In the contemporary art world, it is apparent that art suffers from a perpetual crisis of meaning. Since the collapse of great cultural signifiers, the role of the artist is no longer seen as being at the forefront of revealing truth or informing culture. Rather, artists are the ones rummaging among the ruins, picking at and scavenging dead cultural signifiers, or kicking them aside to pursue a course of pure unencumbered self-exploration, only one that is stultified and cemented-in by reified identity-categories; but to what end or final terminal point does art itself reach when the symbols shatter? It is a certain attribute of the postmodern age that art, from its creation, display and execution, is anything at all which can be seen through the aesthetic lens. If art is everything then (like Arthur Danto suggestion) it is simultaneous nothing. So where does this leave the questions that drive headlong into the heart of existence itself, such as the nature of death, love, sexuality and metaphysics?
In spite of the denials and scoffing of the dower, cynical and chic nihilist art world, that metaphysical element of existence itself is the linchpin from which we can even think about the two primarily lurid fascinations contemporary art is fixated on, that being sexuality and death. So why is metaphysics, the ecstasies and haecceities of religion, the terrible and precarious beauty of belief in the wake of the absolute so glaringly absent in contemporary art? Perhaps the spiritual never left the art world, but was forced to take on numerous, inverted and even covert forms. it is also apparent that the nature of the Feminine itself is also another subject of obsession in the work of art, which brings us to our main topic of exploration, the once forgotten (but recently revived) works of Ana Mendieta; Cuban born performance, sculpture and instillation artist who worked in Iowa and then New York (till her tragic, untimely and notorious end allegedly at the hands of her artist husband Carl Andre), Mendieta embodied the postmodern artist at once in search of not only identity and expressions of the feminine, but the ritualistic and mystical. Hence Through a review of her famed Silueta or “silhouette” series, we shall discover a deep aesthetic meditation on not only sex and death, but a revival of the spiritual in postmodern art. We shall also cautiously venture away from the insipid and ubiquitous interpretation of her work through the lens of contemporary identity politics, and instead focus squarely on the spiritual elements of her oeuvre.
Bodies Among the Ruins.
We can only begin to understand the project of Mendieta, which ushered in an era of profound transformations in what constitutes the work of art, its site-specificity and literal “embodied” nature, by giving a general overview of the context from which her aesthetic explorations of her body, performativity and the landscape/earth itself was crafted in.
The ironic and paradoxical development of aesthetic modernism is that in the miasma of collapsing heliospheres, cultural signifiers and metanarratives, giving way to a torrent of future-orientated aesthetics that reflected the modern world, was a rediscovery of the archaic. Impressionism envisioned light as shining through an object rather than on it, and disintegrated the picture-plain, ushering in luminous abstraction that the ancients once saw. Picasso revived primitive figures and mythic narratives, meta-structures such as Jungian archetypes and symbolism were only later dejected by the postmodern era. They were actively explored by modern art, such as Klee’s self-luminous objects and primal figures. What modern art expressed was a profound inwardness of humanity that gave a last glimpse of unconscious meaning before the collective unconscious itself was walled off.
A number of forces coalesced to create an environment in the postmodern age, beginning with the disintegration of what constitute art objects in contemporary (postmodern) art, where the artist is no longer a moralizer or theoretician, but a cultural scavenger, a ruler of one’s own isolated micro-worlds. Every artist is now a beholder of a “brand” or micro-styles and movements within movements (an age of multiplicities, bubbles and foam Sloterdijk tells us). The distinction between genres and movements gave way to experimentation for its own sake, and artists no longer were beholden to structures of time, place or culture. Found objects and “ready-mades” contributed to this descent into aesthetic chaos; contemporary art is a “worldless” art, where the artist is tasked to create a world or create a “clearing” into a world Heidegger note, and to forge an aesthetic being under the forces of globalized techno-capital enframing of all life. The world of mass production, advertising, the culture industry, etc. became a new well of resources for aesthetic exploration, along with the end of history ideology that accompanied this world of mass-produced objects and media. The sameness and deracination of social institutions, ideas, consumerist products and media in turn produced an art world that reflects this non-locality and disintegration of the self. The self is at the same time degraded and uprooted from wellsprings of meaning yet obsessed over aesthetically. The displayed self and body become a replacement for the soul in contemporary art.
