I still have the small piece of green paper, with its dark-blue scrawl, that she handed to me across the table. It is creased now, and worn around the edges, from being turned over in my hands, folded and put in pockets of clothing, carried around, slipped in between the pages of books. It has moved house with me twice; it smells faintly of basil and grapefruit.
“I wanted to give you my notes,” she said, the writer who offered me the small, now talismanic piece of green paper. She was in London from New York to act as an examiner for my Ph.D. viva, a piece of work that considered the relationship between the literary-essay form and writing about works of art. “I’m not sure what else I can do, but I can give you my notes.” I thought she was probably a genius and I hung on her every word. The notes were enough. They were more.
Her note read:
“I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones,” says Mendieta. ** You could do more with this.
“You could do more with this,” she said, “the emotional and the sensual”; and, “I was at that trial, you know.” Mendieta is, of course, the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, and “that trial” is the trial of her husband, the famous Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused and eventually acquitted of murdering Mendieta, who—in his words—“went out the window” of his thirty-fourth-floor apartment early on the morning of September 8, 1985. A hazy and unconvincing verb: went. But this essay is not about that, though others are. This essay is about different kinds of language, and what convinces, what makes real, when trying to get to the heart—figurative and literal—of artworks that are frequently described as extralinguistic, as uncontainable, as emotional and sensual.
“You could do more with this,” the probably genius writer told me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. A proposal, a challenge, a possibility.
That word comes up again and again in writing about Mendieta’s work. Her art took many forms between 1967, when she began her studies at the University of Iowa, and her death in New York at thirty-six. Best known, perhaps, are the artist’s siluetas, life-size figures that the she called “earth-body works,” made in various landscapes: the muddy creek beds of Iowa; the autumn woods of upstate New York; the ancient tombs of Oaxaca; the beaches of Florida, Cuba, Mexico. These siluetas—silhouettes—were based on the artist’s body and fashioned using both additive and subtractive processes. The form might be made of flowers, berries, ice, sand, mud, sticks, shells, cloth, rocks, blood, and placed on the ground, perched aloft in an abandoned alcove, set afloat, nestled in a cave or hollow, built in tidelands where it would wash away. Or it might be incised, carved, scorched into the earth, a wall, a rock face, the air, using hands, a chisel, gunpowder, fireworks, flame, smoke.
Can an image be carved into the air? “I wanted to send a smoke … An image made out of smoke into the atmosphere,” she once said. Mendieta’s art frequently made overt reference to ritual, mythology, and magic, particularly those of her native Cuba, from which she was evacuated in 1961 at age twelve, during Castro’s ascent to power in the years just following the revolution. “My earth-body sculptures are not the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature and conceptualizing religion and culture.” There it is again, emotional. Here its use is specific, I think. It means she—I, you, we—can gain access to something, somehow, somewhere that is not here. That is not here, as in this place, but also not here as in not visible. This is both cultural—“Having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence, I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (Nature)”—and cosmic—“My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe.” It is also formal: Mendieta’s silhouettes were primarily witnessed in the flesh, so to speak, only by the artist herself. She documented them extensively in photographs and film, then selected a single image that would stand in for the work. This is what the viewer sees, the photograph of the thing.
“In her subjective eloquence the artist is part of the emotive currents that have begun to manifest themselves in art as a vehement reaction to conceptualist intellectualism.” (Gerardo Mosquera)
“Her use of elemental substances (earth, air, water, fire and flesh), her deployment of the figure and the ground, move through the emotive paradoxes of mortal existence.” (Adrian Heathfield)
“Too often we think of artworks as posterior to ideas and emotions, as a kind of illustration of intentions. For Mendieta, the terms were reversed.” (John Perrault)
“It’s about kind of capturing moments through various forms of documentation. And she takes all of these things to the world at large that might not be considered fine arts. She turns them into something intelligent, harrowing and emotional.” (Catherine Morris)
Yes, I am nearing the nth degree of semantic satiation.
Mendieta’s close friend Carolee Schneeman said, speaking of the coincidence and correspondence between their work, “The body moves and is sustained by saturation.”
I still want to know:
What do they mean by:
What do I mean by emotional? Something that tugs at the gut and the heart, with a sense of recognition—tinged with dread and irritation: as a woman, no matter the profundity of the feeling involved, one is accustomed to being dismissed as emotional.
