Thursday, January 14, 2016

ESSAY: Finding Ana

“The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.”
- Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters
In the summer of 1981, after a long exile, artist Ana Mendieta returned from New York to her native Cuba, where she created a series of sculptural silhouettes entitled Rupestrian Sculptures in the limestone interior of the caves in Las Escaleras de Jaruco National Park.

Guanaroca & Iyaré (1981), a photograph Mendieta produced of the resulting Rupestrian Sculptures series, is now in the possession of the Guggenheim. On the institution’s website, curator Nat Trotman describes Mendieta’s photographs as the “haunting documents” of a search for the “one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.” He continues to explain that the sculptures, though meant for discovery by future visitors, were ultimately destroyed by the elements. He concludes: Mendieta’s work now lives on only through her films and photographs.

In Finding Ana, Elise Rasmussen presents a hard rebuttal to the Guggenheim’s somewhat shiftless error. In 2012, retracing Mendieta’s footsteps, Rasmussen returned to the site of the allegedly destroyed sculptures. With the generous assistance of local residents, Rasmussen was able to locate sculptures, their bodies persisting on the limestone walls of the caves. Rasmussen took her own images of the sculptures, some of which she titled after Mendieta’s originals; she gave others—careful documentation of the surrounding area—more evocative titles. At night, they go amongst the living, one title announces. They Believe there is a Place Where the Dead Go, another. Heavy leaves surrounding, overgrown and obfuscated, Rasmussen’s images of Mendieta’s sculptures and their sustaining environment create a spectral projection, a pitched dialog between past and present.

On 8 September 1985, allegedly drunk in her 34th floor Manhattan apartment and quarrelling with her partner, Carl Andre, Mendieta, somehow, “went out the window”. Remitting a jury, facing three separate indictments, Andre was tried before a judge and acquitted, on the grounds of insufficient evidence toward his complicity in her fall. During the trial, Andre’s jaundiced lawyers cite Mendieta’s performance and other work as evidence toward her possible suicide.

In the second work in Finding Ana, entitled Variations, Rasmussen employs four cameras, an audience, and two actors cast to the approximate size and weight of Andre and Mendieta. They play the night of the defenestration, as told by the three perplexingly disjointed statements delivered by Andre to police and media. Rasmussen directs, interjecting facts, weather reports, interrogatives. A recreation of the window and its sill sit centre stage, built fastidiously to scale, its height becoming a curious obstacle to Mendieta’s small surrogate. All parties break in and out of character as they investigate the testimony, responding to each other, inserting themselves into each other’s roles – audience-cum-player, director-cum-audience, cast-cum-jury.

In a slight revision of the Guggenheim’s misstatement, it is true that much of Mendieta’s work lives on only through documentation. Through the fogged-out history of female-identified, “precarious”, and ephemeral practices, Mendieta’s work can be traced through multiple bodies; new artists and authors play cipher to her story, haunted in new and different ways by her absence. Writer Nasrin Himada, in a longer text on the possibilities of poetry, finds herself thinking through one such haunting she experienced while viewing Mendieta’s films. She includes the following citation from Brian Massumi’s book, Semblance and Event: “We never register what’s actually in front of our eyes. With every sight we see imperceptible qualities, we abstractly see potential, we implicitly see a life dynamic… because something has happened: the body has been capacitated. It’s been relationally activated. It is alive in the world, poised for what may come.” Himada then poses her own question: “How do we examine a situation from the point of view of its possibility?”

As a consumer of media in an era reliant on ephemerality, it’s possible to feel like an unwitting character in an ongoing flash procedural, an amnesia-inducing episodic. As such, we’re often remiss as viewers to locate the narrative, to find the path that leads to the “dense site” of history, discovery and recuperation.

Writer and educator Avery Gordon, in her book Ghostly Matters, uses the term haunting to describe the “singular and yet repetitive [instance] when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind-field comes into view.”  In Finding Ana, lost paths are activated, reconnected. Rasmussen calls her audience to task as repeat viewers, co-detectives, engaged in a lineage, set as pro- and antagonist, participant, spectator, culprit and body and ghost. “Haunting raises specters,” Avery Gordon continues, “and it alters the experience of being in linear time, alters the way we normally separate and sequence the past, the present and the future.”  Rasmussen’s spectres and viewers collide; we are not a separate order. We are enlisted together, either in the task of building another perspective, or the patient wait for its arrival.

Essay by Danielle St Amour
 Gordon, Avery F. “‘Who’s there?’: some answers to questions about ghostly matters” (2007)

— Talk presented at UnitedNationsPlaza (Berlin) for Seminar 6: “who’s there?—an interrogation in the dark,” organized by Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Ines Schaber, Anselm Franke (22–26 October 2007)

About the writer:
Danielle St Amour is an artist, writer and curator currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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