by Anna Clar
“Ana became very uncomfortable when someone tried to confine her to a whole set of conditions either of spirit or body or feminist principles because she was more powerfully integrated.” —Carolee Schneemann, on fellow artist Ana Mendieta.
How can one describe Ana Mendieta’s art without pigeonholing her? The late Cuban-American artist’s work is powerful enough to hold simultaneous meanings even while her primary medium is so basic—her own body.
Body art and earth art developed in the Western world in the late 1960s. Mendieta’s fusion of the two—“earth-body works” or “earth-body sculptures,” as she called them—is art made of her body and its direct relation to its natural environment.
Earth art of the time was done on grandiose levels by Robert Smithson, among others. Smithson is known for his pours of tar and concrete into the landscape; Mendieta criticized him for “brutalizing” nature. While she shared Smithson’s interest in the primeval history of the earth, Mendieta subverted bombastic gestures and instead engaged with nature on a human scale.
“I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me,” she wrote of her art. Her Cuban Catholic heritage, her displacement in the United States, and her life as a woman, a Latina, and a human being are articulated in her art not in terms of her individuality, but in terms of her universality.
Born in 1948 in Cuba into a wealthy Catholic family, Mendieta was 12 when she and her sister came to the U.S. as exiles in Operation Pedro Pan—a program that brought thousands of primarily upper-middle-class Cuban children to the United States after the Cuban revolution. Mendieta bumped around foster homes until she enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Intermedia Program.
At Iowa in 1973, Mendieta began the first of her trademark art pieces. The Silueta series is a collection of earth-body sculptures created over more than a decade. Each Silueta engages the artist’s body in a symbiotic relationship with the natural world. Captured on slides and prints, the silhouette of Mendieta’s body is indicated with a range of materials: earth, flowers, fire, stone, snow, ice, blood, weeds, firecrackers. While her physical body is often present, it’s sometimes only indicated in the landscape—a nod toward the living presence of the past.
Mendieta’s Siluetas freely borrow spiritual motifs, overlapping symbols from Mexican Catholicism and Cuban Santeria. In “Tree of Life” (1976), Mendieta is covered in thick mud and grass, standing before a large tree with her heels together and her elbows bent upward, palms out. The uneven texture of the mud plastered on Mendieta’s body mimics the texture of the bark. The “tree of life” symbol is popular in classic Mexican iconography, and here Mendieta seems to emerge from the tree, thus acting as a living embodiment of traditional spiritual beliefs.
Mendieta’s pose is also that of the classic goddess, reflecting the imagery of both contemporary feminism and ancient European and Latin American cultures. At the time, the goddess pose was heavily rendered as a feminist symbol of empowerment. But Mendieta distinguished herself from feminist artists by focusing not on the specific identity of her earth-caked body but rather on the universal self. Mendieta’s form conjures the ancient past while being grounded in the present. It is a synthesis of seemingly opposing forces—the fact that the imagery has multiple meanings is its meaning.
Mendieta’s art was rarely considered on more than a token level until recently. Her sensationalized 1985 death overwhelmed serious consideration of her work. She fell from the thirty-fourth-floor window of her husband Carl Andre’s apartment; Andre, who described the fall as a suicide, was later acquitted of her murder. The tragedy filled the public’s imagination more with ideas of Mendieta-as-victim than with ideas fed by her art.
But about ten years ago, a handful of scholars and exhibitions questioned Mendieta’s minimized presence in art history. As she is gradually given her due attention, her art is now understood as blurring the lines between so-called “high art” and vernacular cultures.
This line-blurring is evident in Mendieta’s choice of body sculpture as medium rather than, say, painting. Painting is the most distinguished and typically upper-class art form in the U.S. and Cuba; it also has a deep foundation in Euro-Christianity. Though Mendieta earned her MFA in painting, she gave up the form to explore the anthropomorphic possibilities of her body in landscape.
Mendieta wrote, “I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey—and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic. I decided that for the images to have magic qualities I had to work directly with nature. I had to go to the source of life, to mother earth.”
Or, to put it another way, she turned to her own self for the magic she knew is present in this world.
Anna Clark writes from Boston and maintains the website Isak - www.isak.typepad.com.