Art, Homicide, and the Anonymous Dead in Latin America
On the Teresa Margolles exhibit at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY
From July through October, the Nueberger Museum of Art featured these pieces, conceived by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and executed by six groups of curators and embroiderers. Entitled “We Have a Common Thread,” these fabrics present a complex statement about violence in the Americas. Latin America is the region of the world with the highest murder rates, and “We Have a Common Thread” incorporates the United States into a nuanced allusion to the impunity that usually follows homicide in Latin American countries, to the anonymity of the victims, and to the process of mourning. The entire exhibit combines the evocative power of the materials (textiles, microscopic human remains), the labor invested in the embroidery and collage by people from Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil and the US, and the stories they told while working in these pieces. Although Margolles is the nominal author of all these pieces, they involve the work of many hands over several years and in very different places.
The work of Margolles is well known around the art world because of her use of the bodies and physical remains of victims of homicide. Over more than two decades of her career, her pieces and installations have presented audiences with the effects of violence in ways that are at once brutal and ironic. They often cause a shock that forces spectators to react, question their own assumptions, and become an active and critical public. This is very important in a world in which the media is constantly bombarding us with different forms of violence, which we are supposed to consume as entertainment, without any reflection, as if it were a natural part of life.
Margolles’s work is always closely connected to current events. This is evident in the piece produced in Harlem, on a cloth smeared with residues taken from the spot where Eric Garner was choked by a police officer in Staten Island, causing his death. Her work on Mexico has maintained a consistent reference to the violence that in the last ten years alone has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Margolles’s projects seeks to elicit a dialogue that inevitably refers to the present. As the title of her installation in the 2009 Venice Biennale puts it: “What Else Could We Talk About?” Rather than using sensational language, her works suggest the need to understand critically the political significance of violence in the everyday life of most people.
Margolles has changed as an artist over the years. She started working with a group called SEMEFO, the acronym of the Mexico City coroner’s office. They were interested in “the life of cadavers” and brought an underground feeling of humor and defiance to their performances and objects. In her individual work, from the 1990s, she connected the morgue with the street and became more reflexive about the ways to allude to death. She maintained a sense of sarcasm toward the gap between the benign environment of the art gallery and the disgusting manifestations of death. “Lengua,” from 2000, was the actual tongue of a young man, a heroine user, exhibited in a glass enclosure. He was into punk rock and aesthetics, and Margolles’s own sense of rebellion suggested a punk sensibility too. With time her work began to use more minimalist, although equally shocking, ways to refer to violence, rather than death in general. The most famous are the pieces in which the basic material is water used to wash the corpses in the morgue, and deployed in the galleries or museums in the form of mist, bubbles or simply liquid washed on the floor, forcing the audience to come into contact with material traces of the death — although sanitized for safety. She also produced works in the 2000s that alluded to the consumer culture associated with drugs and violence, such as cards to cut cocaine illustrated with images from the morgue, or fake jewelry in the style favored by drug traffickers.
One could say that the tone of her work has become more somber, replacing the juvenile defiance and the exploitation of the shocking use of bodies of the deceased with increasingly clear references to mourning and Christian iconography. Since SEMEFO she has employed fabrics as vehicles to preserve and display those fluids, in some cases creating pieces that echo medieval and baroque relics, like the shroud of Turin.
At the same time, Margolles has become an internationally recognized artist, taking the material traces of Mexican violence across borders, to galleries in the US and Europe, and in doing so expanding her implicit critique of the commodification of art in contemporary institutions. The endorsement of art critics has been important in this process. The Mexican pavilion in Venice in 2009 was the most notable example of this process of internationalization and critical success. Cuauhtémoc Medina has written about Margolles and her work, and participated as curator in the Venice project. In his view, her work denounces the weakness of justice institutions in Mexico and elegantly attacks the nationalism that for many years had dominated the production of Mexican artists and the consumption of their work abroad. She is now, according to Medina, part of the canon of the local art scene.
