Teresa Margolles

The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, who trained in forensic medicine, recounts facts that are not exactly easy to digest. On the one hand, she takes as her theme the escalating criminality and extremely high murder rate in Mexico; on the other, the sociopolitical problems that accompany the massive body count. Many of the victims do not receive proper funerals and are consigned to the anonymity of mass graves, either because they are unidentifiable or because their families cannot afford the expense. What is difficult for many viewers to bear about Margolles’s creations is the drastic nature of her artistic approach, drawing attention to the political conditions in which the violence occurs and the desensitization that results from self-perpetuating media portrayals. At the same time, she confronts us with the horror of the corpse’s decay and its by-products, whose substantive traces serve as source material for the artist.

“Los Herederos” (The Heirs), 2009–, consisted of twelve large square “canvases” presented in a row along four walls. These seemed to be painted in varying shades of puce with abstract planes recalling batik prints. Through the many dark, thickly applied layers, some of the surfaces took on a carapace-like relief. The row of paintings was accompanied by a faint murmur that filled the exhibition space, an undifferentiated clamor of voices coming from behind the paintings. In order to make out what is being said, the viewer had to draw as closely as possible to the individual canvases.

The “paintings” are all made from cotton towels, which Margolles and an assistant used to mop up the blood of murder victims in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The artist learned of the crimes, which all happened in autumn and winter of 2008, in newspaper articles, and then went straight to the crime scenes to collect the remaining traces with dampened towels. What we see, in viewing the textures of the paintings in proximity, is actually blood and other body matter worked into the cloth, which has been disinfected and treated for conservation. What we hear are voices reading the newspaper articles covering the murders, in Spanish and in German.

Like most of Margolles’s works, these cloth relics function as indexes of the marginalized corpses’ absence; they attempt to give symbolic voice to the unheard. Ultimately, this call for empathy is difficult to satisfy. It should be prompted by the visual relics and our reflective perception, but it appears dialectically thought through. Indeed, although human presence is evoked by the real traces of the body, which may prompt genuine emotion in the viewer, the signifiers of the real, here transformed into artworks, remain in the realm of representation and can merely report on the violent deaths in an abstract manner. The questions thus posed—about the efficacy of art and the expression of pain, death, and decline—create a necessary critical distance from the inherent pathos of the works and call instead for an exacting mode of looking and listening.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.