Nearly three years ago, I found myself sauntering around the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The building itself is colored by crisp, clean shades of white and beige — a perfect juxtaposition with the vivid art on its walls. While my brain tried to tear through piece after piece after piece, my eyes couldn’t help but be drawn back to a curtained installation in the center of the vast room. I decided to break my typical methodology of moving clockwise through the museum and went straight for the curious installation. Inside, I found a video art piece by Ana Mendieta. At its most basic level, the work was innovative and stunning. At its most complex, I found her “earth-body” video performance to be a completely revolutionary indulgence into Earth, art and body.
The art installation, titled “Creek,” was made in the turbulent ’70s. Mendieta used herself as the model — similar to her other body performances — and had a camera set up to record herself. As a token of the times, the recording was done on color Super 8 film and was completely silent. In the video, she lays face down and naked in a shallow creek as the water runs over her. To one side, there is water and mud. On the other, there is vibrant plant life that seems to tie the scene back to earth. Inside of the greenery is a single red flower that towers almost directly over Mendieta’s body. Despite being silent, it is impossible to not hear a rush of water moving in the creek, the wind pushing through delicate plants and the water ripples of displacement caused by the body. As the video’s final artistic touch, the water has a sparkle of sun highlights that enkindle a soft, ethereal aura when combined with the natural film grain.
Despite my love for art and experience working at art museums, my attention span rarely allows for more than a few seconds of fixation on each piece. There is a spark of admiration, and then the interest nearly instantaneously fades. Even my most beloved artworks can only conjure up brief (but repeated) moments of standing and staring in awe. Rarely do I ever fully fall into a work of art, and rarely do I leave the museum with a specific piece still on my mind. Even outside of the museum format, I tend to fall into obsession with genres or collections of similar media rather than solitary paintings, novels or other creative works. But when I became transfixed by Ana Mendieta’s “Creek,” all of my previous inhibitions fell apart. If I had not been tethered to a friend that wanted to move into the next room, I would have spent the entire visit drowning in the same water as Mendieta.
Though the pure artistry of the project is enough to stir the emotions of an onlooker, the underlying meaning of the project is heart-wrenching. Once I returned home from UMMA, I was possessed by the need to Google her work, her life and any other piece of information I could sink my teeth into. I found that Mendieta used nature — including blood, dirt, body hair and fire — above all else to represent all aspects of her life and experience. The symbol of herself as a Cuban refugee becomes a naked body in a creek, water is suddenly an oppressive force over the female form and the glimmer in her artistic style is representative of the spiritualism that can only be felt in nature.
Similarly, her own tragedy of domestic violence — and, ultimately, suspected murder — shapes the gore she inflicts upon her own body. By reclaiming nature and the earth itself, Mendieta was able to erase manmade destructions in preference for nature’s innate freedom and beauty. I didn’t know this as I initially analyzed the art piece at UMMA, but in this self-indulgent research spiral, I stumbled upon a quote of hers explaining that her art invokes the “magic, knowledge, and power of primitive art … to express the immediacy of life and the eternity of nature.” Given her importance in revolutionizing the earth-art movement, I know that her artistic vision has held true. In “Creek,” specifically, nature is a calm force of peace and tranquility, despite the image of a possibly drowned body. By showing the ambiguous state of the body within nature, Mendieta is further indulging in the existential strain between humanity and nature.
Outside of “Creek,” her work is even more intoxicating — I’ve been inspired to write multiple reports and projects covering her life and work. The emotive and powerfully taboo facets of her feminist work are impossible to not obsess over and indulge in. With her body as the canvas, she transforms herself into nature in multiple other works and extends herself further into more violent, bloodier works, as well. In the particularly jarring “Blood Sign #2/BodyTracks,” Mendieta stands against a wall with bloody hands and slowly crumbles to the ground as her hands smear a blood-red “V” on the pristine white wall. In another series, Mendieta squishes her face, breasts and stomach against glass panels in a series of photographs that deform her figure. As a final testament to the power of her work, she covers herself in blood for both a “self-portrait with blood” and a short film that depicts her “sweating blood.” It is impossible to not see the scarlet thread that ties her work together: Her body is an art form, something she can creatively indulge in.
In the same way that Mendieta surrenders herself wholly to her work, I’ve given myself over completely to absorbing every creative work she has produced. This is the very nature of indulgence: succumbing to unexpected pleasures and joys and getting lost in the hedonistic whorls of art.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Burzycki can be reached at email@example.com.