In 1973 I did my first piece in an Aztec tomb that was covered with weeds and grasses … that growth reminded me of time. I bought flowers at the market, lay in the tomb and was covered with white flowers. The analogy was that I was covered by time and history.
— Ana Mendieta
That sense of time and history — sometimes bearing down as heavy as stone, other times lightly trickling by as water — plays out in what is billed as the “first and largest full-scale museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to Ana Mendieta’s filmworks.” Titled Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta, the show runs through July 3.
The beauty and majesty of Mendieta’s work are that she comes so close to touching the infinite. Her art is at once contemporary and as eternal as the molecules of which we are made. In fact, in much of the work there’s a sense that the artist sought to transcend form and tried to will her body to mix with all that was living and natural to the earth. There is also something plaintive in the works.
Of the 21 films featured in the show, all save one are filmed in either Mexico, the artist’s native Cuba or Iowa, where she and her older sister were relocated by Operation Pedro Pan after Fidel Castro came to power. That one film features Key Biscayne, an island that she uses as a metaphorical bridge between her adopted homeland of the United States and the lost land of her childhood, another island.
The Key Biscayne film is titled Ochún, after the Santería goddess affiliated with the patron saint of Cuba. Created on Oct. 13, 1981, Ochún is Mendieta’s last known film, and the last presented in the NSU show. Mendieta made the film during an exhibition of her work in a group show at the Frances Wolfson Gallery at Miami Community College titled Latin American Art: A Woman’s View.
In the film, Mendieta opens with a soundtrack of keening seagulls as they fly close to the ocean that connects the two bodies of land. Although shot on a clear, sunny day, the keening emphasizes a yearning for a land and life that can never be. The camera pans to a human silhouette made of beach sand. It is literally rent in two, with the waves simultaneously pulling the sand out to sea and pushing it closer to shore.
The exhibition features a series of silhouette films, with the human form sometimes outlined in earth, sometimes in fire. The earlier works in the 1970s often involve performance art, where the artist immerses herself in water or covers herself in blood, sand or stone.
In Creek, a silent film shot in 1974 in San Felipe Creek, Oaxaca, Mexico, Mendieta appears as Ophelia, only naked and with her back to the viewer. Another distinction is that she is alive and seemingly embracing the primal moment. Here she symbolically merges with the water.
While that film feels light and pristine, her Burial Pyramid, made just a month later, pulsates with the terror of claustrophobia. In Burial Pyramid, the film opens with the artist almost completely covered with earth and small boulders. The only part of her body that is visible is her head, which blends in with the light-colored stones. She is completely motionless. Then she begins arching her back and breathing more and more heavily as she attempts to heave the rocks from her chest. Viewers cannot be blamed for feeling distressed and rocking on their heels in a subconscious effort to assist.
“A lot of this is just morbid,” one viewer remarked as he walked by. “Well, there is a lot of blood,” his companion responded.
Viewers are encouraged to look beyond the blood. (According to her niece, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, she never used her own blood, opting instead to collect it from a slaughterhouse. “She was in Iowa, after all.”)
Mendieta used blood both to repel and reel in the viewer. Her Moffitt Building Piece, created in May 1973 in Iowa City, is one of her few works that focuses on the public rather than on her. Made just two months after a co-ed was raped and killed in her dorm room at the University of Iowa — the school Mendieta attended — the film explores the phenomenon of how people can see blood and gore on a sidewalk and just continue walking. While most people didn’t even slow down, her camera did capture one woman investigating the scene, poking the tip of her umbrella into the viscera.
Outraged by the brutal murder, Mendieta continued to explore the theme with Sweating Blood, made in November 1973, in which first beads, then rivulets of blood appear on her forehead and run down her face.
Mendieta drips in rage over the violence against her classmate. Her silent screams for justice render all the more poignant the near silence registered in some quarters over her own death.
In his extraordinary book Naked By The Window, Robert Katz chastises the art world for not taking more of a stand on Mendieta’s death. Katz makes the case that Mendieta’s husband of less than eight months, the renowned minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, picked up his diminutive wife and pitched her out the window of his 34th-floor Greenwich Village apartment. She fell 270 feet before landing on the rooftop of a nearby deli.
According to records Katz unearthed, Mendieta was planning to divorce her husband and had gotten into a violent argument on the night she died, Sept. 8, 1985. His research revealed that Andre had fresh scratches on his body and the doorman heard a woman scream, “No! No! No!” moments before Mendieta plunged to her death. Andre claimed she fell while trying to close the window. Less than three years later, a judge acquitted him of second-degree murder in a nonjury trial.
Not everyone appears willing to accept that verdict. “It’s like the O.J. Simpson thing,” one visitor at the opening remarked.
Mendieta’s niece, who has tirelessly worked to remaster and present her aunt’s films, is currently at work on a film of her own. The feature-length documentary, Rebel by Nature: the Life and Art of Ana Mendieta, is still in production. Raquel Cecilia says she needs about $100,000 to complete the film, which will provide her take on her aunt’s life — and death.
If You Go
What: Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta
The first and largest full-scale museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to Ana Mendieta’s film works. The exhibition is organized by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota.
Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
When: Through July 3
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; until 8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Admission: Adults $12; seniors and military $8; students (aged 13-17) and college students $5; Free for members and NSU students, faculty and staff, as well as children under 12.