In a photograph taped to the wall of my room, my mother is running through sand, emerging from water. Her left arm is lifted, blurred, as she sweeps hair from her face. Her head is turned slightly toward the camera. The black one-piece bathing suit has two cut-outs on her thighs, exposing pale tan lines, like the suit is new or perhaps she usually wears another. Her dark hair is longer than I’ve ever seen it. She is laughing. I don’t know who took the photo.
Seeing her like this makes me remember with shame all the times I wanted her to be less—when she’d laugh too loud at the mechanic or chat too long with my friend’s parents. When I cringed or rolled my eyes at her for not knowing something I thought that she should. I wanted her to know everything.
At a party in my college apartment, everyone hid in my room while a roommate talked to the cops at our door. We stood quiet and cramped. “Your mom was hot,” someone whispered.
+ + +
I first encountered Ana Mendieta through a series of photographs, stills from her 1973 piece “People Looking at Blood, Moffit.” To create the work, Mendieta poured what appeared to be thick blood onto the steps of a plain brick building in Iowa City. She filmed the reactions of passersby from her nearby car. Most of the photos capture pedestrians mid-stride, their faces turned away from the camera, down toward the blood just behind them.
Mendieta made this work in response to the rape and murder of fellow University of Iowa student, Sarah Ann Ottens, which took place on campus earlier that year. The bystanders on the sidewalk in Moffitt don’t know this. They are too late to bear witness to whatever violence may have taken place there. They don’t know, can’t know, what harm reverberates on the sidewalk before them, or whose. They are left with no other choice but to continue on their way.
+ + +
My friend tattoos two lines on my arm, meant to mimic the traces of blood Mendieta leaves on the wall in her performance, Body Tracks.
My mom rubs her index finger over it the next time I see her.
Despite her work in film and photography, Mendieta considered herself a sculptor.
I’m not sure it’s worth noting that Mendieta never had children.
+ + +
When I first start working at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, I’m excited that four of Mendieta’s photos are on display, all from her series Siluetas in Mexico. The first depicts an imprint of a woman’s body in wet, gray sand. Bright red pigment is scattered across the hole. Her absence appears violent. Split earth.
These photos are switched out for a different artist a few weeks before the Carl Andre retrospective opens. This is, ostensibly, a coincidence. In the morning before the show’s opening, my supervisor tells my coworkers and I not to talk with guests about Ana Mendieta. If we have opinions, we’re to keep them to ourselves.
Carl Andre says he doesn’t remember what happened the night in 1985 when Ana Mendieta fell to her death, naked, from the window of their 34th floor Greenwich Village apartment. He was tried for her murder, but acquitted on lack of evidence.
Andre told a 911 operator that night:
”My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, uh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window.”
The director of MOCA once said of Andre:
“Carl broke something, and he was ostracized, and it’s part of the story. But the work is there…he is one of the most important artists of our time.”
+ + +
The second photo in the Siluetas series is another video still: Firework Piece. In it, Mendieta’s bamboo effigy stands with arms bent at the elbow. Hands up, engulfed in flames, it burns red against the black night. One can imagine the next scene when the fire dies out, her image erased.
+ + +
When I think of my mother, I think of the ocean. She visits me in LA, and we spend each day at a different beach. She smiles with closed eyes and breathes deeply as we gaze out at the water in Malibu, Laguna, Newport. I buy her a souvenir from a gift shop on the Huntington pier: a small wooden block with white script that says, “kinda pissed about not being a mermaid.” When I point to it, we both laugh.
We have our hardest conversations in the car. She clutches my hand at a red light, either she’s driving or I am, both of us crying. The dull background music and shifting sceneries provide necessary distraction and a sense of a motion. We are moving, we are moving-through, together.
I need to drop off paperwork at school, and I bring her along. We are somewhere along the 5 when she asks if I’ve ever used the pool on campus. A few times, I say. Unable to resist the shock value, I tell her that it’s clothing optional. She is predictably appalled. “You mean the school doesn’t care if young girls go naked?”
I roll my eyes, mistaking her disdain for prudishness. “What’s wrong with nudity?” I say. “Nothing.”
She is quiet for some time, and I realize she’s crying. “You don’t know,” she says. “You don’t know what can happen.”
Her voice rises.
“Nothing bad has ever happened to you.”
+ + +
When protestors attend the Carl Andre show, they drop a stack of flyers off the second-floor balcony. The white pages flutter down delicately. They land between the 100 concrete posts that make up Andre’s “Lament for the Children.”
My coworker asks our supervisor if Andre is lamenting specific children or just children in general. We’re told probably the latter.
The flyers read: “Carl Andre is at MOCA Geffen. ¿Donde está Ana Mendieta?”
+ + +
I attend a screening of Mendieta’s films on a summer night in a gallery called The Mistake Room. Roughly 100 people sit on folding chairs in the sweltering space, silent except for the whirring metal fan in the corner. Most pieces I’d seen only as stills. Now in motion, each moment is rendered more fully, with a keen awareness of time. Firework Piece is much shorter than I’d thought; the entire effigy singes in just two minutes. In another piece, Rock Heart, Mendieta climbs into a dirt silhouette and lies face down. When I’d imagined her body, it had always lain up.
A speaker on the subsequent panel describes Mendieta’s consistent use of blood and her body in her work. The panelist cites this practice as a reaction to the cold minimalism that dominated the art world at the time. Ana Mendieta’s work insisted on confronting emotion at a moment when emotion was considered uncouth.
Mendieta’s niece, also on the panel, remembers that MOCA had invited Mendieta to show in Los Angeles. She wrote that she’d be there as soon as she could.
+ + +
A man leers at my coworker during a shift in the Carl Andre exhibition.
Sexy, baby, cutie, what time are you off?
She calls security using the museum code for sinister men: 2-14. (Like Valentine’s Day! My boss explained when it was introduced.)
The man persists. Can I take you out sometime? Security watches him, but they don’t ask him to leave. They don’t approach him at all; instead, they instruct my coworker to wait upstairs until he’s gone. He takes his time and leaves an hour or two later.
When I ask my supervisor about museum protocol the next day, she grimaces and shrugs.
“The truth is, we live in a litigious society.”
Looking not at blood, but something else.
+ + +
I value Mendieta’s open wounds. My mother believes some things should be private. She doesn’t know much about art, though she’s taken up pastel drawing in the last few years. We sit together in the living room while she draws, and she shows me her progress every few minutes. There’s a hesitance in her smile, as she holds up her work. “It’s good,” I tell her each time. “You think so?” she asks.
Sara Selevitch is a nonfiction writer with an MFA from CalArts. Her work explores questions of watching and wanting. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Essay photo: courtesy of author