Certainly, Mendieta is an artist of identity and abjection, especially regarding the racialized body of the feminine using her original approach of blending body art and performance with land art. One of her infamous earlier works entitled “Rape Scene (1973)” invited a small audience into a dishevelled apartment room in dim lighting covered in blood with her bound to a table, preforming a display of engendered cruelty and sexual humiliation. Her work often covered the experiences as a displaced person, a Latin American refugee that is navigating subjectivity, the use and discipline of the body by larger forces, and self-alienation via a deracinated personhood. One of her works captures her naked with a hanged chicken, symbolizing the domesticity of the feminine, the “whiteness” of virginity, along with blood sacrifice. “She becomes an abject entity, an interstitial space between the person and the animal, between male and female, between flesh and feathers”. Mendieta’s work dealing with sexual embodiment and subjectivity expresses this postmodern condition of multiplicity and deconstructive out-cropping of the self. She deconstructs and at the same time, multiplies fragmented pictures of the self in nature. The body becomes the cite of waring chaotic forces, ecstatic sexual energies, etc. (which is a Deleuzian view of her work). It is the intersection, the monstrous and outsider-states of abjection that informer her earlier work, in other words, the postmodern condition of identity fragmentation.
Sex in Mendieta’s work multiplies identity, evoking a resurgence of the power of the feminine to breed an awe-inspiring power that becomes a dispenser of life and death, like so many female archetypes deriving from the great mother. Modern feminism wishes to deny or complicate this power, stating that the terrifying nature of the divine feminine is the lurid deflationary falsehood by the patriarchy through history. Certainly Mendieta complicates the archetypal view of the feminine and wishes to deconstruct patriarchal norms (especially in her series of self photographs with her face crumpled into a pane of glass, accentuating the distortions of the female body under patriarchal control) but still evokes the remnants and residual energies of these archetypal motives in her work. It is in her earlier work and in the Silueta series where Mendieta ushered in a more evocative feminist performance art that is still utilized today, from the use of natural materials that shadow over a place in the earth like wood, fire, mud, sand, etc. and it is from this utilization of nature in her body art that places her in a unique situation of sitting in the middle of tradition/the primordial, and the postmodern.
One of the primary tools in Mendieta’s artistic corpus that connects the postmodern art of fragmented performativity with the primordial is the symbolizing of menstruation and menstrual blood. In Mendieta’s work, blood is a symbol of multiplicity, appearing in both as context of extreme violence and domestic conflict, liberation intoxication and a drawing trace upon the earth in the Silueta series, such as a beach impression of a female figure a washed in a sea swell with vibrant red blood. The impression at La Ventosa beach in particular evokes the purpose of the series of land and body art impressions where she states “I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me”; in a performance entitled “Writings in Blood (1974)” she recreates a site of primal ritual and the intoxication of writing and drawing in blood while depicting images of the Virgin Mary to problematize and deconstruct an image of the Mary archetype as a place of demure submission. Instead there is a blending of masochism and pleasure, a transgression of pleasure and pain that (to Kristeva and Bataille) is often itself found in Christian mysticism.
It is no wonder that menstruation is a strong and ecumenical taboo subject and occulted substance throughout the world traditions. Women given religious rites during times of menstruation were forbidden in certain parts of Christendom, and menstruating women were given untouchable status throughout every Hindu caste. It was also said that menstruation was used in magic and occult rituals to render hapless and ambivalent men impotent, imbecilic or intoxicated with extreme affection and codependency on the female giver of the potion. This is why historically, as Paglia notes in the affirmative, that female nature was equated with the greater cyclical nature in sexual maturity, and menstruation was feared by the male psyche for its denotive power of indicating the possessor of nature itself, birth, death and cyclical return. Modern and postmodern feminism tries to spur this mythos of the feminine equation with nature as degrading, patriarchal and a residue of a primitive past. But the feminine in sexual maturity is still guided by the lunar motions, hence why sexual reproduction was mythologized in various world traditions. Paglia states that “Woman does not dream of transcendental or historical escape from natural cycle, she is that cycle. Her sexual maturity means a marriage to the moon, waxing and waning lunar phases”. The feminine body is a Chthonian machine, possessing a collective identity expressed in tribal venerations of the feminine, and the more she wishes for atomized individuality and emancipation from nature, the more nature lashes out in the vicissitudes of struggle.
