What Imaginary Thing is a Museum?


What Imaginary Thing is a Museum?

By Anne Lesley Selcer May 4, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

“But to take our sadness, our fragile courage and our anxiety to the museum every day...”1

Two distinct rooms in two different Bay Area museums from early November 2016 to mid February 2017 displayed the work of two major artists, one of whom killed the other. One was male and one was female, one was born in 1948 in Havana and one was born in 1935 in Quincy, Massachusetts. One showed at the Guggenheim, one won the Rome prize. Although these identifiers are in some ways useless, they put these differences into dialog. In 1988 Carl Andre was famously acquitted for the death of Ana Mendieta, his wife with whom he had been fighting with loudly just before she fell 34 stories. This tragedy holds resonant meaning for many people, but none of it gets carried by the museums and galleries who support Andre's work. The ruling was based on insufficient evidence but is countered by many facts; it is contested by a significant number of people and not currently accepted by Mendieta's family and friends, nor by many fellow artists and curators. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art displays a room of Andre's sculpture on their fifth floor. Ten of his works are owned in their collections, as well as three of Mendieta’s. The Berkeley Art Museum exhibited the luminous exhibition Covered in Time and History: the Films of Ana Mendieta last winter. The museum holds six of Andre's works in their permanent collection and one of Mendieta's. Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place recently opened at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the retrospective Dia: Beacon exhibited in 2015 to hearty protest. An action protesting the exhibition includes many Los Angeles curators, one of whom is a former curator at the museum itself.

Mendieta's death occurred during roiling aesthetic, political, and intellectual struggles in the art world. In the 1970s and ‘80s art emerged as socially confrontational and performative, and at turns conceptual and semiotic. The context of an emerging international contemporary art market attenuated these differences and raised all stakes. A few years earlier, Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy (1964) opened new possibilities for the body in art; its messy, anarchic conglomeration of bodies answered male abstract expressionism. In 1976 Lucy Lippard published the book From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. Film theory propagated new feminist logics and lexicons. In her writing and performance, conceptual artist Adrian Piper parsed racism and worked through philosophy. Mendieta used her face and body as a Bataillean challenge, and later developed an articulated decolonial praxis. From her lecture, “The Struggle for Culture Today is the Struggle for Life,” Mendieta writes, “The US, the greatest imperialist power, rich in material as well as technological resources, maintains some of the most shameful, hurting and inhuman forms of racial, economic and social descriminations [sic] amongst its own people. The overflowing of its frontiers, aggressions and military occupations and colonial and neo-colonial politics of the United States imperialism have denaturalized and violated cultural and artistic tradition of other peoples as well as within the US itself.”2 Her death was imbued with an uncanny feeling. Their fight in the New York highrise apartment was about the minimalist Andre getting (in his words) “more exposed to the public” than Mendieta.3

Ana Mendieta. Creek, 1974 (still); Super 8 film, silent.

Films in Covered in Time and History depict Mendieta's naked body in a stream, emerging slowly from under a pile of rocks, or as a silhouette of burning fireworks. Moving at the metabolic pace of prayer or growth, her “earth-body” work such as Creek (1974) or Untitled (Burial Pyramid) (1974) manifest Giorgio Agamben's concept of bare life. At the age of 34 Mendieta described her work this way:

 My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascent the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thought that animate the world. There is no original past to redeem: there is the void, the orphanhood, the unbaptized earth of the beginning, the time that from within the earth looks upon us. There is above all the search for origin.4

The work is transformative. Evoking reverent time, the rituals activate the raw materials that form form. Grass, mud, fire, and blood re-enchant a cosmological ecology, the human body placed in its web. She explains in an undated artist statement, “The turning point was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.” Younger work uses drag, such as the 1972 Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), or distorts her face by pressing it against glass, as in Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (1972). Her multivalent use of blood interrupts settled social space as in Moffitt Building Piece (1973), implies violence Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood) (1972), martyrdom as in Sweating Blood (1973), or religious ritual as in Untitled (Death of a Chicken) (1972). This social challenge connects her work to artists like Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann and the Viennese Actionists. All of Mendieta's work involves the body. Wrested back from forces which in recent decades rendered it nostalgic, the body as a medium is ripe for art historical revisiting. It re-emerges in the present moment with fresh approach by contemporary artists. Ritual and magic seem a fitting response to the geopolitical forces that exert increasing biopolitical domination over most people.

