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“Ana Mendieta: Earth Body—Sculpture and Performance, 1972–1985”

At its best, Ana Mendieta’s art was an electrifying disappearing act, the artist’s attempt to lose herself in the universal. At its worst, it was simply lost—in the ’70s, in pseudo-primitive decoration, in feminist essentialism. But whether the Cuban-born Mendieta was creating grave-inspired tableaux with her own body or sculpting wide-hipped tributes to motherhood, the line between success and failure is always clear. As the more than 100 films, photographs, and objects in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Ana Mendieta: Earth Body—Sculpture and Performance, 1972–1985” demonstrate, Mendieta made work that was resonant, complex, and transcendent. She also made work that was insignificant, facile, and quaint.

The show turns on both Mendieta’s overwhelming strength as a performer and the awkwardness of translating that strength into a series of polite objects to be presented in an antiseptic institutional setting—a goal the artist herself began to pursue toward the end of her brief but influential career. In her 13 years as a professional artist, Mendieta, who fell to her death from a Greenwich Village apartment window at the age of 36, strove to invent a universal symbolic language, appropriating images and rituals from various ancient sources and placing them in the decidedly up-to-the-minute contexts of graduate school, performance art, and the downtown gallery scene. She cultivated personas as both contemporary arts practitioner and Paleolithic Everywoman—an undertaking in which there was bound to be some slippage.

Her earliest works, generated while studying with photographer and video artist Hans Breder in the University of Iowa’s Intermedia program, are very much absorbed in hot art-world topics of the time—gender and identity, specifically—and thus lean more toward the avant-garde than the prehistoric. Take the 1972 performance Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), represented at the Hirshhorn in a set of photographs. As Mendieta stands behind a lectern, a man towers over her immediately to her left. Slowly, he clips his facial hair with a small pair of scissors, passing each pinch of hair to Mendieta, who pats it into the white adhesive slathered over her cheeks. Two close-ups show us the gender-bending final result: Mendieta staring fixedly into the camera as she sports her incongruous new beard.

It’s student work, clearly, though as such it’s remarkably focused and assured. That’s due mostly to Mendieta, whose 1,000-yard stare reads alternately as blank impassivity and gutsy challenge. But it’s also derivative—a quality of much of Mendieta’s work of this period. Consider the same year’s Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations), in which the artist transformed her features grotesquely with various props—nylon stockings, a wig, thickly applied pancake makeup. Bruce Naumann had already done something similar (albeit with a less gender-specific slant) in the late ’60s, in a series of photographs in which he manipulated the skin around his mouth with his hands for a number of strangely inhuman, deliberately unflattering portraits. Mendieta was declaring allegiances here, but she hadn’t yet found her own voice.

She began to find that voice in performances such as Untitled (Blood and Feathers) (1974). The film of this work begins with Mendieta standing naked on a riverbank. Quickly, she begins to pour blood from a bottle onto her abdomen, arms, and legs, distributing it with her hands matter-of-factly, as if she were applying suntan lotion. She then casts the bottle aside and dives into a mound of feathers, some of which fly into the air around her. She rolls back and forth in the pile, looking as if she were making a snow angel. Finally, she rises to her feet, takes a cautious step back, sidesteps the feathers remaining on the bank, and comes forward, facing the camera. She is a transformed creature, evenly covered from the neck down with a coat of feathers and blood. Her eyes slowly begin to rise to meet the viewer’s gaze, and the film ends.

Like all of the performance-documenting films on display, this one was made in one long take with one static camera. The stylistic disengagement recalls newsreels or the earliest movies: There are no zooms, no edits, no attempts at stagecraft or lighting design. The camera merely records. This technique gives the appearance of a transparency akin to journalism, and it helps to recall the aura of psychological intensity and visceral power that attended Mendieta’s performances.

It’s no surprise that Untitled (Blood and Feathers) recalls the rituals of Santería. Mendieta was exposed to the religion at a young age, and it appears to have crept into her work of the mid-’70s. In the film of Corazón de Roca con Sangre (“Rock Heart With Blood”) (1975), for example, Mendieta kneels by a hole in the earth cut in the shape of a human body; into the center, she places an animal heart. She next takes a shallow dish filled with a mix of blood and tempera paint and splashes the fluid over the re-embodied organ. Finally, she gracelessly pushes herself into the depression face first, metaphorically fusing her body with earth and animal flesh.

