By Gerald Curtis
Ana Mendieta: Traces
September 24– December 15 2013
Resuscitating the work of Ana Mendieta, the elusive, Catholic Cuban and ghost of South American performance art is the task of ‘Traces’ at the Hayward Gallery.
Short-fused and controversial (even in death), Mendieta’s prolific output in performance is dramatically consistent, with her choice of materials being earth, fire, air, water, her body,the landscape and the pain cultural displacement (Mendieta was born in Cuba but sent to America as a child).
Stepping into the gallery I felt the hushed atmosphere of reverence– almost a library hush. And there I was met with self-portraits of young Ana, (then as a student), transferring a beard onto her face. And so the chronicles began, these portraits but the first of her saint-like transmutations on Super-8, ominous drawings and carnal rituals.
In one of the first rooms we encounter two films within a black box: one sees a patch of light on black shift and float revealing glimpses of a chest and lips. It zooms out revealing the hole in a black window on an old door, at the end of a walkway.
Twinned with this is ‘Sweating Blood’ (1972). Face on, drops of red slowly emerge from the artist’s forehead, her hair darkening before a trickle of blood appears to run down her face. Everything you see is done in total silence.
Further along in the rooms are handprints and gestures in blood on paper. The unseen ritual of Mendieta’s works, help to instil the space with an air of sacrament but here the altars are Trinitron TV sets, displaying intimate glimpses of performance.
I settled on a crimson bench to watch ‘Mirages’ (1974) which was composed of four films, four ‘actions’. In one ‘action’ there is a figure (presumably Mendieta) in the forest. She is reflected in a tall mirror and the figure is cloaked in black. The setting is autumnal, sunny and serene– the figure grasps handfuls of dead leaves, dispensing them quietly.
On the next TV over, Mendieta appears in ‘Ocean Bird Washup’ carried by the current to shore. She doesn’t appear to fight, and when she reaches the beach her body is inert on the pale sand.
The usual connotations resurface in these videos, but considering that these actions took place nearly forty years ago, there is still a certain visceral lure to her work that maintains an undead potency.
In ‘Chicken Piece’ (1972),which documents, rather gruesomely Medieta beheading and holding a chicken upside down as the body gradually becomes lifeless. There is a feeling of powerlessness watching this as the silent video mechanism loops the sacrifice again and again. Anna holds the chicken upside down naked, the bird’s neck echoes the shape, position and monthly menstruate act of a uterus.
The silence of the films are loaded with symbolism– the conquest of native South America, migration, blood sacrifice, death and the unnerving but undeniable beauty of blood and feathers.
As I wandered through the labyrinthine retrospective construct, I felt the repetitive development of her symbols drawn from various historic and native tribes; sand-bound bodies that mix Mayan and Egyptian influences refuse to rest.
Gunpowder black inflected tree trunks and autograph tree sketches occupy the final galleries of the show. Aptly Mendieta’s totemic works are made solid, giving way to actual totem like objects and sculpture.
Touchingly, ‘Traces’ concludes with a ranked body of slide projectors illuminating works the artist rarely displayed. I say touching, because here there is a sense of removing her ‘sainthood’ and instead we focus on the elemental core of her work ‘concept, performance and document’; which draws the exhibition to a close.
Traces’ final intimacy redeems the cleanliness of Mendieta’s subjects. Overall, I was grateful for the chance to see so much of her work – although long overdue, the show is pleasingly thorough.