Ana Mendieta: Traces at the Hayward Gallery

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Ana Mendieta: Traces at the Hayward Gallery

-This exhibition is now closed-

It is difficult to approach the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, titled ‘Traces’, without thinking of the artist’s death in 1985 at the age of 36. The cause of Mendieta’s 34-floor fall from her New York apartment – accident, murder or suicide – seems likely to remain an eternal mystery, but the dramatic nature of her demise casts a shadow over her artwork, dominated as it is by obsessions with blood, violence, nature and death.

‘Traces’ is an apt name for the show; much of Mendieta’s work was performed live or consisted of temporary outdoor installations, and what remains are the filmed or photographic records. These ‘traces’ are nonetheless extremely potent, from jarring videos, such as the Chicken Piece film of a decapitated, flapping, bleeding bird, held up by a naked Mendieta, to photos like Body Tracks, which show the artist in the middle of creating her famous ox-blood hand-paintings.

The transformation of the female body, including Mendieta’s own, is an important theme in this show; early works, such as Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant), in which Mendieta creates a fake moustache for herself from a male friend’s beard, or Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), in which the artist uses a pane of glass to flatten and distort the flesh of her body and face, show an interest in challenging the male sexual gaze. Later, this theme crystallises into a preoccupation with sexual violence and death, in pieces like the Rape Scene photo series, in which Mendieta creates a disturbing sequence of images; blood-stained, exposed female buttocks in the woods or over a kitchen table, culminating in the final picture of a plastic-wrapped, bloody female corpse. Elsewhere, Mendieta’s focus turns to rituals of burial and processes of decomposition, with ritualistic burial mounds in mud and sand, and female bodies overgrown with flowers, grass or even rock, as if reclaimed by nature.

Nature and ritual continue as important themes in the section of the show dedicated to the latter part of Mendieta’s career. Moving from the outdoors into the studio in the 1980s, Mendieta created sculptures from dead trees, burnt with gunpowder in simplistic, stylised human shapes, evoking the concept of human traces on nature which is present in the artist’s earlier, more visceral work.

Ana Mendieta: Traces at the Hayward Gallery is an exhibition which packs a powerful physical and emotional punch. Mendieta’s work is at times angry, sad, celebratory and often intrinsically mysterious. By putting this retrospective together with a collection of the artist’s personal effects – letters, postcards to friends, unedited photo reels – the Hayward Gallery has also attempted to capture the excitement and personality of this artist who achieved much in her short career.

The show is open until 15 December.

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