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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Ana Mendieta and Dayanita Singh: Hayward delivers double dose of inspiration

It's a bit like a homecoming, entering the Hayward Gallery, once you've got past all the 21st century detritus plastered everywhere outside. Inside the cool concrete caverns of London's first post-WWII purpose-built gallery for modern art, you're immediately given a sense that art is to be taken seriously - in fact that it is the only important thing inside these walls.

This was  where, in 1968 or so I was taken by my sister to see the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition, which to me was like  mainlining a highly addictive drug - 35mm black-and-white photography.

I became and instant addict and started saving for my first 35mm camera - it was a poor-man's Leica, the Soviet Zorki 4, bought from the USSR state import agency Technical and Optical Equipment on New Oxford Street, as I remember.

This must have been one of the Hayward's first big exhibitions, though I can find no record of it. I can still remember going through room after room of beautifully mounted prints, running back sometimes to check something I'd seen, then staring out of the long windows of the upper gallery across the river towards Charing Cross. Soon after I went to another exhibition of Soviet  art, and fell in love with the replica of Tatlin's Tower built on the Hayward's roof, a bright red steel lattice spiral of a   tower of Babel soaring upwards. You really got a feeling of how inspirational such a tower might have been to the Russians had it ever been built.

For much of my life this was the number one location for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in London - right up until the opening of Tate Modern in 1999. Then the Hayward - already way out of fashion in the age of tacky post-modernism - fell into some sort of doldrum. There were still some great exhibitions, but sometimes you had the feeling the organisers were having to apologise for the spaces they were showing in.

I don't know why but I have always loved the place, and entering it again last week was  happy to that great concret ramp still cuts across the huge ground-floor gallery, and chart there's still that strange arrangement of different levels.

In fact, the bare concrete floors and walls now have a patina, they have aged beautifully.

It was certainly the perfect gallery for the main expo, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. She's described as a feminist conceptualist, an artist who was aligned with all those movements of  the 1970s/80s/90s
Cover of SBC's November 2013 programme devoted to Ana Mendieta, Cuban-American conceptual artist and pioneering photo self-portraitist
avant grade, landscape art,  performance art, video art,  etc.

But what's so clear here (as surely with any other artist truly worth the subsidised entrance fee) is that Mendieta was a one-off, a complete original, who just happened to use and exploit all the means that were surrounding her as a young and beautiful art student from the "alien" culture of communist Cuba in the 1970s USA.

She is certainly one of the great users of the materials closest to hand - i.e. her own body, usually naked, or covered with grass or rocks or earth or her own blood or feathers.  The "feminist" tag is strongest in her earliest stuff - the series on  rape victims, where basically she recreates the crime scene, turning herself into the victim, and then invites male audiences to experience these horrific tableaux.

But after these, it seems it's more to do with her own Cuban roots - so much of this work is about ancient ritual, she goes back to Cuba, she re-interprets and re-enacts rituals from Mexican and even Maltese societies, she lies in her own grace, sets fire to her own image, she floats like a drowned bird on th edge of the ocean - maybe a bird that was trying to get back to its homeland, across the water.

She died so young, we have no clear idea where all this was leading - but what is now very clear is that she could be regarded as the spiritual godmother for the "selfie" generation of internet-obsessed art students.  Go on any of the arty blog sites such as tumblr and flickr and you'll find there are hundreds of people trying to turn their bodies into art, using paint, blood, felt-tip pens, ash, flour, razor blades….you name it.

Part of it is the adolescent thing - "look at me, I am hideous, fat, I am killing myself, I am slicing my arms, I am starving myself to death, I am a ninja, I am a whore, I am a monster, I am hermaphrodite.." etc. But what's so different between these often disturbing, often repulsive, sometimes worryingly attractive pieces of online imagery and what Ana Mendieta did back then?

Well, thing is, in almost every case, she did it first, and did it better. And if she didn't, then you can be sure Cindy Sherman did. Or maybe, Albrecht Durer, who must stand as the god-dad of the narcissistic selfie.

They hayward imperfect for this show. Its wall and floors and numerous alcoves and hidden spaces under steps and  ramps make for a totally unobtrusive background for work ranging form small framed photos and notebooks through to huge wall pieces, floor-mounted art, sculptures, slide-shows, film and video pieces.

Even better, you reach a certain point and are then directed to the upper gallery, where a very different artist has her own exhibition which is a strangely perfect complement to Mendieta's.

Dayanita Singh is a young and prolific photographer who seems to have set herself the task of documenting - almost archiving - the people and cities and professions and religion and industries and artists, and the dispossessed of her own country, the massive country, the sub-continet.

Many of the photos are displayed as small "museums" or archives,  using old wood, glass and brass hinged shelving and filing systems from some Raj-era library of imperial bureaucracy. She likes to create albums and books, and again her exhibition follows this path. There are very few, if any photos of the artist herself here - and if there are she's not telling.

But in a way it's another slanted take on the online world of near-infinite archiving you can enjoy with flickr and Google and dropbox and so on. But the virtual clouds just will not do when we can have what she shows here - great installations of images, treasure troves of beautiful photographic prints, folding leaves, books!

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