Teresa Margolles’ work is characterized by a decontextualization of the material vestiges of everyday violence so that by various means, the viewer may experience in the first person and in flesh and blood, the traces of contemporary violence done to others. Two questions that Margolles’s work asks are, How can an artwork transmit horror and pain? How can private pain and horror be made collective? As she stated in an interview in 2004: “My misery is your misery. We don’t level ourselves through purifying ourselves but rather through sharing our misery.”
Margolles’ earlier work (late 1990s-2006) also sought to investigate the socio-cultural implications brought about by the presence of corpses in a society marked by violence and socio-economic disparity, rising questions about memory, social strata and the experiences lived by anonymous bodies. Margolles holds a degree in autopsy and initially, her studio was the morgue of one of Mexico City’s most violent neighborhoods. She transformed body parts from the dead bodies into ‘partial-objects’ and thus artwork-relics incarnating the real of pure violence. The materials for her work from this period include clothes and objects of dead children, body parts (tattoos, a tongue) of youth, all of whom had suffered violent deaths. In an early sound piece, one heard a trepanation being performed at the morgue. Other works from this period include self-portraits with bodies at the morgue, a steam room or soap bubbles made of water that had been used to wash corpses, the latter inviting either disgust from the viewer or his or her rapturous communion with the murdered. In that sense, some of her pieces give leeway to communal mourning, specifically, Andén. Escultura colectiva por la paz (1999). For this “relational” or “participative” piece, Margolles invited the relatives of drug crime-related victims to dig a 36-meter long path in the Parque Panamericano in Cali, Colombia, and to place souvenirs in the ‘wound,’ which was then covered and paved. Along similar lines, in a piece created In Situ for her 2004 Frankfurt retrospective, Margolles made cement benches with the water that had been used to wash murdered bodies at her morgue-studio. This piece had the purpose of inviting the viewer to mourn both
the victims of violence from Mexico
and the victims of the Holocaust (“Germany and Mexico can mourn their dead
together” she stated) Misleadingly, the victims were put on equal footing as
well as collective and private mourning. Similarly obtuse, conceived for
“reflecting upon death” and with the same logic of the Frankfurt benches, there
are her more recent chaise-longues/graves at LACMA in Los Angeles and in the
Botanical Garden in Culiacán, Mexico (2011). These works reveal, furthermore,
an unconscious Catholicism operating in her work, as it invites the creation of
communities gathered around a perpetually absent body. Other traces of this
unconscious Catholicism are Margolles’ transformation of objects related to
violence and its victims into relics, or the sacralization –by way of
museification– of objects such as blankets, clothes, plaster that have been in
contact with murdered bodies, operating under the logic of the Shroud of Turin.
Maybe Margolles’ work has a double purpose: to impose the duty of morality on the viewer and as witness, to exercise catharsis on behalf of the victim(s). In Margolles’ work, it is neither the cadaver nor its traces that testify to violent death, but the artist herself: autopsy comes from the Greek autoptes, which means “witness” from auto (self) and optes (seen). Thus, the artist is a witness trying to speak out on behalf of the victim, making debatably isolated moral claims whose incommensurability remains opaque and nonnegotiable. In her work, a split emerges between the speaking subject (artist) and the subject of the speech (the truth of violence that is asserted), that is, what “she” says, exceeds the “said” witnessed by her artistic practice. This excess is due to the fact that moral testimony evacuates the public it summons because, ultimately, it is not I (the witness or victim) who can redeem myself, but God. Margolles’ view of the pain of others, moreover is inextricable to the religious logic that links pain to sacrifice and sacrifice to exaltation: the artist sacrifices herself at the morgue, endlessly washing and dissecting the corpses (“mis muertitos”, as she referred to them), in order to mourn them. According to Susan Sontag in her key work Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), however, this view of death as sacrifice is completely alien to modern sensibility, which regards suffering as a mistake, an accident a or crime, as something that makes one feel powerless. This contradiction between a religious conception of death as suffering and the modern sensibility which posits violence as a question of the violation of human rights, is never teased out in Margolles’ work, for whom working at the morgue was a kind of moral duty that she took upon herself. The question one can ask to her work is, does it transcend morbidity in order to turn the violence brought about by Neoliberal policies in Mexico into an ethic-political question?