Ana Mendieta. Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) (still), 1976; Super-8 film, silent.

Nothing we can say, think, or write about Mendieta's work now can be fully apart from the facts of her death. Her work has been described as having a “traumatic mood.”5 It was also playful, queer, grotesque, campy, challenging, and not easily readable. She was an artist who played constantly with what her face and body signified, and with the body's non-signifying elemental presence. Many of the films in Covered in Time and History radiate to the core vulnerability of livingness that Agamben connects to the stateless refugee, which Mendieta once was. She was separated from her family at age 12 during the Pedro Pan initiative for children during the Cuban Revolution. This body of work simultaneously feels ecstatically connected and connective: “My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that tie me to the universe.” In 1973 as a graduate student in the Intermedia program at the University of Iowa, Mendieta invited people to her home where they discovered her form bent forward over a table, clothing around her ankles, a messy map of blood freshly drying on her ass and legs. The performance and subsequent photographs, Untitled (Rape Scene) (1973), were based on the real assault and suffocation of 20 year old University of Iowa student Sarah Anne Ottens in her dorm room the same year.6 “In the rape pieces,” writes Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Mendieta seems to be rehearsing various postures of female subjugation of submission almost as if to exorcise them.”7 Contemporary artist and poet Ivy Johnson says about her collaborative piece Sophrosyne (2015), which also reenacts a rape, “I wanted to show what was unseen and unseeable.”8 Without unfastening from the traumatic content of Untitled (Rape Scene), a space of non-productivity must be cleared for this work wherein it need not declare, signify, correct, or clean up culture. Mendieta played with other images of bondage, subjugation, injury, ugliness, and a sort of punk communication jamming–such as writing “She got love” with her bare hands in blood on the side of a white barn, then walking imperviously out of the camera frame.

Culture is inextricable from its codes, including those that code Andre's linear, architectural pieces as “value.”

Mendieta got newly racialized in the US when she arrived alone in Iowa with her older sister and in the process of relocation got sent to a reform school by dint of an administrative decision. She eventually reconnected to Cuba through Santeria, the syncretic Yoruba/Catholic religion. Raised Catholic, she had absorbed the rituals of the cooks and cleaners who worked in her wealthy family home. At his trial, Andre's lawyer tried to smear Mendieta as a “voodoo practitioner.”9 In contrast, Andre's clean, formal, and gallery-ready work is supported by a matrix of meaning-making inextricable from preexisting international art conversations and markets. Culture is inextricable from its codes, including those that code his linear, architectural pieces as “value.” At the time of his trial, Andre was held aloft by a powerful, influential, and wealthy network of mostly male conceptual artists. Declared Richard Prince, “Lawrence Weiner says Carl didn't have anything to do with her death, and that's enough for me.”10

Artworks accrue, accrete, and morph meanings through time. Manet's Olympia (1865) transformed from a source of moral outrage at the 1865 Paris salon into a 1980s feminist icon. Lorraine O'Grady altogether shifted focus off the painting's "shameless" model in her 1994 essay, “Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity.” Although Andre's geometric materials-focused sculptures have progressed through markets and museums untouched by the history of the death, trial, rifts, and protest, this intensely unsettled history surround their museum presence. Imagining the work as somehow clear of this is a fantasy produced and supported by structural misogyny. When protesters insist on the reoccurring demand, “Dónde Está Ana Mendieta?” or “Where is Ana Mendieta?” one supposes they are also asking, where is the work she had yet to make? Where is the work produced by Mendieta's enlivened politics, her social courage? At the time of her death she was in the middle of her first public art project, “La Jungla,” to be installed in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park. The question within the institutional framework is not just, “Where is Ana Mendieta?” but, “How could no new meanings have tethered to Andre's work?” Writes Faheem Haider:

