All of Margolles’ works are realized with materials either originating from corpses or having been in contact with them. Margolles confronts the taboo of death, and especially the taboo that impels us to remove corpses from view. The bodies she handles are those of people who died a violent death, due to a social context of poverty and violence connected, in particular, to drug trafficking. They are the corpses of those Walter Benjamin called “the eternally vanquished, the victims of hunger and poverty.”
—Flash Art, 107
It is not possible to write this essay. There is nowhere to go. Teresa Margolles’ work resists categorization. It takes different forms, it uses various materials, and each project develops out of a concept different from the last. How then to address this work? How to write about work that will not be reduced or flattened?
The fact of Margolles’ work not being easily reduced is a beginning. It is a way into speaking about her work. Margolles began as a participant in SEMEFO, a collective she also helped to found. An anagram for Servicio Médico Forense, Mexico City’s forensic office (Forensic Medical Service), SEMEFO was a loose art cooperative. Members came and went but the focus of all the members was violence, death, and exclusion, and all of them used materials from the morgue.
Margolles, who left the collective in the 1990s, attempts to enact that which cannot be defined, anything that can be made and then sold, for instance, must be describable, discreet, identifiable. A given object’s easy commodification is part of what makes the thing delectable, easily consumed. What can be articulated can also be digested; what cannot, cannot, and must remain as it is, as a remnant, as the inarticulable.
As Derrida so beautifully stated, “There is always a remainder that cannot be read, that must remain alien. This residue can never be interrogated as the same, but must be constantly sought out, anew, and must continue to be written.”
This is Margolles.
In America’s relationship with Mexico, exoticism and fetishism are frequent experiences—traveling to Tijuana, or port cities, collecting commodified culture like Frida Kahlo, religious icons, chotchkies. But the same America, while engaging in such fetishization and exoticism, can also understand the Mexican as less-than, part savage, part animal.
Nothing new here. Part and parcel of colonialism. So then, how does a Mexican artist work against the implications of numerous interventions by the United States into Mexico—including but not limited to NAFTA, the recurring influx of U.S.-affiliated Mexican presidents, and the annexing of parts of Mexico to the U.S. as the result of the U.S.-Mexican war, issues of class and ethnicity within Mexico, the intricacies of drug addiction and the criminalization of drug use, and the femicide of women and young girls?
One of the difficulties of addressing death and violence in contemporary Mexican culture is that it is not a discreet topic. Clear, cohesive binaries are non-existent. One issue feeds into another. Death has always already been complicated. One issue bleeds into another. Every issue contaminates the others.
Where the art world appropriates—taking from those without access to it—Margolles does the opposite. She uses media such as faux bad painting and photography that incorporates aspects of so-called slumming, colonizing the art world with them, making aspects of culture that were previously off-limits due to class, ethnicity, race, religion, and so on, palatable and available for further exploitation. Margolles’ work installs those things that the world does not want into its white cubes and pristine galleries, and she does this without commodifying or transforming the work to make it more consumable.
In her installation En El Aire (In the Air) (2003), an empty gallery space fills with water bubbles that drop from the ceiling. The viewer might be moved by both the simplicity and beauty of the presentation until she learns the bubbles are made from the water used to clean the dead in the SEMFO morgue. Her public action, What Else Could We Talk About? Dragged Flag (2009), consisted of a fabric “impregnated” with blood that had been collected from execution sites around Mexico City. At first sight the flag appears as a large textile dyed various shades. The action, which took place at Lido beach in Venice, California, appears as a type of land art.
By carrying, as it were, the bodies of the dead—the poor, the silenced, and the marginalized—and integrating their bodies into the work, Margolles performs an intervention in the art world, redirecting its gaze. As Cuauhtémoc Medina writes in his essay “Materialist Spectrality,” included in the monogram Teresa Margolles: What Else Could We Talk About?
Walter Benjamin’s felicitous description of the flâneur as a wanderer through modernity “who goes botanizing on the asphalt,” might here have found its monstrous double. In the combings of crime scenes carried out by Margolles and her network of helpers, the flâneur is reborn as a crew of amateur forensic investigators: collecting up mud, blood and broken glass from the roadway, recording the vacant horror of mortally wounded places on photographs and videos, filleting newspaper reports and popular commentary for the phrases and clichés that every execution attracts. This close tracking of base materiality and verbality takes place once the police and forensic technicians have finished with the scene. After these authorities’ removal of the bodies and any evidence, there are still plenty of remains and effluvia testifying to a life cut short. All such residue (dirt, blood, glass, stains, fragments, noises) is what Margolles encapsulates in the formula: “all that’s left.”
“All that’s left” is what Margolles transports from the street to the white cube of the gallery. In this way, she is also transporting death and its kin: poverty, marginalization, trauma. What the world, and the art world, would prefer not to have to see.