More recent work by Margolles has been sanitized of bodily fluids and decaying matter, for example, she has transformed into jewelry things such as broken glass (Ajuste de Cuentas 15, 2009), or into art-relics bullets and the wall they’re embedded in, both stemming from traces of violent settlings of accounts. Last year, she began to collaborate with a witness for her piece Las llaves de la ciudad: Mr. Antonio Hernández Camacho, a key maker and souvenir vendor from Ciuad Juárez whose business was negatively affected by the violence reigning in the city. Margolles’ performative piece consists of him telling his and his city’s stories in conversation with the viewers while he engraves keys with words told to him by the visitors. Debatably, Las llaves de la ciudad attests to the lack of cohesiveness in Margolles’ work, as there is no apparent link neither ethically nor formally to earlier or more recent work (except for the sensationalist signifiers: “Ciudad Juárez”, “violence” and a subject of enunciation bearing witness –this time delegated; other works that stand at odds with the logic of her oeuvre are her walls painted with fat extracted from cosmetic liposuction operations, the trepanation sound piece and the cocaine-cutting cards). For this piece, Margolles places testimonial documentary inside the white cube, by way of an easy appropriation of two aesthetic genres that have predominated in the past decade in politicized and socially aware art: relational or participatory and the “talking head” bearing witness. What is even more problematic, is the role held by the keys that Hernández Camacho makes and are hung on a wall in the exhibition space; perhaps it caters to the recent commercial success of Margolles’ work?
In the 1990s and up to around 2006, Margolles’ work took up as subject matter the violence prevailing in Ciudad Juárez and other border towns as well as in some areas of Mexico City which included feminicides, settling of accounts between drug lords and hired hit men aligned with the cartels, crime in general, kidnappings, gang fights, etc. Since 2006, this violence increased exponentially and expanded to the rest of the country. This was due to the militarization of the country by President Felipe Calderon’s war allegedly waged against drug cartels. The government’s war gave leeway to an unprecedented violent struggle amongst the cartels disputing territory and drug-trafficking routes (many claim that the Federal Government fights on behalf of the interests of El Chapo Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel). Since then, there have been about 60,000 civilian deaths and Mexico is stated to be the most dangerous country for journalists worldwide.
Within this context, Margolles represented the state and private-sponsored Mexican Pavillion of the 2009 Venice Biennale, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina at the Palazzo Rota Ivancich. This time, the government turned a blind eye to the breaching of the official mandate to show to the world an image of a safe and peaceful Mexico – although some heads inside the Foreign Relations Office were indeed cut because of this project, and even the Office removed itself from the project at the last minute – and thus Mexico came across as a “democratic Nation” that allows freedom of speech to critical artists. Margolles’ intervention was called What else could we talk about? and in the artist’s own words, it sought to put forth directly and in the most realist sense the current “Mexican panorama, flooded with blood and tears due to a war against drug trafficking led by the Federal Government.” In Venice, Margolles showed “pictorial abstractions” materialized in muddy blankets that had been used to cover abandoned corpses once they’d been executed; a “floor clean-up,” a performance in which a janitor mopped with blood the floor at the Palazzo Ivancich; she also showed “Narco-messages” embroidered in gold thread over blankets recuperated from execution places at the Mexican northern border. Finally, during the Biennale’s inauguration, ten thousand credit cards were given away to cut cocaine; the cards bore images of assassinated persons because of to their links to organized crime. For the curator, the show materialized: “The substances of anger, loss and social waste, transferring them (or rather, smuggling them) to a 16th Century Venetian Palace, cannibalizing the traces of decadence and history embedded in the building.” Also: “More than a presentation of objects and images, Margolles shows her public the ghostly and abject sacrality of fluids and remnants: jewelry made with glass fragments, murderer’s aphorisms embroidered in gold, sound recordings of the landscape of death, composing a space for reflection, corporal intimacy and anxiety.”
