Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death
eBook - ePub

Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death

Julia Banwell

  1. 240 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death

Julia Banwell

Dettagli del libro
Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti

Informazioni sul libro

This book is the first and most extensive academic monograph to be published on the work of the Mexican neo-conceptual artist Teresa Margolles. A range of art works produced by Margolles throughout the length of her career, which began in the 1990s (as part of the SEMEFO collective) and continues to the present day, are explored from such theoretical perspectives as the philosophy of death; the difficult spectatorship of death and the corpse; approaches to the representation of death and dead bodies in art from inside and outside Mexico; and the response of art to traumatic events in Mexico during and since the 1990s. The extensive scope of the study is a significant contribution to scholarly material on the artist, attending to difficult questions around art and ethics; its analysis of Margolles's work is situated within the contexts of the long tradition of the display of real bodies and body parts in Mexican visual culture, against the backdrop of the effects of NAFTA and the War on Drugs.

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American Art

Chapter 1

From Social Corpus to Social Corpse: social issues in Teresa Margolles’s artwork

The vertiginous escalation of violence in Mexico throughout and since the 1990s, particularly since the former president Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, has left in its wake the traces of countless crimes, thousands upon thousands of unsolved murders, as legacies of trauma on a national scale. Teresa Margolles’s artwork focuses on the victims of these crimes and those left behind to grieve, and holds up a mirror to challenge those in power to justify their failure to heal the wounds in society.
The artist channels collective mourning, exploring in recent years the question of who cleans up the blood left on the streets by acts of murder. Speaking in 2009, she said: ‘When it’s one person, it might be the family or a neighbor, but when it’s thousands of people, who cleans up the entire city’s blood?’1 At the 2009 Venice Biennale, she used cloth that had been soaked with mud containing traces of the blood of murdered people to wash floors and windows, displacing the crime scene and its material trace evidence from their location in Mexico, and relocating them to another city where they travelled on the soles of the shoes of people who had passed through the Mexican Pavilion (see colour plate Cleaning, 2009). The absorption into and the covering and saturation of materials with tiny fragments of bloody soil is a powerfully physical reference to the alarming escalation in the murder rate during and since the 1990s and the fact that, effectively, living cities are saturated with the traces of multiple deaths. Violence is systematic and systemic.

