All these cinders, he feels them burning his flesh. —Jacques Derrida, Cinders
In 1978, Ana Mendieta burned the title page of Mircea Eliade's Rites and Symbols of Initiation with a branding-iron formed in the shape of her own hand (pl. 7). The burn goes deep; the first five or six pages are reduced to feathery black ashes where the palm of the iron hand pressed down hard. The imprint of the fingers appears more slender, and its touch is less harsh, but it has scorched a few of the title's black letters. The cover of the book has been torn from the binding to reveal the vulnerable white leaves that are now warped and curled at the corners. The smoke from the fire has defiled the leaves; they appear dirty, battered, and fragile. It is hard to get through the density of meanings encoded in this gesture of branding. A brand is meant to claim ownership, to stigmatize, or to signify the Contents of a vessel. It disintegrates like words, burns and yet loses its hold like names. It is a self-effacing mark, Derrida's cinder.
I begin here with fire, with ashes, with words on the printed page, because in them I see Ana Mendieta's methodology, her performative practice of marking through disappearance. That dissolutive practice is absolutely central to the interpretation of her oeuvre. It is important both because it was employed in varying degrees by an entire generation of artists and because it relates directly to the themes with which Mendieta engaged. One of the four essentials, fire is as evanescent as speech, as elusive as certainty, as animate and unstable as identity. I see Mendieta's branding of Eliade's book as paradigmatic of her engagement with the contradictions of gender, ethnicity, and nationality; I want to finger the book's pages to see how she plays with fire.
Identity's politics is naming, a necessary practice inflamed by an underlying belief in innate qualities, by the presumption of authenticity or of essences that flicker and burn. The period of Ana Mendieta's active career coincides directly with the era of both divisive feminist arguments around the issue of essentialism and radical subaltern critiques of identity. These incendiary debates, whose flames were fanned throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s by the winds of Marxism, women's liberation, poststructuralism, deconstruction, postcoloniahsm, and psycho-analysis, have proved difficult to contain.
Even if we momentarily (and artificially) isolate the debate on essentialism and gender from other battles over the nature of identity, the issues become only slightly more manageable. One might State simplistically that, in the context of early second wave feminism, women artists like Judy Chicago, Harmony Hammond, Mary Beth Edelson, Hannah Wilke, and Buffie Johnson formed a collective political response to sexism through a celebration of and insistence on the innate qualities of femininity and the notion of a recognizable feminine aesthetic. Their efforts have been reinforced by such theorists as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Silvia Bovenschen, and Tania Modleski. Poststructuralism and identity politics, on the other hand, have drawn attention to the differences among women and to the classist, racist, and homophobic tendencies that have remained hidden (although some would say hidden in plain view) within feminism. As a result, many women artists turned against the universalism of feminism's essentialist philosophy. One thinks of Laurie Andersons cyborg performances, Catherine Opie's photographs of lesbians costumed as men, or Mary Kelly's investigations into the psychoanalysis of gender construction. Their critiques of the essential category woman have been buttressed by the work of Toril Moi, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Elizabeth Spelman.
The debate as I have sketched it here is, however, only a schematic for a much more intricate relation of discourses that only proliferate more questions. If gender is constructed, then how, and by whom? Is gender/sex determined by culture or chosen freely by the individual? Is gender the constructed half of the sex/gender binary; in which case, is sex really free of social inscription? Does the problem lie with the body and our conception of it or rather with the phallogocentric language and epistemology through which we are forced to see it? What is the real, concrete effect of either essentialism or antiessentialism as political practice? How do these issues play out in relation to identity categories beyond and in combination with gender? What historical and political influences have prompted the varying responses to the question of essentialism, and why is it being asked now?
It is well beyond the scope of this project to attempt a detailed and accurate summary of all the theoretical and artistic responses to these questions. My point is rather that feminists on all sides of the debate are burned by the contradictions mandated by the epistemology of identity, a fact made evident by at least two important books on the subject: Diana Fuss's Essentially Speaking (1989) and Naomi Schor and Elizabeth Weed's more recent anthology The Essential Difference (1994). These books testify to the insolubility of the essentialist/constructionist debate. They take up Simone de Beauvoir's question, "What is a woman?" while at the same time asking, along with Judith Butler, "What can be meant by 'identity'?" Like Butler, they wonder "what grounds the presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent?" But they are also suspicious of the political disengagement that can result from the strict application of Butler's deconstructive method. So they ask, to paraphrase Schor, to what extent does antiessentialism "secure feminism's place in male theory and recognition by it, notably the dominant male theory of the era, poststructuralism, which is most often to say, deconstruction?" To what extent is antiessentialism "the wages of academic legitimation?" The possibilities for a resolution, a laying to rest of the problem, are limited only to a concession that essence and antiessence are inextricable. Even Judith Butler concedes that it is impossible to do away with identity categories and the dangers of essence that they imply.
