Art

Portrait of the Artist, Ana Mendieta, Iowa City, 1973

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I was putting in my hours at the co-op,” Raquelín Mendieta remembers, “when Ana showed up, unannounced, and said, ‘I need some help creating a piece that I’m thinking about. Can you come with me?’ ”

It was May 1973, just a few weeks before the end of the academic year. Ana Mendieta, 24, was finishing the first year of her MFA at the University of Iowa’s five-year-old Intermedia program, where students were encouraged to roam beyond the traditional boundaries of painting, printmaking, and sculpture and into emerging fields like performance, video, and conceptual art. The sisters lived in Iowa City, a college town then home to around 50,000 people. Raquelín was 27, married with two young daughters, and just then she was working her member hours at one of the university’s several cooperative-run day-care centers. Ana and Raquelín had always been close — as girls in their native Cuba they had shared a bedroom, and they had survived a difficult adolescence spent in Catholic-run group and foster homes across Iowa — and Ana sometimes relied on Raquelín for help executing her pieces.

Ana had recently taken up film as a medium, partly as a way of documenting the fugitive, performance-based art she was making, art that had the body and its transformation as a central element. For a piece the year before, Ana asked a classmate named Morty Sklar to shave his beard and mustache, collected the shorn hairs, and carefully glued them to her own face. For another work, she put a dried bean up her nose in hopes it would sprout. When it did, she had to get it removed. The doctor was horrified. These were the kinds of things Ana did.

Raquelín looked around the day care center. It was a slow day. The other parents working could cover for her. She turned to her sister and, without even asking what the piece was, said sure, she’d help, as long as they didn’t take too long. They got in Ana’s car.

With Raquelín in the passenger seat, Ana drove downtown and parked around the corner from the Moffitt building, the plain redbrick low-rise where she lived, in Iowa City’s small downtown. Only a couple of blocks from campus, the street was a busy one, and the Moffitt building’s ground floor was all storefronts — the American Beauty Shoppe, a place that sold granite monuments and grave markers, and the building’s management office, which still bore the name of the original developer, H.F. Moffitt, in faded letters.

Earlier that day, before going to find Raquelín, Ana had assembled everything else she needed for the piece she wanted to make. She had borrowed equipment from the art department and gone to the Whiteway Supermarket on Clinton Street, just south of campus, to pick up a bucket of cow’s blood she’d convinced the butchers to save for her.

Ana got out of the car, carrying her cameras and her container of blood. Her parking spot was not ideal. She’d figured she’d shoot from inside her own car, but all the spaces in front were taken. Raquelín remembers there was an “old, 1940s type of car” parked near the building’s door. “We didn’t know who it belonged to, but it was unlocked,” Raquelín says. Iowa City in the early Seventies was the kind of place where cars (and front doors) were often left unlocked. “Ana said, ‘Let’s get in this car.’ ”

While Raquelín, holding a Super 8 camera, settled into the front seat of the stranger’s vehicle, Ana took her bucket of blood and walked to her building’s front door. She worked quickly, pouring blood and spreading bits of viscera on the sidewalk, starting at the threshold. The big concrete paving squares in front of the Moffitt building had long ago settled at uneven angles — perhaps because of the freeze-thaw cycle of the harsh Midwestern winters, or perhaps due to some oversight in how they were originally laid — and so the bloody matter ran down the sidewalk, away from the doorstep, seeking a level. Staining the concrete as it flowed, the blood pooled in the lowermost corner of a square of pavement, collecting to make something chunky and unspeakable.

Ana got into the front seat of the car, relegating Raquelín to the back. “I want to know what people’s reactions are going to be when they walk by and see blood dripping out from under the door,” she told Raquelín. Ana took back the Super 8 and handed her sister a still camera to document the reactions. Raquelín recalls there was a third person with them that day — a parent friend from the day care center, though she can no longer remember who — who also sat in the back seat and helped with the photographs.

The film Ana made that day, which she called Moffitt Building Piece — the related series of still photographs is known as “People Looking at Blood, Moffitt” — is one of a number of artworks Ana Mendieta made with blood in the years 1973 and ’74; she’d been working with blood since at least 1972, when she filmed a performance in which she stood in a white studio and held a decapitated chicken by the talons as it flailed in its death throes, flapping its wings and spattering its blood over her naked body. Blood’s power to convey many meanings captivated the young artist. Sometimes she plumbed its Catholic resonances, evoking imagery of, for example, the sacred heart or the Eucharist. But in the spring of 1973, something happened in Iowa City that led Mendieta to respond with a suite of works, including Moffitt Building Piece, that were different from those that had come before. These new pieces used blood as a symbol of violence and its aftermath, and they all forced a confrontation with their (usually unsuspecting) audience.

