Absence Becomes Presence/Killing It from Beyond the Ashes: The Art of Ana Mendieta

Heather Sweeney

The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence
—Ana Mendieta

The danger that the disaster acquire meaning instead of a body
—Maurice Blanchot

What can negative space (re)claim? What does it mean to create an absence? How does one perform and interrogate absence? With the creation of negative space, the absence becomes the site of the disaster which exists in synchronic time. This leads one to question what one can leave behind.  What is possible within a work of art? The traces and the shifting sites. The remainders and fragments.  In Ana Mendieta’s work, the negation aligns itself with a felt sense of dislocation. It is a process that marks by unmarking.

Further, how does Mendieta’s untimely death and murder further amplify this felt sense of absence and dislocation that surrounds her and her work? Where does the memory of her existence and her work reside? In ashes. Cremation. There is no stone to “mark” where Mendieta rests, highlighting the ephemeral quality of her subject matter and material, which are the body and the earth. Her works underscore the erosion of her memory. Those who forget or mis-remember her. Her loss marks through negation. Elimination. How has she, her personhood and her work, been eliminated by the territory that is the “art world”? Art history professor, Jane Blocker, asserts that “Ana Mendieta is an artist who is herself “unbaptized,” in the sense that she and her work are as yet unclaimed by historical discourse” (131).

In her Silueta series, Mendieta used an additive process by molding the earth in the shape of the body and also “a subtractive process, carving through her natural materials to form a shallow depression” (Blocker 17). This essay will call attention to the subtractive process in Mendieta’s art, particularly her Silueta series, which recalls the disaster and the sense of dislocation she experienced in her life, a life cut short. I will continue to explore her premature death/murder that is tangled with absence, disappearance, elimination, and negative space. Further, this essay will demonstrate the various ways that her work is still “alive” and relevant in the collective consciousness, in public space and on social media. Mendieta will interrupt and intermingle within this analysis by conveying messages via ephemeral “tweets” from the ashes as they are channeled by the author of this work.

I do not intend to speak for Ana Mendieta; rather, I hope to offer her a space from which she can emerge in present time via a form of otherworldly, authentic communication. The “tweets” emerge as I stop in contemplation upon a piece of her artwork. In meditation, I wait for any messages in the form of words and phrases to emerge. These channeled messages then take the form of “tweets,” transcribed as they appear in my mind, raw and unaltered. I view and experience this type of communication as a form of collaboration with the artist that is, yet again, an example of an energetic, non-material form of expression and art.

It is worthy to note that communication through language, much like Mendieta’s art, marks by loss. “Loss goes with writing” (Blanchot 121). The act of attempting to write about Mendieta and convey “messages” from her puts us in a space of removal. By contemplating Mendieta and her death, we are already removed from her and her experience, yet here the attempt highlights and intensifies that removal and we find ourselves in a state of constant reaching. The text and the tweets themselves are allusive, ephemeral gestures, in that they can never fully grasp or articulate a complete thought, idea or experience.

We live in fragments, threads. Corollary, rupture and interruption. Within words we enter another kind of negative space, one made and unmade with language.

Some of the negative spaces in Mendieta’s Silueta series are carved out through ceremonial processes that hint at Santeria, an African-based religion similar to voodoo that originated in Cuba. “Her belief in a life force or ‘universal energy’ that reverberates through all organisms, and in the ritual invocation of ashe or divine power, magically animated her works with anger, pleasure, hunger, and longing” (Blocker 18). The practice combines the worship of traditional Yoruban deities and Roman Catholic saints. An integral part of Santeria involves religious rituals, which Mendieta emulated in many of her performance pieces. Some rituals involve animal blood which is collected and offered to the Orisha (the head guardians). Chickens are the most common animal used. Their sacrifice is believed to please the saints, and to bring good luck, purification and forgiveness of sins (Santeria, A Syncretistic Caribbean Religion). In other rituals, fire is used to burn away negativity. The choices Mendieta made to create the ceremonies that are indicative of her work convey the longing she felt for her homeland, Cuba. Her work expands to convey a trauma taking place both inside and outside of the body. A third space emerges that welds the body with the landscape. A trauma within a trauma still echoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mendieta’s father was imprisoned for 18 years after engaging in counterrevolutionary activities that took place once Castro was in power. When she was 12, she arrived in Miami with her sister under “Operation Peter Pan.” (The operation involved flights to bring children to the U.S. and were funded by religious welfare groups in cooperation with the C.I.A.) Mendieta and her sister Raquel spent many years in orphanages and foster homes. This occurred in 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, a time in which the young teenagers experienced racism within the foster system and at school. In a 1983 interview Mendieta explained that, “There were no programs in any schools to deal with people who did not speak English. It was a difficult time—I felt a lot of anger, I still do…My art comes out of rage and displacement” (Roulet). Thus, her artwork became less about physical material and more about the body, negative space, and the void which reflected her emotional and physical displacement.

