The power of repetition is a well-known phenomenon in art; just think of Antony Gormley’s casts of himself, Warhol’s screen prints of Mao, the works of Eva Hesse, or even Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII. A single brick would hardly have had the same impact.
With Ana Mendieta’s works, now showing at the Hayward Gallery, the power of repetition acts in a different way. Mendieta, who was born in Havana in 1948, moved to America in 1967 where she studied painting at the University of Iowa before going on to study mixed media and performance in the Intermedia Department of the university. There she became diligent in documenting her work, a habit to which she adhered for the rest of her life. Across the hundreds of photographs, films of her performances, prints and sculptures, many of which are on show at the Hayward, the same kind of themes and images keep appearing and the effect collectively is progressively to draw you into her strange, ritualistic, magical, disturbing world.
The exhibition begins with her early work; photographs of her naked body distorted by the way that she pressed a sheet of glass against herself. Mendieta was of course a student at this stage but this seemed to me very much student stuff. I remember photographer and artist Andy Moran telling me, perhaps in a less than politically correct way; ” in every year there is a fat girl, who ties pieces of string around her thighs and photographs that; it is supposed to be a statement about society’s views on obesity.”
In 1973 shocked by the brutal murder of a student nurse she set out to draw attention to violence against women. The reconstruction of the murder scene in Rape Scene, in which she created a tableau of the crime in her own apartment using her own body, I found distasteful and, in a way, almost exploitative. While her intention was to heighten awareness of the problem, I wondered how the victim’s family would have felt about the way that their daughter’s death was appropriated to become an artistic statement. Similarly, I felt there was a gratuitous grotesqueness about Chicken Piece in which a dying cockerel sprayed her naked body with blood .
These misgivings gave way to admiration when Mendieta moved on to use her body in more symbolic ways. Body Tracks is a simple concept in which she dipped her arms in blood and then slowly sank to the floor leaving the red stains on the walls or on paper. The images themselves, though created in a matter of minutes, are powerful and in a way beautiful.
Her obsession with blood continued with portraits of herself as though the victim of violent assault but I found myself really engaged when she started on her land work pieces, the Siluetas, in which, like Gormley, she used the shape of her own body.Whereas Gormley produced a solid enduring image of himself, with many of Mendieta’s works the body itself is absent; it is outlined in water, by mud, or in grass; the impressions can be created by fire and fireworks. The work itself would have been fragile and transitory, so reflecting life. Any single one of these photographs would have been interesting but the accumulation, suggesting ritual, magic and obsession is fascinating.
The hollows and mounds she created cannot help but remind you of graves, but you are also conscious of her vibrancy; she herself while recognising the importance of death also saw her work as life affirming, “through my art,” she wrote, ” I want to express the immediacy of life and the eternity of nature.”
A recurring theme among her works is a simplified female figures which she created over and over again, on bark, on mud, on leaves, once again referring to birth and death.
Although the majority of Mendeita’s works were made outside, they differ greatly from the land art of artists such as Richard Long; they are far more personal and introverted; they are often small-scale giving the impression that she created them primarily for herself.
By 1984 Mendeita was changing direction making works in the studio from wood, often carved by the use of gunpowder to create powerful totem-like sculptures.
Where her work would have developed from here we will not know. In 1985 she fell from the 34th floor of her Manhattan apartment which she shared with her husband Carl Andre. Andre was tried but acquitted of her murder. Her friends said at the time that suicide would have been impossible; her career was just taking off. Strangely the Hayward provides no information about the circumstances of her death. Clearly, they want visitors to focus on what she achieved, rather than speculate about how she died. Even so, that knowledge gives an almost unbearable poignancy to some of her early work, which appears strangely prescient. Mendieta is already well-known among aficionados of performance art. This major exhibition must have the effect of bringing her work to a wider public. Maybe it marks the beginning of a process that will see her name as well recognised as that of Andre who still survives her.
Traces is showing at the Hayward Gallery until December 15 2013