Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mendieta and Misogyny.

An Earth-Body Dynamic.

Looking at the work of Ana Mendieta the cogs in my mind wound back four years to Lars von Trier's Antichrist. The reasons for this I will expand upon soon enough. The body of work she amassed could be taken for sanguineous and morbid if her recreation of rape scenes are misunderstood. The shock value of these pieces is appropriate as they were made in response to the rape of her fellow students. It was certainly the right time and place for a female artist to be engaging with the prevalence of sexual violence. The decline of an array of social conventions regarding the place of women in society was at its beginning in the early 1970s. It is often forgotten that what is described as the Feminist movement came about in the wake of 60s cultural revolution in reaction to its ambiguity on the question of women's liberation. So it was a ripe subject for exploration in art.

The depictions of femininity in Mendieta's work are particularly interesting in this regard. It reminds one of Antichrist where we are told nature is Satan's church, the locus of misogyny being found in suggestions of an absent autonomy: women as subjects of various natural forces outside of their own control. In ancient religion we find this is most overt in the aversion to female genitalia and the rituals imposed around the menstrual cycle. All of which feeds into the controls set on sexual conduct. This is not just the case in the monotheist tradition, it is even true of Eastern religion where, for example, we find the Buddha was born out of his mother's side. It then makes sense that Mendieta's work links together the Catholic and pre-Christian pagan traditions of Latin America with a certain conception of femininity. Not coincidentally Mendieta produced art on sexual violence as she was moving in this direction.

Death seemed to feature heavily as a theme, whether in the form of natural decay and peformative destruction in the burning of trees and killing chickens. Mendieta would later move away from performance art, which she disliked for its immediacy; and she was further exploring her Cuban heritage. Ochún (1981) was named after a water goddess in Santería - an Afro-Cuban religious movement based on a blend of folk Catholicism with Yoruba customs - who also the goddess of love, intimacy and beauty. According to Wikipedia, Ochún is said to be generous, beneficent and kind as well as capable of incredible chaos in the few occasions where she loses her temper. The extent to which she romanticised the syncretic cultural heritage of Cuba may be more of a matter of speculation at this point. Such a romanticisation may run as far as embracing this model of femininity. It would be easy to attribute this to her deracination as a Cuban-American.

Unfortunately, we will never know how her work would have developed if she had not died in 1985. Even with all of this in mind, Mendieta's work could be interpreted as a genealogy of misogynist themes. After all an earthly conception of femininity parallels what is to be taken from the traditional organic view of the family and a woman's position in said social unit. In Mother Jungle we find a portrayal of womanhood synthesised with nature comes across as much darker. The imposing dark figure with its jagged features and womb on display seems charged with angst; but this is an almost genderless depiction at the same time (aside from the emphasis on the womb). As Rachel Spence has noted, Ana Mendieta resisted attempts by American feminists to reduce her work to goddess worship. In a way the body of work she produced was far more ambiguous.

Spence notes that Mendieta claimed her work held to a particular culture and time. So it might be taken as a representation of womanhood in terms relative to a certain culture. The art made in a natural environment, carved out of rock and wood may seem to be a more warm-hearted a view of nature. Around this time Mendieta was becoming much more conscious in terms of a two-front struggle in feminism against racism and capitalism. She did describe her work as pre-industrial and situates herself in line with Neolithic paintings. If she had lived she may have become involved in the anti-globalisation movement, which shares this nostalgia for the pre-industrial past. In her work she situates humankind in relation to nature, life and death; and she condemned Robert Smithson for his brutalisation of nature in his invasive land art. Where this trajectory leaves women is another matter.

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