I BLEED, BUT DO NOT DIE

 

“My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.

My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ascentral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world.

There is not original past to redeem: there is the void, the orphanhood, the unbaptized earth of the beginning, the time that from within the earth looks upon us. There is above all the search for origin”.

 

Ana Mendieta (1983)[1]

 

 

 

The artworks that picture this catalog show a group of women, alone or with other women being in different ages, naked over neutral backgrounds. Each of them becoming visible in the public space through photography or video, but also opening a part of their intimacy: the menstrual blood flowing through their legs or pointing out, like a bindu, some different parts of their body.

 

Menstruation has been -and still is- a biocultural construction object of many interpretations across history, as a positive sign as well as a negative one. Each society has created its own system of belief, myth and rite concerning its nature, and moving almost always between the sacred and the taboo. The blood, source of all kind of metaphors and symbolizations, has for many cultures, ritual nuances and magic attributions, like an expression of life and death; however, for centuries it has always been used to stand for pain and violence in all its sides, specially the one exerted against women. Control technologies become evident in the body, and therefore, in the consideration about the blood that according to Foucault has been a decisive element in power mechanisms, in its displays and rituals: “Power depicts it, arouses it and uses it as the proliferating sense that must be kept under control lets escape”[2]. Thus the Old Testament turns the menstrual liquid in an impure sign that concerns the same to all daughters of Eve: “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.”

 

Despite of beliefs like this, having survived till short time ago in our own culture, the blood appearing in the project “I bleed but I do not die” by Isa Sanz –the only one shed in a natural way by the body itself, the artist says-, creates a positive might that links women with the endless transformation process of nature (regeneration), where cyclical time replaces linear time. It expresses the idea of rebirth and death, being in tune with the origin (the mother womb), and with all the primitive signs of the feminine situated in the prelinguistics field, and therefore out of the corruption of culture. Hélène Cixous mentions that feminine writing has echoes of pre-language: “her libido is cosmic, the same way her unconscious is worldwide”, so that writing “cannot do anything but going on without never ever register nor discern limits”[3]. Menstrual blood is the language the artist uses to express the link between woman and living nature, through its periodical voyage, further away than the border of the body to embody the rhythm of Gaia, mother goddess or Earth, repeating in time to the Moon. The chorus of feminine voices on the video We bleed but do not die  certifies so:

 

I come, from the universal womb
I bleed but do not die
within a boundless cycle of life-death-life
I bleed but do not die
I reemerge
I bleed but do not die
fluid is the key to the dark dwelling
I bleed but do not die
where mutation gestates

 

 

The genealogy of this artwork, having a performative root, has its initial point in some already historic episodes of feminist art; although it is truth that blood representations in art history is a constant, beginning with all the iconography of pain being linked to the religious images of martyrs and following with the dramatic history works of contemporary world. In the 20th Century, some authors like Marcel Duchamp, Piero Manzoni or Andy Warhol, will start introducing in art some references, more or less explicit, to certain body fluids and excretions. Viennese Actionists with their ‘dramaturgy of excess”, will provide to this substances with a ritual dimension, but however deeply desacralized and provocative. Also artists as Vito Acconci, Michel Journiac, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andrés Serrano, Helen Chadwick, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Mike Kelley, Ron Athey and a long etcetera, will resort to blood, semen, urine or excrements to utter some of their most relevant artworks, with a treatise of different sign and arousing all kind of reactions to the public.

 

Representation of body fluids makes art sinking in the aesthetic category of the abject, formulated by Julia Kristeva in her famous essay. When everything that should be inside the body, where we usually locate what constitute the individual (the skin and the body orifices are its borders), comes out –and with this, all that is repressed, hidden psychosexual developments and libidinal desires-, what was subject before now becomes object (nature enters the territory of culture). Consequently the self that finds itself confronted to its vulnerable condition, loses its unity, producing a deep identity disturbance where repulsion meets desire. The real thing comes on stage collapsing our vision. Menstrual blood, in this sense, has been interpreted as a contaminant object located in the borders of the body -the vulva as an open wound- that symbolizes, according to Julia Kristeva, "the danger that comes from the inside of identity (social or sexual)" and threatens "the relationship between sexes in a social group, and by internalization, the identity of each sex against the sexual difference"[4]. This fact caused a need to impose a distancing from the hygiene while representing the feminine body. Woman's body, neat and immaculate, became the ground where the patriarchy should rise, that is why it was needed to hide all that was supposed to be kept inside, prefixed and still, the same that the idea of identity that the church and other spheres of power have wanted to impose.

