CHICAGO — In a darkened gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago, a grainy video from decades ago begins. Standing with her face pressed up against a white wall, a woman reaches down and scoops up a handful of red, viscous liquid — presumably blood — from an enamel tray, and in a series of arcing gestures she traces a crude outline of a doorway, or a cave entrance, or maybe just the close demarcation of her own small body, around herself onto the wall. Then she grasps another handful of blood and begins to write, the words obscured by her body, only gradually emerging as she bends down for more blood to write with. Finally, she stops, looks at her work, and then walks out of shot to the viewer’s left. The image holds for about fifteen seconds on the phrase “There is a devil inside me,” scrawled in a column inside the doorway of blood. Fade to black.
The video, called “Untitled (Blood Sign # 1), is by Ana Mendieta, and it’s part of a small selection of her work on display in two rooms of the ‘Tute’s modern wing. Another gallery is filled with work from the artist’s Siluetas series. The walls are lined with dozens of photographs, a sculpture made from braided Ficus root, drawings and a set of photo-etchings.
On the floor in the center of the room is a piece of baked earth, imprinted with the ‘body’ shape that Mendieta used repeatedly. The shape occurs in almost every photo, carved into soil, the sides of hills, outlined in flowers, outlined in burning candles at night, dug into the ground and scattered with red pigment. In a few images, there is a real body, probably the artist’s, though we can’t be sure just by looking at the picture because the face and most of the torso is obscured by flowers.
Sometimes the shapes resemble ribcages, spines, the female body, a vulva. The selection of images chosen to represent Mendieta’s oeuvre is full of intimations of the fragility of the body, of the female body under threat, of the inside of the body turned outside, ripped open, laid bare. Most of the pictures seem to have been taken in graveyards, or old Mexican ruins, which introduce elements of ancient ritual, incantations to protect the self, or offerings to annihilate the self, to return the body back to the earth it came from. Why else go to this place? Why else make these crude marks in the ground, as if desperate to leave some trace of her personality amidst these crushing symbols of religious power? There is a photoseries entitled Burial Pyramid, and in almost every picture there is a powerful sense of death. The repetition of the body shape, the disturbing burial pits that she digs out just as crudely as she painted on the wall with blood, and then sometimes laid in: they feel like prefigurations of death and a plea to nature to commemorate her frail flesh.
It’s perhaps too sensational to relate these feelings to her own violent death, falling (or perhaps pushed) from the third floor balcony of the apartment she shared with sculptor Carl Andre.
What is interesting is that a piece by Andre lies on the floor in a nearby gallery, and how the art of these two tragically once-connected artists affords such a jarring contrast: he, the high priest of the Minimalist movement, whose work says that if I arrange a set of pre-existing industrial materials in a grid, that does all the work of modern sculpture without requiring any other intervention by the hand of the artist; and then Ana Mendieta, all violence, hot emotion, performative gesture, a voice screaming to be heard, masochistic and brilliant, her work grabbing you by the neck and pushing your face into the blood and the dirt.
My final thought was that time is treating Mendieta’s art more kindly than Andre’s. His work could only exist, maybe could only have meaning within a gallery or a museum. Mendieta’s work, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like it belongs here at all. It still feels like the rude intrusion of a force too powerful to be contained in the forensic, taxonomic spaces of the contemporary museum. This is the paradox, however, of this kind of art-making: it comes from a place we like to call reality, but the only way we can see it is either in books or in a gallery. So long as we are aware of that, we should be grateful for the opportunity to see this great artist’s work, or at least the traces, the physical remains of that work.
The kinds of ideas she focused on in the 1970s have changed in the hands of newer generations of feminist artists, perhaps even improved in terms of their formal qualities or their capacity to effect social change. But for sheer audacity, and guts, and the bravery to attempt something without regard to whether or not it looks like art, we can still all learn a lot from Ana Mendieta, whatever our age or gender.
Ana Mendieta continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago) until January 15, 2012.
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