Although Mendieta was generally loath to talk directly about the meaning of her work, when she spoke about these pieces in later interviews, she always explained that she’d felt moved to make works addressing violence because of an incident on campus: the March 1973 murder of a 20-year-old nursing student. The victim’s name was Sarah Ann Ottens.

Mendieta told a reporter for the university newspaper in 1977 that she began making these pieces after Ottens’s death, “as a reaction to the idea of violence against women.” Years later, Mendieta again referred to Ottens when she wrote, in a letter to a museum curator, “I became very involved with the rape issue in 1973 when a young student at the University of Iowa was found murdered after having been brutally raped.”

While these works were exhibited widely both before and after Mendieta’s death in 1985, art historians, curators, and critics have not always identified Ottens, and they have sometimes gotten details of the case wrong. (A notable exception is the art historian Julia Herzberg, who devoted significant space to Ottens in her 1998 dissertation on Mendieta.) Although Ottens’s death is remembered well by many older residents of Iowa City, interest in her from outside that community has come largely from crime writers. The only recent article about Mendieta that gives a meaningful portrait of Ottens is by Sarah Weinman, a crime writer, and was published last year in the Guardian. In exhibition wall copy and in books about Mendieta, Ottens is often left nameless.

Sarah Ann Ottens was killed two months before Mendieta made Moffitt Building Piece. The student’s body was found in a dorm room one night during spring break; she had been savagely beaten and choked to death. The killer then wet his victim’s head and hair, presumably in an attempt either to revive her or to wash away the blood, leaving behind a stopped-up sink full of bloody water. Ottens’s was the first murder to take place on the University of Iowa campus in its 126-year history. Newspapers across the state, as well as in Ottens’s native Illinois, covered the news of her death and the ensuing investigation above the fold for months. “Just fear, and a sense of not being safe, that was the mood in town,” says Raquelín Mendieta.

It was reported that Ottens was found lying facedown, wearing a torn, bloodstained green blouse, while the rest of her clothing was strewn around the Rienow Hall room where she was killed. Her lower body had been carefully covered by a bedspread. Other than the corpse on the floor, the room was strangely orderly: Both bunk beds were neatly made, and the only sign of a disturbance was an overturned ashtray, which might have been the mischief of the two pet cats Ottens had been looking after.

The medical examiner’s report concluded that Ottens had not been raped before she was killed. But the pathologist who performed the autopsy found that her corpse had been violated rectally and vaginally — newspapers used the euphemism “mutilated” or “molested” — with the bloody broomstick that had been used to choke her. Even now, 40 years later, everyone I’ve spoken to in Iowa City who remembers the murder brings up this broomstick. “That was what women were angry about,” says Diane Troyer, a filmmaker and a friend of Ana Mendieta’s who lived in Iowa City at the time. “Does that not violate a woman on every level that there is?”

In the early 1970s, women’s access to higher education was still a newly won right. Title IX, which outlawed sex discrimination in public education, had only been passed in 1972. Although the University of Iowa had in theory admitted men and women on an equal basis since its founding, in practice male students had long outnumbered women on campus, and in the early Seventies the faculty in most departments (including the art department) was either entirely or almost all male. Many private colleges still excluded women entirely. The place of women on campus, their right to safety, their very right to an education were still up for debate.

The coverage of Ottens’s murder reflected a wider parental and societal fear about the place of women on campus: that the equal treatment their daughters were increasingly demanding would put them at greater physical risk — that liberation would come at the cost of safety. That fear underlies almost every news story published about Ottens’s death. It’s in the headlines that refer to Ottens as a “coed,” the ledes that repeat that Ottens’s body was found “partially clad” or “partly nude,” and in the questions to Ottens’s friends about her relations with men (she had “several male companions” but “no steady boy friend [sic]”). Meanwhile, the violence of the old system that women on campus were fighting — the rapes never reported, the expulsions on “morality” grounds, the systematic exclusion of women from higher education — went largely unexamined.

The Ottens murder galvanized the discussion of violence against women, an issue which, Mendieta would tell the Village Voice in 1980, “I just can’t see being theoretical about.” Shortly after the killing, a group of female students founded the university’s first rape crisis line — also one of the first in the nation. The activists remained anonymous at the time, for fear of harassment and because “we don’t want to create superstars,” as one volunteer put it in a news story, but one of those involved was a friend of Ana’s named Sheila Kelly. Editorials appeared in the university newspaper, signed by entities like Women United Against the Common Oppressor and WAR: Women Against Rape.

