ONE OF THE MAIN purposes of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985" is, according to show organizer Olga Viso, to make the late artist's work "visible." This, of course, implies a certain invisibility -- or at least ephemerality -- to begin with.

The comment by Viso also gets to the very heart of Mendieta's art, which was, to a large degree, about the effort to make the unseen seen.

Much of the art Mendieta made during her brief lifetime (1948-85) can't really be experienced at all today, at least not directly. Grounded largely in conceptual and performance art -- which the Cuban-born artist began to explore while still a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Intermedia Program and the Center for New Performing Arts -- it is a body of work that survives to a great extent as after-the-fact documentation: photographs, slides, films and video of actions and performances that are, as one waggish visitor to the exhibition commented, "all over." Aside from a relatively sparse sampling of objects that could actually be called sculptures -- decorated leaves, burnt torsos of trees and fragile designs carved out of (what could be more impermanent?) sand -- this is an exhibition about vestiges, about what's left after the art is finished.

Hence, you'll find here such art works as "Body Tracks," a couple of red smears left when the artist dragged her blood-and-tempera-paint-dipped hands across a sheet of paper (similar art actions are documented in a nearby photo and film clip). Although the object itself has a kind of heft, not unlike the cast-iron sculpture of the artist's hand called "Branding Iron," it's a mark whose significance as art is less intrinsic than allusive. In other words, it refers back to the act of its making more than to itself. Like a kind of high-tone graffiti, its message is a form of "Mendieta was here." The show is full of such marks, but they are as footprints of a presence that has long since left the room.

"Ana Mendieta" has a powerful component of ritual, which ties into its theme of markmaking. One installation, "Nanigo Burial," consists of black, half-burnt candles, arranged on the museum floor in Mendieta's signature "silhouette" motif, through which the artist traced, often literally, her own (quite fleeting, as it turned out) presence in the world. With these stylized silhouettes of the female form -- drawn, carved and sculpted out of twigs, mud and other natural materials -- it's as if Mendieta was marking her territory. There's a strong suggestion of sex, too, in the frequent use of blood and in the emphasis on and evocation of the female reproductive organs. Death is also present, if only by implication.

Sex and death. It's a fascination as old as the human race. Mendieta's art, which Viso places squarely in a space between the performance art of Vito Acconci and the earth art of Robert Smithson, reminds us of nothing so much as our connection to the dirt. It is both where we came from, and where we're headed toward, Mendieta seems to say.

When we watch the artist lie down on top of a blood-drenched stone, as she does in the short 1975 film "Corazon de Roca con Sangre (Rock Heart With Blood)," pressing her naked body into a shallow indentation she has scooped out of the ground, what we see is not just womb but tomb.

ANA MENDIETA: EARTH BODY, SCULPTURE AND PERFORMANCE 1972-1985 -- Through Jan. 2 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.si.edu/hirshhorn. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Friday at 12:30 -- David H. Brown, a scholar of the African diaspora, discusses Mendieta's ritual-candle sculpture, "Nanigo Burial."

Friday at 8 -- Film screening: "Balseros."

Thursday and Nov. 4 at noon -- Film screening: "Ana Mendieta: Fuego de Tierra."

Nov. 14 at 3 -- GALA Hispanic Theatre presents an interpretive performance inspired by Mendieta's art.

Nov. 21 at 3 -- Gallery talk.

Dec. 5 at 3 -- Author and storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy recounts her Cuban American childhood in Decatur, Ga.

Dec. 9 from 6 to 8 -- Art After Hours: Cuban baritone Bobby Jimenez and keyboardist Mari Baz perform popular and Afro-Cuban music, followed by an interpretive performance by GALA Hispanic Theatre inspired by Mendieta's art. Cash bar.

The candles used in Mendieta's ritual sculpture, "Nanigo Burial," will be remain lit from noon to 5 on Friday and Oct. 31, Nov. 5, 14, 19 and 28, Dec 2, 12, 17, 26 and 31; and from 6 to 8 on Dec. 9.

Ana Mendieta's exhibit includes an untitled work on a leaf. Much of her work survives as photos, slides and films.