This is the second post of my ongoing series of interventions in the landscape inspired by Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas. This group is collated from silhouettes made in the eastern suburbs of Sydney.
I made my first Australian, public, and symbolic self-portrait in a drift of London plane leaves. As I couldn’t move the leaves while lying on them, I “carved” out a silhouette with my foot. I felt a slight sense of separation because the Silueto was emblematic rather than a tracing on the ground but I learned there’s no real need for me to draw around my body as it’s the action of my body drawing itself that is important.
At this early stage, my performative restraint was driven by unfamiliarity, externally-imposed limitations (e.g. road laws), and coronavirus lockdown keeping me close to home; as the philosopher once said, don’t shit in your own nest. Being judged as a weirdo for doing strange things in public (again) took a while to get used to (again), but once I start working, I tend to forget that other people exist so it’s all good.
Although I initially shaped materials with my hands, my disability sometimes forced me to use tools like brooms and trowels. As it turns out, I learned that there’s no real need for me to touch the materials directly as it’s the action of drawing that is important. Tools also make larger scale works a lot more efficient and you don’t scrape the skin off your hands!
With each intervention, my confidence in the process grew, and I began to explore new ideas like adding a cartouche/aura to the figure because why not? There were so many leaves in the pile (Figure 4) that I had to do something with them. Trying new things like this – just to see what happens – is a fundamental part of Contemporary Art and a major reason why it has become such an expansive movement.
My longest-lasting Silueto is a floral work which stained the concrete as it decomposed: the trace of the trace was still visible three months later.
Failure is also an option, like the work below, carved from living grass just seconds before the lawn guy mowed over it.
He couldn’t see it, you can’t see it, and I can’t see it. Talk about ephemeral.
Meanwhile, I became aware of my everyday surroundings in a new way. Something as mundane as flower petals in the laneway suddenly became materials on a surface for mark-making (and the scent was heavenly). I played around with the documentary photo later, turning the figure into The Void.
And then there were these clothes put out for collection that someone had rummaged through. After I’d finished the intervention, I put them back on the pile because: I’m tidy, I don’t have to leave them where I placed them, and I can destroy the intervention if I want to. It was interesting to use shirts to create the torso and arms and trousers for the legs. If there’d been a hat for the head, I’d’ve been giggling all the way to the coffee shop.
During this time, I began experiencing a perceptual shift from “silhouette” to “man”; I even referred to them as male in my inner monologue. Like Mendieta’s female works, my pieces were gendered, and now I can’t think of them as anything else. Except when a big storm blows down trees that are cut up by the State Emergency Service and I draw genderless aliens in the sawdust.
In Cuba’s Santería religion, serio means “rigorous, embodied knowledge achieved through repeating actions” (Hyacinthe, 2019, para. 2). More expansively, this is the way an artist returns to particular concepts, such as van Gogh’s sunflowers, Mendieta’s Siluetas, and my Siluetos. Every time I leave the house nowadays, my subconscious is on the lookout for potential sites and materials. Even a trip to the recycling bins is no longer just a walk; it’s a potential future artwork.
Occasionally, I will perform a second intervention on the first. Usually, it is no more than filling in an outline but the result can be worth the effort.
Natural figures are produced in and of the landscape, degrading by circumstance until only the post-intervention documentation remains. Sometimes, even the artificial trace is so congruent it goes unremarked.
Sometimes it is so subtle that no-one sees it.
My first Siluetos were minimalist because they had just two physical aspects: landscape and found material. When I started intervening in an urban setting, a third element was added: contrast. The incongruence of natural materials presented against an artificial surface can make the image stand out much more.
Sometimes, the Silueto is so beautiful that it encourages passers-by to document their own performance, which encourages me to document their documentation. I don’t always call my work beautiful but when I do, it has knocked my socks off. Frangipanis rock.
Meanwhile, I have been exploring the documentation as if it were an archive, playing with new techniques while retaining a sense of ephemerality through the digital medium. Figure 18 explores colour splash (a small area of colour in a black and white photograph) and complementary colour backgrounds (inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s paintings).
Usually, I’m the only one to experience an intervention directly. Sometimes, passers-by observe the performance. I once invited an audience of friends, though the presence of others is not as important as the action. My flatmate did a collaborative drone shot which has opened my eyes up to all sorts of possibilities.
Of course, there’s no reason the interventions have to be outdoors.
And there’s no reason they have to be performed during the day. A night-time walk to burn off some lockdown energy before bed turned into a creative opportunity which got me so energised that I couldn’t get to sleep.
Nor do they need to be beautiful; the abject is as interesting as the sublime.
Although every Silueto constitutes different elements from different times and places, they are each part of the same desire to express/explore connection to land/landscape.
Other artists have been inspired by Mendieta’s work, such as Nancy Spero painting Homage to Ana Mendieta (Walker, 2009) and Genevieve Hyacinthe recreating Siluetas: “As part of my serio engagement with Mendieta’s first Silueta, Imágen de Yágul (1973), I traveled to the site in July 2016 both to gain an understanding of Mendieta’s performatives and, at the same time, to collaborate with her” (Hyacinthe, 2019, para. 3). This “trend” is partly because memories of her life and death remain fresh, partly because enough time has passed that people have been able to write scholarly essays about her, and partly because she was onto something that speaks across the decades.
Hyacinthe, G. (2019). An Art Historian Researches Ana Mendieta By Reenacting One of Her Works. Retrieved from https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/excerpt-radical-virtuosity-ana-mendieta-and-the-black-atlantic-60219/
Walker, J. S. (2009). The Body is Present Even if in Disguise: Tracing the Trace in the Artwork of Nancy Spero and Ana Mendieta. Tate Papers. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/11/the-body-is-present-even-if-in-disguise-tracing-the-trace-in-the-artwork-of-nancy-spero-and-ana-mendieta