Ana Mendieta did not play a direct role in this activism. She wasn’t protesting or answering calls on the rape crisis line. But she was making art. Mendieta placed signs of violence in public where viewers were forced to see it and react. She poured blood on the crotch of a pair of her jeans, placed them in the alley behind her building, and aimed her camera out a window to capture the people who discovered them. Another time, she filled a suitcase with, as Raquelín recalls, “animal entrails and blood” wrapped in newspaper, like pieces of a dismembered body — and left it propped open in a large public park near an abandoned zoo.

“She put it in this park where a lot of students frequented, thinking people are gonna say, ‘Somebody has been murdered and put inside a suitcase,’ ” Raquelín remembers. Ana waited, expecting someone to raise the alarm. “What happened was a man came by and stole the suitcase.”

As her friend and fellow artist Nancy Spero said in a 1987 interview, it was the women’s movement that “gave her permission to do this kind of expression.” A violence most often suffered in private was finally was finally being talked about. “Iowa City had a very high incidence of rape,” Mary Boudreau, a fellow student and friend of both Mendieta and Kelly, told Herzberg in a 1994 interview. “The problem of rape was very much on our minds.” So was other violence against women. In addition to the Ottens murder, Troyer recalled a series of attacks on women in Iowa City committed by a masked man with a baseball bat. “At that time, you aren’t worried about someone making a pass at you and rubbing your leg — you’re worried about your life, as a female. You know who the predators are, and it’s not because they want sex, it’s because they hate women.”

About a month before Moffitt Building Piece, Mendieta invited art school classmates, and the art professor she was then romantically involved with, to her apartment, where they found the door ajar. As they walked in they saw Mendieta, her wrists bound with rope to her kitchen table, her underwear around her ankles, with dried blood running down her thighs in streaks. Her furniture had been overturned and dishes were broken on the floor. There was blood on the floor, blood in the toilet, and a bent wire coat hanger. Mendieta called the resulting work Rape Scene.

Working with Kelly’s assistance that afternoon, Mendieta had carefully plotted the angles of the tableau, repositioning her kitchen table several times until it was in just the right spot that her body would be seen the instant anyone entered the apartment. Once Mendieta was satisfied, Kelly tied her up and left before the artist’s classmates began to arrive. Mendieta remained motionless in the performance for about an hour, which, she later told a reporter for the university newspaper, “really jolted” her audience.

Rape has a long history as a subject in art, but it was exceedingly rare, in 1973, for an artist to portray rape as a violent crime, one with a victim who was terrorized bodily and mentally. Western art is studded with famous, beautiful “Rape of” paintings — Leda, Io, Europa, Lucretia, the Sabine women, the daughters of Leucippus — all depicted by men, cheerfully. Rape scenes were painted in sumptuous colors by the likes of Titian and Rubens, or sculpted with luscious, fleshy realism by Bernini. There might be a token struggle, but there is never any force. Io attempts to evade Jupiter only coyly. They could as easily be dancing. At least part of rape’s popularity seems to be due to the opportunity it offered to male artists to depict a female nude and male collectors to own one. In the history of art, rape is eroticized, exalted. The men who commit it are gods, war heroes, and kings.

It is this tradition — what the critic Susan Brownmiller has called “heroic rape” — that Mendieta’s Rape Scene defies by centering female pain. Mendieta used her own body to create this work, and she retains control of the depiction; her nude body is de-eroticized and confrontational. Though triggered by Ottens’s real-life murder, Rape Scene departs significantly from news accounts and photos of the dorm room crime scene. Mendieta’s has far more visible injury, more signs of force, more broken crockery and thrown furniture. More blood. It is at once abject and fierce; it is also intensely cruel. Imagine the shock of discovering, without warning, the violated body of your classmate, your friend, your girlfriend. Imagine, also, taking the story of the death of a woman you never met and using it for art.

“I didn’t know if it was OK or not,” Mendieta said of the work years later, in a 1985 interview. “I did something that I believed in and that I felt I had to do.”

The body of work Mendieta started in the spring of 1973 remains among her most influential. It would turn out to hit close to home.

Mendieta spent the summer of 1973 in Mexico. Upon her return to Iowa City, in August, she was at her sister’s home when she happened to witness, as Raquelín puts it, “one of my ex-husband’s drunken rampages.” Ana and Raquelín’s brother Ignacio, then just a teenager, was also in the house. So were Raquelín’s young daughters. “He terrorized us,” says Raquelín. She remembers the exact date: August 9. “[He] beat my head against the house door and pointed a shotgun at us, shooting three holes onto the ceiling and walls of the living room.” It was not the first time he had abused Raquelín, but it was the first time Ana saw it happen.