Mendieta’s mytho-aesthetic vocabulary and corpus of evanescent images and site-performances take on a shift in postmodern activist art, one that uses the images and machinations of a multiple, fragmented and shattered image of the feminine body not in the denial or “liberation” from the natural world, but to dive headlong into it once more. From this Mendieta may deconstruction essentialisms of race and gender but finds a way to forge pathways back to the archetypal great mother and the earth, and the metaphysics re-enchantment of the body. No longer is the deconstructed feminine made to be a thing of hideousness and intimidation like so much of feminist activist art, which relies on, as Robert Hughes once noted, “preachy and singular works” of shock and sensationalism, or an object of pure immanent identarian politics. Mendieta reconciles the fragmented body with that of a spiritualized earth, speaking of the “fluid” of life-energy that inhabits her art. Quote:
“I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”
“My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid… My art comes out of rage and displacement.”
Through displacement and re-identification with the primordial absolute, Mendieta engages in a feminine heroism of sorts, one that lifts above the machinations of displacement, migration, engendered violence and the (post)modern implosion of identity to embrace a deeper connection and source of embodied selfhood. From this disintegration and re-identification process through performance art is an icon of the universal female body, the spirt of the feminine expressed in the categories of postmodern aesthetic expressions. Blood is but one powerful substance in this aesthetic metaphysics of natural materials that connect to this stream of life-energy and a sense of Eros that is entangled with displacement and violence.
Sense of the Trace. Being Towards Death.
What becomes apparent in Mendieta’s Silueta series is this sense of obliteration or effacing of the female personage of its context within the modern world and the forces of modern life. There is an identification with the greater forces of life and death in not just a suspension of the self or the self as a singularity of interpersonal forces meeting with the absolute. Instead Mendieta chooses to visibly obscure the personage of the feminine-qua-self into a total erasure, and a total capture within the collective culmination of spiritual and earthly forces. In the land art Silhouettes there is an effect of carving the most nebulous and abstract trace of the feminine into stone, sand, mud, twigs, the figure rendered in flowers and on the walls of alcoves that denotes a trace of vital energy that once was. Quote:
“These siluetas are the evidence of expired life that nonetheless hints at return or Prometheus-like regeneration. Mendieta’s work insists on a kind of mysterious understanding of life and death-in-life as something like mystical force. She was certainly drawn to the metaphoric of magic and spirituality. But one need not simply know the intensities performed by Mendieta as spiritualist escapism. It is clear that Mendieta partially invested in a kind of vitalism ore ́lan vital that many would dismiss as irrational”.
The vital or “subtle” body in the work of Mendieta is burned and scratched into the earth, a symbolic detachment or displacement from the sites of nature themselves, both nodding to the loss of a once great mythic feminine, and the site from which a rejuvenation of the divine can take place. Like in certain religious sites throughout the world that possess a magnetism or inexplicable energy, these dead and de-rooted, decontextualize sites can possess a new breath of life after their cultural and collective-psychic death. This is what is so compelling about her work in the Silueta series, there is a sense of longing over the death of the divine feminine. Mourning it through traces within the earth, and “the notion of the trace of an end or an incomplete whole in her presentation of earth/body symbiosis”. There is the trace left of the body, her still-like figure, arms raised like the virgin Mary, but painted from head to toe in mud leaning up against a tree. Or another work where he is laying still in grass atop a skeletal figure, denoting a copulation with death, the naked feminine wishing to return to (as it is said in Jodorowsky’s film “The Holy Mountain (1973)”) “death, ones first mother”.
In fact, there can only be this trace left, for Mendieta is coming to terms in her art with our postmodern reality, where mythos has been fundamentally displaced from the cultural imago. Ritual is dislodged and thus can only be recreated in a liminal manner through a multiplicity of aesthetic devices. Only in performance and the capturing of that evanescent performance can Mendieta’s work be realized. hence her unique use of photography and capturing the moving image, which reifies a singular and solitary moment in time, of art works that will eventually degrade and be washed or carried away by the natural forces it venerates.
