Ana Mendieta’s Glass on Body Analyzed Through “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”
“I can not forget this death. I can not forget the dehumanization of men that causes the brutalization of women. I can not forget the inhumanity of a society that will not recognize that the oppression of one member of that society by another hurts us all. I can not forget that this is what we fear every day,” (Blocker 1).
The artist Betsy Damon wrote the quote above in her homage to the artist Ana Mendieta shortly following Mendieta’s controversial death. Mendieta died in 1985 after falling from her apartment’s balcony, an incident for which her husband, Carl Andre, was tried and acquitted. To this day, however, some believe that Andre is in fact guilty of murdering Mendieta and a perpetrator of the same gendered violence that Mendieta, along with many of her female contemporaries making work in the 1970s, explored in their work (Moure 16-32). Mendieta’s series of self-portrait photographs, Glass on Body, is one such work that specifically explores the subject of women’s visual representation and, by extension, the ever-present male gaze–– the very root of the “dehumanization” and “brutalization” that Damon alludes to in her homage. Glass on Body consists of photographic prints of Mendieta pressing various parts of her nude body in various ways against a glass pane that she holds. The effect is that of Mendieta seeming to press against the photograph itself, contorting her body for the viewer. Each photograph, in its uneasy tension between understated violence and humor, is in stark opposition to conventional depictions of a female nude. Mendieta is upending this conventional depiction, one that can be said to stem from the vague yet ubiquitous concept of the male gaze, a concept in visual culture perhaps best articulated in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Through the lens of Mulvey’s seminal essay, Mendieta’s six prints from Glass on Body that depict her face can be interpreted as an exposition of the conventions of a woman’s visual representation that are seemingly inescapably mitigated through the male gaze.
Mulvey’s essay dissects the conventions in cinema that uphold the male gaze through a certain structure, yet her insights can be applied to the wider visual culture overwhelmingly informs culture today and which Mendieta references in her work. In Glass on Body, Mendeita makes it clear that the viewer is looking at a female body. It is central to the work that Mendieta presents as female, as Mulvey writes, “woman… stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other… tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” (Mulvey 7). Despite the fact that Mendieta registers as female in each photograph of her face– made clear by signifiers such as her facial features, hair, and a ring– she disrupts and subverts visual tropes of femininity through her face’s various ways of pressing on the glass that she holds. Through this duality and subtlety of incorporating tropes while subverting them, Mendieta is undertaking Mulvey’s challenge, which is “to fight the unconscious structured like a language… while still caught within the language of the patriarchy… we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides,” (Mulvey 7).
Mulvey goes on to incorporate psychoanalysis as a tool to better depict patriarchal visual structure. She writes that, in film, “curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world. Jacques Lacan has described how the moment when a child recognises its own image in the mirror is crucial for the constitution of the ego…” (Mulvey 9). In Glass on Body, Mendieta could be seen as quite literally revolting against the “mirror” itself, contorting her face in visually shocking ways, therefore taking the “recognition” of her own image outside of visual conventions and by extension disrupting scopophilic tropes expected in a reproduced image of a nude woman. On the subject of these scopophilic tropes, Mulvey continues: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female…. the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” (Mulvey 11). Through the six images of Mendieta pressing her face against a glass, Mendieta subverts the very quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness,” taking on an exhibitionist role that is devoid of tropes that fall within the visual structure of the male gaze. Similarly, Mendieta follows the conventional rule of “conventional close-ups… [integrating] into the narrative a different mode of eroticism,” (Mulvey 12) yet once again she mediates this convention of the “fragmented body” in her own unconventional, jarring way that renders it free from the visual structure Mulvey describes.
Art historian Jane Blocker writes of Glass on Body, “Mendieta’s work… interrogated the ideology of gender and the female body as a field of masculine control. Mendieta’s manipulation of her own malleable flesh against the glass and the resulting carnivalesque perversion of her once recognizable figure turn body art toward such feminist issues as the normative construction of beauty and the female body as monstrous other,” (Blocker 11). Although Mendieta’s work does interrogate issues of the female body, masculine control and constructions of beauty, Mulvey’s essay helps to crystalize the nuanced way that Mendieta exposed the pervasive domination of the male gaze through the medium of visual conventions. Mendieta understood that these visual conventions deeply affect the everyday life of women and other marginalized groups in Western culture, and it was through using this culture itself that she subtly upended the embedded hierarchies of power that often seem inescapable. As Mendieta put it herself, “The struggle for culture is the struggle for life,” (Moure 21).
Blocker, Jane. Where Is Ana Mendieta?: Identity, Performativity, and Exile. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 1-27. Print.
Mendieta, Ana. Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints–Face). 1972. Six chromogenic color prints. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Moure, Gloria. Ana Mendieta. Galicia, Spain: Centro Galego De Arte Contemporánea, 1996. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
Redfern, Christine, and Caro Caron. "Forward by Lucy Lippard." Who Is Ana Mendieta? New York: Feminist, 2011. Web.