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LONDON — If an artist rejects a label, must we respect that? In her short lifetime, Ana Mendieta took pains to point out that she was not a land artist, not a performance artist, not a body artist, not even a feminist as that term might be understood in the United States. And yet she worked outdoors, in nature; there is a performative nature to many of her photos and films; she was for four years a member of the all-woman A.I.R. Gallery collective. A new retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, Traces, seeks to reveal the breadth of this practice.
Mendieta claimed for herself the tradition of the neolithic. This was a gesture towards a time when all current critical pigeon holes appear redundant. And if a single project makes a case for creative time travel, it is her Rupestrian Sculptures of 1981. These really took art back to its source, carving elemental forms out of the soft limestone wall of a Cuban cave called Escalaras de Jaruco. The artist talked about reactivating local Taíno goddesses, and be sure there is nothing post modern or even modern about that.
But Mendieta’s best known works were a series known as Siluetas, outlines of her own body in and around the natural environment. She fashioned them in Mexico, Long Island, Indiana, and most of all Iowa. She shaped them from rocks, leaves, branches, dye and gunpowder. And after making each of these interventions she would photograph them, choosing just one to document the making of a sculpture. The results now oscillate between those two plastic art forms.
Perhaps we can just say that Mendieta is an image maker, and an uncanny one at that. She cuts off a friend’s beard and glues it on her own chin to fine comic effect. She coats herself head-to-toe in white feathers, to call to mind some long forgotten bird goddess. And, naked, she takes hold of a decapitated chicken and allows a film camera to capture its death throes as she holds on for dear life. The latter work was inspired by a reconnection with the Santería religion of her native land.
Whereas some artists have a life story you can take or leave, the biography of Mendieta is irresistible. Thanks to her father’s political activities in Cuba, she and her sister, aged 12 and 14 respectively, were sent to a foster family in the US. So in one straightforward reading of the Siluetas, the artist might be seen attempting to find roots for herself in various geographical locations. There is also the small matter of her “sudden death,” of which the interpretation on the wall of Hayward Gallery says no more. But Mendieta was just 35 years of age, so this too casts a shadow.
Victimhood is a theme which emerges in her early work. The rape of a fellow student at the University of Iowa in 1973 led to her making two of the most challenging performative/photographic works out there. These were “Rape” and “Rape Scene” and in both works she appears stripped from the waist down and smeared in (cow’s) blood. For the purposes of the latter, she remained bent over and bound to a table for two hours, during which time she allowed herself to be discovered, thus left for dead, by various friends whom she had invited over.
“I wanted my images to have power, to be magic” she says in conversation with Joan Marter in 1985. In which case, those were some pretty dark forces she was conjuring. Another performance from this time finds her bloodied and tied in a winding sheet with an animal heart balanced on chest. And considered alongside the mummified bodies which found their way into later works sharing the title El Ixchell Negro, such works certainly have power, uncontainable power.
But despite the brooding presence of her many, Mendieta comes across as an enthusiastic and cheery character from the many postcards and letters which are displayed in a resource-rich annex to the rest of the work here at Hayward. She travels widely; “eternally impressed” by Cuba; “mad about” Rome; finding “true magic” in Malta. This good humour belies the seriousness of her later work; perhaps it ensures that, no matter how earthy she gets, Mendieta is never bogged down.
The later works here are among the most prehistoric in style: cracked clay figures in leaf shaped forms on the floor, visionary goddess forms on bark paper, and aboriginal patterns scorched into rough-hewn planks with gunpowder. To call these sculptures or drawing may be as bad as describing cave art as installation or intervention. Mendieta re-activates the earliest known forms of art, and pulls off this primordial feat with a light touch.
Or perhaps that is the light touch of a white cube gallery. The paradox of Mendieta’s life work is that, at some point, she had to bring it indoors to show. This show, her first UK retrospective, takes place in a secular space, in a well-known brutalist building on an urbane stretch of the South bank of the River Thames. At many points in the exhibition, the visitor may have pause to reflect that, this or that image is, in a word, spooky. But the full effects of the figures which haunt the landscapes of her travels are mitigated by the clinical surrounds.
To be fair to Hayward, they have done a fine job of tracing Mendieta’s journey through the art world from MA student to sculptor at the peak of her powers. And this is not work that can always speak for itself; the Siluetas, for example, are too distant and mute; the invocations of various goddesses is too esoteric. So in the most effective part of the show the Gallery has taken the decision to run half a dozen concurrent slide shows of additional documentary photos. Together with her letters and postcards, this really does reanimate, if not the ancient Taíno gods, at least the oeuvre of an exciting genre-defying talent.
Ana Mendieta’s Traces is on view at Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London) through December 15.