Door Piece, March 1973

Door Piece, 1973 – 3 Minutes 25 Seconds – Iowa

The first of the 21 films to be featured in the Covered in Time and History: the Films of Ana Mendieta, an exhibition that will debut at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery in September of 2015, is Door Piece. Door Piece is a 3 minute 25 second long film created in March of 1973 on super-8 film in Iowa. (1) The usage of super-8 films gives Ana’s films a certain rawness and intimacy as they silently unfold. The picture is somewhat grainy and imperfect, adding a layer of depth in the flecks of color that scintillate throughout. Door Piece, one of her earliest films, was created while she was at the University of Iowa, earning her second Masters in intermedia. (1)

The film opens to a golden painted room with wood framework, a white door in the center of the wall opposite the camera. The window taking up the upper half of the door is entirely black with a small orb of light in the lower center. The camera zooms and slowly closes in on the orb, which is in constantly transforming through shades of white, pink and yellow. The round organic shape and the way the colors move bring to mind a cell under a microscope. As the camera is about to close in on the circle of light a circle of red passes through it. We are now about 50 seconds into the film when the frame switches and what previously appeared to be an orb of light, takes up the center of a fully black frame, revealing itself as a hole in black paint which covers the window. Something floats just beyond the hole, flesh toned with dark red line of depth, perhaps fingers of a hand pressed to the window. The shape and the colors shift revealing a nose and lips moving just beyond the door, traveling the circumference of the hole before slipping out of view to reveal a connected eyelid, lashes and brow. Periods of flesh between distinct facial features flash nearly white through the hole, pink lips and a dark brow appear and disappear as Ana’s face waves back and forth. The film seems to focus on the lips as they reappear in view, forming different shapes and shades of red as they purse and shift. They pause in front of the hole momentarily and part, as a tongue, out of focus, extends and licks the hole. The lips again shift out of view, the white of her chin filling the hole before camera zooms back out to the view of the door. The orb of light once again oscillating in the center until the screen goes black.

In watching the film for the first time with no background information, I was struck by the varying scales of the human body I perceived in viewing the hole. What initially presented itself to me as a cell, the smallest element of human life, revealed itself at isolated features of Ana’s face. The movement of the face beyond the hole allows the viewer to piece together the varying shades of flesh into a face. This idea of multiple parts forming a whole brought to mind the idea of identity and the multiple facets and intersections of identity that make up a person. I connected this idea to the ways in which Mendieta’s work can be, in fact, “pigeonholed” as subscribing to one type or grouping of art associated with her identity of a Cuban female artist in the context of the 1970’s or with the mediums she employed. In this regard, focusing on one distinct facet of her dilutes the complexity and resulting richness of her identity and body of work.

After viewing the film a few times blind to context aside from my previous knowledge of Ana, I began to gather contextual evidence from which to analyze the film. In January of 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that a woman’s rights included the ability to choose for herself whether or not to terminate a pregnancy during the first trimester. (2) Additionally, It is important to note that on March 13th of 1973 a fellow student at the University of Iowa, Sara Ann Otten, was raped and murdered, impacting the course of Ana’s work in the years to follow. (3) While this film is documented as having been created in March, it is unclear whether Sarah Otten’s murder took place before or after the film’s creation. However, I think the possibility that it could’ve occurred before Mendieta created the film is very interesting to consider, as she would’ve created Door Piece almost immediately after. If this was the case and we addressed Door Piece as a response to Sarah Otten’s rape and death, it takes on a very heavy and specific connotation. Incidentally, as Door Piece is the first film we have record of Ana producing, her entire series of films could be studied as having been a response to the events of March 13th.

Previous analyses of Door Piece observe a direct reference to Marcel Duchamp’s last major artwork, Étant donnés. (4) Both pieces, Mendieta’s Door Piece and Duchamp’s Étant donnés, incorporate doors with holes and the viewing of a woman’s flesh beyond them. Evoking associations with the concept of an erotic peep show, Duchamp’s Étant donnés illustrates a common dichotomy in the history of art in which a male artist creates in a piece of work a female object. Duchamp’s positioning of a nude woman within the structure that he built assumes the viewer to be male and to, in being male, appreciate the display of a nude woman. He operates in the same way the erotic peep show assumes the consumer to be male and thus serves to target the male viewer. The objectification of the female subject matter, in both of these cases, serves to provide both the artist and consumer pleasure. Chrissie Iles stipulates in an essay on Mendieta’s films, from the book “Earth Body” by Olga Viso, that Mendieta’s interest, in creating this Door Piece, was the beginning of her explorations of male gaze and the sexual predator. (1)

Early feminist critique of “the male gaze” stems from an adoption Michel Foucaults’ “medical gaze” coined in The Birth of the Clinic to describe the way in which power dynamics, hegemonic systems of knowledge can impact medical diagnosis and practice. (5) Both theories of gaze reject that perception can exist passively outside of dominant social structures and hierarchal power; they assume that to possess vision is to possess power. Power, which is then used in perception to objectify and scrutinize the object of the gaze. They maintain that in the context of society, looking can’t be deemed a neutral operation. To quote Naomi Scheman’s text Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority and Privilege:

“Vision is the sense best adapted to express this dehumanization: it works at a distance and need not be reciprocal, it provides a great deal of easily categorized information, it enables the perceiver accurately to locate (pin down) the object, and it provides the gaze, a way of making the visual object aware that she is a visual object. Vision is political, as is visual art, whatever (else) it may be about.” (6)

Analyses of Door Piece that connect it to feminist critique of the male gaze explain Ana’s presence and movement beyond the door in the film to be a reversal of this gaze. By reversing the set up of Duchamp’s Étant donnés, Mendieta, as the female subject matter, does not serve as the subject of the gaze but confronts this typical dichotomy by instead gazing out of the hole at the viewer. In doing so, she rejects the notion that the viewers of her art are inherently male, and furthermore she refuses to attend to the proposed male viewers’ desires. While I find this to be an insightful and interesting analysis of Door Piece it is interesting to consider that the introduction of the term “male gaze” didn’t occur until Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, 2 years after Door Piece was created. (7) This is not to say I don’t believe that Ana could’ve come up with connections between Foucalt’s “medical gaze” and the ways in which “male gaze” illustrated in Duchamp’s piece is problematic on her own. Additionally, outside the context of gender, I think this piece can be seen as reversing the gaze cast on art in general. Mendieta, as the artist, being an active observer of the viewer from within her own piece of art, challenged the traditional roles of an artist versus an audience. Rather than passively allowing viewers to observe, critique and make assumptions on her work. She as the work itself appears to observe and tease the viewer.

Because there is limited knowledge of Mendieta’s films and the artist herself is not here to speak for them, it is difficult to come to a consensus of what ideas and themes she strived to represent in each of her films. I do believe, however, it is safe to assume that the films, like her, stemmed from a multitude of experiences and ideas uniquely intertwined through the context in which she lived and, in effect, the context in which the films were created.

Bibliography:

1. Mendieta, Ana, Olga M. Viso, and Guy Brett. Ana Mendieta – Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance, 1972 – 1985;. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 2004. Print

2. McBride, Alex. “Roe v. Wade (1973).” PBS. PBS, Dec. 2006. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

3. “Sarah Ottens – Iowa Cold Cases.” Iowa Cold Cases. Cold Cases Inc, 2005. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

4. “Étant Donnés: 1° La Chute D’eau, 2° Le Gaz D’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ).” Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

5. Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. London: Routledge, 1963. Print.

6. Scheman, Naomi. Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority, and Privilege. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

7. Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. N.p.: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

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