Of the many things one might expect to see in the industrial chic gallery neighborhood of Chelsea on a Monday evening, chicken blood and guts splayed on the sidewalk is not one of them. But last night, in honor of the memory of the late artist Ana Mendieta and in protest of the Dia Art Foundation’s current retrospective of her husband, Carl Andre, artist Christen Clifford and the feminist No Wave Performance Task Force offered up deep red chicken blood and dark, chunky guts.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Mendieta and Andre, a brief introduction is in order: The couple met in 1979 and married six years later, by which time both were making and selling art successfully. Andre had already been a fixture on the male-dominated Minimalist scene for years, while Mendieta and her more ephemeral, performance-based work — one of her earliest pieces involved her standing naked while holding a decapitated chicken and letting its blood splatter over her — were gaining art-world traction. On the night of September 8, 1985, the pair had an argument in their apartment on the 34th floor of a building in Greenwich Village. In the course of the argument Mendieta “went out of the window,” in Andre’s words, and fell to her death. There were no eyewitnesses. No photos were taken of the body. Andre was charged with Mendieta’s murder and acquitted three years later.
“I think she was thrown out of the window,” playwright Karen Malpede, who was living and working in New York at the time of Mendieta’s death, told me last night. “I think every woman felt that. It felt like every woman artist in New York was getting a warning: this is what you get if you become too good.” Malpede attended the Dia protest with her husband, George Bartenieff; the two of them are co-artistic directors of the Theater Three Collaborative.
“It was such a summing up of the incredibly ego-driven art scene of the time,” Bartenieff added. “You wouldn’t believe it — like Hollywood stars fighting each other. It was all inflated and had nothing to do with art.”
Nearly 30 years later, Andre is the subject of a massive retrospective at Dia:Beacon, which the institution calls “the first museum survey of Andre’s entire oeuvre.” The Dia Art Foundation had planned its only New York City event related to the show for last night, a lecture by the artist Leslie Hewitt on Andre’s work. But “due to an immediate medical condition,” the lecture was rescheduled. When protesters arrived at the Dia building in Chelsea around 5:30pm, they encountered a sign on the door explaining the postponement and a security guard sitting in a white SUV.
As people arrived, Clifford handed out white Tyvek jumpsuits for them to wear; everyone was encouraged to write “I wish Ana Mendieta was still alive,” or some variation thereof, on the suits before donning them. “I’m not making a protest saying he’s a fucking murderer, even though that’s what I believe,” Clifford said, explaining the wording choice. “I want to put positive things in the world.” She also unrolled and taped to the ground in front of Dia a paper banner with the same phrase.
To start things off, Malpede read to the assembled crowd of not quite 20 — among them a handful of people close to the Mendieta family — a passage from Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra. In it, the Greek hero Achilles violently kills a woman, and Wolf writes, “The men, weak, whipped up into victors, need us as victims in order not to stop feeling all together. Where is that leading?” As Malpede was winding down, Clifford, cooly holding a cigarette in one hand, stabbed and cut holes in a shopping bag containing the chicken blood and guts. She slowly trickled the blood along the edge of the banner on the pavement, before dumping the rest of the remains down in front of Dia’s doors. The stench was overwhelming, the odor of fresh death carried by the wind. Then she read a short selection from the book Who Is Ana Mendieta?
By the time Clifford finished, the police had arrived, called by Dia. The group stood in silence staring at the banner and the remains, a simple but powerful makeshift memorial. The police respected that silence for a while, standing back to observe what was happening. Eventually one of them asked who the head of the group was, to which Malpede responded, “There is no head.” The officers accepted the answer and stepped over the blood, into Dia; the protesters walked away.
“For me what’s interesting is not the fact that he did or didn’t do it, but that the art world was so interested in protecting him whether or not he did it,” Mohammad Salemy, a Vancouver-and New York–based independent curator, told me. “They intervened in the justice system. You can’t trust the outcome of the trial because there were powerful forces influencing it.”
The protest action was important, Salemy continued, because it helps illuminate “the invisible part of the iceberg … the ugliness in the art world. When people talk about Carl Andre’s retrospective at Dia, they’ll say there was a protest. You know how people say ‘let’s make history’? Let’s make art history.”
I returned to the Dia’s doors probably half an hour after the group had left. The banner was gone, and the guts had been scraped into a neat pile with a phone book by a horrified woman who works at the foundation. Some of the blood was beginning to dry, but it left splotches and stains on the pavement, which seemed like a fitting tribute to Mendieta, an artist so interested in natural materials and traces. The smell was still relentless, too, and it followed me down the block as I made my way to Tenth Avenue.
The No Wave Performance Task Force protest “We Wish Ana Mendieta Was Still Alive” took place on May 19, 5:30pm, outside the Dia Art Foundation (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). A video of it can be found here.