This past Thursday, the Harvard Film Archive held a series dedicated to a handful of films by Cuban-American feminist artist Ana Mendieta. Twelve films in total were screened, the longest at eight minutes. The majority clocked out at three minutes: the length of a film reel. Many had never been screened in a theater before. Their typical location has been in galleries or exhibits, giving viewers a decidedly different experience: the ability to watch in endless-loop fashion. Considering the rarity of this occasion, the night offered a powerful glimpse into Mendieta’s process through the mediums of film and video.
An exhibition currently on display at the Harvard Art Museums, next door to the film archive, serves as a companion piece to Mendieta’s films and features a selection of recent works by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo. The exhibit, titled The Materiality of Mourning, is marked by a seeming simplicity: silk threads and needles pinned to resemble blouses, draped precariously throughout a room (Disremembered); another, larger room full of stainless steel chairs, some fused together, others missing legs (Thou-less). A Flor de Piel is the crown jewel of the exhibition, a large textile work made of rose petals and thread, spread throughout the room adjacent to Disremembered. “Salcedo describes A Flor de Piel as a shroud, an offering of flowers to a Colombian nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death,” reads the placard on the wall. The textile creases and folds in an unpredictable manner, its form and texture resembling blood, veins; sutures and scars. Materiality most powerfully and palpably marks A Flor de Piel: a distinctly ephemeral materiality that begs the question of preservation. The Materiality of Mourning reveals an acute and highly rigorous approach to crafting provocative art on political violence. I would say that Mendieta’s films are characterized by the same attention to detail and firmness of message.
By and large an extension of her conceptual work on the body and earth, most of the films featured in this series – which was entitled Mirage, also the name of the penultimate film – featured, and were defined by, Mendieta’s physical presence.
Perhaps in order to grasp the content of these films, it is worth noting one subject that was discussed after the screening between HFA curator Haden Guest, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta – Ana’s niece and an artist herself – and curator of the Harvard Art Museums’ exhibit on Salcedo, Mary Schneider Enriquez. When asked to characterize herself as an artist, Mendieta would confidently respond: “sculptor.” She reflected on her works as the product of creation in a specific environment. That this creation was oftentimes ephemeral because of the choice of environment (sand on a shore, grass on a meadow) in no way lessened them as works of sculpture. And though the choice of environment may be very specific, whether Iowa, Mexico, or Cuba (all places where Ana worked throughout her career), the implications of her earth-sculptures manage to carry broader, more universal messages. That said, as an exile of Castro’s regime from the age of 12, the experience of displacement is central to Mendieta’s art and remains evident in these films.
I first encountered Mendieta’s work in my teenage years. Carefully poring over photographs in her Silueta series, I was struck by the haunting presence of the body, disappeared, and the visual symbols that underscore its disappearance. Mendieta is one of many artists who choose the body as a site of exacting study and explore embodiment as an ever-unfolding process, one which is both culturally specific and universally relatable. Questions surrounding the body – its physical, emotional, and performative qualities – have defined much of my growth through adulthood, so I’m especially drawn to the work of such artists. Ana Mendieta may very well be one of my favorites in this category, her work managing to champion and challenge the body all at once.
Silueta Sangrienta, the first of the films shown in Mirage, was the only work which directly connected to the Silueta series, though others shared aspects of its symbolic and visual qualities. The scene cuts only twice; there is slight movement of the frame throughout its duration. At first we see Mendieta’s body, splayed on the ground on a patch of land that appears to border a shore (water can be seen lapping in the corner of the frame). She remains still, arms bent at the elbow and raised above her head, the iconic pose of the Silueta series. When the scene cuts, the silhouette remains, filled with a glowing red blood-like substance, though we can recognize that it is brighter and thicker than blood (probably paint or a similar substance). Guest characterized it as a symbol of “life force,” comparable to lava in its viscosity and the power it conveys in this setting. The surrounding environment offers a muted palate of browns and greens, so the introduction of red is indeed a shock. The second cut reveals Mendieta’s physicality returning to the frame, now lying face down in the pool of red.
