This is a colour photograph of a woman stripped from the waist down and bent over a table. Blood is smeared over and drips down her buttocks, thighs and calves and a pool of it is partially visible on the dark floor beside her feet. The scene is dramatically lit, highlighting her legs, the side of her body and the table, and casting strong shadows onto the wall behind her. Her head and her arms, which are tied to the table, are not visible in the darkness; broken crockery and bloodied clothes disappear into the shadows on the floor to her right.
Untitled (Rape Scene) is the documentation of an action that the artist performed in her apartment in Iowa City, while she was a student at the University of Iowa on the innovative Intermedia art course run by the German artist Hans Breder (born 1935). It was created in response to a brutal and highly publicised rape and murder of a nursing student, Sara Ann Otten, by another student in March 1973. The following month Mendieta invited her fellow students to her apartment where, through a door left purposefully ajar, they found her in the position recorded in this photograph, which recreated the scene as reported in the press. Some time later, Mendieta recalled that her audience ‘all sat down, and started talking about it. I didn’t move. I stayed in position about an hour. It really jolted them.’ (Quoted in Ana Mendieta, p.127, note 11.) In 1980, she commented that the rape had ‘moved and frightened’ her, elaborating: ‘I think all my work has been like that – a personal response to a situation ... I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that.’ (Quoted in Ana Mendieta, p.90.) On another occasion she explained that she had created this work ‘as a reaction against the idea of violence against women’ (quoted in Viso 2004, p.256, note 58).
Untitled (Rape Scene) is the first and most significant of three works Mendieta created in response to the murder incident. In two further actions she was photographed lying semi-naked and spattered with blood in various outdoor locations on the perimeters of the University campus (Rape Performance, reproduced Viso 2004, p.184). In the same year she created several other tableaux using blood. In a work entitled Clinton Piece, Dead on Street, the artist lay motionless in a pool of blood as though she were an accident or a crime victim, while a fellow student stood over her taking pictures with a flash camera as though recording the accident for the press or the police. Untitled (People Looking at Blood, Moffitt) (reproduced Ana Mendieta, pp.40–3) is a series of slides and a Super-8 film documenting the reactions of passers-by to a heap of deep red animal viscera lying in a pool of blood on the sidewalk outside her apartment. Finally, in an abandoned farmhouse she created a scene of chaos with ripped mattresses and other domestic debris over which she poured red paint, to imply a brutal struggle between a victim and his or her attacker – Untitled (Bloody Mattresses) (reproduced Viso 2004, p.157). As the People Looking at Blood series implies, the purpose of these works was to stimulate a response from the audience, a strategy being explored concurrently in an entirely different way by another student on the Intermedia course, Charles Ray (born 1953).
Mendieta’s first use of blood to make art dates from the previous year, when she performed Untitled (Death of a Chicken) 1972 for the Intermedia class. For this work, she stood naked in front of a white wall holding a freshly decapitated chicken by its feet as its blood spattered her naked body. Influenced by the works of the Viennese Actionists – Herman Nitsch (born 1938), Günter Brus (born 1938) and Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1940–69) – whom Breder had introduced to his students through a book, Mendieta created her own version of their ritualistic and cathartic actions. Created in the same year as Untitled (Rape Scene), Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood) (L02833) is a photograph of the artist’s face, dripping blood, that recalls the imagery of martyrdom central to Roman Catholic iconography. A film created the following year, Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2) (T12916), shows Mendieta pouring blood over herself naked body before rolling in down and feathers to become a human bird, a female version of the male rooster sacrificed in the Afro-Caribbean Santería rituals of her native Cuba. Her identification with the sacrificial victim staged in many of these works, and to which Untitled (Rape Scene) relates, stems in part from her sense of loss as a result of having been dislocated from her family and home in Cuba and sent into exile in the US with her sister in 1961 as a result of the political upheavals there.
Untitled (Rape Scene) also relates to a performance Mendieta did for the Intermedia workshop in 1973 without blood – Tied-Up Woman (reproduced Ana Mendieta, p.34) – in which, naked with her hands and feet bound and tied to one another, she struggled on the floor in a series of poses.
Several similar photographs of the rape scene in Mendieta’s apartment exist (reproduced Ana Mendieta, pp. 36–8 and Viso 2004, pp.55–9). Each, like Tate’s image, is a unique print created from a 35mm slide.
Ana Mendieta, exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1996, pp.36–8, 90 and 92, reproduced p.36.
Olga M Viso, Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972–1985, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 2004, pp.152, 155 and 160, reproduced p.154.
Olga Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta, Munich, Berlin, London and New York 2008, pp.55–9.