Ana Mendieta: Body Tracks at the Starr Cinema, Tate Modern

In this beautifully reflective piece, Gonçalo Birra responds to the work of the Late Cuban Artist and questions our need to censor the true, lived experiences of the female body.

There’s a lot to say about Ana Mendieta’s work and legacy (or even the artist’s body, which is repeated in the silhouettes of all bodies; it blends in with all of us). However, I feel compelled to write about the way Mendieta’s bodies – her body of work, the body she writes and shoots, the memories of a body, the dissipating body, the death and the rebirth of the body – affect mine, ours. In doing so, it is necessary to scrutinize the mediums and structures that reveal and hide, expose or seclude, this body that matters.

The context of her work is important: it is the first time these particular pieces are shown in a cinema (for some, it’s the only time they’ve been seen). This changes everything. Mendieta’s niece, Raquel Mendieta, is present to give us an account of the living aunt. Somehow she transforms the atmosphere into a less mystical one, as she reveals the mundane and sometimes trivial aspects of Mendieta’s work. This humbles and grounds me. We’re in the same boat; we’re all flesh.

The afternoon starts with a lengthy presentation of what we’re about to see, followed by a series of ‘thank yous’ and the ‘contextualization’. The booklet I collected when entering the Starr cinema informs me of the processes behind the making of the work itself – the technicalities, dates, mm, mins and titles. I try not to dismiss such informationt; I try to study it, but I am more interested in the other bits – Ana’s bits. I must underline that these visible bits of body (bits because we’re only exposed to the artist’s body for a couple of minutes) are part of a paid event at the Tate. This means that what we’re about to witness is so protected, so “private”, that only a “sensible” (art) audience can see it or even know it was happening.

Pain of Cuba / Body I Am (an excerpt from a poem written by Mendieta in 1981), gives title to the first 14 pieces of analogue footage transferred to digital. The screening starts with the movement of the screen itself: it is adjusted, preparing itself to be screened on. This movement is so important to me; it decides the amount of work we see splashed onto the wall, how big we see it, how much bigger than us Ana Mendieta will be. The upbeat advert distracts me – TATE FILM PIONEERS. The screen adjusts yet again; it becomes smaller, it goes black, Ana Mendieta written in white. The presentation becomes austere with the white characters against the black wall in the now silent and dark burgundy cinema room.

This first screening delves into the early work developed by the artist as a student. The silence creates a suspended atmosphere, almost as if we were about to experience something tragic. Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece (1972, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 7min), starts with the severing of a chicken’s head. I start to feel my hands sweating, not because I am hot or scared, but because it is so silent. In the film, Ana’s hands struggle to hold the chicken as its yet-to-be corpse moves relentlessly, splattering blood everywhere. What caught my eye here was this now headless feathered body covering Mendieta’s. Her naked body appears almost clothed by the chicken’s feathers. I am not sure what to think, since so much of this act is ethically questionable (especially considering Ana was a vegetarian). I feel puzzled. However, this is a recording of pain, Ana’s pain transferred to the chicken’s struggle to understand it is no longer alive; pain which returns to Ana as she looks increasingly terrified of what she has just done. It reflects the inherent violence of life, the violence with which women are domesticated (to make chicken soup?).

Both Door Piece (1973, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 4min) and Moffitt Building Piece (1973, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 3min), rely on the curious other, the one that perversely spies. In the latter, the blood (cattle’s blood), which runs from under the Moffitt Building’s door, taints the street’s sidewalk, almost as a witness to life that is vanishing – a dissolving body that merges with the concrete. Despite its gruesomeness, it is a reminder of how we undo ourselves, the stuff that (un)makes us. The violence in this piece rests in the unknown state of the body from which blood is emptied – what has happened to it? The closed door reminds me of the domestic once again; it is day, who is home? Who could be home?

At this point, the silence has taken over. Strangely this quietness has given space for something else to happen – everyone’s bodies become awkwardly present. Stomachs churning, throats coughing, joints cracking and lungs breathing through various sized noses. People move on their seats and adjust their limbs. We find out later by her aunt that Mendieta’s films are silent because she lacked the means to produce them with sound, yet this silence becomes a palpable part of the work. I become uncomfortable as my stomach cannot quiet down. I tell it with all my muscles, “shh!” – it doesn’t work. I feel so aware of my body; my body that seems so silent most of the time and a body which seems to only happen in my head – it is now out there. Mendieta’s body made me uncomfortably aware of mine, and of everyone else’s. I cannot hide, not even in the dark burgundy cinema room.