The center of these works, however, is not the state but death itself. Other critics have pointed to the thanatophilia in her work: the admiration of the beauty of death and the exploration of its aesthetic possibilities. As Caroline Perrée and Oriadna Bradley have pointed out, Margolles continues in this regard a very strong Mexican tradition of using blood and death as artistic tropes. (As an example: the Mexican national anthem, written in the mid nineteenth century, includes several strophes that are no longer used. One of them summons patriots to wage war against invaders and “The national banners / soak in the waves of blood.” Before surrender the nation, it continues, “Your prairies will be drenched with blood / on blood your feet will tread.”)
I think it would be excessive to refer back to the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice, but there is clearly a connection between the work of Margolles and the allusions to victimhood and suffering in Frida Kahlo’s work. Although Margolles favors a minimalist language in assembling her works and installations, it is inevitable to think about baroque representations of martyrdom and notions of Mexico as an essentially violent country. In Venice, for example, the fabrics that had absorbed blood in crime scenes replaced national flags. This made a political statement, blaming then president Felipe Calderón for unleashing the violence, as much as it played with the identification between Mexico and blood.
The mass consumption of Frida Kahlo’s images is an inevitable reference when we realize that the work of Margolles comes from the same place. They share an implicit connection between victimhood and authenticity: who can challenge the voice of those who have been victims of violence, particularly gender violence? Who is going to doubt their suffering? This leads to another implicit connection, between the self and the nation, pointed out by Bradley: the suffering of individual victims refers to that of an entire country almost overwhelmed by criminal violence. I will not deny that there are very important differences between Kahlo and Margolles. Perhaps the parallelism has been exaggerated by contemporary publics that are fascinated with “reality,” that is, movies and TV shows that claim objective credibility in their presentation of revolting images of the products of violence. While Kahlo referred to the pain in her own body, Margolles witnesses the effects of crime in others.
If we look at this exhibit we can see that Margolles’s work cannot be simplified to the status of a nationalist or religious commodity. The key is to keep in mind the process of production. Throughout her career, the explanations of critics and sometimes her own voice have been essential to understand the way in which materials were collected, the origin of the fluids and remains that, when known by the public, produce the shock or mourning that are intended as initial reaction. Early in her career a key fact in these explanations was Margolles’s own work as a technician in a forensic office. With time she has become less directly involved in the production of the works, but the information about the process continues to be essential to understand her work. In this case, the videos with interviews of the groups of embroiderers are a central component of the project. Although Margolles figures as the author, the participation of her collaborators is prominently displayed.
This production process is also relevant because it elicits questions about the ethical aspects of work with the death. If we assume that the deaths, particularly of victims of violence, deserve a dignified memory, the role of their relatives becomes significant along with that of the artist. To obtain the tongue, Margolles paid for the funeral of the rest of the body of the young man, because his family did not have money for a casket. A piece called “Burial,” from 1999, is a block of cement that contains the remains of an infant whose mother did not have the means for a proper burial. One could argue that participation in these works was not entirely voluntary. In an action conducted in Barcelona in 2001, Margolles smeared fat from Mexican cadavers on the naked torso of a drug peddler of Moroccan origin. In the photos of the process we can see that she was wearing gloves while his body was exposed to the contamination of the fat. Margolles paid the man money to go back to his country and seek medical treatment for a previous condition. While some critics note a power relation implicit in these works, others counter that Margolles does not sell works that include human remains and does not pay to obtain those remains illegally. However, as Medina points out, the process followed by Margolles in her works involve smuggling substances outside laboratories and across borders, in an ironic commentary on the disorganization and lax regulations of the Mexican justice system. Again, the production process involves a broader reference to an entire country that is ethically compromised.
In the production of this exhibit Margolles was not involved in the gathering of the remains, at least not in all cases. The hands that work on the objects are no longer hers. The catalogue edited by curator Patrice Giasson registers the different ways in which the groups of embroiderers paid respect to those whose mortal remains were in the clothes they were about to enliven with new images. The memory of the victims preserved in the fabric is complemented by stories about the workers’ own loss of relatives and friends to criminal violence. Domestic violence, the effects of drug addiction, police abuse — these pieces contain suggestive information about the victims. Their names, however, except in one case, are not revealed.