If biography invites into the conversation the mantra of genius, then we must deal with the flip side of that myth: control, coercion, and violence...Andre was arrested on suspicion of Ana Mendiata’s murder. He was acquitted, but the facts must be acknowledged in some way, whether as a curatorial position or a hard-line declaration. In the exhibition materials, in any statement related to this show, Mendieta — much less her death — is never mentioned at all.11

 And what of Mendieta's genius? Dia Art Foundation did let several decades pass between Andre's trial and his retrospective. Despite this passing of time, the trauma has not passed. The progressivism implied by “healing” seems inappropriate for social violence—as if one could, or would want to return to some original lack of knowledge of social domination. To announce that an Andre exhibit triggers trauma for some (but not for others) is only to announce the most obvious cultural information. 

And what of Mendieta's genius?

Mendieta's work is misused in all kind of ways. Articulations about her death often get moored to the registers and resonances of her work. Coco Fusco writes, “At the time it seemed that the only way a Latina could gain attention was to die dramatically.”12 Much has been written about her cooption by essentialist feminists—Mendieta's Silueta series is not “goddess art,” but specific Santerian deities—yet this legacy still feels to follow her. The Santeria references might also be considered research-based, playful, meaningful, masterful, like Robert Smithson's geography in Monuments of Passaic (1967). “Strictly speaking,” says critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “ritual requires communal participation, temporal repetition, and (not least) religious belief...whatever her affinities to or appropriations of particular traditions, Mendieta’s actions and performances are...functioning therefore, not ‘authentically’ but mimetically, indeed, performatively.”13 Although I tend to think these references are more decolonial than religious, there is absolutely no reason why a line should be drawn by critics between these two things, especially considering the inextricability of Santaria and colonialism. Mendieta's work enacts, in Bryan-Wilson's words, “The borderline nature of the constituative practice.” She says, “One could say that in such work Mendieta moved contra el cuerpo (against the body)—in the sense that a counter-attack is a redoubling of effort, and a counter-proposition does not negate the original but seeks to answer it. Just as there is no such thing as 'the earth' or 'the goddess,' there is no such thing as 'the body' in Mendieta's work; she goes against 'the body' to reassert the existence of, and interdependency between many bodies.”14 The “traumatic mood” of her work includes the trauma of nation and race, as well as nonpolitical traumas like human separation.

The fact that Mendieta's death evokes protective humanist, feminist feelings does not retrospectively make her a Western, first world feminist. The purpose of her transformative work is not to heal, balm, or counter the trauma felt about her death. The collective feminist A.I.R. Gallery exhibited Mendieta's first solo show in 1979. Writes Karen Fiss, “She became involved in A.I.R.’s Task Force on Discrimination against Women and Minority Artists, and in 1980 she organized the exhibit, Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the U.S. Ultimately Mendieta broke ties with the group, realizing the extent to which its white, middle-class members were unable or unwilling to address issues of power and diversity in their community.”15 Mendieta's curatorial statement read, “American feminism as it stands is basically a white middle class movement.”16 She is linked structurally to feminism this way: her death was a femicide, distinguished from homicide by its inextricability with the victim being gendered female, cis or trans. Reconfigured as such, Mendieta’s art or life is not made to stand in for anything beyond itself, yet the tragedy of her death is still connected across nation and race to a pattern of patriarchal or misogynistic violence.

Is it possible that the narrative of man killing wife is simply acceptable in the realm of the sensible in Western culture?