As many authors have noted, anxiety is one of the illnesses suffered by the global social fabric along with panic attacks, shock, and paranoia. Taking this into account, it could be said that Margolles, without placing any distance between herself, the viewer and the subject of her work, reiterates and reifies these emotions, giving at the same time, a glamorous touch to abjection. The “cocaine-cutting-cards” seek to underscore the spectator’s indirect complicity with organized crime, be it as a drug consumer or as a passive spectator of the state of affairs (and of art), leading toward sensorial experiences that simulate feelings coded by Christianity such as shame, expiation and repentance. At the same time, Margolles imposes a painless mourning on the viewers (of absent bodies) within a museographic space that has been transformed into an aestheticized horror house. The problem is that Margolles’ abstractions tend to be rituals forced upon the viewer that are neither private nor collective, but rather, fetichistically sacralize the vestiges of crime scenes.
Moreover, viewers who are foreign to this material culture and life experiences suffer an excess of sensory-emotional stimulation (at best), along with paralysis, shock and anxiety, which are typical emotions of the contemporary world. It could be said that Margolles’ interventions contribute to the transmission of Narco-violence at an abstract, spectacular level rendering opaque what really is going in Mexico, including the nature and causes of State Terrorism (the bourgeois developmental impulse that prevails since Porfirio Díaz). Moreover, to point to the Federal Government with a finger soaked in blood (and within the frame of official sponsorship) is much easier than to lead the viewer to reflect upon the real causes of violence within a broader panorama in all its complexity which would be: the nature of the relationships amongst socio-economic classes in Mexico, the Neoliberal creation of an urban lumpen-proletariat, the de-ruralization of the countryside, forced migration and repatriation, the systematic destruction of food sovereignty, the strong state repression of current autonomy struggles and self-management on behalf of communities seeking to become viable and autonomous (like in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas) these indigenous communities have entered the conservative Mexican government’s war by being systematically repressed, hiding behind a paternalist, protectionist and developmentalist veil.
Finally, Margolles’ intervention at the Mexican Pavillion for the Venice Biennale echoes the transparent sensationalism transmitted by the Mexican mass media, which has ceased to inform, instead it only transmits violent images and conveys statistics of violence. As I have already mentioned, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, as more than 80 have been killed in the past 6 years. State and Narco-violence repress journalists while artists, writers and intellectuals either censor themselves or retort to conservative strategies to obtusely denounce what is going on in today’s Mexico, like pointing fingers, fetishizing the remnants of violence, or more recently, claiming that “we are all victims.” Nowadays, merely staging the need to politicize violence, dispossession or social intervention has become the rule – in the name of freedom of expression.
