Brilliant performance art poorly presented

Hayward Gallery | By Joseph Funnell
Three Stars

I REMEMBER the first time I saw a work by Ana Mendieta. It was a film of the performance Chicken Piece, where the artist stood naked holding a recently decapitated chicken that violently flapped as life drained from its wings. It was shocking. Strange. Standing alone and unexplained, it was just a bit confusing. The Hayward’s retrospective of the Cuban-born artist, Traces, hopes to create a context that not only makes sense of Mendieta’s actions, but also retains their original power.

With a brief career tragically cut short by premature death, Mendieta’s work straddles genres: grounded in performance she delved into land art and sculpture, while her exploration of the coalescence between humans and nature, as well as her own cultural heritage, make her an enigmatic artist. From her early works, Mendieta addressed the most contested subject in art – the female body – confronting its “nature” while subverting stereotypes. Photographs from a performance about rape condemn sexual violence without glamourising its form.

Centrally placed, Mendieta’s best-known series, Siluetas (1973-1981), shows how the artist used rocks, mud, water, even fire to inscribe her form into the landscape, leaving shadows that are self-consciously primordial and ritualistic. She believed that photographs can “retain some of the quality of the actual experience.” Yet unfortunately our own “experience” is mediated through a hesitant and clinical restaging of a 1977 solo-show. The images become strange meta-records of both performance and exhibition and Mendieta’s true spirit is lost. Re-creation becomes more bizarre when we see a re-made Silueta. Created using candles synonymous with all-male Afro-Cuban rituals, it comments on the cultural effacement of women. But shown rather unatmospherically in an unlit corner between the Hayward’s clunky concrete staircase and an emergency exit it seems to loose both aura and political impact.

The exhibition closes with some powerful later sculptures. A final “Re-tracing” section shows more performance documentation and is a masterpiece of exhibition design, utilising the Hayward’s awkward layout and somehow making archive material engaging. Traces is a rare and commendable opportunity that is arresting and should not be missed. But a few shortcomings also stand testament to the ongoing challenge of contextualizing performance art without sanitizing the raw, physical experience out of which it is borne.