Ana Mendieta’s face was the first thing I saw when, last Saturday morning, I opened the door at Galerie Lelong. The space, located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, is kept dark to better show the films in the main room, seemingly stretching out in the absence of light. Her face—eyes closed, her throat showing signs of swallow as a few drops of blood begin to fall on her forehead—is the focal point on the horizon, rendering everything in peripheral view invisible and the gap between her and the door insurmountable. Of course, such mistaken optics are solved by taking a single step forward. I chose to not take that step; I wanted to stand, just for a moment, in the idea that Ana Mendieta’s work comprised an infinite distance.
The film, Sweating Blood (1973), is one of the 104 Mendieta made in addition to the performance pieces, photographs, sculptures and what she called “earth-body art” that encompass her existing body of work. Since her death in 1985, her estate has been managed by her sister, Raquelin, and Ana’s niece, filmmaker Raquel Cecilia, with representation from Galerie Lelong. Running until March 26, “Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films” is the first full-scale gallery exhibition in New York devoted to Mendieta’s filmworks. There are 15 in total, nine never exhibited before this show, all of which have been transferred from their original forms to today’s digital mediums. Raquelin told the New York Times she found the uncatalogued cache of films in their mother’s house in Iowa, not realizing how many of the canisters stored had unseen film and video inside.
Some of those physical artifacts are included in “Experimental and Interactive Films,” like the original reel that held Sweating Blood, bright red and marked with the title in handwritten black Sharpie. Beside it rests Mendieta’s notebook, where she sketched her own likeness—her face, squared directly in front of the camera’s eye, as blood dots her forehead and trickles down her centre-parted hair. Photographs documenting the work hang on the walls. This ephemera creates artifacts made from artifact; the remnants of Mendieta’s work become, in the absence of her presence, just as necessary as the work itself. But they are distinctly sidelined by the films, projected in a clean line forming a U-shape around Galerie Lelong’s main room, where viewers can see both the technical and thematic progressions of Mendieta’s work. Her first film, Untitled (c. 1971), shows the rapid motion of emulsified film, exposed and unravelling in succession so quick that it looks like a painting in motion. It’s the only film like it, although the concept of overexposure and the resulting colours (blues, purples, streaks of red) reappear in Butterfly (1975), where a female figure is washed out by rays of light, almost like a television test pattern: Mendieta used a 16-channel video processor to achieve this effect. The scene behind her is made into sand and clouds by pixelated yellow and blue tones. The female figure begins to glow red, then white, before blue wings appear to extend from her shoulder blades. In the same year, Mendieta made Energy Charge, the camera holding still on a tree until a dark figure enters the frame, so shadowed it’s unclear if it’s a person or animal. The figure disappears into the dark tree, unseen until it puts its hands against the trunk, when the image switches to infrared, showing us where, maybe, the heat is between the two filmed bodies; more accurately, the red pulses show us where the blood is.
Blood is one of the strongest recurring themes seen in Mendieta’s known catalogue of work. The Silueta Series showed her use of animal blood, with Chicken Piece, Chicken Movie, and Rape Scene found her covered in fake blood, staged to look like the scene of a crime. In Body Tracks, Mendieta held blood in her hands before dragging her arms down a white wall, leaving the traces of blood behind. In Blood Writing, she wrote the title in blood-red paint on a wall, above the words “There is a devil inside me,” including the same motif of dragging her painted arms down the centre of the piece. In her films, Mendieta knew to take full advantage of what the medium offered: blood is motion, and to see the bleeding as it happens is to have a completely different understanding than blood held still in a photograph.
In Sweating Blood, the camera holds still, just like her face, although occasionally there’s a brief reflex or flicker of a muscle. The only thing that moves is the blood, and even that is first contained to just a few drops, until the only noticeable edit in the film jumps to show more blood travelling down her forehead, then her cheek. Beside it, Dripwall (1973) follows a similar trajectory, although the face is of a wall, or perhaps a doorframe, filmed at a low angle. One spot of blood appears before it starts to flow; another spot, higher up, does the same at a faster speed, and then a third spot appears parallel to the first, forming a triangle of bleeding holes. Thin streams keep running down until they split off, hitting each other, forming one unified stream from three different sources.
On the other side of Sweating Blood, Door Piece (1973) plays, the camera moving closer and closer in a jerking succession, until we see the hole in the door screen, where something is moving behind the door: an eye, perhaps, or a mouth. In the smaller room, where the film materials are kept parallel to a row of JVC television sets showing her interactions with the students of the Henry Sabin Elementary School in Iowa City, the films shown are Dog (1974), and perhaps what is the most powerful film in the exhibition, Moffitt Building Piece (1973). In this work, Mendieta poured animal blood and entrails, suggesting evidence of a clean-up abandoned. Mendieta took the Super 8 camera into a parked car, where she filmed people walking by reacting to the blood. Some get so close to the puddle they almost stain their shoes; some people glance, but don’t stop. A few pause for a moment, as if to consider what they need to do, but they keep walking. One woman dressed in all white pokes the puddle with her umbrella.
Mendieta’s works often indicted their viewers as complicit, especially in their passivity. By watching, or briefly engaging, there was a certain element of transference: the blood, and whatever caused the blood, was a problem we shared, or it should have been. Mendieta staged Moffitt Building Piece after the rape and murder of a fellow student that occurred when she was attending the University of Iowa, which was also the impetus for Rape Scene of the same year. But even Mendieta’s use of doors and walls is an indictment of sorts. For Mendieta, the doors and walls were not barriers designed to keep people out; they weren’t exits to allow people a quick escape. Instead, the doors and walls are meant to be used as entrances, or invitations. Mendieta is asking us to walk through the blood, not past it; she is not letting whatever is inside out so much as she is asking us to join her on the other side, a leap that requires action, force, momentum, heat, energy—a stream of blood that we voluntarily provide.
Mendieta is quoted as saying that, “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe,” an important parallel between herself and the way she frequently engaged with the physical dimensions of earth, nature and the body. Even more so, this quotation takes on a new meaning every time her work is displayed, carefully preserved for more invitations, more entrances. The films, originally only available on technologies long considered to be obsolete, are now entirely digitized, the faded Sharpie only a remnant of its original form. Mendieta’s catalogue is limited to what she made in the brief time she lived, but with exhibitions like this one, the invitation to enter her work is made infinite.