection of essays and poetry produced by several writers and artists in collaboration with Sisters Uncut, a group dedicated to defending women and gender variant people against domestic violence; an uninitiated reader could come away from this text with scarcely an impression of who the artist actually was. At times, though, the book does draw important links between Mendieta’s work, her death, and the unrelenting violence against women – but it also instrumentalizes the artist towards this cause.
All things being equal, it’s laudable that Gropius-Bau offered audiences in Germany an opportunity to discern Mendieta’s many facets among these overlapping and obfuscating shadows. Covered in Time and History implicitly asks us to consider all that Mendieta’s radical performance and sculpture can do, in addition to furnishing a point of contrast for contemporary art’s cool blood-shyness. The exhibition emphasized how Mendieta’s intense corporeal effect resulted from a rigorous development of repeated motifs and formats. Her Silueta series emanates from her body as well as corpuses sculpted with earth and wood. Magnetically terse in their simple actions and fascinatingly cryptic in their ritualistic use of animal blood, the works radiate an unearthly gravity. The filmed pieces twitch anxiously between their status as artworks and sacraments pursuant to some larger purpose.
In her 1991 book Where is Ana Mendieta (from which the aforementioned collection took its name), Jane Blocker explained that the artist’s use of earth as an analogue for the body was inspired by a custom of the Ronga people of present-day Mozambique, in which small quantities of dirt from one’s home territory are consumed to ease the pain of displacement. This theme of solace from exile is one way of understanding the relationship between Mendieta’s materials and the circumstances of her life; at age twelve the artist’s parents sent her from Cuba to the United States, assisted by an American-funded anti-Castro relocation program. Similar spiritual associations are woven throughout all of the work; writers often comment on how Mendieta’s use of gunpowder to burn silhouette forms evokes Santería, a hybrid African/Catholic religion that travelled to the Americas during slavery. Untitled: Silueta Series (1979) shows a smoldering body, formed from a pile of sticks and twigs. The dry wooden body sparks and smokes, like a funeral pyre.
The argument that contemporary art has supplanted the role of religion – white cubes as the modern equivalent of churches – often seems grandiose. But Mendieta’s work testifies convincingly to an alignment between art and metaphysical purpose. Even still, her work is never devotional. Conflict reigns. Channelling the transformative powers of ceremony while eschewing religious doctrine, the work conjures a productive friction with cultural tradition.
It’s masterful contrasts like this that gives her work its upending torque; its magnetic coupling of ambiguity and power. Her Rupestrian sculptures of the early 1980s – stylistically neolithic icons carved into Mexican cliffs – further stress a fraught dynamic between reduced motif and unassimilable historical weight. In grainy films depicting these pieces, the eloquently reduced figures seem conduits to ancient and unwieldy natural forces.
To read Mendieta scholarship is to understand the variegated study that enabled the artist to bring this practice into being. My notes are scrawled with terms like “neolithic icons,” “Minoan Snake Goddesses,” and “Catholic and Santeria rituals,” jotted alongside more familiar names associated with quasi-alchemical and corporeal performance art: the Viennese Actionists, Yves Klein, Carolee Schneeman. As a student at Iowa University, Mendieta coupled Erving Goffman’s ideas about the theatrical nature of human interaction with readings of Octavio Paz, George Batailles, and Roger Callois. These sources helped her to forge language of corporal performance, which also needled at social violence and taboo.
Thirty-four years after Mendieta left – or was, in all likelihood, taken from – the world, the crucial question is how to maintain the activist drive that rightly foregrounds the artist’s violent death without sacrificing an adequately complex treatment of her work. Towards an answer, we should begin with a twin certainty: her death was not an artwork, anymore than her artwork was a premonition of her death.
One reason we hone our critical faculties is so that we can resist the seductions of myth-making. Mendieta’s artistic efforts didn’t foreshadow her end. Nor did they radiate the presence of some latent death drive. To suggest otherwise is to rob the work of its rightful effect, and to absolve the artist’s probable killer of responsibility. Better instead to see her work clearly, for the motley, complex, life-giving benefaction that it is.