Mexico in the 1990s and beyond: the backdrop to Margolles’s artistic production

Upon his election to office in 1988, President Carlos Salinas’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) government had promised to deliver economic stability for Mexico. One of the major components of this policy was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), unveiled by Salinas in 1992 and implemented on 1 January 1994. This agreement, which Mexico was to enter into in collaboration with Canada and the United States, was to implement measures such as reducing trade barriers and tariffs in order to facilitate free trade, and the Mexican government gave assurances that this would improve both Mexico’s economic situation and her position in the global economy. The promised stability initially failed to materialise. Many commentators have noted the negative impact of free trade on Mexico in both economic and human terms. Rubén Gallo, for instance, asserts that the decade of the 1990s ‘was the most tumultuous in Mexican history since the Revolution ended in 1920.’2 This period saw an increase in crime and violence, much of which was connected to the trade in narcotics. Long-running social and economic inequalities remained entrenched, and the persistence of the gulf between rich and poor drew many migrants from rural areas into the cities in search of employment.
A large number of maquiladoras (industrial plants manufacturing technological goods such as computer parts) were constructed during the 1990s in cities situated along the Mexico–US border, and Mexico saw an increase in investment in its border region. Many Mexican workers migrated to the northern cities, often finding accommodation in the shanty towns that grew to house this expanding population. Poor provision of facilities such as public transport and street lighting in these areas means workers often have to make long and dangerous journeys to the maquila. A high proportion of workers are female; the border city of Ciudad Juárez, in particular, has become notorious during and since the 1990s as the site of multiple disappearances and murders. Many bodies are never found, but some are eventually recovered from various body dumps in the remote desert. They are often difficult to identify because they are incomplete or severely mutilated, sometimes garbed in clothes that do not belong to them. There are many theories about the possible perpetrators and their possible motives for murder – including relationship killings; sex killings, where gangs are hired by paying customers to kidnap women who are then tortured, raped and killed; cartel revenge killings, where whole families are annihilated; gang initiation rituals; and serial killer(s).
It is difficult to gauge the exact numbers of murders and disappearances, with official statistics differing from figures estimated by independent groups. Gibler asserts that in the state of Chihuahua alone, hundreds of women have been murdered with hundreds more disappeared, and some Mexican states are not even attempting to count the number of unsolved murders of women.3 Protests have sought to draw attention to the authorities’ lack of urgency in dealing with these crimes. Watt and Zepeda reported that, by the late 2000s, the rate of femicides had intensified:
In Juárez alone, the number of femicides … reached unprecedented levels in 2009 and 2010, a 50 per cent increase on all those committed in the previous 16 years … Around 10 per cent of these feminicidios were committed against children and female teenagers. Additionally, according to the Attorney General of Chihuahua, there has been a dramatic rise in homicides against females there. In 2010 alone, almost 600 females were executed or killed, around 10 per cent of the total executions in the state.4
In 2010, Ciudad Juárez saw ‘almost 3,000 drug-related executions’ (p. 207). There have been worldwide responses to these crimes at such events as the Remember Them exhibition held in Liverpool, UK, between September 2013 and February 2014, which brought together artists and scholars from inside and outside Mexico.
The feminicidios have become inextricably associated with the maquiladora towns. Teresa Margolles has long held an interest in these cases, and has been travelling to the region for almost a decade to produce artworks that draw attention to the desaparecidas who continue to increase in number, often with little hope of the crimes being solved or of the perpetrators being brought to justice.
An Amnesty International report published in 20035 lists a catalogue of examples of incompetence and negligence on the part of the authorities responsible for investigating the murders – including cases of falsified evidence, ignored leads, harassment of victims’ relatives and intimidation of human rights activists. Using information gathered from sources including official figures, legal and academic documents and the testimonies of the victims’ families, the report identifies correlations in such factors as the age and occupation of the victims. They tend to be young – in their late teens and early twenties – with the majority being students or maquila workers, and from poor backgrounds.6 The types of torture inflicted on the victims are sometimes similar between individual cases.7 Another major obstacle to solving these crimes is the lack of rigour in recording disappearances,8 which has given rise to uncertainty as to the true number of women who remain unfound. Notably, there has not been another report since 2003.


