New York

Teresa Margolles, Dos bancos (Two Benches), 2020, cement and mixed media, each 19 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4 × 55 1⁄8".

Teresa Margolles, Dos bancos (Two Benches), 2020, cement and mixed media, each 19 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4 × 55 1⁄8".

Teresa Margolles

In their book Mengele’s Skull (2012), Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan argue that the history of international criminal justice has two stages: the era of testimony, inaugurated by the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1961; and the era of forensics, which arose from the discovery (and subsequent need to positively identify) the remains of Josef Mengele in 1985. In the former, witnesses spoke; now, in the latter, things are made to speak, through an activation of scientific, legal, and aesthetic strategies. Curiously, the cited dates sync almost perfectly with two key moments in the history of Minimalist sculpture: Circa 1961, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and others turned to blank forms and industrial materials that thrust viewers’ attention back onto their own embodied experience. Then, following the dedication of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, the movement’s spare geometries became an official language of mourning. Minimalism’s perceived lack of expression made it the apposite vehicle for expressing mass trauma.

These two lineages intertwined in Teresa Margolles’s “El asesinato cambia el mundo/Assassination changes the world,” her first solo exhibition in New York City in more than a decade. Initially trained in forensic pathology, Margolles has long sought to give form and force to deaths that, for those outside Mexico, are typically experienced as anonymous, albeit staggering, statistics: more than 61,000 forcible disappearances since 1964, nearly 36,000 homicides in 2018, more than 800 clandestine burial sites discovered in the past two years. Her best-known early work commanded attention through her use of taboo materials, including a human tongue and water once used to wash corpses. Here, Margolles took an approach that might best be understood as “forensic Minimalism,” wherein the rites of mourning coincide with the gathering of evidence. 

Just past the front door, Margolles placed a rectangular stack of giveaway paper posters. Each sheet was an enlarged facsimile of the receipt from a cash purchase for twenty-four Winchester twelve-gauge cartridges that she made at the same Walmart in El Paso where a white-supremacist gunman killed twenty-two people last August. (The original receipt and a photo of the ammunition were on view in the gallery’s offices.) Laconically titled Receipt (all works 2020), it was an obvious homage to one of the artists most associated with elegiac Minimalism, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in particular echoing his stack piece “Untitled” (Death by Gun), 1990. Yet whereas Gonzalez-Torres reproduced the portraits and biographies of victims (all of them US residents killed by gun violence in the course of a single week), Margolles’s action focused on objects, location, and corroborating documents. Gallerygoers who blithely grabbed a poster were literally left holding the receipt, as if somehow they too were accomplices to the deed.

The exhibition culminated in El manto negro / The black shroud, an installation of 2,300 ceramic blocks, each roughly four inches square, arranged in a grid across a single wall. The earthenware’s clay came from deposits in the area around Mata Ortiz, a town in northern Mexico that has been profoundly impacted by drug cartel violence. There, Margolles collaborated with local artisans over the course of eighteen months to produce the blocks, each commemorating an individual victim. The power of the work lay in the tension between the ceramics’ handmade particularity and the grid’s industrial regularity. Slight discrepancies in dimension and hue—a myriad of glassy blacks, browns, and grays—triggered a restless optical vibration in one’s peripheral vision. As befits such a memorial, Margolles provided two benches for contemplative repose. Both were made from cement mixed with particles sourced, a wall text soberly announced, from a patch of ground in Ciudad Juárez where a murder occurred, in effect situating the sitter at the scene of a crime. In place of restrained catharsis, Margolles established an unsettling proximity.