Ana Mendieta Rape Scene Research Paper

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As a result, the invited audience was essentially being asked to play the role of the person who is shocked by such a discovery -- and insofar as they knew they were being invited by Mendieta, and probably had basic knowledge of the crime that occurred, they were also being invited to imagine that the victim of such a crime might well have been Mendieta or any other female student on campus. This is interesting insofar as it relates to an observation made by Kwon about Mendieta's early work from this period: Kwon notes that "Mendieta's use of her/the body almost always approached erasure or negation: her 'body' consistently disappeared. This is striking given that most feminist artists during the 1970s vied for visibility and self-affirming expression through figurative, literal, sometimes 'in-your-face' presence. It is curious that Mendieta traced her absence instead."[footnoteRef:5] In "Rape Scene" this is paradoxically true: the work centered entirely on Mendieta's body (unlike later work in which the body's traces or absence were being registered) however the audience was certainly not being invited to imagine that they were beholding Mendieta's body. Mendieta's body is a stand-in for another person -- in some sense, Mendieta herself and her body are absent, simply to invite the presence of Sarah Ann Ottens. However the hallmark of the piece was its brutal realism. As Chau et al. note, Mendieta's "performances raised the representation of rape to a matter-of-fact level not seen before. By exposing a raw brutality usually perceived as too threatening for viewing, Mendieta presented sheer violence without allegorization."[footnoteRef:6] There was no hidden or ambiguous meaning intended to be lurking in the staged scene, though: Mendieta's work was an attempt to straightforwardly present what was promised by the work's title, although re-creating the details by way of media accounts that Mendieta might be able to rely on her 1973 Iowa audience to be familiar with. [5: Miwon Kwon, "Bloody Valentines: Afterimages by Ana Mendieta." In Catherine de Zegher (ed.) Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of Twentieth-Century Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. p.169.] [6: Chau, Feldman, et al. p.59.]

In essence, though, the same visual presentation (or so we may imagine, since the actual crime scene photos of Sarah Ann Ottens' dorm room are not available for comparison) is being made public in two divergent ways. Sarah Ann Ottens was made public because she had been killed; Mendieta, in recreating the same crime scene, invites the same sort of limited public nature within the context of an invited audience for site-specific art. It is worth recalling Deutsche's remarks about site-specific art in her essay "Uneven Development." In Deutsche's account, "artists extended the notion of context to encompass the individual site's symbolic, social and political meanings as well as the discursive and historical circumstances within which artwork, spectator, and site are situated. Insofar as this expansion stressed the social and psychic relations structuring both artwork and site, exclusive concentration on the physical site often signaled an academic fetishization of context at the aesthetic level….The newly acknowledged reciprocity between artwork and site changed the identity of each, blurring the boundaries between them, and paved the way for art's participation in wider cultural and social practices."[footnoteRef:7] In Mendieta's work, the site was intended to be interchangeable: the audience found Mendieta in her own digs, presumably similar enough to the crime scene that indeed the boundaries were blurred in such a way that the audience could perceive the artwork not only as an act of empathy or of shamanistic acting-out, but also could perceive it as being deliberately directed at them. The academic audience presumably all had dorm rooms of their own at some point in their lives, and by being invited to imagine the sort of violation that could (and did) take place in such a venue was automatically to redefine this private space as a public one, both as a locus for art and as a locus for the intrusion of criminals and law enforcement both. The original crime and the work of art are thus both staged in a private venue, but the act of staging ultimately renders that venue public in certain limited ways. [7: Rosalyn Deutsche. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. p.61.]

The idea of violent criminality as being related to the public sphere may sound counterintuitive but it certainly hinges upon the notion that, in crime, some sort of public spectacle is being acted out. We might connect Mendieta's "Rape Scene" with other (not particularly feminist) strains in art in the same time period, such as Andy Warhol's "interests in celebrity, death, and criminality" whereby the "Most Wanted Men" of an FBI bulletin could be reimagined, thorough the pun in the designation, as inherently desirable: as Meyer says of Warhol's "Most Wanted Men" silkscreens, "each of the men pictured in the mural was a kind of low-level star, one whose image was reproduced across the nation, albeit in post offices and police stations rather than films and fan magazines."[footnoteRef:8] However, the image that Mendieta reproduces is not one that valorizes the criminal: if the artist is arranging this room in precisely the same way as a rapist arranged a similar room, the difference is that the artist is doing so to highlight a presence where the rapist had left a pure absence. The person who has done this scenic arrangement is, in fact, in the room and available for examination. [8: Richard Meyer. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. p.136.]

It is worth understanding Mendieta's work here in the terms that Deutsche uses to describe the work of Barbara Kruger -- in Deutsche's terms, Kruger "explores the relationship between space and violence -- not just the violent events that take place in space but, more importantly, those that produce space and that…are perpetuated when we focus only on the violence that disrupts space."[footnoteRef:9] Mendieta is recreating the violent event that took place in a specific space, and indeed notes that the event in some sense "produced' the space as Deutsche suggests it can: it is worth imagining what it would have meant for Mendieta to have entitled this work "Dorm Room" rather than "Rape Scene." If the work had been entitled "Dorm Room" that would have suggested that this kind of violent crime was in some way inherent to the location. Instead Mendieta allows her actual title to show the way in which private spaces are forced into the public sphere by this non-consensual act. [9: Rosalyn Deutsche, "Breaking Ground: Barbara Kruger's Spatial Practice." In Barbara Kruger, Thinking of You. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. p.77.]

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Sarah Ann Ottens was white; James Wendall Hall was black.[footnoteRef:10] Ana Mendieta, meanwhile, was neither. In 1973, the potential politicization of such a crime cannot be underestimated -- the audience for such a crime would have been weighing memories of the Scottsboro boys against more recent memories of Eldridge Cleaver's encouragement of the rape of white women as an "insurrectionary act." If Tanya Horeck's basic thesis is correct, and "stories of rape are essential to the way in which the body politic is imagined, serving as a site for cultural conflict and the embodiment of public concerns….the question of who is represented by, and excluded from, the terms of the body politic, is made plain through images and stories of rape," then these facts must be mentioned.[footnoteRef:11] If Mendieta as a woman of color is choosing to embody the victim and somewhat efface the perpetrator, this is definitely a political act that affects the work of art. In reality, however, the politics of the case would become almost a parody of themselves in the decades after Mendieta's original artwork and after her death: in 1983 James Wendell Hall would have his sentence vacated after prosecutorial misconduct at his trial was brought to light. And ten years later, in 1993, he would be convicted for raping and strangling Susan Hajek, another white woman, in the state of Iowa. Although these later twists in the particular case that Mendieta was working with in the art are not precisely relevant to the interpretation of the art in the first place, it is worth noting that -- in some sense -- only Mendieta could have staged this work. The contradictions -- involving racial politics no less fraught than gender politics -- could only have been approached by a feminist of color. [10: Bowers 2010.] [11: Tanya Horeck. Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film. New York: Routledge, 2004. p.vii.]

Works Cited

Bowers, Nancy. "Spring Break Killer: Murder of Sarah Ann Ottens, 1973.", March 2010. Web. Retrieved 24 April 2014 at:

Butler, Cornelia and Mark, Lisa Gabrielle. WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Chau, Monica, Feldman, Hannah J.L., Kabat, Jennifer, and Kruse,…[continue]

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