“…the human body provides the fundamental mediation point between thought and the world. The world and the subject reflect and flow into each other through the body that provides the living bond with the world.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception
Ana Mendieta was a Cuban artist and a refugee in America from the age of 12, escaping Fidel Castro’s regime with her family. Her artworks in land-art, video, sculpture and photography are all centered around the relationship of the body and landscape, our physical connection the earth. The artist herself states that the intention of the work is to repair the bond the she lost to her homeland as an adolescent, to address the displacement and feeling of otherness as an immigrant in the US. The mythical link of femininity and nature – the presence of the concept of Mother Earth; but also effects of colonialism and the violence that women’s bodies in areas of civil unrest are subjected to, are powerful readings of Mendieta’s Silueta series.
The Silueta are sort of land sculptures preserved in photographs – and there is a vast collection of them, created through Ana’s career. She would create silhouettes of her own body in grass, dirt, snow etc. sometimes using plants to enhance the outline, sometimes digging, and later, blood. Sometimes she would be present in the flesh, and sometimes the work would be a performance rather than a sculpture. What connects all of the Silueta is the raw, corporeal connection to the Earth, performed countless times in different locations like a compulsive search for a connection with one’s surroundings, a desire to return to the roots of one’s being.
What strikes me as fascinating is that seeking of tangible relationship to Earth, especially today when we live most of our lives through digital media. At the time of their making, the Silueta were very much a commentary on feminism, violence and cultural identity. Those critiques are obviously still just as relevant. However, these earth-body works can also illustrate the ever-growing concern of the state of the environment and the detachment to nature in our everyday lives. The force with which Mendieta inserts her body into the landscape, becoming part of it has the effect of being shaken awake from a slumber; do I remember how it feels to lay on grass, make snow angels or be buried in fine sand on a beach?
Although Ana Mendieta’s work is political and serious, springing from a chaotic experience of displacement, there is also joy and a sense of security in it. In phenomenology, the approach to the world is to observe whatever sensations and experiences are present in consciousness. It is sort of an immersive way of studying the surrounding world and phenomena through direct experience. As such, this is not a particularly scientific method of discovery, but one that focuses on the subjective realities that each of experience.
The body is the vantage point from which the world is apprehended, and through the combination of physical and sensory input, one’s experience becomes part of the fabric of reality. There is also an interesting parallel to vipassana meditation, which I practice irregularly. The whole point of that school of meditative practice is to simply observe whatever rises in consciousness whether it be a physical sensation, a sound or a worry – none of those are more or less important pieces of reality at that moment; they just happen to draw our attention. Especially the practice of walking meditation seems to be connected to the notion of body as a mediator between things we understand as internal or external to our minds. The meticulous, conscious act of lifting, moving and placing one’s feet one at a time creates spatial awareness and builds one’s understanding of space and place from the bottom up unlike the all-too familiar reality in which we live most of our lives in: the constant hurrying from point A to B while looking at our phones and being irritated by slow walkers blocking the way to the soon closing train doors.
Going back to Silueta, as physical imprints, immobile and quiet, they speak loudly a message of grounded, self-aware existence. Despite the morbid link, which the crime scene like outlines of bodies of Silueta have, to the way the artist passed away; by falling from the 34th floor onto the roof of a below deli, the work is more about action, overcoming and strength; and less about defeat and victimhood. Albeit mere shapes of bodies on the ground, their raised hands and sheer physicality of being dug, drawn and shaped in the earth, they seem oddly full of live.