Friday, November 01, 2013

Mendieta / Singh at the Hayward

I've been thinking a lot about the joint exhibit currently running at Hayward. While the Ana Mendieta retrospective, Traces, received all the advance publicity, it was Dayanita Singh's more low-key display that I came away appreciating without reservations.

If I'm honest, I was a bit bemused by the Mendieta exhibit, underwhelmed even. While she had a prolific practice spanning 1972-1985, it's difficult to assess her work without dwelling on the extraordinary circumstances surrounding her death--not even referenced in the exhibit or its catalogue, which I thumbed through. Only brief mention is made of her relationship with sculptor Carl Andre, and one must repair to the Project Space to read some very interesting publications which came out well after her death to speculate on just how she died.

What remains of her work is certainly voluminous, with rooms of photos, videos, and sculptures. But, I found myself lingering at the last room, which showed her personal documentation of her work, as well as some of her effects, such as postcards sent from her on-site locations, amusing descriptions in Spanish and English of her thoughts. Here one pondered: who was this woman and what might have she become, were her life not cut short?

I was intrigued to note, for instance, that she used a whole roll of film to document her early work, but only printed one image when called upon to submit work for an exhibition. And so, we know the image of her in a moustache from her very early piece, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants). But an image shown in the final room shows much more interesting images from this work, including one of her in a full beard with a clean-shaven man next to her. This, to me, illustrates the notion of a facial hair transplant better than the image she selected. It would have been enlightening to see what Mendieta might have selected for a retrospective, had she lived.

As it was, death was a preocccupation for her in her work, with many references to burial sites, wrapped bodies, and the Mexican Day of the Dead, as well as the Tree of Life. I found some of this cultural scavenging hard to take. Mendieta was Cuban, not Mexican, and the blithe descriptions of her going into sacred indigenous Mexican sites and carving on the walls filled me with indignation. Did she go with permission? Did she use techniques guaranteed not to harm the site? Or did she just follow her artistic bliss and damn the consequences?

At what point does art become vandalism? This goes double for the famed Untitled (Chicken Piece), in which two accomplices chop off a chicken's head on video and throw her the body, which she holds by its legs, while it flaps its death throes. I found myself repelled by the harm caused to the chicken, not entranced at her oneness with nature.

The piece by Mendieta that most intrigued was actually a very small item hidden away in Room 6 or so, dwarfed by the large prints. It was a handprint burned into a book cover. I wondered how she did it and what it signified to her, leaving her mark on a piece of human creation, rather than the earth.

Then it was on to the reflective photo-based pieces in Go Away Closer by Singh, many of which are delightfully arranged into display archives or museums. Practising in India, Singh has visited many archives over the years and snapped collections of papers and books, which she pored over to select images for thematic displays.

There is also a selection of her portraits, most notably of eunuch Mona Ahmed (whom she has photographed for over 20 years and whose autobiography she helped publish), alongside some of the books that have come from Singh's work. Did the books precede the exhibits or vice versa? The juxtaposition of text and image is well-judged and piques interest in Singh's body of work.

I'm not sure why these two exhibits are included in one ticket, for Singh and Mendieta don't have too much to say to one another, artistically, but certainly both are worth seeing and, no doubt, arguing over.

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