In her April 1980 Art in America review of Mendieta’s first solo exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery in New York, Gylbert Coker writes, “We want very much to be part of Mendieta’s world, with its hidden secrets and private dreams … Yet to really appreciate Mendieta’s explosively sensual drama, one has to see her documentary films.” Other reviews of the exhibition, which was titled “Silueta Series, 1979,” do not mention the films that were shown. They focus instead on the photographic works of a series of siluetas made primarily in Iowa, a landscape to which Mendieta returned throughout her life. Coker mentions at least two films, one in which a mound of earth bursts into flames, out of which spill fireworks that snake and coil, smoke and smolder; and another, an earlier work in which a figure with arms outstretched is ablaze against the night sky. “The viewer is encouraged to become emotionally consumed in the exhilaration of the flames,” writes Coker. “Works like this generate an emotional energy similar to that found in a religious ceremony or carnival.”
“A photograph is a trace of the death of the moment held forever more. Cinema is unstoppable real time, reeled over and over, as if caught in an endless quest forward,” writes Carol Mavor in Black and Blue. Or more simply, as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1963 debut novel, The Benefactor, “Life is a movie. Death is a photograph.” Of course it’s not that simple; no idea ever is. But there is something powerful to the assertion of the filmic as fundamentally live, vital, energetic, timeless, and unstoppable as compared to its more static correspondent, photography. In Mendieta’s case, it allows us to think more expansively about what might be considered the “emotional and sensual” qualities of her work.
The films Coker mentions—Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) (1967) and Untitled: Silueta Series (1979)—are two among twenty that were included in a recent exhibition, “Ana Mendieta: Covered in Time and History,” which originated at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota and then toured to NSU Art Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; the Gropius Bau, in Berlin; and finally to the Jeu de Paume, in Paris. Since Mendieta’s death thirty years ago, the artist’s estate—presided over by her sister, Raquelin Mendieta, and represented by Galerie Lelong—has spent decades restoring the films she left behind (her niece, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, also a filmmaker, has been invaluable to this project), many of them untitled and without clear provenance or intention on the artist’s part. Until relatively recently, the moving-image works have been characterized by curators and scholars as documentary, records of live activity or performance, rather than complete works in themselves. “Covered in Time and History,” curated by Lynn Lukkas and Howard Oransky, and the largest exhibition of Mendieta’s films to date, counters and expands this notion, tracing the conscious evolution of the artist’s films between 1971 and 1981. The results are striking.
It begins with Mendieta as a student in the intermedia arts program at the University of Iowa, where she made her first films. She stands naked against a white wall and is handed a decapitated white chicken, which spatters blood on her skin, on the blank space behind, as it flaps and flails, dies. She faces the camera, a close-cropped shot of her head, spotlit in darkness, as her scalp begins to glisten with blood that slowly and then quickly drips down her face. She writes on walls, indoors and out, using her hands that have been dipped in trays of blood: “There is a Devil inside Me, and SHE GOT LOVE.” She stands nude at the edge of a creek in Iowa and slathers herself in blood; she lies still in a creek in Oaxaca, a gentle odalisque, as the water runs and runs over her body, and a small red flower growing from the nearby brush hovers above her, swaying back and forth in the breeze; she kneels in the woods and looks at her reflection in a mirror propped against the greenery, leans forward, slits open her stomach and pulls out handfuls of feathers. She is covered in grass or rocks, head to toe, she breathes and heaves, and the earth moves with her. I have seen another film, not included in this exhibition, in which she wrote “BESAM” across her chest, “KISSM” in English. The final e falls off the edge of the body, as if the personal pronoun cannot be contained by one person alone.
In the later films, Mendieta as Mendieta disappears, replaced by a silhouette that grows more and more abstracted. This silhouette washes in low waves, bursts into flame, smokes, explodes in a contour of fireworks against the sky. In some films, hand-shaped marks are scorched into the ground around the figure; in many others, the figure’s heart blazes brightest and longest. These are strange, seductive, unsettling things full of fluid, hands, hearts, blood, fire, present and absent, spools of time that are at once still, devotional, and bursting with energy. Everywhere I look, I see red, red, red. Mendieta described her work as having “evolved dialectically in response to diverse landscapes as an emotional, sexual, biological affirmation of being.” She also said, “My art comes out of rage and displacement. Although the image may not be a very rageful image, I think all art comes out of sublimated rage.” Hearts burn for many reasons.