The viewer of documentary photographs, the relics of the Silueta series, can detect the friction, the perceptible undertones of violence and outrage within the pieces. Yet, there is also an overarching sense of communion and ceremony embedded in these works which points toward liberation and a feeling of release. “While these photographs preserve the immediate and timeless memory of the earth-body works, they were in fact methodically planned, quickly executed, and ephemeral” (Warchol). Further, by using her own body, she calls attention and offers an alternative to the male-dominated art world of the 1970s and 1980s.

In one Silueta,  “Alma Silueta en Fuego,” created in 1980, “Mendieta carried the disappearance of the art object to its most extreme when she produced works in which she dug a narrow channel into the body of an earthen figure, poured gunpowder in the channel, and set it ablaze. Such pieces burned until only ashes remained” (Blocker 17). The process (see photographs below) evokes Santeria practice, though the artist once said she was not consciously aware of this. Although the work can be misread as merely destructive or even violent in nature, the piece provided a powerful channel through which she was able to reconnect with her roots. “One aspect of outdoor Santeria ritual practice is described as going “monte adentro.” One searches for monte, uncultivated land, on which to perform a ceremony, and adentro means to go inside” (Cabanas 14). Therefore, monte adentro means going back inside the land, to the roots.

For Mendieta, the Silueta series is a return to her homeland and to herself. It is a form of healing and reconciliation: “Although deeply associated with earth and nature, Santeria is holistic in its belief in the universal energy running through all beings, matter, space, and time” (Cabanas 15). At the same time, the negative space comments on her feeling of being split and in exile. Digging into the earth and burning away suffering. It is a form of recovery, but also an enactment of the suffering. “But the word “suffering” is too ambiguous. The ambiguity will never be dispelled…dispersion marks it” (Blanchot 15). The reenactment of the Siluetas in many geographical locations creates something solid through reiteration, but also an energy that is dispersed and fragmentary. The series is a multi-layered form of repetition, in which a return to earth, the void, is a reminder of that emptiness. The re-enacted site of devastation. She exposes the wound to conjure renewal. Ashes and resonance. As the ephemeral boundaries recur. Over and over, a furthering. The residue.

Ana Mendieta’s Alma Silueta en Fuego

Here, Mendieta interrupts:

My work is the site of the wound, in a perpetual state of pain and healing. And transformation.
#… … …

The repetition of the Siluetas in various locations, from New York to Iowa to Mexico, encapsulates what Maurice Blanchot refers to as “the undesired return” (42). The return to create and re-create the body shape within the earth is not desired, but inevitable. The remnants and remainders, the reductions, are at once metaphorical and literal. The way we try to contain and relive ourselves and our experiences is in conflict with the impermanent nature of everything. The separate sites of the Siluetas are fractals of a larger, unifying holistic property. This “unseen” property takes place in our witnessing the series through photographs. Through the repetition of the body’s imprint in various geographical locations, the ritualistic repetition exposes the body’s disappearance. Here, loss becomes presence. “Disaster. Return. Surely these names form no system…they slide outside all possible meaning” (Blanchot 58). The earth body is ephemeral, not locatable. It is everywhere and nowhere. Always in a state of arrival, ruin and erasure. Dispersal. It refuses to be concrete.

Mendieta creates through negation. A fractured past. Recall the reportage: In 1985 Mendieta was said to have fallen from the 34th floor of the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her husband and artist, Carl Andre. Neighbors had heard them arguing immediately prior to her fall. Andre was seen with scratches on this face and arms the following day. Many of Mendieta’s friends were in disbelief, claiming that she had an intense fear of heights. “Elizabeth Lederer, an assistant district attorney, ridiculed the idea that Ms. Mendieta could have fallen accidentally…she has called witnesses who testified to Ms. Mendieta’s fear of heights and to her high spirits in the weeks before her death…The height of the window and the depth of the sill, she said, ruled out an accident. ‘For Ana Mendieta to fall out the window,’ she said, ‘she would have to fall up approximately three feet, and then fall 20 inches forward before she would fall out’” (McGill). Andre was indicted and then acquitted, due to sloppy police investigations, three years later. During the trial, Mendieta’s art was used as evidence against her; Andre’s lawyer said she was “suicidal.” The conclusion keeps getting deferred as there is no definite closure surrounding her death. This is part of the perpetual lacuna that encompasses exile, dismissal and death.