If we make room in our examination of identity for race, ethnicity, and nationality, the questions multiply exponentially. The radical examination of identity politics in the United States grew out of the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and the advent of postcolonialism, each of which prompted a critique of dominant epistemologies of culture and identity. It was aided in the art world by the prolific (although often short-lived) formation of various ethnic, racial, and political groups throughout the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Art Workers Coalition, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and El Movimiento Artistico Chicano. The Task Force on Discrimination against Women and Minority Artists, a group in which Mendieta was actively engaged in the late 1970s, was formed out of the same impulse. In addition, the critique of identity has been taken up by a huge and diverse group of writers, including Trinh Minh-ha, Gayatri Spivak, Cornel West, Gloria Anzaldúa, Homi Bhabha, Richard Dyer, and Kobena Mercer.
Following the debates around essentialism and antiessentialism and feminism, the insoluble problem for theorists of race, ethnicity, and culture lies in the contradictory benefits and dangers of identification. While Cornel West, for example, argues for the need to make vigorous claims on black identity, Trinh Minh-ha sees identity and authenticity as a trap. "I fear and reprove classification," she writes, "and the death it entails." Are race and ethnicity biologically determined or culturally constructed? Does the claim that they are essential add to or detract from the power of racism? Does the claim that they are constructed disallow effective coalition politics? Is it possible to discuss race at all within dominant discourses and epistemologies? To what extent are these questions prompted by the commodification of diversity and the fashion for the multicultural?
Ana Mendieta's work encourages me to believe that, while gender, ethnicity, race, and nationality are offered as though one were free to take either an essentialist or a constructionist position relative to them, they are in fact constituted a priori by both philosophies. There is no freedom here. In order for them to exist as categories at all means that each must represent both an individual and a group, both difference and sameness. I agree with Judith Butler's claim that "naming is at once the setting of a boundary, and also the repeated inculcation of a norm." At the same time, I want to insist, following Mendieta's example, that the boundary is made of ashes, that naming is as ambivalent and self-destructive as any other form of language subject to the surplus of meaning. "In a cinder of words," Derrida writes, "in the cinder of a name, the cinder itself, the literal—that which he loves—has disappeared." The name is ontologically a cinder because, the instant a name is used, it stands in place of, obliterates, burns the real, whose identity it is called to witness. Derrida's prose beautifully represents the combustion of the body by the name, essence by identity. He returns us once again to the charred remains of Eliade's book: "The urn of language is so fragile. It crumbles and immediately you blow into the dust of words which are the cinder itself. And if you entrust it to paper, it is all the better to inflame you with, my dear, you will eat yourself up immediately." How is it, then, that the dry leaves of Eliade's text serve as kindling for Mendieta's fire?
Mendieta's art bears the imprint of feminism's most fundamental conflict, which was waged all around her throughout her career, yet the stakes were higher for her than for some women because femininity was the least of her problems. It was her most readily legible quality within the unyielding terms of identity; her ethnicity and nationality were far less clear. Mendieta did not solve this conflict in any definitive way. Rather, she brought to it an approach that revealed the instability of the footings on which it is built, an approach that conveys meaning through disappearance, makes marks with ashes, and draws our attention to a quivering flame.
This is a decidedly postmodern approach, one that would become the hallmark of a generation of artists who apply the 1960s notion of dematerialization to the critique of subjectivity, authority, identity, and history. What Mendieta shares with Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Glen Ligon, Yolanda Lopez, Cindy Sherman, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and any number of other artists coming to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s is neither medium nor necessarily subject matter but the method by which they engage in cultural critique. Sherman's staged self-portraits, for example, pile layers of femininity like petticoats on her absent "self" so that the photograph clicks on disappearance. Felix Gonzales-Torres's series of untitled candy portraits similarly invoke absence. These colorfully cellophane-wrapped piles of candy are meant to be taken, piece by piece, by an audience that literally consumes the work of art. Unlike traditional portraiture, which attempts to fix some inner identity to which the uniquely gifted artist is privy, Gonzales-Torres's works engage a sense of identity that is tenuous, unstable, and impermanent, realized in dispersal.
