By David LaGaccia
Ana Mendieta’s body will forever be linked to her art. Her work connected the observer to images of nature, mythology and violence captured through a range of mediums that included land art, sculpture, photography, performance and film, most of which mixed and blended—complimenting each other to create a single work that was personal in its creation but universal, almost primal in its message.
In a new exhibition at Galerie Lelong titled Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films, which runs through March 26, we get to see a new view of Mendieta’s body of work through series of 15 films shot with 16mm and 8mm cameras documenting her tableaus, actions, or her famous Siluetas. The gallery has a history of exhibiting the work of Ana Mendieta having represented her estate since 1991, and has so far featured 10 solo exhibitions.
First and foremost, Ana Mendieta’s work needs to be understood in context with the films being exhibited. After getting her BA and MA in painting at the University of Iowa, she then entered the university’s Intermedia graduate program from 1971 through 1977. The Intermedia program focused on multimedia work, especially video and performance; it was here where it was stressed by artist Hans Breder, the program’s founder, to use documentation in the students’ creative process for practical reasons, and the enormous amount of photographs, 35mm slides, and films produced in her career were the result of the need to preserve work that was time-based and ephemeral. Olga M. Viso in the artist’s catalogue Ana Mendieta Earth Body states that “Breder frequently served as Mendieta’s photographer or videographer in the 1970’s, documenting many of the pieces in which the artist herself appeared, as well as assisted in their execution.”
“I push people to document their work. She [Ana] has nothing to show unless you document. She had Super-8, or I would give Ana whatever camera we had around,” said Hans Breder, now 81, and who continues to make work, was Mendieta’s professor, collaborator as well as intimate partner at that time. “She…she would say ‘I want to go to that or that site, and can you come with me to film it?’ Everything was very organic. I was making my comments either positive or negative, and she was listening to me. When you’re living with somebody you naturally help.”
“Mendieta’s work is complex in that she is crossing a number of medias and also making hybrids in the media she is working with,” said Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong, and who has worked with the Mendieta Family Estate for 25 years. “So she’s always worked with film. The earliest film is from 1971 and it continues to 1981, which is rather late, so it spans and is parallel to other kinds of work, her performance work, her Silueta work with the landscape, and her larger scale photography which was approaching sculpture in 1980. It’s not a separate activity, but is parallel. “
Mendieta had 104 known films created in her lifetime. Showing this kind of hybridity in her work, in one film called Moffitt Building Piece, Ana and her sister Raquelín sit hidden in a car recording the reactions of passersbys stepping across what looks like pools of blood. This short 1973 film documents one of Mendieta’s Alley Piece tableaus, where she placed torn clothing and animal blood in-front of buildings and on the sidewalk to create the illusion that a violent crime had taken place. This work, like many of her works in this period (like Untitled (Rape Scene)) were a response to the then highly publicized rape and murder of University of Iowa nursing student, Sara Ann Otten.
A majority of the films being exhibited document either her works or her actions. In Sweating Blood (1973), we see Mendieta’s face against a black background as a graduate student (off-screen) uses a syringe to gradually drip blood on her head and down her face. Filmed during one of her trips to Mexico, Dog (1974), the camera captures an alley scene while Mendieta slowly crawls into focus from far away with a wolf pelt draped over her back. In another film, this one made in 1975 called Energy Charge, Mendieta is seen represented what looks to be a red image set against a grey forest background, possibly at Old Man’s Creek in Iowa. She walks up to a tree and uses her body to form a Silueta much like same pose she would return to in her 1976 work, Untitled (Tree of Life).
Except for one sound piece, these are silent films originally filmed on either 8mm or 16mm cameras.Their discovery and restoration process has an interesting history in itself which passed from the family to Galerie Lelong.
“When Ana passed away, and her estate first passed to her mother then her mother passed away shortly thereafter passed to her sister,” said Sabbatino. “There were many…there were drawings, there were sculptures, there were photographs, there were slides, there was ephemera, and there were film canisters.”
