Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Resurrection In Iowa

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. William Butler Yeats

Ana Mendieta at Des Moines Art Center, 2005

On opening night of “Ana Mendieta,” amid packed galleries at the Des Moines Art Center, we heard a half empty voice lament, “Too bad this isn’t October. This would have been a perfect Day of the Dead show.”

A half full voice then responded that the show actually had “perfect timing for a bloody resurrection, just before Easter.” To any season, outgoing museum director Susan Talbott’s final show is a swan song with a broken neck, posthumously birthing a terrible beauty. Technically Ana Mendieta was an Iowa baby boomer, graduating from Cedar Rapids Regis in 1965, then attending Briar Cliff and the University of Iowa. Many in the opening night throng knew her then, sort of. In reality, Mendieta was an outsider here, living a frightful refugee life which she revealed in a very personal code of blood and art.

As a child in Cuba, she helped her father run an underground railroad for anti-Castro insurgents. Just before being jailed, Papa sent 12 year old Ana and her sister Racheline to Iowa, where they were shuffled, not even together, between foster homes and institutions, living with delinquents and the mentally disturbed in Dubuque, Clinton and Cedar Rapids. Even with foster home abuse in the local news, the “A” word was taboo during the opening night festivities.
During her Iowa period, Ana was separated from her mother for five years, from her father an additional 13. She would spend her entire adult life with two male lovers, both 13 years her senior - the artists Hans Breder and Carl Andre. The first was her teacher at Iowa, the second her husband and alleged murderer.

On this 400th anniversary of both “Don Quixote” and “King Lear,” it is fashionable to question why so much has been written about Shakespeare’s rather boring life, and so little about Cervantes’ epic one. Similarly, one wonders why no one has turned Mendieta’s life story into the kind of movie that supersized the relatively mundane lives of say Jackson Pollack and Silvia Plath.

Mendieta’s art was brutally aborted from her angst. When she famously said that if she had not become an artist, she would have been a criminal, no one mistook her for a Patty Hearst poseur. Because Ana used her own body, and sometimes her own blood, the autobiographical nature of her art chilled people. When she died, New York magazine put her shrouded, bloody self portrait on its cover, as if she had rehearsed her own dramatic funeral.

Ana pioneered rape awareness with crime scene re-enactments too beastly for even today’s hip art museums. (This show was curated by the Hirshhorn, for the Whitney and the Miami Museum of Art, besides DMAC). Even without the brutal material, this is often X rated, voyeuristic stuff.

In the most literal way, Mendieta made her mark on Earth and left quickly. She died in a 34 story fall from her apartment window. Her husband was acquitted of her murder, enraging feminists in a prelude to the OJ debacle. (He actually used the “leaving her mark on earth” argument as a defense.)

Suicide, murder or accident? That was the question on opening night, at least among those who knew her and they seemed divided. Her brother Ignacio, looking far more comfortable in his skin than his sister ever did, told us that he still lives in Iowa, “Because it’s a good place to raise kids.” But he grew up with his mother, who brought him to Iowa five years after Ana and Racheline‘s lonely journey.
Californian Diane Troyer described herself as Ana’s close friend and said her family owns the old Indian winter campground that provided the setting of much of Mendietta’s work in Johnson County.

“I think I may have influenced Ana, because I was so angry. My husband came home from Vietnam in a pine box. I remember Ana’s first performance piece, she came on stage in gauze, obviously naked beneath, holding a silver chalice. She stood silently for several minutes and then painted the white walls of the room with blood from the chalice. I asked her how long she had to sit on that thing. I knew it was her menstrual blood,” said Troyer, providing excessive information.

Outside Iowa, the big question is whether this show can resurrect Ana from the feminist niche in which she has been canonized? (Hundreds of feminists protested at the Guggenheim Museum in 1992 because Andre’s work was in the collection, but Mendieta’s was not.) By excluding her “crime scene” works, as well as a famous series of the naked artist copulating with (or resuscitating) a human skeleton, the exhibition tries to temper its feminist iconography with a more sexual, Earth Motherly appeal. It also minimizes the artist’s shocking power.

Troyer was bothered to hear that Ana had killed chickens in some of her pieces. She went to ask Breder about it, and then reported with some relief, “Hans says it wasn’t a sacrifice, they ate the chickens afterwards.”

That characterized the zeitgeist of the evening, and the exhibition:

In Iowa, the ceremony of innocence is drowned without spilling a drop of guilt.

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