 

One of the aims of the feminist art was precisely to weaken those limits, and the refusal of menstrual blood was one of them. Luce Irigaray defended a feminine creativity that showed the woman body "not like a passive matter, but like the place where inverse was generated",  leaving the idea of horror and revulsion that we associate to the border between the body and the other thing to think about it "as something that gives a magnificent opening to a new way of identity-construction: a divine female"[5]. The most meaningful contributions on this matter were brought out by a group of artists women, who decided to question the orthodoxy of western art (essentially greenbergian) and the androcentric paradigm of culture, to offer new alternatives which would insist in the processual and in the consideration of new materials, like the body and its fluids, or nature. Artists like Judy Chicago, Carol Schneemann, Gina Pane and Ana Mendieta among others, used blood in a symbolic way of writing. Intimacy would acquire a public dimension and the artwork, in a subversion of positive nature, uttered from new meanings. The feminine body was transformed in a territory of representation and politic struggle, also in a space of identity construction where woman managed her own self-designations and predicates, besides of revealing the differences and the silenced voices of certain minorities that were out of the hegemonic canon, including ways of culture far from the orthodoxy of the western capitalism. But although it is truth that the experience of the feminine is closely linked to the body, as professor Hillary Robinson suggests, is good to bear in mind that "the feminine does not belong essentially to the body", but "the body and the representation are their intermediaries"[6].

 

Making the blood that flows freely through the feminine body visible, as Isa Sanz raises in her proposal, is still a politic act and at the same time poetic. Opposite to the identity split of the abject, the menstrual liquid becomes a pigment that personify the creative value of women. In some of the pictures, she points out in the shape of a dot or drop (bindu) some chakras or energy centers of the body: the ajana (the 3rd eye), the anahata (in the heart) and the savadhisthana (near the pubis). The artist herself makes a self-portrait showing openly blood among her fingers. In another picture we find a woman who writes LOVE on a wall while the menstruation blood runs down her legs. With this word, restores he link with its own nature, with the origin of life, with the maternal source. Also Ana Mendieta left written in blood: She got Love. The cuban artist knew better than anyone else how to express the relationship between the feminine body and the natural and constantly renewing cycle of life and death: "I become a stretch of nature and nature a stretch of my body. This obsessive deed of reaffirming my bonds with the earth, is actually a reactivation of primitive beliefs … [en] a feminine strength omnipresent, the image that remains after have been surrounded with the maternal womb is a sign of my thirst of being"[7]. Isa Sanz inherits this feeling, she shows in some pictures the return of the woman to the womb, symbolized in a spiral or a circle built in sand, vegetation and flowers petals, possibly as an allusion to her transforming power, but also as a trace of the paradise (where she lived before entering in the Hades, due to have had pleasure of her own body). She submits the menstrual fluid abjection to an alquemy labour, where the obscene turns into something natural, the impure into something clean, and the unpleasant into something beautiful.

 

Isa Sanz explores the link woman/woman; a bond that was considered since not long ago the strengthener and intense, the more subversive. In “I bleed but I do not die” each woman look for herself in the other women, celebrating her multiple identity; "the wonder of being several", as Hélène Cixous would say, "enjoying her gift of alterability"[8]. Women, blood sisters, and so inhabitants of the same tribe, are linked up with the same experience. The blood describes like a yantra the perpetual movement of its cycle, that is always nomad like the identity construction. "She", as the feminist thinker Luce Irigaray pointed out so lucidly, is indefinitely another in herself[9].

 

 

Marta Mantecón  (translation: Mónica Colías)



[1]              Mendieta, Ana: “Escritos personales”, en Moure, Gloria (ed.): Ana Mendieta. Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1996. p. 216.

[2]              Foucault, Michel: Historia de la sexualidad I. La voluntad de saber. Siglo XXI, Madrid, 2006. pp. 156-157.

[3]              Cixous, Hélène: La risa de la medusa. Ensayos sobre la escritura. Anthropos, Barcelona, 2001. p. 49.

[4]              Kristeva, Julia: Poderes de la perversión. Siglo XXI, México, 1989. p. 96.

[5]              Battersby, Christine: “Embutir y nada más: Irigaray, pintura y psicoanálisis”, en Deepwell, Katy (ed.): Nueva crítica feminista de arte. Estrategias críticas. Cátedra, Madrid, 1998. pp. 234-235.

[6]              Robinson, Hillary: “Más allá de los límites: feminidad, cuerpo, representación”, en Deepwell, Katy, op. cit.,  p. 242.

[7]              Cfr. Ruido, María: Ana Mendieta. Nerea, Madrid, 2002. p. 67.

[8]              Cixous, Hélène, op. cit., p. 49.

[9]              Irigaray, Luce: Ese sexo que no es uno. Saltés, Madrid, 1981. p. 23.

 

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