working with archive as social practice


Not everything may be visible or unequivocal at various stages, but by the end, an experience will have been lived through, a landscape sketched in, an approach figured for a life together.1

March this year in the Ideal Syllabus contextual assignment I spoke to a conclusion I came to regarding a work of Nancy Spero’s in response to an Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks (Rasrtos Corporales) 1982, this was some time after the original work was made, Mendieta was also no longer alive. I regard this as a collaboration, here is my original text in relation to I say a little prayer for you, which relates to my process of collaboration formal outcomes. Followed by thoughts in regards to my current project, I used to find dead insects in your pockets.

The body is present even if in disguise: Tracing the Trace in the Artwork of Nancy Spero and Ana Mendieta, Joanna S. Walker 2

My reading of this paper is that it documents a collaboration between Ana Mendieta and Nancy Spero, this is an unconventional relationship as the conversation between the artists appears to exist across time, and despite Mendieta’s death I interpret it as an exchange. It is also unusual in that the homage is made by an older artist in response to the work of a younger artist, a reversal of usual ways artists relate and reflect back to each other, based on the patriarchal hierarchy of mentor / student dynamic. I am interested in this paper with regards to the performative and collaborative aspects of I say a little prayer for you, in particular, the politics of performance as a woman, how a collaboration is represented and the effect of trace in my work.

Mendieta’s performance, Body Tracks (Rasrtos Corporales) 1982, which Spero witnessed, was described as an intimate event, with a small audience which consisted of the New York art community who were given minimal information about what would happen.3 The audience were positioned facing three large, blank pieces of paper in a softly lit space. Accompanied by the sound of beating drums Mendieta dressed in plain clothes, entered the room, dipped her arms into a bowl of animal blood and tempera, her hands thoroughly coated in the pigment, she stepped up to a sheet of paper, pressing her hands and arms against it.4 Mendieta dragged her hands and arms down, leaving behind blood red streaks which still held the hand-print trace, this process was repeated two more times, leaving a series of drawings on the wall for the audience to view, after which Mendieta walked out of the room, leaving the audience with the drawings.5 Spero made a series of works in response to this performance, described as “…re-tracing, re-presenting and re-telling.”6 These works incorporated the image of the hand print and text, one work, The Ballad of Marie Sanders, The Jew’s Whore, included a spontaneous action that became an homage to Mendieta’s Body Tracks performance.7

Incorporating performance in my work has drawn my attention to an underlying reticence I feel in regards to presenting a woman’s body, my body, in the work. My hesitation is connected with what feels like a personal risk, in crossing a boundary between public and private; placing myself in the work may offer a more affecting experience to the audience, but that is a dynamic exchange, which impacts on me too. This feels even more important when working with themes that touch on intimate experiences and personal stories. Presenting my body in performance has brought this concern to my mind as I navigate the complex arena of body politics; where within Western, Capitalist, Patriarchy the white male body is the neutral, the norm. I conclude that I cannot avoid associations or a level of wariness suggesting an offering of yet another woman’s body for a kind of consumption or judgement.

Working with trace then becomes a way to present ideas in the work with some distance, establishing a boundary. Walker describes art historian Susan Best’s observation that ‘absence’ of the body avoided Mendieta’s work being interpreted as ‘essentialist’, noting that “Women artists who displayed their bodies in their art were shown to be at risk of endorsing a narcissistic and biologically reductive image of womanhood.” 8

While Mendieta and Spero’s work discussed here represents traces of differing body parts to the images I work with, or in some cases the whole body, I have similar concerns in my practice; be it performance, or its residual artefacts, such as drawings, photographs and oral retellings of the events. How much is representative of the nuanced and contradictory individual stories shared with me, and is the work interpreted as a display of collective experiences of women? My response to this challenge was in presenting the self portraits as a physically connected work (sewn together in a badly made quilt) and reading women’s sometimes contradictory reflections on the process aloud to an audience. This was an attempt to avoid reducing the work into a universal homogenous response and to draw attention to the stories which came from the process, these stories seemed to be the heart of the work.

Walker highlighted the absence of the body of the artist; the trace of the work or performance was ephemeral or suggestive of other ways of seeing.  In I say a little prayer for you, I aimed to highlight a discourse between the differing experiences women shared in response to the project; collecting traces of actions in the form of self portraits and anchoring their experiences in the written stories they shared with me. A desire to create some personal distance and space for reflection was one of my intentions behind the decision to remove myself from the process of making self portraits. By choosing to present other womens’ images as objects and reading their stories aloud as a performance I attempted to invite the audience to both view the images and hear stories, to be present and open to the work and become aware of their own presence in the room.

I used to find dead insects in your pockets, trace and collaboration, 

Viewing I used to find dead insects in your pockets through the same lens, again I see a collaboration occurring, a conversation, a dialogue. This time the exchange and sharing happens between objects – people, people – people, people – objects. Working with this archive is a social practice, and a way to work out and understand relationships, ‘meaning making’ and ‘sharing meaning’ in the form of a dialogue in the style David Bohm describes.10 

Bohm believes that shared meaning created through dialogue is the ‘glue’ that holds us, people and society together, allowing bonds to form over time, and with the dialogue process Bohm describes, tacit knowledge is shared and bonds individuals.11 It is this kind of connection and exchange that has informed my position that ‘working with’ can take many different forms, and exist across spans of time and place. Kirstin Carlin stated that working with, or in response to, an other artists body of work, in her case, Francis Hodgkins, was a social practice.12 It may seem like a stretch to make that claim, as dialogue and ‘working with’ may usually imply an ongoing exchange. But it is the new understandings, and new insights, of oneself or another that opens up and presents new territory and new ideas.

Likewise working with an archive opens up space for collaboration, new knowledge, storytelling, and reinforcing or creating bonds of relationships. The traces collected in an archive both represent tangible evidence of relationships, and revisited they may expand on old stories, adding new layers, continuing a conversation outward.





[1.] 1. ‘ST PAUL St Gallery – AUT’, accessed 20 November 2019,

[2.] ‘The Body Is Present Even If in Disguise’.

[3.] ibid.

[4.] ibid.

[5.] ibid.

[6.] ibid.

[7.] ibid.

[8.] ibid.

[9.] ibid.

[10.] David Bohm, On Dialogue (USA: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003),

[11.] ibid.

[12.] Carlin, Kirsten. “Navigating Art Contexts.” Sean Kerr and Kirsten Carlin in Conversation with Faculty, MFA Spring Seminar Lecture, Whitecliffe College of Art and Design, Auckland, 19 September 2019.


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