The first half of Mendieta’s films in this series share an obsession or fixation with blood, but in those pieces – specifically Moffitt Building Piece, Blood Writing and Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece – the blood has a more realistic feel to it (with the exception, perhaps, of Blood Writing, which could be paint again). Moffitt Building Piece, mistakenly thought to be part of Mendieta’s crime series, which was corrected by Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, centers on a pool of blood that rests just outside the Moffitt Building. Chronicling the reactions of passersby, most of whom cast suspicious or confused glances, the film depicts a certain complacency on the part of witnesses to potential violence. Indeed, observers do not let their suspicion break the rhythm of daily schedule. Unlike other films in the series, this piece featured many cuts, and had a deliberate editing process, rather than choosing a singular focal point and using the camera as witness to the organic unfolding of that event.
Blood Writing shows Mendieta writing, on what appears to be a shed, the phrase ‘SHE GOT LOVE.’ Once written, she stands behind the camera to admire it, her shadow visible against the written surface. Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece again offers a certain shock value to viewers: Mendieta, naked, holds the body of a chicken – whose head we have just seen get cut off – as its body wrestles with death, flapping as though alive, and its blood falls to the floor at her feet. In Raquel Cecilia Mendieta’s words, the film harkens back to Mendieta’s Cuban roots and the practices intrinsic to Santeria, a syncretic cultural and religious tradition that is marked by rituals such as animal sacrifice.
Creek and Grass Breathing are canonical examples of Mendieta’s fusions of earth and body as one. In the former, she lies in a creek on her stomach, face turned to the side. To me, it seemed as though her body gradually relaxed over the course of its three minutes. In Grass Breathing, Mendieta is not visible, but moves underneath a patch of grass, infusing a sense of breath coming up from the earth with the movement of her own body.
In Energy Charge, at a mere 49 seconds, the bright red life force reappears. The film makes a single cut in the same style as Silueta Sangrienta, but in Energy Charge Mendieta stands against a tree – perhaps absorbing its force, struck by an all-powerful ‘charge’ – but here, the frame creates more distance between camera and subject. The decisive conceptual thread that courses through Energy Charge and the latter half of the films in this series is a process of transformation, as noted by Raquel Cecilia Mendieta. The transformative power of Energy Charge casts a quasi-supernatural ability over Mendieta’s body.
Parachute stands apart from this catalogue, made in black and white video format with an audio track. The latter component gives a lively, spirited tone to the video as the laughter of elementary school students – with whom Mendieta collaborated to make the video – drifts in and out. We watch as they play a game: each member holds their own piece of a parachute, and together, they run into the center at once, producing a billowing mushroom cloud-like structure that lifts quickly and gradually deflates. They repeat the process several times over the course of eight minutes. The result is both playful, exuberant, and mesmerizing.
Though not necessarily as central to Mendieta’s work as to other sculptors, the use of materials plays a significant role in the films Butterfly, Mirage, and Weather Balloon, Feathered Balloon. In Butterfly, Mendieta wears a large pair of wings and the image is heavily distorted, thanks to the use of early video effects. Though her figure fades in and out of recognition, her outline, and the shape of the wings, remains distinguishable. At times it’s even possible to discern the curvature of her facial structure and where certain features, like the eye sockets, might be. Raquel Cecilia Mendieta explained that behind the scenes, a colleague was playing with knobs to adjust light and color levels, imparting a feeling of constant shift and wave-like energy.
Feathers are central to Mirage and Weather Balloon, Feathered Balloon, and their use is contrasted in each. In Mirage, Mendieta sits in front of a mirror in a field of grasses and flowers, and soon starts to pull feathers out of her body. In Weather Balloon, Feathered Balloon, feathers burst out of a balloon and are scattered and surveyed on a grassy meadow. The act of pulling feathers out of her own body in Mirage gives almost a sense of horror, of the body’s hidden capacities or truths; or, if not horror, then at least a solemn and silent recognition of those qualities. In Weather Balloon, Feathered Balloon, physical presence is avoided, and the camera takes on a meandering role, circling the area over which the feathers have been spread.
The veracity and ecstasy that Mendieta’s fusion of land and performance art conveys through the medium of film is astounding and uniquely refreshing. I’m not sure if ‘ahead of its time’ is the right way to characterize it, or if it possesses more of an ever-lasting character, a kind of timeliness through social and political change. At the same time, not much has changed at all. Perhaps Mendieta would instantly recognize the world we live in today as the one in which she made her art. Her images bear such power and potential that it makes admirers like me saddened at her absence from this world, but also greatly fortunate in having the ability to resonate with her images at all.