Ana Mendieta: Performing Violence

Ana Mendieta: Performing Violence


Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American performance artist, complicates a purely Ethicist conception of art through her Rape Scene (1973), not only forces audience response but implicates the audience as part of the performance. Through confrontation, ethicist evaluations of aesthetics and moral values ascribed by works of art become obsolete, as Mendieta moves through and beyond these aspects. Mendieta’s work is a call to neither only empathy nor only imagination, but an obligatory (re)action; it is a performative work that reinscribes upon our material world, implicating the audience as both co-agents and co-artists through participation. Analyzing Mendieta’s Rape Scene, a recreation of a post-rape subject through spectacle, we might better conceptualize the coterminous and obligatory call of performance art, which both obliges the audience to witness and has them orient themselves invariably in relation the performer—creating an irrevocably reflexive audience, and forcing a co-creation of meaning through physical and emotional interfacing in the present moment. Where Karen Hanson, in her essay “How Bad Can Good Art Be?,” resolves that an artwork’s endorsements of how one should live might prod actual responses by detached viewers, Mendieta’s work offers a counterclaim. Art, through performance, removes any conceived split between the factual and the fictive, collapses and conflates life and art, and expedites the process of actualizing ethics through praxis. Where the Ethicist’s understanding of art suggests a mediation of morality through aesthetics, performance art prompts us to take immediate ethical responsibility: by positioning ourselves, in the moment, in a bodily scheme in the context of the performance.

Mendieta’s work strives to fulfill a function of simultaneous reimagination and reorientation. Borrowing from the language of Kendall Walton’s “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” one might consider Mendieta’s work a “call for imagining.” Where Walton describes an audience’s orientation as being contingent upon both conviction and imagination as two countervailing forces, Mendieta’s work exacerbates and deepens that dialectical opposition by forcing a bodily response from audiences.2 Through performance art that embraces abjection and the self-alienated identity, Mendieta effectively impels the audience into an arena of personal confrontation. With an examination of Mendieta’s work, we might more ethically, conscientiously, and critically bear witness to operative spectacle-making within art—and we might come to grasp an art that allows for both re-imagining and re-orientation, for both superstructural and base-level overhauls to coincide in the performative act.

Ana Mendieta is an “earth-body” performance artist. She is renowned for her works that inscribe bodily presence through silhouettes carved in the earth, and or that wield abject body fluids and self-deprecative performance. Mendieta’s work consciously retaliates against hegemonic modes of patriarchal and racist power structures—structures that have historically denied the subjectivity of women and artists of color. In her 1980 curatorial statement for  The Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Woman Artists, Mendieta declares, “This exhibition points not necessarily to the injustice or incapacity of a society that has not been willing to include us, but more towards a personal will to continue being ‘other.’”3 Mendieta intends to craft a cogent critique of power structures—albeit through a destruction of and inscription upon her own body.

In her 1973 live performance work, Mendieta decidedly responded to the rape and murder of a woman on her campus. In “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being ‘Other’: Ana Mendieta’s Abject Performances,” Leticia Alvarado describes how Mendieta received her “mostly white male MFA colleagues” in her apartment, where they “found Mendieta perpendicularly bent over and tied to a table at the wrists,” “naked from the waist down, her face lay in a pool of blood, smeared at the site where her hands were restrained, with the sleeve of the arm that cradles and partially hides her face soaked.”4 Mendieta silently maintained the pose for several hours, and did not engage in the conversations that ensued among the MFA students. Alvarado attempts to identify Mendieta’s personal, artistic intentions within the work: “Indeed in an undated journal entry Mendieta writes ‘ver en calma un crimen es cometerlo’ (to calmly observe a crime is to commit it).”[8.  Alvarado, “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other,”’” 79.]

