Between Darkness and Light

Anima Shares the Vision of Ana Mendieta

By Bruce Barbour

Update: The Link reported that the talk was happening on the 26, however it is happening on the 28th. The Link regrets the error.

The FOFA gallery is dark and claustrophobic, sequestered into sections with black curtains and partitions. The sound of heavy breathing emanates from an unseen speaker.

In the next room, the sounds of heartbeats, cicadas and birds emanate, morphing seamlessly into ambiguous industrial noise. It’s primal. It’s dark. It’s, frankly, a little frightening. This is Anima, “grounded on the primordial accumulations, the unconscious urges that animate the world.”

Anima includes contributions by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron, Karilee Fulgem, Elena Willis and Jason Sanchez, and Philomène Longpré. The exhibit, which runs from Sept. 6 to Oct. 7 in the main gallery of the Faculty of Fine Arts (EV 1.715), centers on the work of female artists whose multimedia approaches share in the vision of the late Ana Mendieta.

Mendieta was a Cuban expatriate, feminist, performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist whose famed “Silueta series” explored women’s physical and spiritual connection with nature, creating female silhouettes out of natural materials and positioning them in natural surroundings.

One such work displayed in the gallery is a grainy film depicting a female shape slowly burning into dust. On an adjacent wall are framed drawings from curator Christine Redfern and Caro Caron’s graphic novel, Who Is Ana Mendieta?

The images illustrate Mendieta’s life and work, using direct quotes and biographic information to relate Mendieta’s contributions to feminism and her artistic commitment to exploring themes such as violence, sexuality, and the marginalization of female contributions in the art world.

The tableaus are captivating, nuanced and incredibly complex, juxtaposing the playfulness of the medium with the darkness and severity of Mendieta’s biography and body of work. Men’s faces leer at the artist’s body, stripped naked as she discusses her heritage, her artistic influences and the gendered discrimination she observes within the art world.

Mendieta’s own voice often provides the novel’s text, so that Who is Ana Mendieta? is an authentic introduction to the artist’s work in a modern medium that nonetheless borrows from the artist’s focus on sexual politics and the female form.

But it is Xia, by interactive media artist Philomène Longpré, which perhaps best captures the duality of light and darkness inherent to the Jungian concept from which the exhibit derives its name. Xia is at once beautiful and terrifying, combining classic painterly techniques with a thoroughly modern use of digital technology.

Xia depicts a woman curled in the fetal position against a carnation-coloured backdrop streaked with dark clouds of charcoal. The figure seems to protrude from the backdrop due to layered HD video, which creates a shockingly three-dimensional holographic effect.

As the viewer approaches, the figure springs to life. She flails, kicks her legs, jerks her head and arms, stares urgently outwards, seemingly in distress. At times she disappears completely, reappearing in a startling cacophony of sound and strobe lights.

The piece encapsulates the dual nature of Anima, the juxtaposition of beauty and terror, the figure’s movements somewhere between graceful dancer and desperate captive. Such is the appeal of the exhibit as a whole, illustrating the dualities of life and decay, male and female forces, freedom and restraint.

Ana Mendieta is brought back to life in Redfern and Caron’s graphic novel only to die again in the burning female form depicted onscreen. Xia is beautiful as long as its figure remains trapped. The viewer is forced to confront the primordial impulses that drive creative expression—and perhaps even life as a whole.

Exhibition / Sept. 6 to Oct. 7 (Mondays to Fridays) / 11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. / FOFA Gallery (1515 Ste. Catherine. St., EV 1.715) Book launch and cocktails / Sept. 24 / 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Artist Talk / Sept. 28 / 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. / Philomène Longpré, Karilee Fuglem and Elena Willis.

This article originally appeared in Volume 32, Issue 03, published September 13, 2011.