In this way, Margolles performs a necropolitics as articulated by Agamben, Foucault, and Mbembe. She rescues death from the two places it remains relegated: the places where it brutally occurs (poor neighborhoods, the camp, the places of colonization) and the realm of Theory.
Death, however invisible, permeates our cultures. The U.S. military industrial complex constructs elaborate machines to distribute death throughout the world without the American population having to actually witness these deaths. And although most Americans never witness the exporting of deaths firsthand, death nevertheless seeps back into American culture. Death is everywhere: both in its citizen’s desire for death (drug addiction, eating disorders, suicide, homicide, mass murders) and the constant circling of death around us (in our films, TV shows, music videos).
By re-importing death, the dead bodies, the smells of the dead bodies, Margolles places death directly before us, refiling the void left when death was excised:
In Foucault’s formulation, biopower appears to function through dividing people into those who must live and those who must die. Operating on the basis of a split between the living and the dead, such a power defines itself in relation to a biological field—which it takes control of and vests itself in. This control presupposes the distribution of human species into groups, the subdivision of the population into subgroups, and the establishment of a biological caesura between the ones and the others. This is what Foucault labels with the (at first sight familiar) term racism.
In this brief passage taken from his seminal essay, “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe explains the act of delineating power vis-a-vis deciding who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Mbembe is working with Michel Foucault’s idea of biopower, the power of managing large groups of people and delineating these groups into smaller groups as a means of control. Some ways humans are controlled are by institutions. A space for art; another space for politics. A space for rich; another space for poor. A space for dying; another space for the dead.
The act of breaking populations into smaller sub-groups based on their assessed worth serves as a foundation of that society. Foucault writes, in his lecture on biopower titled “Security, Territory, Population”:
By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called bio-power.
Much has been written about necropolitics, femicide, and Mexico. An obvious connection to Margolles, I refrain from writing further about it. What is important here is the way both of these theories, when enacted in real life, overlap and reconstitute one another. Biopolitics and death become ingrained and, at the same time, indistinguishable from the everyday workings of a culture. One might say that neropolitics and biopower, once they become a part of a culture, become so much a part of that culture they vanish into it.
Margolles’ work mimics and recreates the forms of both biopolitics and necropolitics. When she imports the dead bodies of murdered Mexicans—the poor, marginal, those made invisible—she is intervening in the very project of biopower and necropolitics. When she infuses the smells and the blood of the dead into the white cube of the gallery space, she turns these powers back on themselves by making them suddenly sensible. She is, in a sense, putting these bodies—bodies that are the remnants of what were once rich, full, animated lives—back into a system that works incessantly to keep them out. Death is everywhere, as Medina writes:
Every one of Margolles’ recent works has declared, not without dismay, the obsolescence of the morgue as sole container of dead matter; a comprehensive violence literally carpets public space, the discourse of the media and urban sensibility with the signs and traces of an all-embracing economy of the abject.
In the West, though death and violence infuse everyday life, death has been removed from view. A recent exhibition in Freiburg at the Museum für Neue Kunst, “Gutes Sterben—Flascher Tod (Dying Well—False Death),” presents death to the viewer without reprieve. The show includes Via Lewandowsky’s Bone Fide (Ertrinken), 1999, consisting of a number of utility objects designed to help facilitate suicide, and AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5, 1994 (1994/1999), a photograph Bronson took of his friend Felix just hours after Felix’s death from an AIDS-related illness.
Moving from room to room, I was struck repeatedly by the alarm of death—reminded at every turn of its constant haunting. Death is what will happen to every one of us, some of us sooner than later. Death is literally around every corner and within our bodies. Illness, war, poverty, drug, alcohol, food addictions, seemingly random accidents: yet we erase death from our minds, remove its contamination. We store death in the television set, the film screen, the internet, represented and repressed. Like children, we are not allowed to see death. Newspapers no longer print photos of dead soldiers or civilians killed in drone strikes. U.S. policy doesn’t allow the moment of death to be depicted on television. The camera cuts away. Still, death follows us. Or perhaps I should say, the ghost of death. Death’s representation but not death itself, like a troubling thought.
I stood speechless before the suicide machine, just as I did moments later when I first viewed Bronson’s billboard size image of his dead friend Felix. Momento mori.
Margolles’ work differs from the show in Freiburg in that it mirrors the removal of death. Rather than show images or other simulacra of the forgotten dead, Margolles sneaks death physically into spaces where it would otherwise remain hidden, merely represented.
Taken for granted, the viewer’s ignorance is a threshold and within this threshold lies possibility. When we are confronted with death or with the issue of Mexico, drugs, poverty, and violence, we flinch. We react in empathy and understanding or else we turn away. In either case, we step into a semblance of knowing and then revert to the safety of death’s absence, proven by the representation of death before us.
There it is, we think. I would recognize death now, and death is nowhere around me. Margolles’ work intervenes in our comfortable knowing.
From The Critical Flame online posting by Cynthia Cruz on July 25, 2017.