That evening, the police drove them to Ana’s Moffitt building apartment, where they remained inside for the whole next day. (They sent the kids to a friend’s house for safety.) But the ex knew where Ana lived. He kept circling the block in his car, and he beat on the front door of the apartment. Ana never spoke publicly about this experience, but surely she never forgot the sounds of those shotgun blasts or those fists on her door. Raquelín recalls, “As Ana and I hid under the bed we said to each other, ‘This is the scariest movie we have ever been in.’ ”

In September of 1973, a fellow student — a former player on Iowa’s football team — was arrested for Ottens’s murder (he was convicted, then released after a series of appeals, and is now in prison for another murder). The combination of the incident with Raquelín and the death on campus continued to exert a powerful pull on Ana. She made a series of self-portraits with blood dripping down her face, clearly evoking that terrifying day at Raquelín’s house. Later that fall, Ana dragged some dirty mattresses into an abandoned farmhouse in a wooded area near the campus. She scattered debris, papers, and clothing around the room. Then she poured blood on the mattresses and splattered it on the walls. The sculptor Charles Ray, then a student at Iowa, happened upon the scene while out walking and was greatly disturbed by it. Mendieta overheard Ray talking with other students in the art building about it and wondering if it was “real.” His unease gratified Mendieta, though she quickly confessed to having created the scene. She went on to perform another version of Rape Scene in the woods, lying prone, naked, and covered in blood, which she documented from 35 different angles.

In Moffitt Building Piece, Mendieta leaks signs of private violence into the public street and tests the reactions of those who witness it. From the first frame of the three-minute film, it is obvious something is wrong. Before we see the blood on the screen, we see it in the body language of the people passing by. Shoulders tighten, postures straighten, a foot hovers in midair then makes a slightly different landing than planned.

We see a plate glass window with flaking lettering and yellowed blinds, a screen door with peeling white paint and an exhausted spring, and a bit of redbrick façade. A woman in a trench coat steps around the pool of blood without breaking stride. A young couple in jeans turn their heads in a synchronized double-take but don’t stop to investigate. A woman in a nurse’s uniform walks primly past. The camera scans left and right, tracking its subjects in secrecy, and the wide black pillars of the old car where Mendieta was hiding serve as a kind of bracket to each shot.

It’s a chilly May afternoon and everyone is wearing jackets as they hurry about their business. A man wearing a fedora pauses for a better look, turns left, turns right, as if checking that nobody has seen him, then walks away. A woman in white pants bends at the waist for a closer look before dipping the tip of her umbrella in the thick, dark substance. She straightens up and continues on her way. Everyone sees the blood, and everyone feigns not to.

The camera keeps on zooming in on the stained square of pavement. It’s aggressive, this camera. It’s insistent that we admit to seeing what we see. Dozens of people go by, and the blood is still there, seen but ignored. It really does look like it’s seeped out from under the building’s front door, like something awful has happened inside. Moffitt Building Piece is a horror movie without a body. The horror is that everyone notices but nobody intervenes.

Yet I also find a dark humor in this film. It’s a hidden-camera prank by a 24-year-old. The more I watch it on loop, the more I find myself smirking every time Mendieta zooms in, gleefully pinpointing a new target of her perverse empathy test. As the film goes on, the tediousness and ridiculousness of the lengths to which we will go to keep a straight face — one woman, clearly seeing the blood, retreats to the edge of the sidewalk yet still continues on — start to feel pathetic, though also deeply human. How heavily our fear of standing out, of reacting to what others in our midst have shown themselves capable of ignoring, weighs on us all. The longer the film plays, the stranger it would be for someone to be seen to notice the blood, or to raise the alarm.

When she sees Moffitt Building Piece today, Raquelín says what impresses her most is her sister’s boldness. “There was a sense of risk-taking,” she recalls, “not only because of the use of blood and what people or the police might think we were doing, but also because we were in a stranger’s car, who might have returned at any moment.”

When she got into that car Ana Mendieta was prepared for someone walking by to call the police and say, “There’s been a murder here — there’s blood dripping out from this door.” She was prepared to explain herself and show the Whiteway receipt. But as the film reveals, that’s the kind of thing that only happens in movies. In the real world, after a long time, a gray-haired man in blue-and-white striped overalls and a dirty shirt comes out of the dingy office with the yellowed blinds. He carries a cardboard box and a scraper. He has the world-weary air of an experienced janitor. Without even looking around, the man bends down and begins to clean the blood from his doorstep, as he has cleaned up so many unspeakable things before.

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