Dialectics of Isolation
(excerpts from catalogue for Dialectics of Isolation, a night of performances inspired by Ana Mendieta, at Human Resources on June 23, 2017)
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948. In 1961, during the Cuban Revolution, she and her younger sister were separated from their family and sent to the United States via Operation Pedro Pan, through which over 14,000 Cuban children were similarly relocated. They initially arrived in Miami, but were ultimately sent to Iowa, where they were met with abuse at the hands of their peers as well as the various adults in whose care they found themselves. Despite this, Mendieta and her sister remained in Iowa into adulthood.
Mendieta earned her BA and MA in painting, and then her MFA in Intermedia at the University of Iowa. It was during her time in the latter program that she began her Siluetas series (1973–c.1980), the work for which she is best known. A few years after completing her studies, Mendieta moved to New York, where she met and began a romantic relationship with famed minimalist artist Carl Andre. She married Andre in 1985.
Eight months after her wedding to Andre, on the morning of September 8, Ana Mendieta fell out of the 34th floor bedroom window of the apartment they shared. Andre was arrested and put on trial for her murder. He was found not guilty, possibly because the police made egregious errors and oversights in the first hours after Mendieta’s death. These included not photographing the body and allowing Andre and his lawyer to enter the apartment without supervision while it was an active crime scene.
Andre has spoken of that night several times over the years, but each account he’s given has been different from the last. Most recently, in a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, he said that Mendieta slipped while trying to close the window. While he previously described this scenario as the reason for her fall, in this retelling, he added that she yelled “No, no, no,” which ultimately woke him up1. During Andre’s trial, a doorman testified that he heard similar cries right before Mendieta’s fall, but the defense used his history with mental health issues to undermine his testimony. Andre’s lawyers insisted that no such cries were made my Mendieta, especially not to Andre as he murdered her.
Other than the doorman’s testimony, the prosecution’s case was mainly built upon circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that in order to close the window, Mendieta would have had to climb atop a heater that was nearly her own size and stand on it in order to reach the 34th floor window, and that she was deathly afraid of heights. Other evidence, such as her intention to divorce Andre due to his cheating and a friend urging her to confront him about it the same night that she died, was considered hearsay or prejudicial and therefore banned from use during the trial.
Prior to trial, a white man was allowed to alter the site on which he may have murdered his brown wife. Much of the evidence presented by the prosecution was inadmissible, considered unreliable by those trained to spot truth and name it as such. Those othered by society, a group Mendieta is surely a part of, are regularly excluded from the construction of official truth. Our histories, our stories, much like Mendieta’s death, are shrouded in “maybes,” causing us to depend on what feels true and familiar, rather than knowledge based on fact or evidence, to help construct our past and present. It is precisely in this lack, in this consistent inability to prove certain truths when the definition of what counts as evidence is an extension of the same system that oppresses you, that Mendieta’s work and the story of her death feels so familiar, that Andre feels—but will never definitively be—guilty.
While being found not guilty is not the same as being found innocent of a crime, the two are often conflated. Well, Andre went to trial and was found not guilty (by a white male judge, trained in what can and cannot be counted as evidence, and not by a jury of people, some of whom may have been Latinxs, other POC, or women, more likely to make decisions not fully based on the letter of the law). If he is innocent, in a case where only two people were in an apartment from which one fell to her death, she is then guilty. She either committed suicide, something so unlikely the defense never presented it as a possibility, or was clumsy. Either way, the blame is on her. These are the stakes for not providing the right type of evidence to those who cannot see the truth in much of what makes up yours.
In the introduction to Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, curated by Mendieta at New York’s A.I.R. Gallery in 1980, Mendieta asks, as a person of color living in the United States, “Do we exist?” She goes on to state that a lack of representation in the dominant culture causes us to question our own, and “to question our cultures is to question our own existence, our human reality.” Rather than changing herself and her practice to conform to or directly address a male- and white-dominated society, she instead used this exhibition and her work more generally to point to “a personal will to continue being ‘other.’”2 Her work is not an attempt to be seen by those who will not see her, but rather to continually reassert her erasure, to keep her absence alive. This is most clearly seen in the Silueta series, in which the artist inserted either her nude body or a minimal outline of a female form into various landscapes. Photographs and films recorded these ephemeral tableaus, leaving only evidence of their existence.
For the past five years, I have been developing a body of work based on reconstructing and re-performing segments of the life and work of Ana Mendieta. About the Siluetas, Mendieta said that the “obsessive act of reasserting [her] ties with the earth is an objectification of [her] existence.”3 The repetition of her work and story in my own work is my obsessive act of reasserting my ties to Mendieta, objectifying her and my existence. These attempted re-assertions, however, always fail, in both our cases: Mendieta never quite finds home; I never quite find Mendieta. Our work insists on and produces constant, repetitive movement met with constant, repetitive failure. My works do not attempt to resolve or prove anything. They are reconstructions that display specific practices and information to move towards emotional, rather than evidence-based, truths.
Performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider defines performance reenactments not as separate from the original acts they attempt to recreate, but as “the ongoing event itself, negotiated through sometimes-radically shifting affiliation with the past as the present.”4 I try to keep Mendieta’s work alive while also examining the ways in which she used her practice as an embodied survival tactic for someone who felt she had no home, whose narrative was constantly being erased, questioned, or fetishized by those around her.
2Mendieta, Ana. Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists. New York, NY: A.I.R. Gallery, 1980. 1. Print.
3 Mendieta, Ana. “A Selection of Statements and Notes.” A Tribute to Ana Mendieta. By Linda Montano. Spec. issue of Sulfur 22 (1988): 70-74. Print.
4Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. London: Routledge, 2011. 32. Print.
Artemisa Clark is a multidisciplinary artist and performance studies scholar from Los Angeles. She received a MA in performance studies from Northwestern University in 2016 and a MFA in visual arts from the University of California, San Diego in 2015. She has exhibited and presented research in spaces such as MOCA, The Hammer, the Mexican Consulate, the Vincent Price Art Museum, and Commonwealth & Council, all in Los Angeles; California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA; Angels Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro, CA; the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics Encuentro X, Santiago, Chile; and SOMA, Mexico City.