Blood is an unconventional artistic material surrounded mostly by connotations of suffering, tragedy, and horror. However, some artists like the Cuban-born Ana Mendieta had a more complex approach to it. She saw it as an expression of the forces of life. In this article, we will look at the use of blood as an expressive material in the works of Ana Mendieta.
Blood as an Artistic Medium: Before and After Ana Mendieta
Body fluids, particularly blood, have a long history of use in art and different rituals, mostly related to ancient practices. The legends about artists mixing their own blood into paint and thus cursing their works have persisted long enough to become archetypal. Yet, with the development of performance art, blood became a more tangible yet no less controversial artistic material.
In the post-war European art scene, the radical members of the Viennese Actionism group incorporated blood and violence in their performance as a cathartic tool. Traumatized and torn by the events of World War II and its aftermath, a young generation of Austrians felt the need to purge the pain and grief by inflicting physical suffering on themselves. The bloodletting of the Viennese Actionism was ritualistic, but medical in purpose, with the aim of cleaning the mind through tormenting the body.
In 1991, a member of the Young British Artists group Marc Quinn offered a radically different approach. After collecting approximately five liters of his own blood, Quinn froze it and made it into his self-portrait bust. Thus, the portrait of the artist does not simply represent him, but is a part of him, carrying his DNA. Since the creation of his first controversial bust, Quinn continuously repeats the process every five years, making a self-portrait series Self which documents his presence and career.
Blood Means Violence
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Ana Mendieta’s use of blood in her works started almost simultaneously with her artistic career. During Mendieta’s years as an art student at the University of Iowa, Sarah Ann Ottens, a fellow student from another department, was brutally raped and murdered on campus. The inhumane act and the indifferent reaction of the university officials imposed shock and anxiety on many female students and professors. Ana Mendieta turned her terror into artistic expression. She recreated the scene of Ottens’ murder in one of her first performances titled Rape Scene.
However, one of the most famous and significant works of Ana Mendieta commenting on Ottens’ murder in particular, and violence in general, was the film Muffitt Building Piece shot in front of Mendieta’s apartment complex. A pool of blood next to the residential building entrance suggests a horrible incident, yet the residents passing by try their hardest to ignore it without asking uncomfortable questions. The work within itself contains feelings of anxiety provoked by the insufficiency of information and the collective gasp of relief from the weight of responsibility removed from onlookers’ shoulders. Since there is no immediate victim in sight, the scene becomes much easier to ignore.
Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece parallels animal cruelty with cruelty done to women while also leaving a reference to the practice of animal sacrifice, which still exists in Latin American communities. A nude Mendieta, covered in blood, holds a decapitated chicken in front of her, with the bird’s body still twitching. The image is graphic, perhaps even too graphic for many since art curators usually exclude the piece from Ana Mendieta’s exhibitions.
Still, the artist clearly does not enjoy the act or tolerate it easily, with her face distorted and troubled. The shocking imagery contrasts with other bloody works of Mendieta since the victim is present within it. Paired with the Muffitt Building Piece, it reminds the passive onlooker about the irreversibility of violence. Where there is blood, there is a body. A body that cannot be brought back to life by simply hiding it away from prying eyes.
Blood Means Art
As an artistic medium, blood offers an immediate connection between the artist and their creation with no mediators such as paint, marble, or camera. Instead of creating art, the artist becomes art, giving away a non-metaphorical part of their being.
The 1973 short film Sweating Blood shows a close-up image of Ana Mendieta’s face. Mendieta does not interact with the camera and remains in a detached, trance-like state. Slowly, a stream of blood from her forehead stains her face, dripping from her chin, but does not seem to disturb the artist. In this work, Mendieta used her body as an instrument. Sweating Blood also comments on the portrayal of women on the screen.
In 1976, Ana Mendieta traveled to Mexico. The trip was artistically prolific, yet one of the most significant events was her visit to an abandoned Catholic monastery in Cuilapan de Guerrero. A series of photographs showed Mendieta wrapped in a pristine white cloth, with her distorted body clinging to the monastery walls. As the narrative progressed, the bloody imprint of a human body appeared on the cloth. Pictured through windows and niches, the figure reminded of both the Virgin Mary and a victim of pagan sacrifice, with the intangibility of a white silhouette contrasting with the bold, direct, and unmistakably physical presence of blood. Here, blood was the missing link between the spiritual and the physical, between trauma and salvation, and between reality and artistic creation.
After featuring actual bodies (including her own) in her earliest works, Mendieta decided to remove them from the picture. As she confessed, there were several reasons for this, including her general dislike of performance art. She did not want to shift the attention toward a nude female body in the center of the composition. Moreover, she wanted to remain in control of the documenting process, not having to delegate the actual creation of an image to someone else.
Blood Means Life for Ana Mendieta
Later works of Ana Mendieta that still incorporated blood (or, alternatively, red paint acting as blood) usually had no shocked spectator and no wandering pedestrian hiding their eyes. In Mendieta’s time land art and body art were very popular in the art world. She fused these together in her earth-body sculptures. These were pieces made from direct interactions of Mendieda’s body with nature which left impermanent marks.
In Mendieta’s works, nature is feminine, and her blood is connecting life and death into constantly renewing cycles. In her 1976 silhouettes, she left hollow imprints of a female body silhouette on the seashore and filled it with red paint and red flowers. The water gradually washed away the fake blood and dissolved the silhouettes, thus claiming them back to nature.
The Cuban-African polytheistic religion Santeria, which greatly inspired Mendieta’s artistic practice, recognizes blood as the main force of life, equivalent to rivers carrying water throughout the land. During animal sacrifice in Santeria rituals, its blood is sprinkled on the altar, signifying the gift of the life force to the deity and channeling the productive energy in the right direction. Blood purifies and empowers, blood helps to regain control. From the earliest pieces reacting to the murder of a student on campus to her later works incorporating blood, Mendieta used it to claim back the agency of a female body, to overcome passivity and submission.
In one of her early pieces, the 1974 film Blood + Feathers, Mendieta appeared nude, covered in animal blood and rolled in feathers. She turned herself into a rooster who was soon to be killed in a ritual. Yet, in a manner similar to Viennese Actionism art, this voluntary act of self-sacrifice was not a desire to end one’s life but a painful yet necessary step taken to shed old skin and enter the new stage of existence, better and purer than before. Mendieta insisted that blood was not a negative thing but a powerful element of magic.
The untimely and tragic death of Ana Mendieta occurred in September 1985 when the artist fell out of her apartment window in New York. Her body fell to the roof of a ground-floor deli, leaving there an imprint similar to the Siluetas she left on sand, earth, and water. It was the final act of nature claiming what was hers, but this one, unfortunately, happened too soon and it was not planned.