2013 brought about many new and exciting opportunities. For Ana Mendieta, the Cuban performance artist, the end of the year saw her first ever UK retrospective in London’s Hayward Gallery – Traces. As one of the most under-acknowledged artists of the late 20th Century, yet one who embodies femininity through her interaction with nature, her work is perhaps even more relevant to our current society than ever before. What with us entering a period of acute awareness and greater understanding of globalisation and climate change, her artwork speaks volumes in its attempt to reconnect us with nature and emphasise our co-dependent relationship with one another. In addition to her artwork, featuring photographs, films, sculptures and drawings, the exhibition also unveiled her personal writings and notebooks, providing spectators with unseen information behind her pieces.
So who is Ana Mendieta? Born in Havana, Cuba in 1948, she was sent to the US at the age of 12 before the start of the Cuban Revolution. This move led to her later feeling culturally displaced, which was said to have fuelled her inner creativity. Her time spent studying painting at the University of Iowa developed her strong sense of self, where she enacted many performance pieces that used her own body. Her creativity was often considered to be a response to tragedy, as a way of dealing with her newfound situations. However, her unique and powerful artwork is often dwarfed by her untimely and tragic death, when she fell from the 34th floor of an apartment she shared with her husband, the minimalist artist Carl Andre, aged 37. However, all this information was unbeknownst to me and was not publicised in the exhibition, so it did not affect the public’s viewing of her art.
The exhibition was structured chronologically, taking the spectator through her life’s work. Upon entering the gallery, the spectator was confronted with Mendieta’s distortion of femininity as it featured in her early work. Images such as Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) 1972, reveal her attempt to overcome stereotypical perceptions of female vulnerability and subjectivity. Mendieta used her own body to experiment with the concept of femininity, often transforming the body beyond recognition. By changing the body physically – either by distorting it on glass or by adding accessories to disguise her femininity such as wearing a moustache – she forces the spectator to consider how we view women, and perhaps even how we view ourselves. Mendieta was also fascinated by the way in which the media represented women and how this shaped our view as a society. This interest is paralleled in her artwork as she plays with the imaginary boundaries imposed on us that ultimately affect our views of what is accepted of women.
Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) 1972
Untitled Facial Hair transplant, moustache 1972
Following on from her initial exploration of femininity, Mendieta developed this notion further through her incorporation of the female form in nature. Throughout the seventies, her work drew on Afro-Cuban influences and she created a series of images of herself often lying naked submerged somewhat by nature. Her use of the elements – she used blood, feathers, fire, earth and the body as mediums – evoked pagan and ritualistic tendencies, which suggested a spiritual undertone to her artwork. By using these elements, her work reflected the cycle of life, as these mediums were tainted by time, nature and recreated the ‘life versus death’ paradigm as materials were alive and thus subject to decomposing. Mendieta hoped to reconnect with the earth through her art, and her images succeed in exploring our mythical relationship with nature. Nature is the source of all energy, life and inspiration and so, Mendieta’s artwork and creativity naturally derives from its beauty and overpowering strength. She breaches the equilibrium between nature and art, thus creating a new space in which to explore and appreciate nature, which is apparent through her interaction during her art process.
Untitled (Grass on Woman), 1972
Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance, 1973
However, despite evoking a sense of spirituality through pagan and ritualistic similarities, these artworks are also overshadowed by death. As Mendieta lies motionless in her numerous fields of nature, the spectator is led to return to the eternal question – ‘Who are we?’ ‘And what remains of us after death?’ Her artworks controversially explore the notion of memory, leading us to question if anything permanent remains in death. Her body engrossed in nature looks peaceful and as though it is returning to nature’s rightful possession. These images suggest a sense of spirituality by way of questioning how best to grieve or bury the dead. By exploring different mediums, Mendieta explores new methods to remain alive even after death. One such image sees Mendieta covered in mud, blending into the surrounding nature setting. As the mud sets, it seems concrete-like and resembles a tomb, suggesting the act of burying someone. In comparison, a sculpture in the same room reveals a female outline recreated in melted black candle wax that represents the act of cremation. These artworks challenge our perceptions of death. A tomb is a fixed space that can be revisited and mourned, whereas cremation allows the person to live on solely through memory. Mendieta’s artwork throughout the seventies acts as a commentary on society and how we choose to remember the dead. Her art reflects the intangible nature of death, revealing the beauty and indestructible nature of the cycle of life. After all, perhaps it is an inherent characteristic of humankind to desire being remembered after death? Certainly, Mendieta’s artwork is the only Trace of her after her death – all that remains of her physical form.
Mendieta’s realisation that her artwork would outlive her suggests an organic mutual relationship between mankind and nature. Like the displacement felt when she left Cuba, Mendieta is able to return to her cultural heritage and connect with her past through her art. Her decision to adopt the elements as artistic mediums, reflect her influences and reveal her ability to transform spiritual traditions and pagan rituals to create a new art form. Her artwork serves as her link to the past and to her inner, true self. Mendieta’s interest in Mexican spirituality – in particular the Maya culture – is reflected through her invocation of their Goddesses. Throughout her work, she stresses the importance of the female body, highlighting the pursuit of divinity through her interaction with nature. She believed that primitive art and cultures revealed an “inner knowledge, a closeness to natural resources”. Therefore, some of her final pieces from the eighties recall her original subversion of femininity and instead choose to focus on female strength and empowerment through symbolism. Her artwork acts as a voice for her inner divinity, becoming a mode of expression, a doorway for her to release her inner goddess. By evoking ancient civilisations, such as the Maya culture, Mendieta succeeds in restoring the original notion of divinity that surrounds the female body. She engages in a new discourse over the mythical female form and overcomes any mistreatment or abuse that she may have experienced previously in the media or in society.
The final section of the exhibition featured her most recent work and acted as an extension of her exploration of the female form. Mendieta continued her evocation of femininity and spiritual gods through focusing on natural elements and cave drawings. This section was dedicated to the impermanence of matter and the brevity of human life in comparison to the longevity of nature. Here, the artwork was presented in its simplest form; recalling history’s earliest form of art –symbols. By using this medium, Mendieta is able to incorporate her spiritual learnings to assist her in her search for self-acceptance, whilst also evoking her ancestral history. One of her most prominent works is ‘Esculturas Repuestres’ which is a series of mythical carvings on rock formations. Mendieta recalls that she “named [the symbols] after goddesses to bring them back, to reactivate them”, thus revealing her desire to understand and reconnect with spirituality and her own cultural heritage. In this way, Mendieta’s work transcends society’s expectation and acts as an exemplary model, using the elements in a non-destructive way and remaining delicate and loyal to her self and past. By including her interest of Mexican deities together with her own identity and incorporating it through her art, her work can be seen as a sacrificial device, as a gift to the gods. For her artwork channels her identity and her beliefs, it is a trace of her former self – a legacy, which is all that remains of Mendieta and all that we have to understanding her best.
Untitled (Labyrnith of Venus Series) 1982
Hayward Gallery’s Promo Video for Mendieta’s Retrospective: