Ana Mendieta & Carolee Schneemann: Irrigation Veins
Selected Works 1966–1983
On ViewP.P.O.W. Gallery and Galerie Lelong & Co.
The digital exhibition Irrigation Veins: Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann, Selected Works 1966 - 1983, begins with Mendieta’s Volcán (1979), a photograph of a grassy, vulva-like mound of earth from which sparks explode upward, a festive eruption of fire and energy on the shoreline of a murky brown body of water. Like many of Mendieta’s works, the physical traces of this action have long ago dissipated, leaving only documentation behind. Co-presented by P.P.O.W. Gallery and Galerie Lelong & Co., Irrigation Veins pairs Mendieta’s work with Carolee Schneemann’s, a concept that was proposed by Schneemann herself in the last year of her life. While included together in several group exhibitions and essays beginning in the 1970s, this is the first time that the artists have been put in direct dialogue with one another in a two-person show. Eschewing some of the artists’ better-known works (notably absent are Schneemann’s more provocative performances), the exhibition highlights a shared vocabulary of natural forces and feminine embodiment that remains urgent today.
In Schneemann’s Study for Up to and Including Her Limits (1973), the artist is photographed nude, suspended from a tree in a pruning harness, head back and arms outstretched in a floating gesture of weightlessness. Schneemann would later use the same harness in the studio, suspending her body so that she could freely draw on the walls and floor around her—the result was her monumental multi-media performance, Up to and Including Her Limits (1973–76). But in its forested setting, the particular “study” included in this exhibition draws parallels to her 1966 film diptych Water Light/Water Needle, which also incorporates elements of aerial play as participants move between suspended ropes in the woods.
Mendieta’s Parachute (1973) also takes on a sense of elemental flight. Made in collaboration with a group of elementary school students from Iowa, the grainy black and white video captures the students in an outdoor playground as they play a classic children’s game, rhythmically lifting and lowering a parachute cloth. The fabric rises and swells with the passing breeze and the children step closer and further apart. We hear the sound of their shouts and giggles as the cloth domes and flattens fluidly. Though the setting of the work is obviously urban, the children’s ritualistic interaction with the air animating the parachute resonates with a broader theme within the exhibition: the human body’s relationship with the natural elements of the earth, sky, and water.
In Mendieta’s photograph, Untitled (1981/2019), an abstracted female figure is dug into the wet sand of a beach, the edge of the tideline emphasizing the truly temporal nature of this gesture. These silhouetted figures appear throughout Mendieta’s work and across a variety of landscapes, from rural Iowa to Mexico and, later, in visits to her native Cuba. They are created through a variety of methods, from gathered natural materials such as flowers, branches and rocks, to time-based gunpowder pourings and physical carvings in earth or stone.
In place of Mendieta’s symbolic prone figure, Schneemann’s Evaporation - Noon (1974/2017–18) uses the artist's nude body, caked with thick mud that has dried against her skin as she lay out in the sun. This black-and-white photograph has been treated with another layer of hand-applied, gestural color that extends across both figure and ground, further blurring the line between body and earth. The self becomes a performance, an earthwork, an archetype of universal energy. Mendieta takes this earthly submersion further in Burial Pyramid (1974/2010), a suite of five color photographs in which the artist is all but completely entombed in the ruins of a Mesoamerican archeological site, only portions of her head or body visible under the pile of stones scattered on a lush green hillside. Like the structures themselves, so too is Mendieta swallowed by the natural landscape.
Closing out the exhibition, which is viewed as a single scrollable webpage, are two works, each featuring their creator’s nude body abstracted against a colorful backdrop. In three stills drawn from Mendieta’s super-8mm film Butterfly (1975), a figure in highly saturated color morphs into partial abstraction, the outline of wings assembling itself behind her and then fracturing. The only consistently identifiable features in the work are the outline of Mendieta’s form and the dark shapes that identify her hair and pubic triangle. In Schneemann’s Illinois Central Collage (1967/79), the artist is shown with her arms raised, as if ready to take flight, a moment Schneemann describes as a spontaneous impulse, an act of release and joy. Together, both works evoke an iconography of pre-modern female power.
Connections like these are visible across Irrigation Veins. Both artists left behind legacies that position the feminine as a universal animating force while defying essentialist categorization. Together they articulate a shared language that describes the generative forces within their bodies, a language that has often been overlooked and ignored. At the end of the exhibition I thought back to Mendieta’s Volcán and how it reminded me of a quote from the author Ursula K. Le Guin: “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”1
- Ursula K. Le Guin, “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address,” Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1986.