Earth/Body/Silhouette

Earth/Body/Silhouette: Landscape as Artistic and Political Practice[1]

 

In an Artforum interview, Jacques Rancière asked: “What landscape can one describe as the meeting place between artistic practice and political practice?”[2]

Landscape is a meeting place between artistic and political practice. Landscape is a medium of exchange between what is human and what is natural.

In her “Silueta Series,” Ana Mendieta used her own body as artistic medium and intervention in the landscape, combining earthworks, performance, and documentary photography.[3]

 

Landscape is a site of contact between the human and non-human worlds.

 

In one instance, the artist dug a silhouette of her body into the sand, a silhouette with arms raised, and filled the imprint with deep, red pigment.

 

Landscape, as we know it, enforces separation between the human and non-human, or “natural,” worlds.

 

Mendieta’s earth/body sculptures make these worlds inseparable; the human and non-human material worlds occupy the same space.

The artist’s body becomes an extension of the landscape, and landscape becomes an extension of her body. Having been torn from her homeland in her youth, she once said she was overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb, or nature.

I don’t subscribe to the gendering of things, but Mendieta associated the natural world with the feminine, and the Silueta series used abstract feminine forms, through which the artist hoped to access what she called an “omnipresent female force.”[4] By using her body as both the subject and object of the work, Mendieta also emphasized the societal conditions by which the feminine is colonized as the object of white male desire and “ravaged under masculine aggression.”[5]

 

Landscape, as we know it and as we consume it, is a product of Western imperialism.

 

Mendieta’s earth/body sculptures re-establish the bonds between the human and the non-human material world, as it is when land is not regarded as something to be domesticated, controlled, colonized, when people are not regarded as things to be domesticated, controlled, or colonized.

 

Landscape is an instrument of power.

 

In Kara Walker’s annotated pictorial history of the civil war, the artist applied silhouette figures on top of illustrations taken from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, a collection of prints and essays published in 1866.[6] The Harper’s Pictorial History comprises 836 large-scale woodcut prints. The historical record becomes the backdrop for Walker’s silkscreen silhouettes.

 

Landscape naturalizes the violence of imperialism, the violence of nationalism.

The American west was appropriated and domesticated by landscape photography in the nineteenth century as travel news and photography publications boosted photographic production to satisfy a predominantly White public in search of the picturesque.

The landscape photography of Carleton Watkins unintentionally adapted landscape pictorial practice, portraying places like Yosemite as “picturesque,” untainted “pleasures” not only accessible to visit, but also available for exploitation and development.[7]

 

In Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, a silhouette of a nude figure appears on the left side of the foreground. The figure walks towards the right of the scene with arms outstretched.

In the background, three figures—two Black, and one white—row past cotton bales in a swamp.

Landscape desensitizes us to the violence of imperialism, the violence over the land, and the violence against the people who have lived, perished, or persisted on it.

The Harper’s editors claimed that they set out “to narrate events just as they occurred…” and “to praise no man unduly because he strove for the right, to malign no man because he strove for the wrong…” for fear of offending readers who may have supported the Union or readers who would have supported the Confederacy.[8]

Depictions of ‘great men’ in battlefields and cityscapes centered the experiences of white men in the prevailing narrative of the Civil War, at the expense of enslaved people, whose enslavement was the cause for the war.[9]

Walker’s silhouettes draw from the exaggerated caricatures that reflect past and present racialized and gendered stereotypes that reinforce white supremacy and systemic inequality.

 

In landscape art, what is represented is not only the physical, material landscape, but also landscapes of political discourse.

Landscape doesn’t just signify or represent power relations; it is a medium that can communicate, uphold, or challenge power relations.

 

The moss hanging from the large Black silhouette’s arms mimic the moss that hangs from the trees in the background.

The silhouette’s body simultaneously becomes part of the background landscape and part of a new landscape of political discourse, one which centers this period of American history on the lives (and bodies) of Black Americans, one which disrupts and opposes racial hierarchy and white supremacy as pictured in the Harper’s prints.

 

By inserting the human silhouette into these landscapes, each artist makes the body a central focus of a new narrative in new ways.

While Mendieta’s silhouette highlights non-Western views of relationships between gender, cultural identity, the body, and landscape, Walker’s silhouette brings the Black body out of the background and into the foreground. Walker’s landscapes make it possible to reconsider what are thought to be definitive narratives of race and politics in American history.

In both of these artworks, the artist has intervened in a landscape scene to create a new political landscape that enables them to draw attention to gaps in dominant narratives of race, gender, and politics.

Landscape is a meeting place between artistic and political practice.

 

[1] This is an adaptation/elaboration on a previous work, “Silhouetted Bodies,” in BODY [IN/AS] LANDSCAPE: https://sites.hampshire.edu/body-landscape/silhouetted

[2] Jacques Rancière, “The Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Artforum, trans. Jeanine Herman (2007).

[3] Ana Mendieta, Untitled from “Silueta Series” (original plate 1976; posthumous print 1991). Smith College Museum of Art, SC 2001.22-2.

[4] Ana Mendieta, quoted in Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perrault, Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988), 10.

[5] Kaira Cabañas,”Ana Mendieta: “Pain of Cuba, Body I Am,”” Woman’s Art Journal 20 (1999): 12–17.

[6] Kara Elizabeth Walker, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2005). Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, MH 2012.14.6.

[7] Joel Snyder, “Territorial Photography,” in W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994).

[8] Alfred Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, editors, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. Chicago: McDonnell Bros., 1866–1868. Library of Congress, E468.7. G932. https://www.loc.gov/item/22013932.

[9] The American Civil War was about slavery and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is complicit in white supremacy. The American Civil War was about states’ rights to allow people to own and control the lives and bodies of other people and to codify racial hierarchies.

Published by Chelsea R. Miller

I am a public historian based in Saratoga Springs, NY. I’m interested in the stories that we tell about the past, and what those stories mean for us today. I work with books and I spend most of my free time with dogs.

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