In 1973 I created my first artwork at an Aztec grave site, covered in weed and grass. The growing vegetation reminded me of the passing of time. I bought white flowers at the market and laid myself on top of the grave. The flowers were used to cover me. It felt as if time and history unfolded above me. – Ana Mendieta
From April 20th through July 22nd the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin presents the exhibition “Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta”, in cooperation with the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. The exhibition includes 23 films selected from the artist’s rich oeuvre. Recently, a long-term research project dealing with her work digitized her films. topos discussed the Cuban-American artist’s work with art historian Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau.
Why did you and the Gropius-Bau decide to exhibit Ana Mendieta’s art?
For me, Ana Mendieta is a highly relevant artist – and always was. In 2014 I organized an exhibition on Mendieta for the Hayward Gallery in London. That was when I found out that someone had started to digitize her films. At that time I had already been thinking about bringing her art to Germany. Ana Mendieta works with the human body, but also with nature and the landscape. For us at the Gropius-Bau, these are important topics for future exhibitions: landscape and nature, borders in the sense of separation, divisions and walls. Such themes are particularly exciting when considering the location of the Gropius-Bau. When the city was still divided, the building stood right next to the Berlin wall in the western part of the city. Typical questions arise at this site with its rich history, time and again: “where do we belong?” and “who are we?” Mendieta’s work embraces such questions.
“She succeeds in making artwork and body universally valid through a form of neutralization.”
What are the most significant characteristics of her art?
Her works of art possess a very contemporary and modern quality. She documented her performances – and considered the documentation as the actual work of art, the focus of her creative process. For artists today, that is an essential perspective. But generally spoken, Ana Mendieta is timeless – timeless in the sense that she doesn’t merely represent herself, but rather, humanity. Within her performances, the nude female body is viewed objectively. That is her accomplishment. She succeeds in making artwork and body universally valid through a form of neutralization. Her art from the 1970s and 1980s is still fresh, 40 years later. They comprise statements that are very decisive, very poetic, very political and very strong – especially in times of migration, where questions on roots and belonging are in the spotlight.
What are Mendieta’s origins, and how does her work reflect that background?
Ana Mendieta originally came from Cuba and arrived in the United States as a teenager. Her father was a political activist opposed to Fidel Castro’s policies. When Castro came to power, the US started an operation called “Peter Pan”: Children from Cuba were brought to the US. The idea was that they would have a hard life in Havana due to the political circumstances. That is how young Ana Mendieta left her Cuban family, came to Iowa and grew up in foster care and with foster parents, together with her sister.
“Wherever you are, you can establish a connection with the country and the place you are in.”
That must have been a hard time for her, likely influencing her throughout her life?
Yes. Suddenly, she was a foreigner with a different color of skin and hardly spoke any English. This is why her work can be understood as a form of retroactive connection: When she laid herself down on the ground and worked with elements such as fire, smoke or pigment, she reconnected with nature. This reconnection with nature was always her focus. However, not necessarily with nature in Cuba, but with that nature she happened to be in at a certain moment in time. By doing so, she conveys a sense of optimism: wherever you are, you can establish a connection with the country and the place you are in.
She combines various disciplines, such as body art, performance art, and land art. The connecting element is a dialog with nature. What is the character of this dialog?
Here, dialog means to expose yourself to nature. In one of her Mexican works, she placed mid-sized rocks on her body. The observer witnesses her breathing movements, strongly visible beneath the rocks. It feels as if nature itself were breathing through the artist’s body. Only her head and the rocks are visible, moving up and down. Nature seems to have awakened, come to life. In another artwork, Mendieta adorned herself with feathers and took a swim in the ocean. By doing so, her plumage slowly dissolved. In the artwork titled “Greek”, she stood in a river, covered in red paint. Here, she dealt with the cycle of life and the fertility goddess. She did all of this within and with nature. Ana Mendieta was an artist who played with spiritual and ritual elements to a high degree.
What does that mean?
She deliberated intensively on the Santería, one of Cuba’s main, syncretic and Afro-American religions. She certainly adopted some of its elements. In some artworks, she used blood. To her, it had a powerful and magical quality. In “Chicken Piece”, she showed a chicken being beheaded and sacrificed. In other artworks, she doused her own silhouette in liquid and burned it. However, she certainly wouldn’t say that these artworks exclusively relate to the Santería rituals. Rather, she would say that they are a melange of different interests and influences from various books – based on which she developed her own rituals.
What is the role of nature and the human body in Mendieta’s work?
For her, the connection between the two is certainly critical. The deliberation on nature, land and earth is related to identity, the search for it and the question “where do I belong?” The (female) body, then and now, was and is subject to society’s gaze and to how society formulates certain roles. Different forms of discrimination coincide within this process. Ana Mendieta wanted to express otherness. The body – that within which we exist, our surface – seems to be the instrument most suitable for that purpose.
Her creations transcend many borders, including geographic and political realms. Can you tell us more about this aspect of her work?
In a metaphoric sense, through her works of art and by reconnecting with nature she creates a connection to her home country, Cuba. Her stance is: Even from abroad, far from home, you can be connected to it. That implies a clear political viewpoint and the resulting question: “what belongs to whom?” She makes us understand: “No matter where you are, you belong, as well as everyone else.” She therefore subverts questions on nationality, and instead replies, nature belongs to us all. Wherever I stand, I occupy the land. That is a very focused and calm way of approaching the topic. At the same time, it is a strong statement.
“At the same time, it remained permanently inscribed in memory and finally, the media of film.”
Her artworks in nature involuntarily change during the course of time…
Exactly. In the mid-1970s Mendieta’s body vanished from her art. She was no longer a part of it. Instead, she worked with her own silhouette. She recreated structural forms that corresponded to her body’s dimensions. For instance, she created forms in and with sand, arranged along the shore. During the course of the day water spilled across the silhouette and washed it away. The object vanished. At the same time, it remained permanently inscribed in memory and finally, the media of film.
Did she intend to make observers value nature through her work?
I don’t think so. Something comparable to today’s environmental movements weren’t common back then. Rather, she was interested in questions on ownership, a central aspect of capitalism in today’s world. Who decided that someone has the right to own land, and why? In Australia, for instance, the idea is common that the land belongs to all. Therefore, there isn’t anything that could be parceled, marketed and distributed. The land belongs to the land, to itself. This refers to the saying, “the land owns the people, and not the people the land.” Ana Mendieta indeed wanted to introduce a political statement into this discourse – and it persists to this day. She continues to be a role model for different generations, because the simplicity of her work can substitute for so many things that continue to be in demand, again and again.
“Poetic, minimal, intense”
Ana Mendieta used a Super-8 camera to document her performances, and the length of the film depended on the length of the actual film roll. What does this mean for the exhibition?
Each film lasts no more than three minutes. The entire exhibition, therefore, has feature film length. It isn’t arranged in a chronological way, but rather topically. The exhibition is structured according to the different topics that Mendieta worked with: earth, fire, water. It is a very poetic, very minimal and therefore very intense exhibition – which emphasizes the impact of her works of art; they are minimal, yet they nevertheless radiate an incredible intensity. From my perspective, people will be completely changed upon visiting this exhibition. The observer will float through a world of images.
Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta – until 22 July 2018 at Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin.