Ana Mendieta: Traces
Hayward Gallery, London
24 September - 15 December 2013
Review by Beverley Knowles
Some things touch you in such a way that any attempt to verbalise the space in which the artist and the viewer became entwined is bound to fail. In some cases even to say this much is already a detraction. The work of Ana Mendieta is one such case. The elemental simplicity of her gesture rips at the heart’s defences and penetrates rarely touched corners of the psyche.
Mendieta worked with the body and with nature and yet saw herself as neither performance artist nor land artist. She defied categorisation. ‘My work is in the tradition of a Neolithic artist,’ she said, ‘I am not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.’ That much is clear. To intellectualise Mendieta’s work is to miss the point. It is like ritual: designed to circumnavigate the thinking mind.
Every single work in this exhibition deserves mentioning but I’ll satisfy myself with a few, aware that my words won’t do them justice.
‘Bird Transformation’: a black and white photographic print of the artist from 1972, her naked body covered in feathers carefully applied to create the impression not of a woman covered in feathers but of a bird woman, some mythic being. The grainy quality of the shot lends itself to the sense that this creature is extant, if not physically then psychically. It’s worth noting that the artist didn’t consider herself a photographer but used the medium as a means of capturing what the exhibition catalogue eloquently describes as her ‘fugitive collaborations with nature’.
‘Untitled’ (1973): a colour print of what we can assume to be the artist’s body lying on a concrete slab, tomblike, covered in a heavily bloodied sheet, blood all around, blood drawn into a puddle at the delicate space between her calves. On her chest an animal’s heart lies. The grey of the concrete, the white of the sheet, the red of the blood, the faceless, timeless anonymity of the shrouded human form; it’s powerfully affecting.
And later the works with fire. ‘Tree of Life’ (1977), a photograph of a petrified tree trunk, the simple outline of a woman’s body burned into it, flames leaping from the figure. It’s like cave art, highly symbolic. Or as though the form had always been there, the artist’s task to reveal rather than create, to remove rather than add.
In almost any article on Ana Mendieta the reader will encounter mention of Carl Andre, the man to whom she was married for eight months. Yet one rarely comes across mention of Mendieta’s name in the reviews of Andre’s many shows. To its credit this Hayward survey exhibition, the first in Britain of Mendieta’s work, makes almost no allusion to her biography in relation to her husband. Neither shall this reviewer. I mention it at all only to highlight that imbalance, to put forward a possible explanation as to why the exhibition leaves the matter un-discussed and perhaps to avoid the story becoming the elephant in the room of this piece. Because it is my imagining that Mendieta would agree with me that the question of violence against women shouldn’t go unmentioned, and neither should it be sensationalised.