This situation strains at Kantian sensus communis, or shared common sense. It is useful here to dispense of the imagined totality of an “art world.” Just like “patriarchy” is simply a word but also an intricate and interlocking personal and legalistic set of power relations, the art world is an imaginary summation. When I visited the SFMOMA room full of Andre’s work, an older women stood next to me as we silently read the wall text. Casually, as if discussing the price of produce, I asked if she knew he had killed his wife. She became excited, I was not sure at all what to expect. She said she was an architect, that Andre's Copper-Zinc Plain (1969) was her favorite artwork in the museum; she told me she had just been listening to a classical composition and discovered the composer had also killed his wife. Is it possible that the narrative of man killing wife is simply acceptable in the realm of the sensible in Western culture? Is the idea it would not belong in the museum the anomaly? Do we fault an institution for upholding a pattern the institution cannot function outside of, a pattern the institution cannot function without? The material history of Kant's “disinterested delight” might also reveal the adjacent history of disinterested violence.

This is why the fight must be had and had again. It is not only unsettling gender, or first world, white domination, it is unsettling the authority of the museum, which in the case of the Andre exhibitions enacts all these things. When speaking on the work of artist David Hammons, poet Fred Moten said, “what if whiteness was inside blackness?"17 I ask, what if the museum was inside art rather than the other way round? What if what counts as spiritual was not inside the museum but the museum was inside the spiritual? This refiguring may lead to a different equation of Andre/Mendieta, which one can easily see was never quite an equation in the first place, but only one by sanding off the most awkwardly obvious immutable difference. But what if we took out the word difference there? What would be inside of what, what imaginary in what reality? I am not a great believer in justice. This is different than saying I do not long for it, or against all evidence to the contrary, like most people naturally expect it. I prefer the concept of vitality. Through the word vitality, one can think about how things grow, or just continue to live, and how and why in contrast, others do not. Every creative person understands what is necessary to tend to life, to sustain it, to make it grow. What is art's responsibility to vitality? What life, what life's work are these curators (see curare, or cura, meaning care) fostering, and mimetically, resonantly, or symbolically at the cost of what vitality? 

Scan from: Mary Jane Jacob, The "Silueta" Series 1973-1980 (New York: Galerie Lelong, 1991).


  1.  Filippo Tomasi Marinetti, Manifesto of Futurism (Paris: Le Figaro, 1909), https://www.societyforasianart.org/sites/default/files/manifesto_futurista.pdf.
  2. Ana Mendieta, "The Struggle for Culture Today Is the Struggle for Life," in Ana Mendieta, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1996), 175.
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/12/nyregion/greenwich-village-sculptor-acquitted-of-pushing-wife-to-her-death.html
  4. Ana Mendieta, "A Selection of Statements and Notes," Sulfur, vol. 22, 1988, 70.
  5. Howard Oransky, ed., Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).
  6. http://www.iowaunsolvedmurders.com/beyond-1965-selected-unsolved-iowa-murders/spring-break-killer-murder-of-sarah-ann-ottens-1973/
  7. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Against the Body,” Ana Mendieta: Traces (London: Hayward Publishing, 2014).
  8. Sophrosyne (2015) was created by The Third Thing, a performative poetics collaboration between Bay Area poets Ivy Johnson and Kate Robinson.
  9. B. Ruby Rich, Panel discussion, BAMPFA, January 28, 2017.
  10. http://www.richardprince.com/birdtalk/
  11. Faheem Haider, “The Problematic Elegance of Carl Andre,” Hyperallergic, March 6, 2015. https://hyperallergic.com/188609/the-problematic-elegance-of-carl-andre/.
  12. Jared Quinton, “Coco Fusco on the Enduring Legacy of Groundbreaking Cuban Artist Ana Mendieta,” Artsy, Feburary 3, 2016. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ana-mendieta-s-enduring-legacy-in-the-words-of-coco-fusco.
  13. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ed., “Ana Mendieta without Atavism,”Ana Mendieta: Blood & Fire (Paris: Galerie Lelong, 2011).
  14. Bryan-Wilson, “Against the Body.”
  15. Karen Fiss, “Karen Fiss on Ana Mendieta,” Open Space, February 6, 2012. https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2012/02/fiss-on-mendieta/.
  16. Fiss, “Karen Fiss on Ana Mendieta.”
  17. Fred Moten, lecture, The Wattis Institute, March 10, 2017.

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