Teresa Margollese

Galerie Peter Kilchmann | Zahnradstrasse 21

Entering the gallery, one found the climate of the building on Limmatstrasse drastically different from what one would expect: Through a pair of humidifiers, water used to wash the bodies of corpses in Mexico’s metropolis was being atomized into superfine particles. The rinse water of the anonymous dead settled on the skin of the living and penetrated them when breathed in. More than just the humidity level was being altered. Unsettling social realities, normally excluded from the world of art, were permeating the atmosphere, hardly noticeable but nonetheless powerfully present. A work similar to this one had been shown at P.S. 1 in 2002. Vaporización, 2001, was a fog room with a strong visual presence, which in the Zurich piece, El agua de la Ciudad de México (Mexico City’s Water), 2002, was reduced to pure humidity—only to spark the imagination even further. Ultimately it wasn’t revulsion that created a sense of the uncanny but rather the idea of being unable to escape the dead because of this purified water of their last cleansing. They catch up to us, persecute us, like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth.

In Europe, Teresa Margolles’s macabre work might be associated with the materialcentric performance art of the Viennese Actionists. But such a comparison would miss the Mexican artist’s very different conceptual stance and approach to the public. While the actions of artists like Hermann Nitsch or Otto Muehl still follow a theatrical kind of dramaturgy, with Margolles all resemblance to stage and mise-en-scène falls away. The mist of corpse water lands on the skin of all visitors, and all find it hard to breathe. One’s own body is engaged; the physical and the mental are equally affected. Only through the absence of any representation and through the minimal means employed do images ultimately begin to come to mind.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (Cards for Cutting Cocaine), 1997–99, a series of large-format documentary photos, shows drug consumers getting their materials ready. For this they use small pieces of plastic in the same format as credit cards, which Margolles had distributed on the street; these bore images of murdered drug couriers, dealers, and addicts. The image carrier thus becomes a gruesome informer against itself, and the image of death becomes deadly equipment.

The exhibition also included photographic documentation of the action Anden (Sidewalk), 1999: In the Colombian drug center of Cali, Margolles had over a hundred feet of sidewalk ripped out. Relatives and friends of drug-trade victims placed personal items of remembrance in the open grave, and then the sidewalk was repaved. The urban passage becomes an invisible site of remembrance and reflection. For all who know about it, what has been buried—and the act of burying it—cannot ever be forgotten.

Mexico City is one of those places where the social distances between the partial worlds of the global economy seem on the verge of collapse. Margolles punctures the aesthetic distance between social realities without entirely overcoming it. The victims of violent crimes are never voyeuristically presented, but their traces are still unavoidably present. Even the documentary photograph creates an only apparent distance from events. Margolles’s works function as an infective agent. Long after a visit to the gallery, breathing remains difficult, one’s skin remembering again and again.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.