Now, Mendieta interjects the true spectacle, tweeting:

Shoved through the heart. Through a window, the grammar of a palm imprinted in air hovers as witness.
#candrekiller #murder

Her death caused a definite rift in the art world, with many fellow male minimalists remaining loyal to Andre and the feminist and Latino artist circles, mainly women, holding a vigil for Mendieta, which continues to this day. We are still witnessing the injustice and erasure of that night. The ongoing vigil includes a recent “cry-in” at a museum. During this year’s Carl Andre retrospective at the DIA: Beacon in New York, performance artists and protesters filled to exhibit with group crying entitled, “Crying, A Protest.” Activist Marisa Crawford reports that “Other museum attendees were stopped in all corners of the room, staring at us crying women and talking quietly to one another. Several performer/protesters collapsed on the floor, sobbing in front of individual installations like they were at a loved one’s grave” (Crawford). In addition to the eruptions of the public criers, on the sidewalk outside of the gallery, “the feminist No Wave Performance Task Force offered up deep red chicken blood and dark, chunky guts” (Steinhauer). See photograph below:

(Steinhauer, “The No Wave Performance Task Force left blood and guts in front of the Dia Art Foundation in honor of the late Ana Mendieta.”)

The scene in the above photograph pays homage to one of Mendieta’s most famous works, which involved decapitating a chicken, alluding quite directly to the Santeria ritual mentioned earlier, and letting the blood run down her body. Beyond the ephemeral material of blood and tears displayed at the retrospective, many spectators at the museum noticed that her name was not mentioned once in the exhibit’s plaques or pamphlets. This leads one to ask, how does one continue to delete an erasure? How can activists write over that erasure and reassert Mendieta’s place in history? In public space, the shape of outrage and grief is still present. The protest asserts itself as a form of elegy that keeps replaying in different forms of activism and recognition of Mendieta.

Her name still emerges and wells up within her works as a fume. She often spoke of entering the earth and creating the earth body, the Siluetas, as an act of “unbaptizing.” “To unbaptize the earth is to unmark it, that is, to make it disappear from the binary structures that normally mark it….” (Blocker 35). Within this act of “undoing” the binary system, the earth acts as a somatic field for affirming a complex myriad of artist and subject that does not abide by the binding conventions of the art world and the larger culture itself. The series resists the notion of art as product rather than process. It pushes against the idea of a tangible work, reasserting an energetic body that lingers still within the “unseen” spaces. Here, a tweet forms…

Still unbaptizing myself
#culturalconditioning #agency

I just pinned a photograph of a Silueta on Pinterest:

Untitled, Silueta Series

This untitled work, from the Silueta Series, was the final image of performance photographed in a series of 35mm color slides in 1976, Oaxaca, Mexico. It invites the observer to consider how one composes a body in the world, the cultural landscape. What does it mean to leave a trace, a mark. To embed one’s body in sand. And let water take the place of the body. To allow the communion nature to take hold. And then to witness the borders organically retabulate. Questions emerge: What is a border? Is it static? And then the imprint unbecomes. It unbecomes and washes itself away, but “lives” in photographs and on social media sites like Pinterest. The image remains. No, our attention to the image retains it. This work, among others in this series, seeks to disrupt the ways in which we view art and the environment, allowing us to reconsider the shifting boundaries between ourselves, art and the “natural” world.

An ephemeral third space is created that envelops these seemingly disparate realms. The disaster remains: the sustained belief that these realms exist separately. That art belongs to someone or in a museum. That the body cannot participate, but only view or create a “product” that will be bought. Mendieta’s work reconfigured notions of art as product. There is no commodity here. No way to buy or collect what she has created. In this way, she resists the capitalistic structure of the Western art world of which she was a thriving part before her death. She disrupts discursive ways of understanding subjectiv….

Wait. Here, a tweet emerges:

Untether from logic. Embed without ( )
Resist coding for the sake of coding.
#selfinhistory #adviceforcritics #shitartistssay

Consider the spectacle of erasure. The residue of trauma. Dislocation. How does one address the crisis of erasure? To expose our relations to the static, to unbind from that non-reality. To articulate what is possible. Expanding notions of what “content” means. Of what the body means: its reaction and relation to art. To our witnessing. Our place within and around the artwork. These are the corollaries in which absence becomes presence.

