Friday, October 25, 2013


The Hayward Gallery's current exhibition Ana Mendieta: Traces is well worth a visit.  Her Siluetas (1973-80) were an important contribution to the development of art in the landscape and I discussed them here six years ago, contrasting her approach with Antony Gormley.  The Super-8 film I mentioned then, Yagul (Burial Pyramid) (1974) can be seen in the Hayward's show.  In Yagul, Mendieta was struck by the way ancient Mexican ruins were overgrown with nature and in one of her best-known photographs, Imagen de Yagul (1973), she lies among the old stones, covered in flowers.  A similar Ovid-like metamorphosis can be seen on the cover of the catalogue (above).  There is a charming story told by her art teacher and partner Hans Breder about the first such work, made spontaneously one day at college, when she simply took off her dress, lay down naked on the ground and asked her fellow students to cover her in grass.

From 1975 onwards Mendieta no longer felt the need to include her own body as an integral part of the work and begun to create the Siluetas, earth-body sculptures shaped by her silhouette.  Some of these resemble archaeological images of ancient tombs or tribal markings, others look at first like simple landscape photographs until you notice the small island of mud or bare patch in the grass, suggestive of the human form.  Mendieta distanced herself from Robert Smithson and what she regarded as the brutalisation of nature in large-scale earthworks. In a 1985 interview quoted in the catalogue she said, 'I would say if I have an identity with someone spiritually, and their use of nature, it would be someone like Richard Long, although I think his work is definitely very English.'

The Siluetas are undoubtedly her most impressive work but this exhibition introduced me to the variety of sculptural approaches she pursued in the early eighties.  There are David Nash-like burnt wood pieces, flat floor sculptures made by mixing earth with a binding agent, and large-scale photographs of figurative forms carved directly into limestone in her native Cuba.  She started drawing simple shapes on leaves of the 'autograph tree', clusia rosea, which children in the Caribbean used as writing paper during colonial times.  She also used leaf prints as the basis for lithographs in a book made jointly with her new husband Carl Andre (his images were based on a Roman flagstone).  It looks like a beautiful book, but impossible to view objectively without thinking of the circumstances of her death a few months later.  I left wondering how her art might have evolved by now and whether she could have developed new ways of engaging with landscape and nature.

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