Margolles began to produce her work in the last decade of the 20th Century, which saw the emergence of a vein in Contemporary Art taking up the post-structuralist mission to “speak truth to power” by doing away with mediation in order to express directly and realistically, the horrors of capitalist vampirism – a genre that Mark Fischer called, Capitalist Realism. Operating at an affective level, this aesthetic of demise transmits traumatic shock; the experience of this kind of art either stuns or incenses the viewer, as he is either invited to become a potential agent of the denounced events, or his Sado-masochist side is invoked. The latter is the case of Santiago Sierra, who began to produce in the late 1990s events in which the viewers experienced fantasies or decadent experiences whose source of pleasure was the act of looking at the exploitation of others. Using “remunerated service” as raw material and based on the logic of “confrontation” Sierra transferred to the white cube the power relations of the Neoliberal everyday: first, putting the Mexican neocolonial oligarchy in front of “its sins” and then the international one confronting it with the “real” of the exploitation of the Other. Along similar lines than Sierra, Margolles also stages confrontations in her work, in this case between the presence of corpses who have undergone violent deaths – non-mournable life, as Judith Butler put it – and the affluent gallery or museum visitor. Following Butler, one could argue that disparity is based on rhetorical decisions and social practices that frame the loss of lives as either grievable or not. Lives that are not considered grievable become a target for annihilation in order to maintain the status quo of those lives that are worthy of ‘living.’ Butler argues moreover, that every life is precarious and yet, some can afford protection while others cannot. Evidently bodies are exposed daily to violence, but some lack national protection, as economic and social structures have failed them, leaving them vulnerable at an increased risk of exploitation, disease, poverty, starvation, displacement and exposure to violence: because they lack social protection, these bodies are therefore “destructible” and become “ungrievable” lives. Debatably, work by Sierra and Margolles underscores and thereby normalizes the distinction between grievable lives and those worth living.
Symptomatically, Margolles’ and Sierra’s work has been linked to an art historical genealogy tied not to a kind of post-ideological socialist realism but to the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-ideological’ minimal art, with the argument that their strategy is to format (real) contents within minimalist frames like seriality, repetition, modularity, etc. Moreover, it has been said that the basis of their work is the symbolic gesture of replacing the minimalist ‘epistemological cube’ by signs embodying real processes, as Sierra did placing human labor inside boxes (Workers Paid to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 1999), and when Margolles placed human traces of violence in a cube (an aborted fetus, Burial, 1999), similar to the use of earth by Walter de Maria, steam by Hans Haacke steam, trash by Arman trash or the void by Gabriel Orozco.
The de-humanizing aspect of Sierra’s and Margolles’ “minimalist” aesthetic has caused (calculated) scandals, as their stylized confrontational mirrors have been perceived as transgressions that have offended or made the public uncomfortable. In the case of Sierra’s work, however, it is not very far from previous ‘politically incorrect’ representations of the Mexican “Indian” or slaves in European art history. And as we have seen, Margolles’ work is imbued with an unconscious Christian syntax that is problematically not dealt with neither by her work nor by the reception of its work. Under this lens, the ‘transgressive’ aspect of their work appears as a conservative gesture oscillating between the propagation of shock, cynicism and sensationalism, closer to the Bretonian rhythm of ‘épater la bourgeoisie –with the difference that the bourgeoisie addressed by their work is neither conservative nor repressed but as Slavoj Zizek put it, the class in power today is vulgar and sadist. At the same time, their work evidences (on purpose?) the political and historical immaturity of their viewers who are uncomfortable, surprised or shocked when they are facing the exploitation or the nature of ‘non-mournable life’ of the other. Their work furthermore, opposes utopia and recalls the prevailing mood of impending doom and approaching catastrophes delivering an opaque mirror of systemic corruption; their superficial injunctions to fight greed, consumerism and violence and harmless, moralistic gestures become an ideological operation that is the opposite of an ethical and political discourse, conveyed through the use of disembodied ideas and a poorly conceived aesthetic language.
Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009)
Emmelhainz, “Brownie and Brownie” (Preface to dissertation Before our
Eyes; les mots, non les choses; Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et ailleurs (1974) and Notre musique (2004).
Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009)
Margolles, “Interview with Santiago Sierra,” BOMB 86 (Winter 2004).
Margolles, Exhibition Catalogue Muerte sin fin MMK Frankfurt, (New York: DAP
and Frankfurt am Main: Museum für Moderne Kunst and Hatje Cantz Verlag,
Medina, “Materialist Spectrality,” in Teresa Margolles, What Else Could
we Talk About?
Exhibition Catalogue, Mexican Pavillion, Venice Biennale 2009.
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Strauss and Giroux, 2003)
Zizek, On Violence (London: Verso, 2009)