‘At the time, there wasn’t a way to view the film other than projecting, so Raquelín, her sister, asked her brother Ignacio to find a way to project those. And so, at that time what they did was they projected all the films and then somebody filmed the films. Those were the first transfers.’
Previous digital transfers of these films (16:9) had not preserved the original speed or aspect ratio of how they were shot, including a Telecine transfer for her 2004 retrospective at the Whitney Museum. The transfers in this exhibition preserve the original ratio of the Super-8 film. Each frame was also individually scanned giving the films the correct number of frames.
While the transfers correct the way how these films are presented, the exhibition doesn’t put them in the larger context of why or how they were originally created, misrepresenting how she worked. Although presented as “experimental and interactive film”, these are clearly documentation of Mendieta’s work in the Intermedia program at the University of Iowa, many of which were not shot by her. In one film titled X-Ray (c.1975) we see a x-ray of Mendieta’s head, however Breder has said that the idea of filming an x-ray of oneself was a common practice among the students in his program.
“Because she was so interested in time-based work, she photographed so many works with fire or gunpowder, and she would photograph them in like 26 slides or 30 slides, so you see duration, the duration was obviously important to her,” said Sabbatino. “I also think she liked the experimental quality of film that you can see in the work here. I think it was a tool. I don’t think she was a filmmaker, just like I don’t think she was a photographer. I think she was an artist who like many artists, they used what tools they have and they bend them to their will.”
The documentation of Mendieta’s work should not be confused with the work themselves which included performance, tableaus, as well as her land based “earth-body” sculptures. “Mendieta also did not consider herself a photographer,” wrote Olga M. Viso, and “believed that her work could exist on different levels, in the time and place of their creation and in the residues and documentation that live afterwards.” Documentation is a physical antecedent of the experience of an observer that creates a meaning or a perspective to past actions, or in the case of Mendieta’s work, her ephemeral Siluetas that have long since returned to nature, but whose images, ideas, and metaphor are realized in our minds in the present (see MEATTRUCK and Other Notes on Performance Documentation).
Mendieta’s practice as an artist has frequently been misrepresented or misunderstood as performance, or photography, or film, but, instead used a variety of mediums to present her body and her work. While during her time at the University of Iowa she did create performances like in Untitled (Death of a Chicken) in 1972 and or performative self-portraits like Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant), she was not a performance artist, she did not create performance work in her professional career, nor did she ever consider herself a performance artist; in a 1985 interview with Joan Marter, she made it clear to disassociate from the medium.
“If you look at it [Mendieta’s work] as sculpture, it has power. If you call it performance, it has no power,” said Breder.
If anything, she was a sculptor, who made land based “earth-body” sculptures, most notably in her Silueta series that were based on her own body and its connection to nature, prehistory, and Afro-Cuban mythology, symbolism and ritual. The bulk of this work was created as a student at the University of Iowa, but she would return to these ideas throughout her short lifetime whether in New York, cultural visits to Cuba, or Rome. In the early 1980’s, Mendieta began moving towards more commercially viable work like large scale or what she called “life-size” photographs, drawings, and sculptures that continued to express her lifelong interests of the body and its relationship to nature.
Despite the complex and personal nature of Mendieta’s work, her stature as an artist has grown substantially since her death. “Basically when  I took her work she was not considered even to be a good artist, she was considered a bad artist, or not an important artist at all by many people, by the intelligentsia, you know,” said Sabbatino. “I remember bringing her work to museums and had one curator describe it as very bad tribal art.” Her work, however continues to influence artists from a multitude of backgrounds including Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera. Her work has also since been represented in numerous exhibitions, including a 2004 retrospective at the Whitney Museum, as well as a traveling exhibition of her film and documentation work that is currently at NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale. Mendieta’s body, her Silueta’s still connect to us through documentation that has preserved her past and present.