Red, red, red. I think of Anne Carson, with her autobiography and her doc of red, and her prose that strains against its seams, seems, to me, to emote and to sense in all directions at once. “Language is what eases the pain of living with other people, language is what makes the wounds come open again,” she writes in “The Anthropology of Water”:
I have heard that anthropologists prize those moments when a word or a bit of language opens like a keyhole into another person, a whole alien world roars past in some unarranged phrase … Well every person has a wall to go to, every person has heart valves to cure in the cold night air. But you know none of us is pure. You know the anger that language shelters, that love obeys. Those three things. Why obey.
“The turning point in my art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey,” said Mendieta. “By real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.” What makes something real enough? Where does the magic come from? In her diary, in 1984, Mendieta wrote, “Form is only an extension of content”—quoting, I assume, a version of Robert Creeley’s famous dictum “Form is never more than an extension of content.” I agree; but I also wonder whether we can ever divorce the two, or whether—as John Perrault wrote of Mendieta’s work—they sometimes work in opposite directions at the same time. Whether, as Mendieta seems to suggest, it is possible for the formal qualities of artworks to generate a kind of emotional content, something impalpable that takes hold of, perhaps even possesses, its viewers.
“I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.”
Is it possible to assign subjective properties—emotional, for example, or sensual—to aesthetic materials without abstracting or essentializing them on personal terms? For instance, I find the work of Carolee Schneeman, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, and Paul Thek to be emotional and sensual, moving, intimate, personal—but you may not. I know that there is no universal romance to a body suspended in space, to neon words that sear the mind, or to so much blue. It’s personal, we might say. But does it matter, if we can meet halfway? If language and desire—if Mendieta’s incendiary, emotional forms—want to imagine a space in which the subjective and the critical, the emotional and the formal are not mutually exclusive?
This is, I think, what the visiting writer meant by You could do more with this. The emotional and the sensual are as real as the concrete and the rational. One of Mendieta’s questions—one of the big, eternal questions—was how to give these emotions form.
Words hold the same potential to give shape.
As Wittgenstein wrote in his Remarks on Colour, “When dealing with logic, ‘One cannot imagine that’ means: one doesn’t know what one should imagine here.”
“You could do more with this.” The note, for me, conjured the awful—as in magnificent—sense that language, too, might burn, bleed, smoke, explode, disappear. In Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “Why Art Is Always Emotional,” he describes art as “a free ride to ecstasy, if you surrender to it, if you perform the requisite symbolic transpositions. (X equals Y. Thick paint equals transvalued shame. Radiant color equals conquered malaise. Deft line equals forgotten clumsiness.)” Is the emotional that which transgresses— genre, border, soma—literally spilling from within to without, in the form of blood, sweat, tears? This is too simple, and yet. I picture the words swelling, each letter ready to split at its joints. EMO spills its ink down the page, TIO smudges, NAL bursts into flame. This is too literal, and yet.
At the heart of Mendieta’s work is a sense of boundlessness. There is a desire to share an experience even in solitude. “The viewer of my work may or may not have had the same experience as myself,” she once said. “But perhaps it will lead to their own idea, their own version of the experience, of what they might feel I have experienced. Their minds can then be convinced that the images I present contain some of the quality of the actual experience.” Mendieta’s sense of the emotional and the sensual as at once individual and universal echoes Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic.” In the essay Lorde describes the erotic as a true sense of self, as the capacity for feeling to the fullest extent, as the connective sharing of joy: “When released from its intense and constrained pellet, [the erotic] flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”
Emotion has its roots in the latin e (out) + movere (move) — to move out, move away, remove, stir up, agitate. From emovere, to the French émouvoir (excite) and then émotion — originally used, in the sixteenth century, to denote a public disturbance. Imagine: a collective emotion! We are, collectively, emotional! These days, it’s not difficult. What might happen if we embrace the potential?
Why obey. You could do more with this.
Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer based in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art.