January 27: Elemental

Date #27January 27: The photograph—born of the elements earth, water, air and fire.

As a secondary art teacher I had the opportunity for some years in the ‘eighties to take Year 11 and 12 students early in the year on an art camp, into the bush, often to glorious Wilsons Promontory, and once up to Mount Baw Baw. Here was their opportunity to spend continuous, uninterrupted hours on a project that might, one hoped, inspire or even commence their year’s work and contribute to their folio submission for university entry.

As a warm-up exercise for the first day I would set them to work alone on an environmental piece. To use only materials to hand was the only stipulation; leaves, lichen, twigs, bark, sap and gum, charcoal; mud, clay, rocks and stones; water or wind; spiderwebs, sloughed-off snakeskin, animal skeletons and insect carapaces; even their own bodies in performance, their foot or hand prints, or their hair perhaps and in one case their own blood—the results were usually sculptural, though sometimes two-dimensional, and students would record their finished piece on transparency film for future reference, and often these pictures would rival the original artwork by adding mystery or objectivity.

The night of our arrival provided darkness for a (pre-digital) slideshow. Students’ drowsiness after a long bus trip soon dispersed once they saw examples of environmental artworks, and amongst them whose could be more eye-opening than the work of Ana Mendieta (born Havana, 1948, died New York, 1985 at 36) whose exhibition at the Jeu de Paume has its last day today, and who in her brief career, from 1971 to 1985 produced copious drawings, installations, performances, photographs and sculptures, films and videos. Here in Australia, we await the opening of Ana Mendieta: Connecting To The Earth 9 February–30 March 2019 at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Ground Floor, Judith Wright Centre, 420 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Queensland. The curator for that show is Susan Best, Professor of Art History and Theory at Griffith University and author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde (2011), which discusses the pioneering affective dimension in Mendieta’s late modern art.

The videos are the main focus of the Jeu de Paume’s Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta. As well, the show presents 27 related photographs, the medium in which I encountered her extraordinary, deeply affecting environmental works in art magazines Artforum and Flash Art, and copied on slide film the few available illustrations of fresh work she was making around the time of our art camps. Her imagery served as a feminist foil to more ‘masculinist’ works I showed my students; those of her contemporary Charles Simmonds (b. 1945) an environmental sculptor who from the 1970s also made films and photographed his performances and the miniature ‘dwellings’ he made from tiny bricks formed by hand.

After her father joined anti-Castro counterrevolutionary forces, Mendieta was sent with her elder sister to the United States in 1961 to Catholic orphanages in Miami and Iowa, leaving the rest of her family behind, and the profound effect of the separation influenced her art. She eventually was fostered by a family in Iowa and experienced a middle-class American upbringing, but chose to enrol in art at the University of Iowa where she received a BA in 1969 and an MA in painting in 1972, then joined the university’s progressive MFA Intermedia Program, founded and led by the German artist Hans Breder, which introduced her to performance art.

Her earliest performances, made while studying at the University of Iowa, involved manipulations to her body, often apparently violent, including a restaging of a rape in her apartment in response to the murder of a local nursing student, and the video Sweating Blood, and that year, 1973 she began to visit pre-Columbian sites in Mexico to learn more about native Central American and Caribbean religions, producing a work which was the commencement of her Silueta (Silhouette) series, which she continued until 1980, in which at first her body is recorded in photographs and film.

ana mendieta (1973-1977) untitled (from the silueta series), silver dye-bleach print, 50.5 × 40.3 cm
Ana Mendieta (1973) untitled (from the Silueta series), silver dye-bleach print, 50.5 × 40.3 cm

“In 1973 I did my first piece in an Aztec tomb that was covered in weeds and grasses-that growth reminded me of time. I bought flowers at the market, lay in the tomb, and was covered with white flowers. The analogy was that I was covered by time and history.” Ana Mendieta

Before long she replaced images of her own body with a simple, primitivistic and symbolic outline of her figure represented in materials from nature;  earth, water, air and fire.

Ana Mendieta (august 1976) Silueta Muerta. chromogenic print 24.5 x 16.8 cm
Ana Mendieta (august 1976) Silueta Muerta. chromogenic print 24.5 x 16.8 cm
ana mendieta (1976) untitled (from the silueta series) , 9 color chromogenic prints, 33.7 x 50.5 cm
Ana Mendieta (1976) untitled (from the Silueta series) , 9 color chromogenic prints, 33.7 x 50.5 cm

Mendieta’s niece, filmmaker and writer Raquel Cecilia Mendieta undertook over many years to restore the mainly 8mm films that the artist had made and had started to re-record crudely on a video camera from a screen projection for display on monitors during her exhibitions.  Racquel transferred them to video starting in 1987, then to digital media using a telecine setup in 2001, and again more recently, to 2K/HD digital video once scanning and compositing of individual frames of 8mm film became feasible.

The differences in quality are evident in this montage of four reproductions of Sweating Blood, the final, lower right, being a retouched rendition. The original was a series of spliced Super-8 movie shots in which more blood is added to the top of Menieta’s head so that it streamed down her face, appearing to issue from her skin and hair.

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 2.22.47 pm

Mendieta herself was unafraid of technology and used any means available to create her prodigious works. When early animation and video montage/painting systems became available (starting with SuperPaint, developed in 1973, and up to the Amiga computer at the end of her life) she took advantage of their basic CGI potential to manipulate video footage.

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 2.22.07 pm

Her early death is still controversial. In 1985 she had married sculptor Carl Andre when during the early hours of September 8 the same year, Mendieta fell 34 floors to her death from the window of their Greenwich Village apartment. In a call to 911, Andre told the operator that the couple had argued, following which “she went out the window.” He later said they were arguing about whose work was better known. Responding police found scratches on Andre’s arms and nose and a woman had been heard by a witness repeatedly pleading “No!” before she fell. Painter and friend Frank Stella paid some $50,000 towards Andre’s bail and though he was acquitted for lack of evidence, doubts and protests around the case continue.

The ethos of Mendieta’s works were passionate and symbolic utterances completely at odds with Andre’s nihilistic art so eagerly promoted by Clement Greenberg, and his belief that his own ‘works of art don’t mean anything’ and were ‘without transcendent form, without spiritual or intellectual quality’.

She, by contrast, used the camera because;

“I like the longing and the mystery in the photographs”

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