Arbol de la Vida (or Tree of Life) from the Silueta series (1976) is an iconic example of Ana Mendieta's work. Aside from being one of the artist's most exhibited and published images, it is also notable for being signed and being a life time vintage photograph.
Arbol de la Vida exemplifies one of her main themes of redefining the female body within the landscape. Mendieta's work describes a metaphorical and personal journey of exile and union. Many writers have seen her constant inscription of the female body in the landscape as a reference to her painful exile from Cuba at the age of twelve. Others have interpreted Mendieta's work as a statement of female power and fertility. In both cases, it is clear that Mendieta's vocabulary was exceptionally catholic; including influences of a bi-cultural identity, an interest in indigenous and ancient world cultures, aspects of European art history, especially the Viennese Actionists, and feminism, and as well as what we refer today as postmodernism, multiculturalism and post-colonization.
Arbol de la Vida is a rare and early example of the artist's work, that comes to sale after being in the private collection of Hans Breder. Mendieta's companion for more than a decade, Breder founded the influential Intermedia Department at the University of Iowa, along with other influential 70's artists, such as Charles Ray.
The photograph was made in Iowa, near Old Man's Creek, a site of numerous earth and body works. By covering her body in an earth toned, greenish mud, Mendieta visually merges with the trees, literally connecting herself to her surroundings. "Her desire to merge with the earth and create "living" artworks that partook of natural life cycles and were subject to the exigencies and ravages of time remained constants throughout her career. It is for this reason that once she made and documented her ephemeral works, particularly those of the 1970s, she was not concerned about their deterioration or dissolution; her materials and actions were merely returning from whence they originated" (O. Viso, Ana Mendieta, 2004, p. 56).
Mendieta referred to actions such as Arbol de la Vida her "performances", "earth-body works" and siluetas which are concurrent historically, but differ drastically from Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson's more monumental land art. Though Mendieta went on to create more traditional sculptures and drawings, photographs such as Arbol de la Vida, are at the heart of her practice. As one critic cogently opined, Mendieta's conceptual practice of creating a body of work that survives only in photography, films and re-creations, helped redefine what art could be. "What can we do with art that was intended to disappear, that exists only secondhand, that takes its meaning from being not-there? And in asking this question, we touch on what made Conceptual Art of the 1970's in its various manifestations-performance art, earth art, body art, all of which Mendieta embraced-the radical thing it was" (H. Cotter, 'Disappearing: Her Special Act' The New York Times, 9 July 2004, p. E25).
Mendieta presages many artists working today in innumerable ways. Like Cindy Sherman, Mendieta uses her body as subject matter, as well as using photography as a kind of concrete evidence for work that is, at its heart, performative. Alternatively (and somewhat pejoratively) classified as a "Latin American artist", Feminist artist, or Performance artist, Mendieta is now seen simply as one of the most innovative creators of her time. A subject of a major traveling retrospective organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2004-2006), Ana Mendieta is now seen as the author of one of the most ambitious bodies of works of her time, and one that resonates more deeply with each passing year.