Mendieta’s use of photography has been a source of interest, and as a whole land/body art struggles with ways to express the aesthetic object or performance event. The photograph or film is an object of hyper-reality, pointing to the real, and over time erasing the real with copies of images. It lacks an aura of artistic originality and vitality (qua Benjamin) and imprints reality onto the film or photograph, mediating art’s power, subsuming it to the non-human gaze of an inanimate technological process. The work of art is stored in a data bank or image traces, becoming a nominal, Manichean entity that is already-always “out there”, point to a real but never grasping it without our intuitive senses. Trace of bodies in ice and fire can only be captured within that site-specific moment, quote:
“Although Phelan’s views towards documentation are negative, this point argues that a performance can be merely documented because the bodily presence of the performer in the event is ontological – it is impermanent and it physically can never be completely reproduced. The performance itself is ephemeral, which metaphorically sits in opposition to the static, non-changing photographs and recordings which document it. Therefore the documenting photograph or film can be used, but only (in Phelan’s views) to remind audience members who viewed the original live performance of what they once saw”.
It is the body of the artist itself that becomes the site of ritual and aesthetic creation, taking on Deleuzian lines of flight into the earthly elements, like traces in snow, ice and fire, becoming-flowers, becoming-mud and stone. Mendieta creates a “body without organs” in an aesthetic space, where elements of engendered being, elemental nature, the landscape and the spirit are seamlessly transitory and sedimented onto each other in a non-hierarchical vital plane of forces and intensities.
Mendieta’s work takes from the ritualism of the Cuban Santeria she was influenced by, recreating rites of water Goddess worship, offerings of sacrifice in blood, and performances of magic like black candle wax dripping in an outline of her figure. Her work combines various artistic mediums of performance, theater, ritual, cinema and photography because the creation of polysemous events that entangle the artist in the work of art, facilitated by the unfiltered gaze of techno-media, is the only viable way to get back at the mythic sense of death and the eternal in Postmodernity. Nature and its mythic articulation, like the Real, has vanished or has become effaced in the interconnected world of enframing (whereby nature is seen as only exploitable standing-reserve). The real and its mythical grounding disappears into the technics of post-industrial information exchange. Wild nature ceases to exist to most without the influence of technics and modern reason which commands the globalized world into apparatuses of human invention. It is only through these mediations of modern photographic capture and mock-rituals performance as aesthetic events that Mendieta finds new significations and spaces of identification with the earth and the spirit. We can no longer “go back” to those same realities and feelings of ritualism and mythos but recreate their remnants and traces within the spaces of aesthetic creation.
The work of art is the site of death, but of newer possibilities of contemplation and musing on the significance of death. The Goddess returns, or rather, her vague and drab image-trace returns once more, and perhaps the Silueta series is creating these sites of warmed-over energy transfers to usher in a return of the Great Mother, whose body unites sexual love and death, with the power over life itself; hence the feminine body in mythic art always “reeks of the sea”, is identified with the teeming forces of nature itself, the growth of algae, the taboos of menstruation and the “generative matrix” of creative nature. The Silueta series takes the fragile and liquid conditions of the modern subject and creates an artistic space of mythos through direct performance and mimesis of temporary ritualistic expressions. It is no longer possible to recreate the same consciousness of myth in Postmodernity, but through its currents of liquidity and dislocation, a greater subsuming into the forces of love and death can be had through atavistic and syncretic (both Santeria, pagan and Christian mystic appear in her work) mimesis of mythos.
Bataille notes in Eroticism that “Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism — to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea”. The Silueta series strives for continuous being in the blending of objects and forces. Death and sexual release are brought back to the forefront of feminine being, creating aesthetic works that (like the artistic output of the postmodern in general) breaks down categories of politics, ritual, spirituality and what constitutes the location and creation of the work of art.
Mendieta’s ecofeminism, which finds connections between the domination of nature and the domination of peoples brought about by techno-civilization’s notions of instrumental reason and enlightenment mastery of nature, opens critical and relevant dialogue. Not just in terms of political activism, but in terms of how we communicate with nature and spiritual/vital forces the modern world as left behind. Mendieta’s performances of land and body art points to the ephemerality of the human subject being subsumed into the sublime and terrifying beauty of the natural world, death and sexual longing. Through the postmodern destruction of metanarratives and rootedness, Mendieta forges new fugitive root-springs and onto-aesthetic underground channels of connections to the absolute which lies outside and beyond the ruinations of culture and human endeavors. And for this, her work is a profound statement of the will to find mythic expressionism once more, and to come to terms with the mysteries of death and Eros.
Gio Pennacchietti is a Writer, impressionist painter, Jungian Traditionalist and philosophy/political science grad in the world’s first post-national country. they say the personal is the political, i say instead: “the spiritual is the political”. Twitter: @giantgio
Image: works from Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series