Mendieta may be said to apply the strategy of disappearance more literally than artists like Sherman or Gonzales-Torres do. Rebecca Schneider attempts to capture the unique quality of Mendieta's work by writing that, in it, "loss is not an anxious flirtation, not riddled with desire, displacement, or dislocation. Loss is present—literal, exigent, palpable." Miwon Kwon asks (regarding essentialism and antiessentialism), "Might a reconsideration of Mendieta's work complicate the terms of the current feminist debate?" She answers that question by proposing that there is something enigmatic about Mendieta's art, "a peculiarity that spills over and exceeds this feminist framing. Mendieta's use of her/the body almost always approached erasure or negation: her 'body' consistently disappeared." For Kwon, this disappearance is reiterated and made more palpable by its photographic documentation, a special kind of representation that, like the souvenir, replaces the "original" in a way that produces desire. For me, it is a performative marking, a refusal to satisfy the question at all, a means to trouble the very assumptions that enable it to be asked. Mendieta's work taken as a whole presents the female body but takes it back, reveals identity through disappearance, names by burning.
Ana Mendieta's use of identity categories plays between the one and the many, between essence and inessence. Rather than positioning herself on one side or another, she worked strategically with the inherent contradiction of the essential. In an often-quoted artist's statement, Mendieta explains:
My art is grounded in the belief in 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 the Universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts 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.
This statement is emblematic of Mendieta's strategy. At first glance, it seems irreducibly essentialist. To posit "one Universal Energy" and the search for origins is to rely heavily on a belief in essences and immutable properties. Yet she characterizes such properties as elusive, shifting, and subject to contradiction: "There is no original past to redeem.... There is above all the search for origin."
I am convinced that this contradiction owes its force to her fundamental conception of identity as orphanhood, as a loss of origin. Like Octavio Paz, by whose writing she was strongly influenced, Mendieta claims that identity, which is always approached only through the mechanism of separation and difference, is itself a form of exile. "All men," Paz explains, "are born disinherited and their true condition is orphanhood." The exilic qualities of identity require that one is always tied to yet separated from those origins, groups, names, categories of existence, by which one is forced to define oneself. The paradox of essence is the paradox of identity; it is formed only through loss. There is no essence,only the search for essence; there is no identity, only the name; there is no origin, only the cinder.
Understanding how Mendieta successfully and at times problematically negotiated essentialism's minefield depends directly on one's recognition of the performativity of her work. As I stated in the introduction to this book, by performative I am referring, not to performance art per se, but to acts and utterances that, to paraphrase Butler, "put into effect the relation that they name." When Mendieta refers to the "unbaptized" earth, she engages in and offers a specifically performative strategy for usurping the unyielding power of names.
To baptize is presumably to name through a "first act." It is to initiate a connection with civilization and religion, with both humanity and god. In the case of the earth, to baptize is to forge a relation with territory, nation, or agriculture. One imagines, for example, that Columbus "baptized" the earth of present-day Latin America by anointing it with the blood of the native and by claiming it in the name of Spain. Baptism, it should be noted, is the perfect example of Austins performative in that the utterance of a few words transforms the identity of the baptized. To unbaptize is to place the initiate outside the name's reach. To unbaptize the earth is to unmark it, that is, to make it disappear from the binary structures that normally mark it as feminine, primitive, or undeveloped in a pejorative sense. It is a deconstructionist move that undoes the very hierarchies by which naming is organized. To unbaptize is to reveal the name as a cinder.
This strategy is everywhere in evidence in Mendieta's branded book. This work, it should be noted, stages an intense ambivalence in that it both relies on and questions Eliade's theories. I will argue that the work marks (in Phelan's sense) Eliade's text in such a way as both to interrogate its presumed authority and to redesign its construction of the primitive. The categorical distinction that Eliade sets up between primitive and modern ultimately reflects the presumed opposition between essentialist and constructionist philosophies, respectively. Mendieta's work exposes the binaries that Eliade erects between traditional man and modern man, between prehistory and history, between essence and inessence. In so doing, it shows the limitations of Eliade's legitimating historical view and, alternatively, finds power in unbaptizing origins.