Ana Mendieta - Identity and the Sacred

An excerpt from the book "The Sacred and the Feminine" by Griselda Pollock and Victoria Turvey




Mendieta’s work from 1973 onwards is increasingly related to nature, and the notion of sacrifice is no longer so explicitly linked to sexuality. The assimilation of the body to the earth marks the series Siluetas. Here Mendieta leaves an imprint of the form of her body in the landscape, an imprint either hollow or formed by the assembly of natural elements. These works illustrate in singular fashion the link between the construction of myth and the search for an identity, highlighted powerfully by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in Le mythe nazi. In paradigmatic fashion, by creating a fusion with nature, Mendieta affirms, through their common fertility, a feminine specificity. The Earthmother in this respect constitutes an all-powerful, truly mythical generality, in which Mendieta’s body literally melts, and in a certain sense becomes lost; the affirmation of a collective identity so clearly implying the dissolution of personal identity. The rituals of purification, which her performances stage, underline to what extent this dissolution of the body is associated with the idea of transcendence.

By assimilating the female body to nature, Mendieta affirms a female specificity, a difference in essence between man and woman. This has the disadvantage of contributing to the perpetuation of a system of domination founded on the opposition of the sexes. Nicole Dubreuil- Blondin, in an essay on women’s Land Art, aims to deconstruct a certain feminist interpretation inspired by the alliance of Land Art with nature. This position, held by Lucy Lippard, consists of viewing Land Art as marked by the feminine, the communion with nature recalling a primordial state which preceded the advent of the patriarchal society. Women’s Land Art would thus denounce the rape of the earth, in an ecological affirmation. As Dubreuil-Blondin points out, this concept presumes a double transcendence: that of the sacred site, cut off from the world, and that of an immemorial female order. In her opinion, proceeding in this direction amounts to emphasizing the idea of a determining feminine.17 This conception seems to accurately characterize the work of Mendieta, who is indeed a contemporary of an essentialist feminism. Lippard and Mendieta have, moreover, been in contact with each other, and the art historian has played an important role in the feminist commitment of the artist.18 The identification of Mendieta’s body with nature clearly corresponds to an affirmation of power. This rallying to the abstract, limitless, all-powerful body that is Mother-earth takes place however at the cost of a reification; it implies the negation of the self as subject and a loss of one’s own identity.

The notion of identity, be it cultural or social, implies the body, and leads inevitably to a questioning of sexed and sexual identity. Because it supposes a differentiation, the identity quest forces us to question the difference between the sexes, that paradigm of all difference. On this point Mendieta’s work contains elements to reflect on, and obliges us to state certain theoretical points. The ambiguity of Mendieta’s propositions, between feminist claiming and negation of the body, relates to the constituent ambiguity of the myth: it is both dangerous and liberating when it is a question of pushing the limits of the body, of the human, of life. So the quest for identity can thus be seen to coincide with a wish to transcend human identity, that which crystallizes the figure of the martyr, very latent in the work of Mendieta, which is echoed by the equally ambivalent figure of the androgyne. In this respect, Pontalis has shown how the myth of androgyny, and more broadly, any myth of bisexuality, constituted both an affirmation of the transcendence of the man-woman opposition and the effacement of the desiring subject.

As regards the difference between the sexes, the myths of androgyny and essentialism seem to coincide in the idea of an incompleteness, an initial separation of the human. The idea of a primordial union, an allpowerful entity, a uniqueness or a lost eternity, is at work deep down in Mendieta’s oeuvre, which clearly displays a desire to transcend the condition of human mortality. Mendieta shows herself to be incapable of renouncing omnipotence, paradoxically doing so in the very staging of dissolution and death. In this way, her work illuminates the link between creative force and narcissistic wound, and more broadly between transcendence and fear of death. Her claim to identity leads to a loss of identity, a paradoxical refusal of all uniqueness. Here the line is drawn between the quest for identity and the fear of the other, or fear of being other. In this sense, the sacred constitutes the site of exteriority and foreignness par excellence, at the same time as it constitutes the fantasized site of uniformity and lack of differentiation.

The fusion of the artist and her work illustrates, in her case, the idea of an absolute creation at the same time as the total loss of the self. To escape the inevitable destruction of the body, Mendieta stages destructions of herself and her work. In her desire to escape her condition, she has recourse to sacrifice and its representations; between transcendence and loss, that which supposes the body is made sacred. Her work thus displays the very strong desire to construct a virginal body, which constitutes both an absolute affirmation and a total reification.


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