Research Paper: Public and Private in Ana Mendieta

Pages: 7 (3145 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Women's Issues - Sexuality  ·  Buy This Paper

Mendieta, Rape Scene

SEEN / SCENE IN PUBLIC:

Ana Mendieta's "Rape Scene" (1973) and the Idea of Public Art

Before discussing Ana Mendieta's 1973 work "Rape Scene" it is necessary to explore some contradictions in our thinking about the nature of "public" versus "private" acts. Art in general is, of course, understood to be a public act in certain ways: it is intended to be viewed by others. However we are capable of distinguishing between "public art" -- which is to say something that is intended to be on display publically, like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Or Diego Rivera's (destroyed) murals for the Rockefeller Center in New York City -- and art which is created for a viewership but not necessarily for easy public consumption. For example, a commissioned portrait of a person may make the transition from sittings where only artist and subject are present, to a display chosen by the person who commissioned the portrait, without ever making the transfer into public display until after artist, subject, and purchaser are all long dead. Nonetheless, it is not imagined that, even in such a case, the art is not intended to be seen by anyone at all: a work of art necessarily presupposes some kind of audience, even if the degree to which that audience remains private may be subject to certain forms of restriction.

By the same token, we are accustomed to thinking of crime as also being a public act. After all, the news media routinely reports on crimes that have occurred. The rationale for this publication of details about crimes is varied: obviously the media are more likely to claim that such information is in the public interest or is a matter of public record, although those who have experienced crime reporting also understand that it may be a matter of private titillation. Stories of violent crime are just inherently thrilling, on a basic level, to audiences, and a fatal stabbing is probably more interesting to the general public than a detailed explanation of credit-default swaps, even if the latter is arguably just as criminal and more important to the public interest. However, the subject of concern here -- before we explore the work of Ana Mendieta -- is one particular crime: rape. In the case of rapes, the news media generally exhibits a policy of withholding the name of the victim. This places Rape in a special category of crime in terms of how it is displayed publically: a newspaper will report on a violent rape, but will efface all details about the identity of the victim, but not of the perpetrator. There are some exceptions to this rule: when a victim willingly names himself or herself in public (as is the case with the recent 2014 rape allegations by Michael Egan III against Hollywood schlock director Bryan Singer) or, more chillingly, if the victim is murdered after being raped (as with the 1966 rapes and murders of eight student nurses in Chicago by Richard Speck). Nonetheless this basic fact seems to place rape into a special category of crime.

What, then, is the public status of rape? The customary answer here -- that victims of rape have their names withheld out of "respect" -- is somewhat equivocal. One might just as easily argue that the withholding of names by the media perpetuates a stigma against rape victims. It is clear that what is involved is, of course, the sexualized nature of the crime of rape: just as "private parts" remains the most euphemistic way of describing the human sexual organs, the "private" nature of a rape victim's identity has less to do with protecting a victim and more to do with a pre-existing taboo of long standing against public discourse about sexuality. However, this does not mean that the public-private distinction when it comes to sex -- or when it comes to the sexualized violence that we call rape -- cannot be negotiated by the differing valences of public and private that are constructed by the work of art. The queer theorist Michael Warner has written persuasively about the way in which queer communities essentially agree to a suspension and redefinition of the normative public/private distinction regarding sexual acts in some of their activities, whereby Warner (following Mohr's argument) states that "involvement in a consensual sex act…presupposes a commitment to privacy, excluding all parties that have not consented and have not been chosen for participation. Consent distinguishes sex in public spaces from exhibitionism. And in spaces such as bathhouses and cruising grounds in secluded park areas, the assumption of privacy is reasonably grounded and should be respected."[footnoteRef:0] Of course, consent is precisely what is lacking in the act characterized as rape: in some sense, part of the essence of the crime is the use of violence to force an act that is normally private (even in Warner's definition of gay cruising in otherwise "public" spaces) into something that is public (insofar as it is destined to be published on the police crime blotter). [0: Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. p.176.]

Ana Mendieta's 1973 "Rape Scene" engages with these issues directly. First, it is important to note just what sort of work "Rape Scene" is. It is, in some sense, a work of site-specific performance art: the artwork exists now in terms of documentation of it, but cannot be said to be hanging on a gallery wall. Instead, this work -- which Butler and Mark describe as epitomizing Mendieta's "engagement with feminist critique" -- was intended as a response to a very specific incident that had occurred in 1973 on the campus of the University of Iowa, where Mendieta was a graduate student.[footnoteRef:1] A twenty-year-old female undergraduate, Sarah Ann Ottens, had been raped and murdered in her dormitory room -- she was Mendieta's "fellow student at the university of Iowa."[footnoteRef:2] The fact that she was murdered made her name a matter of public record, in a way that would not have been the case if she had only been raped: the fact that Mendieta's work was entitled "Rape Scene" perhaps reflects the fact that Mendieta herself, as both creator and (in some sense) "performer" of the work, was alive. The crime had occurred in March of 1973, and by the summer of 1973 an indictment was issued against a twenty-year-old male undergraduate, James Wendall Hall (who would not go on trial until March of 1974, after Mendieta had created "Rape Scene").[footnoteRef:3] [1: Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark. WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 2007. p.265.] [2: Monica Chau, Hannah J.L. Feldman, Jennifer Kabat, and Hannah Kruse. The Subject of Rape: June 23-August 29, 1993. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993. p.56. ] [3: Bowers, Nancy. "Spring Break Killer: Murder of Sara Ann Ottens, 1973." March 2010. Retrieved 24 April 2014 at: http://www.iowaunsolvedmurders.com/beyond-1965-selected-unsolved-iowa-murders/spring-break-killer-murder-of-sarah-ann-ottens-1973/]

The work itself was fairly simple in execution. Mendieta arranged her own accomodations to resemble the precise description of the crime scene given in police reports and newspaper accounts (i.e., public and publicized versions of the "Rape Scene"). This entailed Mendieta herself naked from the waist down collapsed upon a table, with blood smeared down her legs, groin, and buttocks, forming a pool at her feet and staining torn clothing on the floor. Mendieta arranged broken dishes and objects (a broom handle was found at the scene and was possibly used as a weapon or even instrument of rape) and tied her arms to the table as the victim's had been. Perhaps the only difference between Mendieta's "Rape Scene" and the crime scene that had been found on campus not long before was the lighting: Mendieta arranged the lights theatrically, to focus on her blood-smeared naked lower body, while her head was outside the focus of the lighting and thus seemed obscured in darkness. However, as Chau et al. describe it, the actual artwork proceeded almost like theatre: "at the given place and time, the invited academic community countered what looked like a crime scene. It was, however, a tableau vivant, in which Mendieta had cast herself as the assaulted one, bloodied, soiled."[footnoteRef:4] Contemporary accounts state that the chief response of the invited audience was to sit down and begin talking, and that Mendieta held her pose for more than an hour -- additionally allowing it to be documented in color photographs, as presumably the original crime scene that the artwork was re-creating had also been. [4: Chau, Feldman, et al. p.56.]

It is important to note one crucial element of this artwork which many accounts of it have failed to emphasize: the body of Sarah Ann Ottens had been discovered by a fellow female undergraduate, who happened to notice that the door of a dormitory room was ajar (as dormitory room doors seldom are). Thus, the crime scene was discovered unintentionally, by… [END OF PREVIEW]

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