An Outsider’s Tale: Ana Mendieta at Galerie Lelong
Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films at Galerie Lelong
February 5 to March 26, 2016
528 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 315 0470
Ana Mendieta’s exhibition of experimental films at Galerie Lelong brings 15 works created by Mendieta from circa 1971 to 1975: nine of them had never been exhibited before, just recently uncovered during a cataloguing process. Besides being new to the audience, these experimental films have been transferred from their originals to digital media, which has added a fresh look to them. As we step into the gallery, our eyes are immediately captivated by an image of Mendieta’s face at the back of the main room. In Sweating Blood (1973), Mendieta’s serene semblance appears to be floating in the surrounding darkness. Her hair vanishes amid both the film’s pitch-black background and the walls. While Sweating Blood and Dripwall (1973) face spectators who enter the gallery, six other films have been distributed around the room on the left and right walls. In an adjacent gallery, we can see five more films, two series of photographs, and ephemera from Mendieta’s Estate, such as film reels, cassette tapes, and a notebook with a sketch for Sweating Blood.
Mendieta produced most of the films in the show during her pre-New York life, when she still lived in Iowa, where she had been exiled from Cuba since the age of 12. When she arrived with her sister, they lived at an orphanage. As a Latina, and outsider, she was ostracized and suffered prejudice. Later on, from 1969 to 1977, Mendieta completed two MFAs at the University of Iowa, the first in painting and the second in multimedia and video. She would move to New York only in 1978. Even though Mendieta participated in many progressive movements of her time, and she was definitely at the forefront of experimentation with the body and performance, it is hard not to feel traces of nostalgia in her work — something that she missed, perhaps due to her arduous life in Midwest, or perhaps as an omen of her tragic passing, her troubled marriage with artist Carl Andre. In the show, death is suggested, repelled and enacted: it begins with her speaking skull in X-Ray (ca. 1975), follows with Sweating Blood and Dripwall, and ends with Moffitt Building Piece (1973).
Sweating Blood, one of the most famous films in the show, is hard to ignore. The work lasts only three minutes, but it feels as if it’s way longer than that. Mendieta’s face, young and beautiful, with her closed eyes, is depicted as a self-portrait: we see her entire face, from the neck up. She does not move onscreen, but we can see when she swallows, or rolls her eyes underneath her eyelids, without opening them. At some point, her skin begins to change: the pores on the top of her forehead, where hair begins to grow, are emphasized, as if she just started to present pox, a rash. A red fluid appears on the top of her mid hairline and soon a drip of “blood” falls from her hair, just to find her left eyebrow. A second drop follows, running towards her left ear. The upper part of her forehead seems to be sweating blood.
In Dripwall (1973), three round holes appear on a white wall, coming from inside, one at a time. Red liquid leaks from them, dripping across the white plane. They reminded me of bullet holes. Moffitt Building Piece shows another of Mendieta’s experiments with blood. It was created in response to the murder of Sarah Ann Ottens, who was beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed in her dorm at the University of Iowa on March 13, 1973. In April of that year, Mendieta staged a violent rape scene in a performance at her apartment, later named Rape Scene, and then started her Moffitt Building Piece, which also responds to Ottens’s murder. Moffitt Building Piece begins with a view of the eponymous storefront in Iowa City. Mendieta is clandestine, filming from inside a car towards the façade of the building. A puddle of blood is seen on the sidewalk, in front of Moffitt’s door. After the camera gives a close-up on the puddle, we notice it’s lumpy, meat-like: Mendieta spilled an animal’s blood and meat on that sidewalk and then filmed the reactions of passersby, who look on the tableau with varying degrees of shock, concern, or disinterest.
While blood in Mendieta’s work has been labeled as “abject,” at Lelong, blood is empowering. Even though she created Moffitt Building Piece in reaction to the pervasive sexual violence against women, blood was not always a negative element for her. Instead, she used it as force, concomitant with her interest in Catholicism and the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería. In Sweating Blood, in Moffitt Building Piece and in Dripwall, blood evokes both presence and absence of a body: the power of blood to induce a trancelike state points to what happens beyond the body, a wall earns its “life” through bleeding like a body, and a woman’s death is exposed through the reminiscence of her corpse. These gestures are far from being abject; blood sanctions Mendieta’s body and creates bounds with our bodies, as spectators.
Magic is everywhere, as if these works were fragments of fairytales, or cautionary tales from a childhood in Latin America. In Dog (1974), filmed during a summer program in Mexico, Mendieta’s small silhouette is seen, moving far afield on an unpaved street in San Felipe, Oaxaca. As the camera focuses on her, we see she is on all fours, wearing a fur skin over her face and possibly naked body. She crawls. A man walks up the street, and ignores “the dog.” A woman and a boy pass next to her, no interaction. She still crawls, vulnerable, as if half-alive, recoiling, hesitant, woman, animal, and outsider.