Ana Mendieta at Gropius Bau
With twenty-two films, “Covered in Time and History” is the most comprehensive exhibition of Ana Mendieta’s filmic works to date. Split into six darkened rooms, viewing these newly digitalised works is an intense and often unsettling experience. Until now, the artist (1948–1985) has always been best remembered for her performances – but this retrospective is a persuasive argument for her films to be recognised as more than just documentation. Chloe Stead talked to Gropius Bau’s recently appointed director Stephanie Rosenthal about Mendieta’s enduring legacy.
This is your first exhibition as director of the Gropius Bau. Why did you decide to open with a film retrospective on Mendieta’s work?
I wanted to bring this exhibition to the Gropius Bau because the themes that are relevant for Mendieta’s work are very important for my future programming. For me, the fact that she’s dealing with her own body, and the way she can connect the body with nature and the ground she’s standing on, is a very important subject in relation to our time. Land and body are themes that will come back recurrently in the programme, so it felt important to start with a woman who works in an ephemeral way and is still so relevant in our time, even if she died in 1985.
Were you intending to make a political statement by showing a Cuban-American woman at such a storied German institution?
Yes. I feel that artists like Mendieta are more important than ever for our institution. Contemporary art makes direct comments on our times and the first thing I wanted to integrate was this sense of urgency. So instead of waiting a year to make a statement, I wanted to do it two months after I started. Mendieta’s work talks about things that are so relevant for us right now, especially if you’re in a building like the Gropius Bau, which is so clearly connected to politics – and not just German history but an international history of war and separation.
Mendieta is best known for her earth-body works, so why did you decide to focus on her films?
I felt that the importance of her films for her work had never been recognised. When I curated a big retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 2013, the Estate of Ana Mendieta had just started to discover and digitalise more of her film works, which made this exhibition possible. She recorded in Super 8, then she would show it in VHS and the quality was never as good, I think, as she was hoping. But now that we’ve been able to digitise the Super 8, they are really mesmerising.
The works are not shown chronologically but are loosely grouped together in themes …
The rooms are dedicated to water, to fire, to blood, and to smoke. She would engage with one of the elements again and again over the years. It’s not that she would start one year and then move on; she would go back to it like she would go back to the site she was using. So it made sense to show how she would engage at different times with certain themes and make that the core of the show. It also allowed us to make these spaces that we thought were very Ana Mendieta – they’re very intense and poetic.
Why do you think Mendieta’s work is still so relevant today?
The relevance of her work today is related to the fact that she, I think, very cleverly made works that aren’t time-specific. She’s using the human body and she’s using nature, but she’s not doing it in a way that you can say, “Oh, this was done in 1978.” Of course, she’s been part of the feminist movement, but in her case it’s really about human beings and their connection to the elements.
Talking about feminism, artist and writer Coco Fusco has suggested that Mendieta’s legacy has been hijacked since her death. In a recent interview she said, “I think she’s become a symbol used by many people to address sexism in the art world through personal attacks directed at Carl Andre [who was tried but acquitted for her death in 1988].” Would you agree?
I think it’s two different discussions: one is about her work and why it is important, and the other is a much more social-political discussion about how controversies with famous male artists are dealt with in relation to women. As a curator, I feel that the relevance of her work is not connected to her tragic death. If you have more of a sociopolitical point of view then of course there is relevance, but there are now other instances of male dominance that you might want to talk about!
“Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta”
20.04 – 22.07.2018
STEPHANIE ROSENTHAL is director at Gropius Bau.
CHLOE STEAD is a writer based in Berlin.