In his 1998 essay “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” British scholar Berys Gaut forwards a mode of evaluating artworks that pulls into consideration ethics and aesthetics relatively—one which we might attempt to apply to better understand Mendieta’s work. Ultimately sieving out the execution of final moral prescriptions or takeaways granted by the author or artist as warranting inspection, Gaut suggests that, we gauge a work of art on the cohesiveness of its ethical and aesthetical exploits.5 For Gaut, the aim of the highest and most praiseworthy work of art is a consonant confluence of aesthetics and ethical moral prescription. An Ethicist might dock off points for any “internal incoherence”: an unrealized aesthetic vision in spite of a morally wholesome takeaway; a beautification of a morally atrocious prescription; or a mismatch through unmerited response to a work’s deliberate formal elements—an audience laughing, for instance, at unfunny scenes. On the other hand, a work with congruent and cogent morals and formal elements is worthy of acclaim.6 With Gaut’s conception of a holistic evaluation in tow, we might enter Ana Mendieta as a case study that makes exacerbates an Ethicist’s valuation based solely on surfacing moral prescriptions and aesthetics.

An Ethicist evaluation of Mendieta’s work—an oeuvre legibly laying waste to the artist’s body through self-immolation and self-harm—might have us figuring Mendieta’s works as being ethically and aesthetically unsavory. We might construe Mendieta’s work as a righteous and beautiful reclamation of bodies in space through voluntary female self-destruction, or as a dangerous aestheticization of bodily harm. The movement toward the death drive and the endorsed uplift of women and people of color might seem inherently at odds, and, in an Ethicist evaluation, we take this confusion of signals as an aesthetic and ethical failure: an unmeritorious work of art, through Gaut’s evaluation. Mendieta’s agency, claimed through and founded on non-life, seems to be both futile and contradictory, and her self-alienation—a “self-Othering”—seems ironic in the context of her movement against disenfranchisement and regimes that interpellate women as non-subjects. We might say the aestheticization of self-inflicted violence in the name of societal uplift seems more hollow than noble, and the work might be deemed bereft of aesthetic and ethical value. Yet, if we are to look beyond artistic “attitude” and consider, too, the value of audience reception and the tacit knowledge acquired from a performed scene, we grapple instead with a dialogic power beyond an artist’s own voice: how a work’s original ethical call can deepen in timbre and expand in tone, and become enlivened in its being taken up, reinterpreted, and experienced after audience reception. With a widened scope of artistic breadth, Gaut’s mode of analysis—of only one-way, prescribed ethical attitudes—becomes anemic. More than just aesthetics and ethics contained singularly in the work of art, a valuation of art must consider audience interfacing and reaction in a co-constituted arena of meaning.

In “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” Walton examines an audience’s bearing and approach to immorality in fictive works in terms of imagination and conviction. Using an analogy of a subject conscious of being led astray by a faulty compass, Walton brings into clear relief a weighing of both one’s personally held convictions and one’s acts of imagination in swaying one’s orientation. “Explicit imaginings can affect one’s orientation,” Walton claims, and there is a give and take between what is envisioned before us as audiences bearing witness to a fiction, and the convictions that we as audiences hold dearly.7

 In Rape Scene specifically, Ana Mendieta brings into play Walton’s staged internal struggle for orientation, by externalizing that mental dynamic in a material stage. Beyond a consideration of a hypothetical situation for audiences to detachedly grapple over, Mendieta’s Rape Scene calls for an actual obligatory response—not just passive viewership or unengaged judgment—and makes audiences reflexive to both their subject positioning in relation to Mendieta and their interpellation of her: as a victim, as an artist, and as a woman of color. Performance art diverges from the narrow confines of representational or even abstracted art’s suggestive nature, and crosses into a field that demands new understandings and reactions based on being in relation to a body. We might say, in response to Walton’s discussion of the effect of imagination and conviction, Mendieta suggests instead a constitutive and not causal effect of art—that art is made coterminous with life through performance.

To enact in art, then, is to simultaneously enact materially. The gap separating conviction and imagination is crossed; where those MFA students might have otherwise had the luxury of contemplation and consideration, Mendieta obliges an in-the-moment, visceral response of the audience—are they to run to help her? are they to gape and watch? are they to turn and abandon her? or are they to further abuse her? We might say Mendieta expands upon Walton’s “call for imagining” within fictive art.8—and yet, Mendieta calls for more than just imagination. Rape Scene evidently forces a reaction to and enaction of the body in space. Where Walton illustrated the propping up of fictive hypotheticals to provoke audience contemplation, Mendieta calls for an experiential and tangible moment that demands an action that becomes inextricable with praxis: through aid or through abuse of Mendieta, through discussion, or through inaction. There is a stake at the heart of performance art as conducted in Mendieta’s Rape Scene—where an Ethicist might conceive of an audience as distanced and receiving work of art’s prescriptions, the performative Rape Scene corrals audience members into obligatory material engagement.