What is relationality? Mendieta created new compositional spaces in which the art became and still becomes an occasion: an event marked by the time in which we encounter it, and beyond, into a future recognition. The departure and the remembrance. To account for. The recounting of it. “This work represents a metaphorical return home; it expresses the need for her body to join the land where she came from in order to establish connection” (Cabanas 14). Mendieta interjects:

The page is too clean. Too clean as a site of the charge.
#morethanthis #exileisnotatheory

Another untitled Silueta made in the Iowa snow enacts the meeting rebirth and death as the grass beneath the plywood body-shaped indentation is slowly revealed. “By marking in the snow and watching it melt, Mendieta places the body in the death of winter and rebirth of spring” (Blocker 66). Continually conflating the symbolic with the somatic, this work alludes more overtly to the dissipation and decay of the body. Further, it seeks to uncover the act of uncovering; to rub away one surface means to discover and liberate another. The charged site is palimpsestic: layered, eroding, and complex. It is both tomb-like and womb-like; the depression of the body shape in the earth seems eerily prophetic considering the nature of her early demise. The evolving white outline around the green grass lays stark and comments upon the ever transforming body, the allusiveness of our existence.

I pause as another rupture evolves:

My body did not belong to or in Iowa.

What can these images continue to (re)compose and create? How can we continue to interrogate how a “body belongs”? In a recent conference panel on pronouns, Laura Mullen remarked that Mendieta’s Siluetas compose a space for humanity. She explained that they are “soul-like” and embody an “open pronoun” (Mullen). Mullen articulates that Mendieta’s work is a distillation of a presence, an inclusive space where we (the viewers, the artist) are all contained. The Siluetas are allusive in that they are not meant to be permanent, but gestural. The works are spatial gestures that reach toward an inclusive openness about how the body can become, but also how it inevitably dissipates, dissolves and disappears. This is ephemeral beauty and sadness encapsulated. The human condition. Our temporal nature. And, it brings into question how we regard each other.

How do we remember a body? How does a body come into being? How are we reminded of a body’s mass and weight, its residue and resolve, after it has passed? In the above Siluetas, the absence and outline of a body mutates and folds itself back into nature. It allows itself to become. The process expresses how a culture is written onto the body and then reveals the act of releasing and dismantling hegemonic forces that still dominant the art world: the depiction of clear, tangible subjects and forms, the use of paint and canvas, and the separation of artist from art. In the remaining photographs, the artifacts of Mendieta’s work, the multi-layered, transformational possibilities persist, yet are frozen in time. Friction, memory.

Recent tweet, the spirit is activated:

I had to find pleasure in the misinterpretation.
#absenceaspresence #bodyassubject

I interject a passage from the fluctuating landscape, carved and culled from the site of the disaster/non-disaster, a place both of death and the infinite: “death is constantly in operation, and nothing dies, nothing can die” (Blanchot 45). The site: it is possible to consider, but one can never fully know it. It cannot be measured or located. It lives within incompleteness. It lives within a perpetual state of erasure. Yet, Ana Mendieta and the Siluetas are still gaining remembrance.

The final rupture:

Body. Wound. Healing. Perpetual.
To impart.

Ana Mendieta leaves us with a shape. To contemplate. To retain as a process and a memory, to embed and to release.

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Works Cited

Blocker, Jane. Where is Ana Mendieta? Durham and London: Duke University Press. 1999.

Cabanas, Kaira. “Pain of Cuba, Body I Am.” Women’s Art Journal. Vol. 20, No. 1.Spring/Summer, 1999.

Crawford, Marisa. “Crying for Ana Mendieta at the Carl Andre Exhibit.” March 10, 2015. Web. April 19. 2015.

McGil, Douglas. “Verdict Due Today in Death of Artist.” The New York Times. Feb. 11, 1988. Web. April 20, 2015.

Mullen, Laura. “I Am We As You Are Me: Exploring Pronouns in Experimental Poetry.” AWP Conference. Minneapolis Convention Center, Minneapolis MN. Saturday, April 11, 2015. Conference Paper.

Roulet, Laura. “Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre: Duet of Leaf and Stone.” Art Journal. Vol. 63, No. 3. Autumn, 2004.

“Santeria, a Syncretistic Caribbean Religion.” Religious Tolerance. n.d. Web. April 30, 2015.

Steinhauer, Jillian. “Artists Protest Carl Andre Retrospective With Blood Outside Dia: Chelsea.” Hyperallergic. May 20, 2014. Web. May 4, 2015.

Steinhauer, Jillian. “The No Wave Performance Task Force left blood and guts in front of the Dia Art Foundation in honor of the late Ana Mendieta.” Digital Image. Hyperallergic. May 20, 2014. Web. May 4, 2015.

Warchol, Julie. “Performed Invisibility: Ana Mendieta’s ‘Siluetas.’” Smith College Museum of Art. Jan. 10, 2013. Web. April 29, 2015.

“Untitled, Silueta Series.” Digital Image. Pinterest. N.d. Web. April 27, 2015.