Saturday, 26 October 2013

Traces: Ana Mendieta, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (24 September-15 December 2013)


I once read that the best way to understand the level of importance an artist has had in art history is the extent to which his or her work can be seen in that of the next generations of artists coming after them.  If this is the case then Ana Mendieta is a far more influential artist than she is given credit for as traces of work can be seen in artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, Janine Antoni, Anthony Gormley, Jenny Saville and Pipilotti Rist.  In this first retrospective of her work to be held in the UK is a long time coming and given that Mendieta’s work seems contemporary even today, it must have been extremely cutting edge when originally created in the early 1970s.  Undertaking an MA in Intermedia as it was called at that time would have been a bold and avant garde programme of study which is now standard practice for many art students today.  Video and photography documenting her performances both staged in the studio and engaging in site specific landscapes dominate this exhibition and Mendieta’s obsession with her own body from the very outset of her practice and blood (fake or real) permeated  throughout her practice whether it be slowly seeping out of her skull in a video documented staged performance, dripping from a decapitated chicken (again in a video) or used as paint in her early blood drenched drawings.

For Mendieta, blood was a magical, powerful thing both metaphorically and materially.  She is perhaps best known for her earth-body sculptures that   combined ritual with metaphors of life, death, rebirth and spiritual transformation and has been firmly placed within art history narratives essentialist feminists of the early 1970s such as Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke and Valie Export and she was a member of the AIR Gallery, the first all-female cooperative art gallery formed in New York in 1972. 

There are elements of essentialism in her work and there can be no doubt that her work was very politically motivated, but Mendieta managed to achieve that fine and almost elusive balance of being politically engaged without being too obvious or preaching.  The work stands up for itself aesthetically as well as conceptually.  This can be seen best in her Siluetas series, either when only traces of the outline of her body in a landscape can be seen, or when her  whole body  is evident but becomes almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself.   Mendieta’s life story is a film script waiting to be developed.  Born in Cuba in 1948 and sent to America when she was fifteen to escape Castro’s Communist regime, she lived and studied art in Iowa.  She then lived and worked in Mexico for many years, before settling in New York in 1978.  Mendieta died in 1985 in New York from a fall from her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village where she lived with her husband of eight months, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre.   Just prior to her death, neighbours heard the couple arguing violently but there were no eyewitnesses.  Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder due to insufficient evidence.  This retrospective is a long time coming and confirms that even today, there are female artists of great merit who have yet to achieve the level of sustained recognition and enquiry which they rightly deserve.