An important dimension of the works of Margolles is publicity. Not in the commercial sense but as an aspect of the representation and reproduction of violence in Mexico. Violence is very prominent in the press; the crime news dailies are highly popular in Mexico and are known as the nota roja because of the abundance of blood in their photographs of crime scenes and corpses. Beyond the pornography, however, the nota roja has been a very effective space to denounce corruption and impunity during the twentieth century. Educated readers often dismiss the nota roja because of its shocking, sometimes moralistic style, but the genre sells many more copies than respectable mainstream newspapers.
The nota roja uses images of death with commercial purposes, to sell more copies. Yet its popularity also derives from its ability, as a journalistic genre, to exhibit the flaws of police work and the judiciary in Mexico. Readers know that in the overwhelming majority of cases the culprit of a homicide will not be punished, not even indicted. Autopsies are done to verify the cause of death, but rarely to help in the investigation. Everything the public will ever know about a homicide is often encapsulated on the front page of a tabloid.
This impunity has encouraged a common feature of the nota roja: the anonymity or neglect of the victims. In the stories since the first half of the twentieth century, reporters suggested that victims, particularly if they were women, were also to blame for their fate. Their bodies were displayed on the front page without any concern about their dignity or the suffering of their relatives. Today that has not changed much, with the additional circumstance that many of the dead or disappeared in the context of drug-related violence simply have no name: some are migrants whose families cannot search for them, many are buried in common graves, and others, as in the case of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, are disposed of in ways that leave few traces of the crime, other than their absence.
Margolles has recognized the saturation of images of death in Mexico with several references to the nota roja. In “PM,” from 2012, she displayed on a wall the front pages of each edition of one tabloid from Ciudad Juárez for the year of 2010. The work alluded to the combination of pornography and gore that still sells many copies. It also invoked the passivity of the audiences that see that violence, and it reminded me of the coffee table books that exploit the aesthetic attraction of murder for more educated readers. But Margolles recognized in a 2009 interview that she uses the nota roja to learn about contemporary reality in Mexico, as the most reliable guide into the “daily national tragedy: bound, gagged and shrouded cadavers.” The readers of these tabloids are probably not the same public that goes to art galleries. Yet they share a frame of reference to the violence of contemporary reality.
Mexican audiences know very well about this context when they see Margolles’s pieces. The reference is not so obvious in the project at the Neuberger Museum because she is dealing with several countries that have very different problems in terms of violence and the rule of law. The demand for justice is very specific in some cases, like the piece from New York, and more general in others, as the one from Guatemala. In the pieces from Brazil and Mexico drug consumption and production complicate the story. The sense of mourning is common, and is stressed by the dark room and the use of light. The political repercussions are different in each case, but we can say that they are stronger in the piece that spatially is closer to us, the one from Harlem, as it usually happens.
“We Have a Common Thread” encourages us to learn and share stories that would otherwise lack any publicity but can become very personal, almost intimate. These stories are now closer to us in the same way that the hands of embroiderers came into contact with the stained fabrics they worked on. I believe, however, that we can appreciate this without losing a critical perspective on the way in which art works.
One way to do this is to question the notion of a single author being the explanation for the entirety of a creative work. There are many contributors to this project, listed in the catalogue and the information about the pieces. The role of Teresa Margolles was to bring them together and to propose the rules of the production for each piece. She also contributed her own language as an artist through the mobilization of the allusive power of these materials. In that regard, these pieces are indebted to those she based on the Mexican reality, and in which her role as author raised ethical questions about art and the rule of law. Considering her earlier production inevitably situates this work in the history of Mexico, even as this project proposes that there are essential commonalities regarding death and violence across the Americas.
One feature of this project that is deeply rooted in the Mexican circumstance is the anonymity of those lost to violence. It is still difficult to speak about them today in Mexico. They can be approximately counted but they are rarely named. Their stories are often left in a kind of darkness similar to the one that Margolles chose to impose on the workers on these pieces regarding the source of the fabrics, and visually on the audience that comes to the Neuberger Museum. This is a paradox, considering the rich diversity of other meanings that can be attributed to these pieces. We know a lot about these pieces but we know little, except in one case, about the women and men whose remains are encapsulated in their fabric. We can see this project as an invitation to look for those stories, and fully close the cycle of memory and justice that they have initiated.