What on earth is that human silhouette ablaze in the night? The remains of a torture session? A strange totem? A shamanic invocation? Perhaps a bit of all of the above, given how much Ana Mendieta’s performance art mixes the quest for identity with primitive rituals and notions of magic. Taken in 1976 in Mexico, this photograph freezes a moment in one of the artist’s installations. For some time, she had been making sculptures that represent human forms and exposing them to the elements: water, wind, and fire. In this case, it’s a blaze raging in the night and giving off the impression of a burning body with vague contours in the process of disappearing.
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1948, Ana Mendieta was sent to an orphanage in the U.S. at the age of twelve after her father was accused of working for the Americans and sent to prison. Mendieta began using her own body early on in her work as an artist. Her performances were quickly categorized as Body Art, i.e. works in which the artists’ own bodies are their raw material. In order to keep a record of her performances and share them with audiences, Ana Mendieta used both video and photography. She used to say her performances produced “sculptural tableaux.”
Such is the case with this photograph, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Ana Mendieta’s work. The artist began playing with the image of the body early on, including a body literally laid out like a corpse. In her first work, in 1973, she was shown lying naked in an Aztec tomb, covered in flowers. The first thought that comes to mind is that of a young woman who has just died. But something comes to alter that thought: there is something alive there. There are too many flowers and they are too invasive for this to be a burial. And why is the woman completely naked? A mysterious ritual. Three years later, the body made of flesh and bone has become a silhouette in flames. A disturbing totem, which of course immediately brings to mind both Christ on the cross and the incineration of the dead. And it foreshadows the fate of an artist who passed away at the young age of 36, in 1985.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Fragments of a Crucifixion
From May 25 to November 3, 2019
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, United States