Jenny Kendler’s performative based artwork entitled “Offering” finds its roots planted firmly in the history of environmentally conscious art practices whose luminaries include Ana Mendieta, Alice Aycock, Lita Albuquerque, and Andy Goldsworthy. Like these artists, Kendler’s interventions into nature are subtle and delicate and derive from a desire to understand our place in the natural world and our responsibility as stewards of the planet. Kendler sets up an alternate reality within the framework of a familiar and manmade natural occurrence, i.e. a hummingbird’s visit to a feeder. Kendler stages her own body as an alternate source of sustenance, having painted her ear a deep and enticing shade of red, and periodically filling her ear canal with sugar water, to attract the birds.
Kendler’s performance is less about the actual visitations of the birds, circling as they do around the feeder and Kendler’s ear, and much more about the artist’s commitment to her own process, standing still for two hours as the birds navigate the surrounding landscape. The work is a mediation between the human body and nature, an attempt to intersect the natural order of things, not for the sake of disruption, but for the sake of understanding. On the surface, Kendler’s performance appears quiet and simple, yet hers is a quietude that derives from an essential and undeniable longing for a better world, or at the very least a world where human beings are attentive to the beauty that surrounds them.
Kendler interjects herself into the landscape in much the same way Ana Mendieta allowed that her body was its own verifiable province, alive and flourishing alongside the living world. The interjection is low impact in terms of its actual physicality yet intensely realized in its deeper intentions. For example, in her Silueta Series, Mendieta mediated her naked body with the earth, creating female silhouettes in nature with materials ranging from leaves and twigs to human blood in an attempt to remake herself and repair her sense of displacement, having been sent away from her native Cuba at a young age. Similarly, Kendler employs her own body as a passive vehicle for contemplation and resistance. The artist’s one red ear becomes not only a vessel whereby the hummingbirds might feed, but also becomes a kind of portal of transmutation. Painting her ear red is both a gesture of regeneration and violence as the ear is a means of feeding the bird yet also appears bloody and disfigured. As viewers, we also associate the human ear with language or the ability to communicate, i.e. to hear and be heard, yet Kendler’s ear obfuscates its own functionality until the ear becomes less literally anatomical and more a symbol of dissonance, a gaping red orifice where language and sound dissolve into sugared water. Whether or not the bird partakes is ultimately not Kendler’s objective. What is more important is the fact the ear is being proffered up as an alternative source of sustenance.
Kendler’s “offering” also conflates our human senses in that we expect to hear with our ears. Hearing is subverted once she fills her ear with liquid which then transforms the ear into a drinking vessel which then further relates it with the act of eating. The ear is offered up to us as viewers as a kind of sacrificial offering, a point of entry into consciousness, yet this consciousness is subverted whereby the single red ear becomes a talisman for grief and joy simultaneously. Thus, Kendler’s ear transforms yet again into an object of intense fascination. The ear becomes not only a symbol of thwarted communication, but also a symbol for the artist as Mother Earth and shaman, healing the world while also excising personal demons.
Ultimately, Kendler’s body is transformed into an activated landscape of agency and self-reflection as the ear hears only the small hummingbird feeding beside it; the artist becomes a witness to her own practice as well as to the music inherent in nature. She hears her own breath coupled with that of the bird as the rest of the living world simply falls away.