Girl, interrupted

Words by Dylan Kerr

Ana Mendieta’s short, startling career grows all the more important as her death recedes into past. Ahead of a new retrospective of the artist’s film work, Dylan Kerr recalls her rise and abrupt end

In Volcán, the documentation of a performance by the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta made in 1979, a white substance in the shape of a vaguely feminine figure lies in an elevated mound of dirt by the side of a creek. As you watch, the scene briefly cuts and suddenly the material is on fire. The flames spread to engulf the entire body and soon there is nothing left but a smouldering hole in the ground in the shape of a human body, a kind of coffin in reverse. The camera briefly zooms in on the ash before pulling out to show the rest of the creek bed, an otherwise idyllic scene marred by this bit of man-made wreckage. 

It’s too much to say that this piece is a metaphor for Mendieta’s incisive work and quick, violent end, but it’s not right to say that they’re unconnected, either. As an artist who has inspired impassioned protests and yet remains conspicuously distant from the history of 20th century American art, Mendieta has long served as a stand-in for the issues around performance, documentation, violence and feminism. Now, she’s finally starting to get her due, with a slew of shows from London to New York to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive this November working to cement her place in the canon. It’s a correction today’s art world can’t afford to miss. 

Read more in Issue 3...