Thursday, April 1, 2010

Searching For Feminist Traces Within SFAI MFA Performance

The artist Anna Mendieta who was born and raised in Cuba came to the United States in her early teens. Her work involved her body in ritual acts (often with the body absent) and is documented by photographs that exhibited the impression of her body on the landscape, reminiscent of ancient sculpture.

Anna Mendieta (Photo courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art)

She has said, “My art is the way I re-establish bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. Through my earth/ body sculptures I become one with the earth… I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.”
Ana Mendieta’s Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance, 1972–1985, were rigorous projects that included tough performances, which often responded to feminist concerns. In Mexico she made the first of her Siluetas (1973–80), symbolic and strange works in which she cut, burnt, drew or otherwise shaped a human silhouette, often her own, in the outdoors. In Cuba, she produced her Rupestrian Sculptures (1981), carving anthropomorphic shapes into ancient limestone grottoes. Terming her work as Earth Body to describe her ephemeral interventions. She drew heavily on research about indigenous beliefs and later tried to distance herself from her work’s association with feminist goddess cults, but did not completely succeed.

Taking this into consideration, I present you with a work I viewed as part of the performance exhibition in the Swell Gallery a few weeks back. Our colleague, Mick Larusso performed a piece he titled
Breathing Landscape. He described the piece with the following text, “I will be laying nude on the ground with three cross-sections from a felled tree covering my body for an hour…. The piece relates to Ana Mendieta, since my body becomes a landscape. At the same time I address the guilt of deforestation in the ideology of environmentalism, since I am struggling under the weight of the tree stumps. I'm calling it Breathing Landscape.” The card that was placed on the wall to the right of where Mick was performing proposed,” The reclining body has often been related to the landscape. Can the weight of a freshly felled tree be sensed ion the body as remorse for an imagined lost relationship; with an ideal of wilderness?”

Mick Larusso Breathing Landscapes (Photo taken by Frida Cano)

Taking into consideration Mick’s intentions, as well as his reference to Anna Mendieta, I ask myself can a work so deeply invested in referencing goddess culture be seen in a performance by a white male in the space of a gallery? Is the effect of these “living sculptures” the same for the observer?

Mendieta’s ritualistic emphasis and the spiritual value attached to the female body in its absence and presence is key to her work. However the ritualistic emphasis in Mendieta’s work doesn’t seem as applicable to Larusso’s performance. It may be that his spectacle of pain provides him with a purifying effect in that it exemplifies the pain he feels as a result of the destruction of nature. Instead of humans destroying nature, nature is weighing heavy on humans. Rather than the symbiotic appearance seen in Mendietta's work, Larusso’s performance is much more of a confrontation and disruption. Like Ana, his body is his material and his performance is emotive and produces a human sculptural form that is deeply referential of form in it.

Mick Larusso Breathing Landscapes (Photo taken by Frida Cano)

A concern for many performance artists is the opportunity to “re-site” art outside of standard art appreciation systems, often as a protest against the objectification and commercialization of artwork, and as a way to provide for more of an exchange between artist and viewer. The denial of hierarchy of form and acceptance of artifice can be seen in Larusso’s piece however the effect of his work is unlike that of Mendieta’s, partially because of its lack of specific ritual, its disrupting nature and the fact that he is performing within a gallery space in an academic institution with an audience that is very exclusive and makes up only a small part of the general public. Had he performed his work in a more public space with somewhat of a reference to history or culture there may be more of a link to his indented historical reference and stronger social critique. What do you think?


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