Audience interaction and the co-creation of discourse are clearly central tenets of Mendieta’s performance. In her “How Bad Can Good Art Be?,” Karen Hanson offers an analogy of a meal prepared by a host and shared among guests as an entry point into envisioning the dynamics of artistic meaning-making. Foregrounding a “good dinner party” upon “conviviality”—“a product of the mix of food, drink, and guests”—Hanson effectively rejects any claim to passive and indifferent consumption of audiences, and instead interprets them as active co-constituters of meaning; “a ‘well-prepared’ meal is not a matter of culinary expertise directed toward an abstract, idealized gustatory receptor,” but rather a frictive process of preparation, consumption, and digestion among the artist, the audience, and the artwork.9. In “Bleeding Borders: Abjection in the Works of Ana Mendieta and Gina Pane,” Alexandra Gonzenbach places the phenomenon of body art, as described by Martin Jay, in pointedly similar terms: body art “forces those—with the stomachs—to watch unflinchingly to realize that art need not transfigure or sublimate everything it touches, but rather can find ways to preserve its raw power and disturbing exigency. This is an art that resolutely resists the contemplative stance of disinterestedness associated with aestheticization which paradoxically can have an anesthetic function of numbing us to the real pain outside.”10 Mendieta’s wielding of the abject and unpalatable demands more than passive consideration, forcing a potentially painful and arduous new knowledge through tacitly-gained knowledge—in a sense, an exercise in empathy and learning through co-experience. Audiences are forced to be vulnerable, engaged, and tenderly reflexive about their positioning against and with Mendieta’s performed subject. There is both endangerment and retraumatizing danger, as well as empathetic tacit understanding to be gleaned from Mendieta’s work—and it relies on audience perception and responsibility. We find that Gaut’s mode of evaluation finds no refuge in a work based on phenomenology and performance; no easy Ethicist evaluation can be derived from a work that is conceived as not one-way prescription but “convivial” collaboration.

In elucidating the affective impact of Mendieta’s work, Gonzenbach places Mendieta’s work in conversation with the concept of abjection. Citing Judith Butler’s conception of the abject—as an ontology that “‘designates here precisely those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject’”—Gonzenbach traces an audience’s imaginary and its role in conceiving of Mendieta as a subject, fraught by societal stigmata.11 The abject space, Gonzenbach writes, “affords possibilities of expression that are outside of hegemony,” and might produce a “contestatory discourse that, while engaging with and working against hegemonic power, originates in a particularly female-centered vision.”12 Mendieta’s performance is then a pleading call for empathy and for an understanding of the female subjectivity—a revelatory self-injury that is to be diagnosed by a predominantly male spectatorship, and a moral imperative that must be addressed—some way or another—by an audience educed into participation.

Alvarado discusses the ethical responses of these male spectators and questions the temporality of the Rape Scene: “What does it mean for an audience member to observe, to refrain from untying Mendieta or shielding her bloody, half-naked body? What does it mean to come across such a scene and not call for help? How does a piece like that end?”13 Alvarado concludes that Mendieta’s Rape Scene confounds the strict confines of a work of art, as finitely indulging an audience in ethical consideration; “Rape Scene,” she claims, “is instead a live installation,” and its documentation “extends the event, endlessly into the future, suspended by photograph in space.”14 The capacity for a work of art to be conceived as a collaborative event with no discernable temporal ending confounds Gaut’s envisioning of an Ethicist evaluation: Where audiences are conscripted into co-performance, there is difficulty in ascertaining a “work’s manifestation of an attitude” from its “certain responses toward the events described”—as these responses are not in any stable temporal or universal state.15

