Proposed by Carolee Schneemann in the last year of her life, ‘Irrigation Veins: Ana Mendieta & Carolee Schneemann, Selected Works 1966 – 1983’ is a compelling exhibition of two canonical artists who sought to explore their embodied relationship to the land and its history through the body as material. Considering their inclusions in influential essays by Lucy Lippard and Gloria Feman Orenstein, as well as exhibitions at A.I.R. Gallery, the first artist-run gallery for women artists in the United States, it is remarkable that Mendieta and Schneemann have never been placed in direct dialogue. Schneemann has historically been an advocate for Mendieta’s legacy. In 1986, a year after Mendieta’s death, Schneemann created an homage to Mendieta with a series of chromaprints; as recently as 2011, she participated in a symposium about Mendieta’s death and legacy at New York University.
The digital exhibition opens with a quote from Mendieta on her desire to reconnect with the earth as an unflinching assertion of her bodily agency, which she notes as result of her exile from her native Cuba at the age of 13. The assertion of the body onto and into the land is most palpable in her influential ‘Silueta’ series, produced from 1973 to 1980 with natural elements like earth, stone, and grass and, at times, outlined with fireworks or filled with gunpowder. Represented first by ‘Volcán’ (1979), Mendieta carves her silhouette into the earth, filling the void with gunpowder to then activate her bodily trace. By igniting this ‘earth-body work,’ Mendieta ritualistically ties her earthly form to the sky and invokes the spirit of renewal between the natural environment and female body. Mendieta habitually returns to the Silueta throughout the decade; and by contrast, in her 1981 work, she inscribes her silhouette into the sand with the sea inching towards her as if she was about to be swept away. Both of these ephemeral works represent Mendieta’s fascination with the goddess archetype that re-emerged during the 1970s, which spoke to many women artists as a means of situating their bodies and histories within a conception of nature beyond patriarchy. Schneemann also found herself engrossed by the goddess archetype as early as 1963 with her work ‘Chromoloden’ and created a number of works centred around her corporeal relationship to the land. In ‘Evaporation – Noon’ (1974/2017), Schneemann lies atop the rocky, wet earth with her naked body obscured by mud. As she documents the gradual drying of the earth on her body, Schneemann’s arms are extended out, invoking the shape of the primordial goddess.
The two video works included by each artist – ‘Parachute’ (1973) by Mendieta and ‘Water Light/Water Needle (Lake Mah Wah, NJ)’ (1966) by Schneemann – speak to collectivity and connectedness within the landscape. Shortly after she graduated from the University of Iowa in 1972, Mendieta taught at Henry Sabin Elementary School in Iowa City and found increasing connection with her students, ultimately viewing them as her artistic collaborators. In the seven minute and nine second video, Mendieta focuses her camera on fifteen students outside as they play with a parachute, running towards one another carefree and giggling. Moving together, the group becomes a collective whole. While Schneemann was visiting the 32nd Venice Biennale, she composed a complex performance comprised of ropes and pulleys rigged across the Grand Canal which would later become ‘Water Light/Water Needle’ (1966), realised at both St. Mark’s Church in New York and Lake Mah Wah in New Jersey. Nude, euphoric bodies splash across the lake amidst a beautiful, washed out glimmer of light and later balance across a system of ropes in the forest nearby. Dressed in all white, the group appears at ease and aware of their bodies within the surrounding environment. Schneemann notes that “every individual body unit is in relation to the environment and to any other body which leads us to a full peripheral awareness.”
After almost fifty years since the inception of feminist art, two very different critical conversations have emerged around each artists’ work. While Mendieta is considered a pioneering voice within postcolonial and ecofeminist art, Schneemann is often associated with the reductive, essentialist tropes about gender and the body in nature from feminist art of that period. Through this pairing, ‘Irrigation Veins’ unveils more complex and nuanced conversations about each artist and this crucial moment in art history. Schneemann says it best herself: “Our feminism has initiated intellectual determinations transforming ecology, ethnology, anthropology, archaeology, physiology, political domination, militarism, medical history, aesthetic reductionism, neurological properties – a revivification of knowledge and imagination.”