REVIEW: “Where is Ana Mendieta?”: A Revisitation of the Artist’s Life and Work

Ana Mendieta“Where is Ana Mendieta?”: A Revisitation of the Artist’s Life and Work
New York University, 7 October 2010

A capacity crowd, their bodies packed against each other in the Studio at the Department of Performance Studies, came out on October 7th for a symposium on the work and legacy of the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta on the 25th anniversary of her death. The symposium was a culminating event of a two-month exhibition held at Fales Library and Special Collections, which was curated by Richard Move (PhD candidate in Performance Studies). Fales was also co-sponsor of the October 7th symposium along with the Department of Performance Studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, the Department of English, the Grey Art Gallery, the Hemispheric Institute, and Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory.

An homage to her legacy through the presentation of photos, film, scholarly presentations, as well as personal reminiscences, the event revisited Mendieta’s “iconoclastic earth, body, performance, and site-specific and visual art works,” explored the breadth of her influence in the world of feminist and multidisciplinary art, and revisited her controversial death. Mendieta died in September 1985; she fell or was thrown from her 34th floor apartment, on Broadway and Waverly Place. In a haunting irony, the chair’s office in the Department of Performance Studies directly overlook the rooftop of the deli where Mendieta’s body landed. Her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was charged and acquitted in her death–an acquittal several participants in the symposium frankly called an “injustice.” The symposium looked both backward–to the influences on Mendieta’s work, her contemporaries, and the protests after Andre’s acquittal–and forward, with participants addressing the ongoing relevance of her body of work as well as the nature and complexity of its reimagination and revisitation by artists and scholars today.

The evening began with Richard Move’s explanation that the exhibition and symposium’s title–“Where is Ana Mendieta?”–was borrowed from The Women’s Action Coalition’s protest outside the Guggenheim Museum Soho’s opening in 1992. At that action, WAC held up a banner that read “Carl Andre is in the Guggenheim. Where is Ana Mendieta? Donde está Ana Mendieta?” Move then “channeled the affective force” of Mendieta’s work with his fifteen-minute film, BloodWork-The Ana Mendieta Story (2009). BloodWork is a cinematic tribute to Mendieta’s work, imaginatively recreating some of Mendieta’s signature pieces, including Rastros Corporales (Body Tracks) and variations of the Untitled (Silueta Series). The film does not aim at exactitude so much as a kind of affective approximation. These creative reimaginations were intercut by interviews with Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, B. Ruby Rich, José Esteban Muñoz, and Lisa Paul Strietfield. In the words of Carolee Shneemann, who was friends with Mendieta, BloodWork is a “true and deep homage [that] clarifies so many deep threads Ana opened, then tangled again.” Significantly, the film and interviewees did not shy from addressing the ongoing controversy over the circumstances of Mendieta’s death.

Kat Griefen, Director of the A.I.R. Gallery responsible for Mendieta’s archive, discussed Mendieta’s 1977-1982 residence. Although much of Mendieta’s work is “practically unsellable,” Griefen explained, A.I.R. was the home of the artist’s first solo exhibit. Mendieta felt the gallery was a great vehicle for her work, but also came to believe it was not as politically motivated as Mendieta would have liked. Griefen also asked what it means, in terms of dislocation, a prevalent theme in Mendieta’s oeuvre, that the artist’s name was constantly misspelled in A.I.R.’s literature, especially considering Mendieta’s active role in the artist-run gallery.

Exploring Mendieta’s affinity with Cuban-American singer La Lupe, Genevieve Hyacinthe, assistant professor of Art History at Purchase College, investigated the influence of Santeria on Mendiata’s work. Arguing that Mendieta referenced elements of Santeria to align herself with the disenfranchised, Hyacinthe explained that the artist, aware of how her color and position could delegitimate her, “abjected” her own body in order to assault her whiteness and its socially afforded privileges.

Multidisciplinary artist Carolee Schneemann juxtaposed slides from her own work and Mendieta’s, commenting on their remarkable coincidence and correspondence. Schneemann explained how their work “[submitted] to the sensory psychic realm” through a commitment to the saturation of the body in natural materials, for “the body moves and is sustained by saturation.” As feminist artists navigating a male-centered artworld, Schneemann and Mendieta both confronted the “dangers of depicting the sensuous female body” and found ways to identify with the “vital energies of nature” while presenting the body as neither essentialist nor abject.

José Esteban Muñoz, Chair of the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, asked what Mendieta’s loss signifies and argued that the “sense we make or take from her work cannot be reduced to her biography.” Drawing from his forthcoming book Feeling Brown, Muñoz discussed the effects of Mendieta’s displacement from Cuba and how that sense of loss permeated her work, “a kind of loss that feels like the charred remains of a pandemic.” Muñoz described the affective tone of her work as a contagious “sense of brownness” that “radiatesŠas a thing that is not politics, but not not politics.”

Diana Taylor, University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies and Spanish at NYU, concluded the evening by asking, “What is reperformance?” Explaining that reperformance maintains “an eye towards fidelity” as opposed to originality, Taylor compares the intentions of Marina Abromovich’s recent retrospective at the MOMA and the recreations in Move’s BloodWork. While the Abromovich’s retrospective reveals an intention “to keep the original work alive,” BloodWork, Taylor suggests, acts more like a “project about memory,” more a vindication of Mendieta than a preservation of the work itself. Pointing to the “strong sense of if-ness” to the recreations, Taylor suggests that the “‘re’ is the ‘re’ of the reappearance of the violently disappeared Mendieta; ‘re’ as in the reassertion of her work; and ‘re’ as in remains, work that remains to be done.”

–Krista Miranda

Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.