All of this blood, all of this nakedness—it could be a cry for attention. But with Mendieta, there was always a strange disconnect, as if the artist were hiding in plain sight among these ritualized proceedings. This self-subtraction is especially evident in her slack facial expressions and in her nearly automatic movements, which contain nary a whiff of artsy affectation or balletic choreography. In Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks) (1974), another performance piece captured on film, Mendieta slides her blood-soaked body slowly down the surface of a gallery wall, her arms and torso sticking and slipping in an irregular stutter. She awkwardly adjusts her footing midway through the descent, shimmying a bit in order to take a nervous half-step backward and drop to her knees. The gesture could read as the self-induced trance of a Santería practitioner, but within Mendieta’s oeuvre, it represents something else, as well: the moment the artist’s own corporeality and the natural world become indistinguishable. That transference became totemic for Mendieta, and she would repeat it again and again in one form or another.

This dissipation of body into earth is best expressed in Mendieta’s Silueta Series. In the photo of the first work in this series, Imagen de Yagul (“Image From Yagul”) (1973), which was performed during one of her many visits to Mexico, Mendieta lies naked in a freshly excavated pre-Columbian tomb. She holds her arms stiffly at her sides and her feet tightly together; between her limbs and torso, she holds sprigs of greenery and tiny white flowers. This foliage conceals her face and much of her body, which looks startlingly corpselike. Mendieta was acknowledging that she too was a decaying natural object, as subject to being covered over and forgotten as any marker of a lost past. Yet the image is as timeless as the artist intended: body, earth, blooms of remembrance—death has always been like this, as long as civilization has existed. The work is haunting and elemental, elegant and effective.

As the Silueta Series progressed through the years, Mendieta was able to remove her physical body entirely, merely echoing its form with mounds of earth or flowers. A piece from 1979 shows a body-shaped mass of green leaves and yellow flowers surrounded by trampled grasses. The animistic discovery of muted echoes of the human form in a natural setting is jarring, filled with unexpected resonances. Of course, after multiple rooms of Mendieta’s naked outdoor adventuring, the viewer soon expects to find the female form—an impulse the artist was savvy enough to exploit. In fact, in later Silueta pieces, she made the search for the body an essential part of the work. In Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (“Soul, Silhouette of Fireworks”) (1976), an armature shaped to Mendieta’s contours was packed with fireworks. The filmic record of the piece shows it bursting into flame against the black night sky before apparently dissipating into nothingness. Again, somehow, Mendieta’s body is here, effectively recalled to consciousness through the slightest and most ephemeral of signs.

It’s Mendieta’s skillfulness, however, that vanishes in her attempts to create conventional art objects for gallery spaces. In the ’80s, she began to experiment with drawings in which nails, needles, or spoons were used to impress iconic doodles into leaves and bark. The results are invariably crude goddesses, recalling the physiognomy of the Venus of Willendorf and often made up only of a handful of concentric circles and cartoonish hearts. Mendieta’s Afro-Cuban heritage and her research of and travels to Mesoamerican landmarks ought to have given these works some heft. But they don’t, and Mendieta looks as guilty as, say, Gauguin or Picasso of poaching half-understood artistic traditions. Worse, these faux-primitive fertility symbols can’t come close to the power or complexity of Mendieta’s performances: They sit politely and ineffectually in their frames, essentially inert, images that would look perfectly at home in your local crunchy coffeehouse.

True, there are some successful sculptures. Branding Iron (1977) in particular manages the clever trick of including a performative element: Mendieta took an iron cast of her hand, heated it, and then pressed it to the pages of a blank book, leaving ghostly scorched hand prints. The weight and heat of the palm and fingertips ate cigarette-burn-sized holes through the thin, wasted paper, creating an indelible, eloquent image. Similarly, Untitled (Totem Grove Series) (1984–1985) almost succeeds through sheer physicality: Here the crude goddess forms were scorched into tree trunks with gunpowder.

But Mendieta’s gifts were never to be found in the monastic cell of the painter’s or sculptor’s studio. Her vision went beyond the confines of the studio and the gallery. It went out into the world to mingle directly with the physical reality of things. There, Mendieta sought—and very often found—the liminal: the merging of humanity and nature, individual and culture, present and past. By effacing not only the artist’s ego but also the artist herself, she made such fleeting moments into lasting impressions. Indeed, Mendieta was at her best when she was barely there at all.CP