Ana Mendieta’s sensual performances were in essence ephemeral, temporary, just like the human body. Yet her work still feels relevant and important today.
Born in Cuba and raised in the US, Ana Mendieta created her works from blood, mud, rocks, trees and wild flowers, from her body and through her body, playing a game with nature and asking what is still art and what is not. She made herself the subject and object of her artistic activity. In her work, she entered a dialogue with the Cuban fertility cult. When on 8th September 1985 she fell from the window of her 34th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Mercer Street, her death became a performance. She turned her body into a sign, another piece in her cycle Silhouettes (Silueta Series), which she made in the years 1973–1978.
I believe that this cycle is exceptional in every way – and extremely relevant today. With her body, Mendieta marks the space of natural environment. Quite often she only leaves its contour, a shape, a groove in the sand, in the meadow, in the ground. Each of her actions was just an evanescent spectacle in the natural environment, a performance that changed her body into an object covered in stones, flowers, leaves. Sometimes the artist would set her work on fire, or she would use paint. Her performances were transitory, they disappeared, disintegrated organically – they decomposed just like the human body. The only thing that was left of them was the photographic documentation.
It is impossible to consider her fascination with female fertility (originating in Cuban folk tales) aside from the artist’s experience as an emigrant. She left for the US as a 12-year-old, without her parents. After years of struggling in a foreign country, she visited Cuba in 1980 and got back in touch with the local art community. In creating Silhouettes, she processed Cuban folk beliefs through her body, and tried to confront her experience of the body and the body’s relation to ‘the other’.
With her performances, her ‘sensual traces’, Mendieta established a relationary field between the bodily event and its perception. The centre of the photographs documenting her actions is a physical emptiness, death, and the fading away of individual representations of the ‘I’. The artist turns to the archaic issue of the ego formation, to the endangered image of the body, to a fragmented image thereof. She negotiates identity in its unstable, sensual and sexual dimensions, in the space between the subject and the object. Simultaneously, the photographic recordings of these interventions, the potholes made by the body, the immersions, the traces left by matter touching matter, are transformed into new performances. They become a stage where Mendieta’s fantasies are played out. This is how the artist transgressed the field and spectrum of representation, of self-portrait, showing how corporeality can manifest itself.
The sensual paradox of Mendieta’s performances consists in uncovering the body, which is shown as not only a visible object, but also – as the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote – “the expressive, material-symbolic space through which we experience the world.” The uncovering is accompanied by a constant manufacturing of the self in the perpetual cognitive process of touching our surroundings, leaving traces.
For me, as a choreographer and performer, Mendieta’s actions are doubly important. Her artistic work, created through the personal and the bodily, is a different call for visibility and representation – not through image but via touch, closeness, empathy, that which is haptic and kinetic. It is the female body, through action, melting into the world.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski
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