Ruby Wroe is a Sarabande Scholar at Slade School of Fine Art and is spending the summer on a research trip through Cuba and Mexico, visiting significant sites of the artist Ana Mendieta. Below is a reflection on her trip, her relationship to Ana’s work and some thoughts around her motivations for wanting to visit these sites.
I see Ana in lots of places. I see her in winter leaves that crush beneath my feet, and I see her in the ones blooming green and wide in spring. I see her in the thick trunks of trees and I see her always in the sky.
I see her in the gestures of other people, and often in their work too. Regina José Galindo, Linda Stupart, Joanna L. Cresswell and my sister Alice see Ana often too, and I see her in them.
I see Ana each month when I bleed and, although I try not to, I see her whenever I am looking down from the top floor of a tall building.
Since my first meeting with Ana, at Hayward Gallery retrospective, Traces, my interactions with her have always been referential - things have triggered me to envisage her actions, a landscape has called to mind a Silueta of hers or I have come across someone who is also so enthralled with Ana that a long conversation ensues, in which visions of her works are conjured up between us.
In the past few weeks, I have been visiting sites where Ana worked, areas where she performed, places she researched, beaches she wrote about and caves covered in her Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrain Sculptures). I don’t have an exact reason for doing this, only a desire. I don’t think geographical location will place me any closer to the spiritual nature of her work. It exists to be impossible to grasp, and that is the beauty of it.
I have come to view locations where performances happened, much like photographic documentation of performances. Both require you to look, and both should, in theory, ask you to look beyond what you are seeing, to use the location or the image, as an introduction, or entrance, to a work that exists elsewhere, and perhaps nowhere physical at all.
My desire to encounter immaterial works in a plethora of ways, beyond a sole photographic image or piece of photographic documentation, comes perhaps from a weakness of my own - a readiness to accept the thing I see as the work itself. This weakness I suspect is shared by many, especially the many of us who live in the midst of online visual culture - one in which we are inundated with images of people, things and events. Repeatedly after encountering performance through photography, it is a single image I am left with.
It was Ana’s work that brought this weakness to my attention - her work is so clearly located beyond the image, outside of the photo, located both everywhere and no where in particular. When looking at photographs of hers for the first time at Hayward Gallery in 2013, it was painfully obvious that the actual essence of her work, was ‘elsewhere’. She employed photography, a medium situated eternally in the past, precisely to evidence this absence.
Like a photograph, encountering the location in which a performance took place, creates an entrance to the work, a small thread with which your mind can continue to weave. On a visit to the archeological site Yagul, a site within which Ana created her first Silueta, I was occupied by the view that she may have seen, as she laid down on the rocky bottom of a pre-Columbian tomb, and carefully placed flowers she’d brought to Yagul from the market, amongst her body.
Both the location, and the photograph I encountered at Hayward Gallery, enabled a transportation or interaction with something that is hard to reach. The experience however with the location, side steps our weakness or confusion about where the work ‘is’, as clearly, it is not here anymore.
Location visiting is clearly not as accessible a pastime as looking at photographs online, in a book, or in a gallery. But what it offers, an ability to imagine, to mark, to visually reconstruct for yourself, are present in other, non-photographic forms of representation - in conversation and in writing. These forms allow you to channel elements of an immaterial work, and mark them for yourself.
The work of Ana’s that has clung to my brain the firmest is still a written description by Stephanie Rosenthal, of an unrealised work of Ana’s, in the opening pages of the Traces exhibition catalogue.
“For many years, Ana Mendieta attempted to create a sculpture in the sky made out of smoke - a sculpture that would materialise for a very short moment, change shape, fade out and disappear, leaving a trace on the camera film and in the memory”, Stephanie Rosenthal in Ana Mendieta, Traces, 2013
A view from Ana Mendieta’s ‘Imagen de Yagul, 1973’, 2018, Ruby Wroe