On the 30th anniversary of the death of Ana Mendieta, I decided to take a retroactive look at one of her most shocking and poignant works – People Looking At Blood (1973).
Perhaps a precursor to the (now-waning) Shock Art phenomenon of the nineties, Mendieta is undoubtedly a cult hero, and an inspiration to many. Tragically, Mendieta died in September 1985, the aftermath of which echoes one of her most shocking works - People Looking At Blood.
Whilst at home in her thirty-fourth floor apartment with her artist-husband Carl Andre, an argument was heard by the neighbors and Ana ‘went out the window” (Andre’s description). Accident, suicide, or murder, this form of death is eerily similar to what appears to have happened in People Looking At Blood, an artwork she created twelve years before.
The work is, as its name would suggest, a series of photographs of unwitting members of the public walking past a pile of blood and innards on a New York City sidewalk. The people in the photographs do not know that they are part of an artwork, and they do not know that the blood is from an animal. The fear they experience is very real, and their reactions are honest.
Mendieta often worked with feminist themes in her work, and for that reason her use of blood can’t be ignored. Rape and murder scenes are things that she often recreated, heavy with blood and gore, and often using her own body. These works force themselves upon the viewer, often unsuspecting, in a bold and aggressive way often utilized by feminist artists.
(For simplicity from this point on I will use 'Subject' to describe the people depicted in the photographs, and 'Viewer' to describe the museumgoer viewing the photographs)
When looking at the photographs that make up the work People Looking At Blood, one cannot help but feel empathetic towards the subjects depicted in the images. Going about their daily lives they were unprepared to deal with such trauma. Who knows how such scenes will affect these people? Perhaps one of them witnessed a bloody murder and this will bring them back to that traumatic day. Whatever the subjects of these artworks felt at the time, we will perhaps never understand, the extent of which could quite literally be catastrophic.
People go out of their way to experience art in order to feel heightened emotions in a safe environment. Art that is shocking or promotes fear creates adrenaline that in the non-threatening environment of a gallery can be enjoyed without worry of actual threat. Theme parks are a popular attraction for much the same reason; people enjoy feeling fear when they are confident that they are not facing actual physical trauma. The people in these photographs however, aren’t looking at an artwork; rather they are forced to become a part of one. The photographs are then displayed in the safe gallery environment for a complicit viewer. Real fear is created in the people looking at the blood in order that their real reaction can be enjoyed by the viewer in the form of a safe experience.
People Looking At Blood goes one step further than just making the work exist in a real (non-depicted) way, as it forces people to become a part of the work. It brings the work out of the art setting entirely and places upon unsuspecting victims. When creating work in this way one is playing with real emptions and fears, and one must be very careful. When entering an art gallery one already has a set of intentional and unintentional ideas and preconceptions of what to expect, and therefore how to act. The viewer is a willing participant, and is on his guard.
Oscar Wilde expressed this notion perfectly in The Critic As Artist:
“..art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotion that it is the function of art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter.”
This artwork however, is somewhat different. The viewer has consented to view artwork, which is a decision refused the subjects. They are free to weep real tears, and their emotions will be anything but sterile.
Once art moves out of the gallery and is thrust upon the unsuspecting public (as in this work) the adrenaline cannot be enjoyed by the participant in the artwork in the same way. They are not in the safe gallery environment and are therefor facing (in their eyes) a very real threat. Real fear is created in these unwitting participants so that the gallery visitors, at the subject’s expense, can experience ‘safe fear’.
Another brilliant example of this, but in a more exaggerated and threatening way, is Chris Burden’s TV Hijack (1972). Created on a live television broadcast on which Burden was asked to create a live work, Burden held a knife to the presenter’s throat and threatened to kill her. The ethics of these are questionable, but the artworks wouldn’t be successful if this weren’t so. For these artists to create these works without the forced participation of uninformed people the works would not be as powerful or as challenging.
One can’t help but wonder; what did the people do immediately after the photographs were taken? Were they informed of the origin of the blood or the reason for its placement on the sidewalk?
This kind of work exists because people demand to be shocked in the most vicious way possible. What was deemed shocking 100 years ago is tame and tepid by today’s standards. Once the bar has been raised in terms of shock-value, anything that falls below it is then made less shocking by its comparison.
The horror of Goya has moved from the two-dimensional depicted world (i.e. painting) into the real, tangible world of Mendieta. Depictions of horror can never be as powerful as real and unexpected horror encountered in the real world. Although this blood was from an animal and was placed intentionally upon the sidewalk, the people photographed knew none of this. For them the horror was real. Mendieta successfully created real horror without having to commit a particularly horrific act. In this case, the carefully constructed instance of artificial horror, presented in this way, creates real and recognizable horror.
Artists when creating artworks are essentially intending to create a real emotion in the viewer with their work. Fear, Disgust, and Revulsion are relatively simple emotions to convey as there are many images and scenarios that when viewed will create such emotions with little effort from the artist. The Young British Artists utilized this technique to great effect and gained themselves many tabloid inches as a result. These works were successful in creating these intended emotions, but in a looser and more diluted way than achieved by Mendieta in the subjects of her photographs. People viewing these works are aware that they are viewing an artwork and not the real thing. These artworks are merely representations of horrific things, as opposed to actual horrific things, and for that reason cannot create pure emotions devoid of a level of understanding about the artwork that alters its effect.
Perhaps the most shocking and disturbing artwork to date is Zhu Yu’s ‘Eating People’ (2000), in which the artist is shown in a series of photographs cooking and eating a stillborn human foetus. The work is obviously and understandably shocking, but it lacks the delicate balance between the real and artificial present in much of Mendieta’s work. Eating People is a very extreme example of an artist deciding to create the most controversial work possible, with no other intended function other than to shock. And it is for this reason that the artwork fails to be interesting, or successful as a work of art.
This work also begs the question, ‘Where can we go now from here?’, as any artist that wants to take the ‘most shocking artwork’ mantle from Zhu is going to have to commit some pretty heinous crimes. Something expertly mocked in the satirical essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey.
In her work, Mendieta hasn’t resorted to using real human blood; her artwork is more intelligent in its approach. She has managed to create real, honest and drastic emotion, without having to resort to using drastic measures. For this reason Mendieta’s work is most powerful in its subtlety.
Mendieta’s work is as important today as it was when she died thirty years ago, she aggressively forces us to view uncomfortable images, and her poignant message is delivered unapologetically. Today too many artists are simply looking to shock the viewer, and in this they are taking the easy way out, avoiding having the laborious task of creating works with meaning.
Ana Mendieta may have helped to pave the way for the shock artists of today, but it is doubtful that she would approve of some of their lazy tactics and essentially vapid works.
Works that exist only to shock are simply not enough, and will not prove to have the longevity that Mendieta’s work undoubtedly will.