New York

Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta

Sean Kelly Gallery / Gallery Lelong

Though they never met, Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta are two artists who suddenly seem to have everything to do with each other. Born two years apart, both lived nomadically (Mendieta was displaced from Castro’s Cuba to Iowa at thirteen; Abramović is a longtime expatriate of Yugoslavia). Both came of age artistically in the ’70s, through Conceptualism and performance. As “rest/energy: Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta,” concurrent exhibitions curated by Cecile Panzieri and Mary Sabbatino, revealed, the two share a vision of the female body as a contained area and (im)permeable boundary, and they both draw on an elemental vocabulary of fire, earth, breath, blood, and stone. In the documentary photographs, drawings, and video clips on display, the nude appears hieratic, impersonal. For Mendieta this impersonality is spiritual; her body in repose becomes a vessel offered up to nature. Abramović, meanwhile, uses her body as an instrument for suffering and endurance. Mendieta is interested in the tension between trace and obliteration, Abramović explores the effects of staying power and exhaustion, but both artists are ultimately motivated by the idea of transcendence through a recognition of pain.

Having to go from one gallery to another for a complete viewing experience seemed appropriate, recalling both the time factor central to Abramović’s public performances and the distances Mendieta often traveled to perform her land-based, private ones. And the two shows functioned differently. At Sean Kelly, the works had a serious, markedly Conceptual feel. Documentary photographs—in Mendieta’s case, never before shown—punctuated the dialogue between drawings, in which Abramović’s doodly pencil lines played off Mendieta’s more forceful work in ink. Two videos anchored the group. Assembled by Panzieri, a collage of twelve scenes from Mendieta’s films, made (often with cameraman Hans Breder) between 1974 and 1982, featured six images from the “Silueta” (Silhouette) series. These are Mendieta’s signature works, in which the Venus-like outline of the artist’s body is temporarily etched in mud, snow, sand, or flowers, then ignited with gunpowder or allowed to erode. To these images of disappearance, Abramović’s Cleaning the Mirror II 1995, provided an almost uncannily apt counterpart and equally illustrated the “rest/energy” paradigm. The artist, nude, lies on her back with a skeleton on top of her—the action of her breath makes the skeleton move.

The image of the breathing skeleton appeared again at Galerie Lelong, this time in Mendieta’s On Giving Life, 1972, a series of three color photographs documenting a performance in Iowa. More vibrant and performance-oriented than the Sean Kelly grouping, the selection at Lelong highlighted differences between the two artists. The bravado of Abramović’s relentless actions—stabbing between the outstretched fingers with a series of knives (Rhythm 10, 1973); carving a star on her belly with a broken piece of glass (Lips of Thomas, 1975)—seemed at first distant from Mendieta’s ritualized use of natural materials. But the violence and role-playing explored by Abramović make the underlying fierceness of Mendieta’s performances more apparent. This was especially noticeable in a work from 1972, in which Mendieta and a male accomplice exchange hair, he methodically trimming his beard while she applies the cuttings to her face, creating a convincing mustache. The hermaphroditic result, with its emphasis on gender as a humorous but disturbing masquerade, reminded the viewer that the Siluetas explosions and scarifications were not conceived as pretty homages to an essentialized femininity but as active evocations of a volatile, elusive sexual force.

Rest/energy” emerges from a distinct historical moment, but the work is still relevant. The critical use of the female self in video and performance today from artists like Cheryl Donegan, Lucy Gunning, or Pipilotti Rist owes something to the investigations of these forerunners. Both labor, unironically, toward self- purification that cannot last, brief peaks of “rest” or transcendence achieved only through a continual expenditure of energy. In proposing this “sisters under the skin” take on Mendieta and Abramović, the double show revisited the unstable linkage between bodily experience and creative subjectivity that gave performance art its early urgency.

Frances Richard