Mendieta conceived of the body as her sketch on a situation, as a means of reinscribing a past event through a re-enacted embodiment, and as a medium that extends beyond one-directional social critique into a praxis based on assertive co-presence. By using the body as medium, Mendieta literalizes the fictive worlds bound by imagination and conviction that Walton proposes; in conceiving, as Hanson might, of the audience as “convivial,” Mendieta provoked action from audiences-interpellated-as-performers, and not just passive considerers. As an art that deals intimately with our world, dialogues with the realities of our world, and attempts to unwind and reweave the intricacies of our world, Mendieta’s body and performance art transgresses constructed boundaries between the “fictive” and the “real,” and makes legible the ethics—in particular, the surrounding acts of spectatorship and response regarding the other—that can be borne from art. Perhaps the best example of the capacity of art-crossing-into-praxis can be seen in the very responses of Mendieta’s audiences to her death in 1985, an alleged murder at the hands of her husband: “Mendieta confronted her largely male peers with a contemplation of their participation in systems of domination in her own home—a challenge that would be eerily echoed in the trial of Carl Andre following her death.”16 In response to a murder purportedly framed as a suicide, Mendieta’s followers erupted into protest—with the spilling of fake blood and chicken guts before Andre’s own shows—to recreate scenes of negative female affect and reclaimed abjection, as to provoke, to challenge, and to constitute change in the act of sheer being. There is an afterlife to Mendieta’s call to empathy, originated in her Rape Scene: her work facilitated a reproduction of similar environments for anguished performativity, equipping audiences with a didactic tool for re-negotiations of meaning, and forays into not mere dialogue and consideration—but material change through affect, abjection, and tacitly-gained understanding. What Mendieta’s work does—as a crossover between ideological and material response—is transcendent in that it remakes our world materially as much as it critiques it ideologically; she calls for a reform of our imaginaries and our convictions in relation to material performed schema, legitimated and carried about as a collective re-positioning and re-orientation. Mendieta’s ethical call is carried beyond the initial scene in both and real audience-created reproductions of the “scene” that revive and re-instantiate Mendieta’s original call, and perhaps might address the bridge estranging ideological and material ethics through co-constitutive performance.

  1. Kendall L. Walton and Michael Tanner, “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 68 (1994): 27-66. As audiences, we are ushered into a performative context, made hyper-aware of action within and through art, and obligated to grapple with a performed moral quandary. We might say that Mendieta confounds Berys Gaut’s mode of Ethicist evaluation, described in “The Ethical Criticism of Art.” Where prescription—the moral attitudes produced from the confluence of an artwork’s aesthetic and ethical values, to be received by the audience as the “takeaway” of the work—would be heralded as the end-all, be-all of an Ethicist evaluation of art, performance art de-prioritizes prescription in favor of attitudes and responsibilities of audiences. Where Gaut’s conception of a work’s ethical weight stops at critiquing the one-way “expression of attitudes” in concert with aesthetics contained within a work of art, Mendieta’s work has a lifespan extending beyond the instance of the performed scene—into audience response, replication, and co-creation of ethical conversations.1Berys Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, edited by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 182.[/efn_note
  2. Ana Mendieta quoted in Leticia Alvarado (2015) “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other”’: Ana Mendieta’s Abject Performances, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, volume 24, no. 1 (2015), 80.65-85, DOI: 10.1080/13569325.2014.994092
  3. Alvarado, “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other,”’” 77.
  4. Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” 188.
  5. Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” 190.
  6. Walton, “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,”  344.
  7. Walton, “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” 350.
  8. Karen Hanson, “How Bad Can Good Art Be?” in Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, edited by Jerrold Levinson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 218. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511663888.008.
  9. Alexandra Gonzenbach, “Bleeding Borders: Abjection in the Works of Ana Mendieta and Gina Pane,” Letras Femeninas 37, no. 1 (2011): 35.
  10. Gozenbach, “Bleeding Borders,” 34.
  11. Gozenbach, “Bleeding Borders,” 34.
  12. Alvadado, “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other,”’” 77.
  13. Alvarado, “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other,”’” 77.
  14. Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,”  195.
  15. Alvarado, “‘…Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being “Other,”’” 79.
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