Visual Art

Director Imara Savage finds herself constantly drawn to the ‘body–earth’ artworks of Cuban–American artist Ana Mendieta. By Kate Holden.

Imara Savage on the artworks of Ana Mendieta

An artwork etched into the earth.
Untitled from the Silueta series, by Ana Mendieta, and director and dramaturg Imara Savage (below).
Credit: Ana Mendieta ARS / Copyright Agency, 2023 (above), Supplied (below)

Imara Savage works across many disciplines – including theatre, television, opera, ballet, installation and performance art. Her most recent work is directing Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at Sydney Theatre Company, which is currently playing until December 16. She was Richard Wherrett Fellow at STC in 2014, and resident director from 2016-18, and is best known for her 2018 Saint Joan, with Sarah Snook in the lead role. Savage had a longstanding creative residency with the Sydney Chamber Opera, collaborating with her team on Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone (2019) for the Sydney Festival and Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright’s Antarctica (2022) at Carriageworks, among others.

Savage chose to speak about the Silueta series (1973-78) – more than 200 film and photography works by Cuban-born, American-raised feminist and land artist Ana Mendieta, in which the artist used the outline of her own body in natural contexts to communicate about ritual, body, violence, time, selfhood and what she called the “earth–body” relationship.

Describe the series and what it’s meant to you?

About five years ago I was working with a designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, on an opera about the philosopher Simone Weil, who had starved herself to death in solidarity with soldiers on the Western Front. La Passion de Simone was quite an ephemeral work which in a way was about the female body and sat on the threshold of a liminal space between life and death. We were talking about endurance art and performance art and body art, also about materials. So I was sent this artist, Ana Mendieta, by Elizabeth. We ended up making a work where we dropped tons of rice on the actor over a 40-minute period from a great height. Then we used that rice to create an installation in the theatre space, and the film as a backdrop.

So that was my first encounter with Mendieta’s work, and since then it’s something I keep referring to. I don’t even know why. I’ve never seen the full collection – some of it is photography and some of it’s film – but I’m really drawn to this work. I didn’t realise that Mendieta was a Latina artist until I started looking into her. My family is from South America. It makes sense that I’m drawn to the images. A lot of them were made in Mexico and I spent quite a lot of time in Mexico; I studied there at university and I’ve been back there many times. We travelled through there a lot as kids.

My sister and I took a dance tour of South America when we were in our 20s: every country we went to we did a different dance style. In Brazil the dance we did most was called the Silvestre Technique, it’s classical contemporary dance fused with the dances of the orixás, who are the gods brought from the Yoruba via West Africa through Cuba.

Those rooms of dancers, you could feel the energy. It’s what I respond to in these works and maybe all artwork – that ephemeral energy. I’m drawn to things that are not didactic: there’s something inside them… how do you sum them up? They sit in this strange space that hovers between life and death and the ancient. I love the materiality too, the paint or the earth or the fire, it’s elemental.

So I can see in Mendieta’s work a sense of ritual and a sense of the ancient.

In your work there’s something of Mendieta’s space that is wordless but full of communication. I saw a still from Antarctica, a little girl inside a glass case? It reminded me of her outlines, enclosed, speaking through gesture.

Elizabeth Gadsby is a designer I’ve worked with a lot, particularly on opera that’s in the area of installation – where story doesn’t take precedence, where light or visuals contribute to meaning as opposed to plot. The Mary Finsterer work was interesting because the third act is literally a series of dissolvings: dissolving not in the libretto but in terms of the music. Which is essentially what La Passion de Simone was, a woman dissolving through music over a period. How do you show the dissolving of body or matter into whatever it becomes? It was the same in Antarctica. What we ended up doing was using the material of mist – we were looking at the work of Antony Gormley at the time. It became an installation with mist and light, where people would appear and disappear.

Mendieta did one famous photo series – Untitled: Silueta series, in 1976 – where she lay in coastal sand, then filled the cavity with red pigment and let the waves wash away the outline and the colour until they’d gone.

Antarctica was also a memory work. Those works – even Saint Joan, which I did at STC, I figured it into a kind of memory work. It’s essentially unstable, it’s not finite and it’s amorphous in its quality. In Saint Joan the reality was that Joan was burnt in fire, so again it’s about the disappearance of the female body. We covered her in silver paint and dissolved her in that way.

I’m doing a Puccini opera next year – he was dying when he wrote it, so you can feel a tension between life and death in the work, it focuses on the female body, and it touches on her relationship to earth. For The Seagull, I sent the Mendieta work to the designer on this as well. There’s a play-within-a-play centred around the idea of the life force, which is essentially about energy and the connection of people to nature and organisms through all time. It reminded me of something that Mendieta said: “My art is grounded in the belief in one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.” I think that is very much what the play-within-a-play is about. It’s about the death of all things but also this energy force that transcends death. It’s very much focused on the female body, as the person speaking the text is a woman, an embodiment of a universal life force.

Her work – like theatre, like ritual – holds that paradox between the eternal and the momentary, the mystery and the revelation…

There’s something about time inside the work. It’s both very long and it’s fleeting; it holds a space for both. In relation to the Chekhov, I don’t know if it’s apparent in the design or the work, but definitely we talked a lot about nature. Chekhov was obsessed with nature, he was an avid environmentalist. In all of his short stories there are incredible descriptions of landscape and he places people in the landscape. You get a sense that he’s aware that the earth goes on and we disappear inside it. I’m quite drawn to that too, ideas of deep time versus the minutiae of time. I enjoy work that allows for complexity and nuance and ambiguity.

I can see why I keep being drawn back to these works. She’s an amazing artist. What’s most surprising for me is that it’s work that deeply connected with me. I didn’t understand why, but when I started reading about her, and that she was a Latina and she’d been exploring art in countries I’d also explored – Cuba and Mexico and places I’d lived – I just found that a weirdly resonant connection. She’s a genius. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Imara Savage".

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