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In the hours after seeing Ana Mendieta’s retrospective Traces at the Hayward Gallery my eyes start playing tricks on me. As I walk my dog, I find myself staring weirdly at trees, searching for the shape of a woman’s body in the gnarled trunk, or shadowed on the bark. I haven’t been affected by art like this before, but it’s a little like stumbling out of a dark theatre after seeing a powerful film and finding your senses sharpened, so that a street flooded with sunlight seems more full of magic and potential than it did two hours earlier.
Ana Mendieta wanted to create magic with her art. Magic in the sense that she might transform the earth (and her own life) by creating and performing rituals inspired by Catholicism, ancient cultures and the traditional healing practice of Santería. The major Cuban-born artist documented these performances using video and photography, so that now, forty years later, we can watch as Mendieta uses fire, blood, feathers, gunpowder, and mud to briefly transform the landscape and her own body in a kind of artistic sorcery. Mendieta described this as “earth-body” work, explaining that through “total identification with nature” she could transcend her own temporality and connect to the power and history of the earth. This meant that, at times, the artist literally buried herself in the landscape, covering her body with earth, flowers, grass, and stones so that she could merge with the “source of all life” before arising renewed. In her 1974 video Burial Pyramid a pile of funerary stones covers a lifeless body – presumably a corpse. But then, in a shocking twist, the stones appear to begin breathing. The breathing becomes faster, rhythmic, until the stones start to fall away and we realize that the body underneath is coming back to life – resurrected from the earth.
Ana Mendieta was exiled from her native Cuba as a child, sent to live in foster homes and orphanages in the US, while her father, a politician, was imprisoned by the Castro regime. Separated from her parents and her homeland, her culture and native language, Mendieta felt a deep sense of displacement in the world. This displacement is often seen as the driving force behind her desire to place her body in the earth, to locate her identity and origins in the soil and sand. When Mendieta covers herself in the womblike cavities of the ground, or photographs the human-shaped hollows where she has lain before rising back up, there is a sense that she is emotionally re-enacting a kind of death/birth. Yet there is nothing playful or stagy about these rituals. They seem utterly serious, infused with the artist’s deep belief in what she is doing. And there is something strangely powerful about looking at the shapes that her body has left behind in the mud – as if she were actually molded and cut out of the earth, like humans made from clay in ancient myths.
The narrative ascribed to Ana Mendieta’s life is often focused on the mystery of her death. Aged 36, at the height of her career, Mendieta fell from a window on the 34th floor of the building where she lived in New York. Her new husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was tried and then acquitted of her murder. The question of whether Mendieta committed suicide, fell by accident or was murdered is almost always mentioned in articles about the artist, along with sly references to the ways that her art foreshadowed her death. Early in her career, Mendieta was explicitly political in her work, using her own body to raise awareness about violence against women. Mendieta stares out from Self-Portrait with Blood, her head gashed, fake blood running from her nose, and there is something clinical about the images – like crime scene photos. I think I’m supposed to be examining them the way a detective might, bearing witness to a crime, looking for traces of evidence in the large color photographs, but the fact that Mendieta did this to herself – that she is not actually hurt – keeps reasserting itself. Was she simply trying to shock us with her staged suffering? Or was she making herself into a victim as an act of deep empathy? An attempt to connect with the experiences of other women through the rituals of art – the way she would later connect with the land in her earth-body sculptures.
These sculptures – particularly her lauded Siluetas – are some of the most stunning pieces in the show. Mendieta marks her own shape on the natural landscape in a series of creative transmutations – she becomes an explosion of fireworks, a raft of flowers, a puff of smoke. She camouflages her body against a tree, and it is not simply that these transformations create a sense of magic, but that their subtlety and surprise produce a unique tension in the viewer, who must attend carefully to each new image, searching for Mendieta’s presence. As I study the Siluetas, I have the sense that I am being drawn into a surreal, mythical world where the boundaries between life and death, human and non-human are blurred. Looking at the red silhouette of Mendieta’s body staining the earth, I think of the human shadows that appeared after the bombing of Hiroshima, evoking life and death in a single dark smudge. These are the traces that Mendieta wants to capture – the temporary marks of human existence against the permanence of the earth. But her work is not simply a meditation on the brevity of human life. It’s about the ways we can extend beyond ourselves through a kind of sympathetic magic, connecting to the boundlessness of nature and humanity through our experiences of the earth.
Ana Mendieta: Traces is at the Hayward Gallery until December 15.