Bearing Witness, Mendieta Nowby Vanessa Thill
Ana Mendieta: Covered in Time and History
BERKELEY ART MUSEUM | NOVEMBER 9, 2016 – FEBRUARY 12, 2017
Death is palpable in Ana Mendieta’s work, as a body undergoes elemental transformation. Grave-like pits, gushing blood, and gunpowder silhouettes operate on a symbolic and primordial level, but it’s important to note that some of her earliest work was a direct response to the rape and murder of a nursing student on her college campus in 1973 at University of Iowa. Campus rape is still an egregious threat to young women, and with an aggressively anti-woman administration in 2017, it is no wonder that Mendieta’s work still feels so raw and relevant.
Covered in Time and History is an exhibition of Mendieta’s films and photographs that traveled from the University of Minnesota to Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, and finally to the Berkeley Art Museum. Twenty-one of the artist’s films, newly restored from Super 8, fill a room with silhouettes in water, earth, fire, and blood, orbiting the dark space as the videos loop. She moves between different moods and evocations: from a bitter explosion of flames and a blazing heart in the darkness in Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) (1976) to tidal erosions and forms melting into the soft earth in Creek (1974).
Mendieta worked repeatedly with red pigments and animal blood from the very beginning of her career. In such pieces as Sweating Blood and Self Portrait with Blood (both 1973), the artist stoically drips blood from her hairline, or poses with face bloodied. This symbolic material of Christian and pre-Christian ritual provokes a visceral response; as Mendieta “wounds” herself she points to a pervasive reality of violence against women’s bodies. In Moffitt Building Piece (1973), her first work created in reaction to the campus murder, Mendieta films passersby as they glance at spilled blood on a public sidewalk. This is her only piece in which the public is directly invoked and clandestinely recorded, but it sets the tone for the politics of witnessing that are central to so much of her work.
In Burial Pyramid of 1974, Mendieta buries herself in rocks, the ground breathing slightly, but she remains corpse-like, seemingly crushed under humming boulders. The silhouette of her body on the ground, a motif she worked with repeatedly, eerily connotes the horror of slack figures of black citizens murdered by police, and more specifically the videos that circulate of them. Mendieta’s films, mostly three minutes in length, also mirror the short looping format of those damned eye-witness videos, forever replaying brutal suffering as testimony to injustice. As a young Cuban-American exiled in the white Midwest, for Mendieta to place her body so vulnerably at the forefront of her work is an assertion of a brown body taking up space in all the ways that are unacceptable to the state.
She carried out her performances alone or with the help of one or two people, yet a sense of a supernatural audience or divine witness pervades her work. Her steely reserve is the dark will of a priestess, laced with the temptation of the body’s most extreme limits but also with a faith in transformation. To witness her power is sacred, as she glitters on the edge of the beyond. Death is not an end for Mendieta, who exemplifies a unique and multivalent approach to time as medium, as in her phrase that titles the show, “I was covered by time and history.”1 Employing a sudden explosive time, but also time that ebbs, the films provoke a deep awareness of duration, elucidating breath as an apt metaphor, an interval of intensity.
Reliving powerful moments in the context of trauma is what is often called bearing witness. When it comes to time-based artwork invoking bodies subject to harm, human integrity demands more activated modes of viewership. Bearing witness to an experience of pain is basically the opposite of gaslighting: a currently popular manipulation in which any experience differing from the dominant narrative is intolerable and made to seem false. Mendieta’s work makes its own vocabulary for her truth, the truth of her pain, exile, disappearance, exhaustion, but most importantly, her secret strength.
Mendieta’s name has returned to the spotlight recently as people discover her work anew, often in the context of suspicions about her then-husband Carl Andre and outrage surrounding her untimely end. Her prolific yet short career has become symbolic of a righteous battle to be seen and heard as a woman of color in a world still dominated by white men. Although her deplorable death has little to do with the revelatory oeuvre we are left with, her life’s work has become a painful metaphor for female brilliance extinguished too soon by forces of patriarchy.
Her career spanned a brief but tumultuous decade from 1973 – 85, and although her work has much in common with the famous movements of this period, such as Land Art, Conceptualism, Feminist Performance, or Minimalism, her lyricism goes deeper into nuance. She exemplifies the strategies of “dematerialization” made famous by Lucy Lippard in 1968, but doubles down on the refusal. As her films document, works such as the Silueta series are temporary interventions that disappear into the earth, leaving the ghosts of her film works to haunt us with resolute strength, and with a call to action as viewers with humanity at stake.
- Linda Montano, “An Interview with Ana Mendieta” in “‘Earth from Cuba, Sand from Varadero’ A Tribute to Ana Mendieta,” ed. Clayton Eshleman and Caryl Eshleman, Sulfur 22(1988):66. [as quoted in the exhibition catalog]
Vanessa Thill is an artist, writer, and curator.