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Art - Issue #2

One With The Elements

Artworks by Ana Mendieta

The late Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta’s Earth Body series exploreslife, death and the impermanence of existence, using her own body to create interventionsin the landscape and recording the dialogue between them.

In 1973, Ana Mendieta lay on the ground between the stones of a Zapotec tomb in Yagul, Mexico, and covered herself with flowers. Her face was obscured, her naked body, only partly visible, speckled with tiny white blossoms that seemed to grow from her and, like an ancient corpse or a goddess of fertility, she became one with the landscape.

“The analogy was that I was covered by time and history,” she said of the piece later. This was the first of her famous Silueta (silhouette) series of works she would refer to as Earth Body, which she made, photographed and filmed between 1973 and 1980 in locations including Mexico and Iowa, US. Using elemental materials – earth, sand, rocks, water, and fire – as well as her own form, Mendieta initiated an intense dialogue between nature and the female body, channelling notions of transformation, birth and rebirth, transience, identity, and belonging. Her own body, implicated in the landscape, or communing with it, strove to connect with the energy of the earth and thus reconnect with a lost self.

Mendieta’s Earth Body works are about the elements of life as these emerge from and converse with nature. It communicates with the cycle of life and death, and finally transcends death and loss as the body becomes one with the living earth. The Silueta works – primordial, mythical, magical, visceral – go beyond the physical or visual exploration of nature and delve into the symbiosis between body and land.

Corazón de Roca con Sangre (1975) (Rock Heart with Blood), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977.

To create Corazón de Roca con Sangre (Rock Heart with Blood) in 1975, Mendieta dug out the shape of her own body in the mud, then filmed herself placing a rock where the silhouette’s heart should be and pouring a mixture of tempera and blood over it before lying in it, face down, naked. She used a similar technique to create an untitled work made in 1976 on the beach at La Ventosa, Mexico, filling her silhouette with red tempera, and letting it wash away with the tide. She documented the piece in a sequence of 35mm slides. Her body is both a presence and an absence in these works, whether covered with mud and merged with the surface of a tree trunk in Tree of Life (1976), half-buried under a pile of rocks in her 1974 work Burial Pyramid, or carved as a shape into the earth engulfed by fire and burnt into the landscape in her 1975 work Alma Silueta en Fuego (Soul Silhouette on Fire).

Mendieta’s Silueta works are actions that exist today only in photographs and film but their power remains undiminished. They retain the immediacy and mystical quality of cave drawings while communicating a visceral energy, which oozes from the earth and returns back to it.

“My art is grounded on the primordial accumulations,” she wrote in 1984, “The unconscious urges that animate the world, not in an attempt to redeem the past but rather in confrontation with the void, the orphanhood, the unbaptised earth of the beginning, the time that from within the earth looks upon us.”

Creek (1974), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977.

Born in Cuba, the artist attributed the urge to create the Silueta works to her displacement from her homeland. In 1961, at the age of 12, Ana and her sister were among the 14,000 children who emigrated, unaccompanied, from Cuba to the US in the early years of the Cuban revolution. She lived in institutions and foster homes before being reunited with her mother and younger brother in 1966 and her father in 1979, after he had been held as a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 years.

“I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb,” Mendieta said in 1981. “My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that united me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”

As an art student at the University of Iowa, she found that painting could not express the images she wanted to convey and she turned to performative works and experimental film work. Later, following her education, the earth and the body became for her both canvas and medium as she explored ideas of belonging and loss, rootedness and impermanence, death and rebirth. The act of becoming one with the elements was as much an endeavour to heal the trauma of exile and cultural displacement as it was an effort to transcend the concept of the fixed identity. Beyond national borders the human forms of her Earth Body works merge with a universal landscape. The Silueta works, recognisably female, are archetypal, spiritual beings that are both remote and tangible. Carved in the landscape, the mystical figures, suggestive of spiritual forces and ritualistic practices, become symbols of the feminised nature.

Burial Pyramid (1974), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977

Trying to bond with a lost motherland, Mendieta was inspired by the Taíno culture of the pre-colonial Caribbean and the Afro-Cuban religion of santería. For her these cultures were the gateway to a primordial knowledge and magic that originated from their closeness to nature.

“I was raised a Catholic and can’t deny my heritage,” she said. “But as I continued to work I felt closer to the Neolithic. Now I believe in water, air, and earth. They are all deities. They also speak.”

Her Mujeres de Piedra (Stone Women) carved in the Jaruco caves in Cuba in 1981, pay homage to Taíno female deities and other female characters from Cuban myth and legend. Evolved from her Silueta works these female sculptural figures powerfully summon the notion of the earth as a feminine force. The primeval female forms emerge organically from the limestone, reflecting Mendieta’s indigenous approach to working with nature: not invading it but integrating with it, “a loving return to the maternal breasts”.

‘Despite being at the forefront of the land art movement, Mendieta did not identify with it and condemned artists who “brutalised nature” with their invasive methods.’

Alma Silueta en Fuego (1975) (Soul Silhouette on Fire), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977

“I usually work alone,” she said. “Using in the creation of the works the suggestions that the same natural forms provoke in me.”

Despite being at the forefront of the land art movement, Mendieta did not identify with it and condemned artists who “brutalised nature” with their invasive methods. Hers was a tender and respectful approach to the earth – a communion that provided her with the materials for her art. Aware that her work was transient and would eventually perish and merge with the land, Mendieta meticulously documented it by taking photographs of her pieces and filming her actions. Site specific and ephemeral, the Earth Body works and sculptures were washed away, burned, erased or reintegrated with nature. The photographs and the films became the work.

Untitled (1978), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977.

We are mostly left with imprints of her imprints – traces on film of what used to be traces on the land. The viewer of her documented pieces is left with a yearning to recapture the physicality of Mendieta’s art, to touch the earth where it was created. This seems an apt reaction to artworks that originated from an urge to recapture the warmth of a lost motherland.

Immersion in her work in the confines of a gallery is helped by the way she has edited and developed her films creating captivating non-linear narratives, and enlarged human-scale photographs. Yet the distance between the physical work and its record remains. A small death occurs between the action and its documentation: the original is fleeting, what remains is its memory, or the record of its memory. Mendieta, who consciously chose to represent her work in this way, was drawn to the notion of tension between the permanent and the ephemeral, the earth and the spirit, belonging and loss.

Untitled (1976), from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977.

In Ochún (1981), her last known video, four years before her untimely and tragic death at the age of 36, Mendieta created a silhouette on the sand of Key Biscayne, a Florida island across the straits from Cuba. The film is named after a santería goddess syncretised with Our Lady of Charity, patron saint of Cuba. Seagulls caw plaintively over the body of water that connects Mendieta’s homeland and her adopted country. There is a yearning to bridge the distance and a longing to return home. It can only be satisfied by merging with the eternal earth. The push and pull between these two places is reflected in the silhouette created with sand. It is torn in two. The waves pull it out to sea towards Cuba and push it back to the shore, before it becomes one with the elements.

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