I feel so aware of my body; my body that seems so silent most of the time and a body which seems to only happen in my head – it is now out there. Mendieta’s body made me uncomfortably aware of mine, and of everyone else’s. I cannot hide, not even in the dark burgundy cinema room.

After a series of three projections (Parachute 1973, Sweating Blood 1972 and Blood Writing 1974), we are shown the titular Body Tracks (1974, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 1min).  This film starts with Mendieta’s body facing a wall – we see it, her, from behind. We watch what Ana makes, from the back. We see her bloodied hands and arms on the wall but her back is clean, unviolated. For me, this piece shows us what Ana saw, what seemed to unfold in front of her, from her body outward – and that was pain, as well as liberation from that same pain. What remains of Ana’s world (the one which unfolds in front of her and in front of us all), is that pain, the dissolution of her pain into blood. Is this how she was treated? Were these her bruises? Are these our bruises? Is this how we bruise women still? Is this how non-white women are wounded?

Ana Mendieta fled to the U.S. in the awakening of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba at 12. She fled with her 14-year-old sister, alongside thousands of other unaccompanied children. This brings some context to her traumatic experiences and the trauma contained in her work, as highlighted in Ocean Bird (WASHUP) (1974, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 4min), where Ana’s body floats on the sea, just off the southwestern coast of Mexico. With her body covered in white bird feathers, the artist mutates, becoming another form, another species.

At the end of the first screening, the cinema room became an auditorium where two curators and Mendieta’s aunt spoke about the work and life of the artist. What’s markedly unusual about this discussion is that the artist’s death, her presence in – and absence from – public collections, or the fact that her work is only ever temporarily exhibited, didn’t come up at all. Both the curators and the audience were more interested in the technicalities of the work: ‘how was Sweating Blood done?’ ‘It must have been technically difficult, no?’ ‘Who were the people helping her shoot the films?’ ‘Did she work on her own?’ I understand that these questions are relevant to some extent, but what about the body? Why are we ignoring the body yet again? We were just reminded of it during the eerie silent screenings when it kept on disturbing us and yet we continue to ignore it.

The Earth That Covers Us Speaks is title to the second screening. These 13 films, spanning from 1975 to 1981, mark a shift in Mendieta’s approach to the body and the emulation of its presence, ephemerality and rebirth. Starting with Blood Inside Outside (1975, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 4min), the artist’s (and even though I write the artist I really mean the woman) enters a cleansing ritual, anointing her body with blood (or red paint). This cleansing speaks of rebirth, of coming out of the womb again, but it also hints at peeling off the skin. In the midst of this cathartic dance, the body undresses and reveals what it is made of – blood and flesh.

Then this series takes a slight turn by focusing on the silhouette of the body and its dissolution into the natural surroundings. Flower Person, Flower Body (1975, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 6min) narrates a voyage where a body in blossom fades, as it floats downstream. Somehow the body has become an impression (or imprint) of itself. Mendieta disappears from the image, leaving a memory carved onto the world which ‘covers us’.

During this film, the idea of mutability and metamorphoses becomes more apparent. That is, Mendieta’s performances and films become more sophisticated, more encompassing and less embodied. It’s almost as if she’s no longer interested in what the body is, but rather what it was and how it leaves us. We see this in the Silueta Series (1978-79), where the artist explores the melting and burning silhouette. The night, which now becomes background to the happening, enables the burning impressions of bodies to be seen, as they become yet another constellation.

Closing this last session, Esculturas Rupestres (1981, Super 8 transferred to digital, colour, silent, 9 and 2 min) returns the body to how it was seen (and left) by our ancestors. Mendieta’s carvings of goddesses forge the very cyclical idea of rebirth present throughout all of her work. Going back to what is left, what remains (still ephemeral since even rocks are susceptible to the environment which fustigates our soft bodies so harshly), the artist’s fleshy body is no longer present. What we see now is yet another body of hers – the rituals that transform women into goddesses, the rituals that bury women, and how all of this is transitory and so absent from our consciousness. However, Mendieta’s work carves a message that still resonates with today’s society: is the female body still seen from its back? Is this sex to be hidden still? Can we accept this bloodied body? If we do, why do we reduce it to small temporary screens?

Ana Mendieta: Body Tracks was shown at the Starr Cinema, Tate Modern, 20th January 2018. More of Mendieta’s work can be seen on Level 4 of the Boiler House, Tate Modern.

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