Gibler states that ‘of all the threats to the state in Mexico, there is really nothing so demonized, so dreaded and despised in the public discourse of politicians, as drug trafficking’.9 He also points out, however, that the transit of such high quantities of drugs through Mexico is facilitated by a certain permissiveness on the part of state officials at all levels. Aside from making the problem of drug trafficking an extremely difficult one to effectively address, this also complicates the notion of ‘corruption’ and its use as a term to describe deviation from acceptable conduct. According to Gibler, corruption as an idea
implies an aberration – someone breaking the rules to feed their own private greed. When activities thought of as corrupt become so prevalent in a government that it is impossible to speak of an institution free of them, when corruption ceases to be an aberration and becomes an integral part of the system, it is then no longer accurate to speak of corruption as such.10
As Watt and Zepeda indicate, whilst in government the PRI ‘controlled much of the trade and entered into pacts with traffickers to ensure that the state took its share of the profit’ (p. 8). The collapse of PRI rule, and the subsequent ousting of the party from government in 2000 with the election of the PAN candidate Vicente Fox, changed the balance of power, and the cartels in some parts of Mexico availed themselves of the opportunity to ‘empower themselves, moving in to capture elements of the state and to assume control over them’ (p. 8). The cartels have also benefited from a plentiful workforce thanks to rising unemployment and persistent poverty. The expansion of the maquila industry during the 1990s is key to understanding the cartels’ rise in power during this period. Migration to northern cities where the factories were constructed increased the number of people available for work. However, as the maquilas largely employ women, there has emerged a surplus of unemployed men, which has provided the cartels with a ready supply of willing employees.
The response of the government to the escalation in violence was the zero-tolerance ‘War on Drugs’, in which President Calderón engaged with gusto following his election to power in 2006:
Ten days after his inauguration, Calderón began his militarisation of the country and increased the number of troops on the streets to 50,000, more than Tony Blair had sent to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003. (p. 184)
Ostensibly concerned with tackling violence, the deployment of troops and anti-drug squads has been an opportunity for the government to militarise the country, and it has also been suggested that this is a tactic by which the government can re-establish the link between state and cartels that allowed for relative tranquillity (and a most prosperous relationship) during the PRI years. There have been many grassroots protests against the persistence of the problem of narcoviolence, a prime example being the journey of a caravan of protestors northward through the country in 2011 towards Ciudad Juárez, led by the poet Javier Sicilia and the No Más Sangre (No More Blood) movement. The blame for the many thousands of deaths that have occurred during the ‘War on Drugs’, has been laid at the feet of Calderón’s administration and its ‘insistence on militarisation’,11 which, according to the view of the protestors, worsened the violence rather than reducing it.
The inevitable result of the increase in violence, has been an increase in the visibility of death and dead bodies, manifested during the 1990s as an increase in the number of corpses arriving at morgues, and later as bodies and body parts dumped in public spaces. This is a connection made explicit in artworks by SEMEFO and Teresa Margolles, which, using uncompromising representational tactics, reveal the causal link between crime, urban violence, violent deaths and absence. The use of bodies to draw the viewer’s attention to social problems has two effects: first, it highlights the persistence of poverty, socioeconomic inequality and structural instability in post-NAFTA Mexico and, second, it draws attention to the victims of injustice, re-locating bodies into the sphere of public exhibition.
Teresa Margolles’s work demonstrates that death is not the great leveller it is often presumed to be, erasing the inequalities and differences between people who occupied different social strata in life. In fact, as her work shows, social and economic inequalities persist after death as the reality of bodies that cannot be buried due to lack of economic resources, and their fate in mass graves or as cadavers for medical study. As stated by the Mexican cultural critic Cuauhtémoc Medina:
Contrary to popular wisdom, we all know that death does not make us equal. Social taxonomies are shown not just in causes of death, but also in the fate of our remains, the quality of our funerals and the public attention given to our absence.12
Margolles’s works are so effectively confrontational because they reveal that which is usually hidden away from mainstream society: the death and disintegration of the body. The artist directly confronts the viewer with images of corpses and, in some examples, real bodies and body parts, and the residues they leave behind after death. Her work, as well as being driven by its own aesthetic motivations, is strongly socially engaged. Her attention has not just been focused on traumatic events in Mexico, however. On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man, was shot and killed in Tottenham, north London, by police who were attempting to arrest him. It was alleged that Duggan had been carrying a gun when he was surrounded and shot by police in the minicab in which he was travelling. It was reported in the media at the time that Duggan had fired on police, but this was later revealed not to be the case. A protest march held two days later began peacefully but led to rioting, a turn of events of which the police had been warned if public reaction to Duggan’s shooting was not responded to sufficiently sensitively. Rioting spread to other locations in London, and later to other cities in England such as Birmingham and Nottingham. The television and print media broadcast a seemingly endless stream of photographs of apocalyptic scenes: burned-out buildings and gangs of youths looting shops and destroying property. An inquest was held into Duggan’s death and, after three months, the jury concluded in January 2014 with an 8/2 majority that his killing had been lawful, stating that Duggan had not been in possession of the gun at the time he was shot but that he had probably thrown it away (it was recovered a short distance from the scene). The verdict damaged already fragile police and community relations as well as provoking further protests in response, with hundreds gathering at a vigil in Tottenham following the publication of the inquest’s verdict and the suggestion that evidence was ignored.
The aftermath of the violence is the story told in the traces left in its wake; debris in the streets as material evidence of the disruption to streets and cities, individual lives and wider communities. Margolles travelled to the scene of some of the destruction in London, collected some of the charred remains of buildings destroyed by fire, and had them made into an industrial diamond by one of only two manufacturers so skilled worldwide.13 Titled Un diamante para la corona/A Diamond for the Crown (see colour plate 6 and Fig. 38), the jewel was exhibited at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios in 2012.

Theories of death and the body

There is a large corpus of sociological literature around the subject of death and its perception in industrialised societies, which examine specifically the ways in which we deal with death and dying. Lomnitz observes that:
The denial of death and the isolation of the dying have been identified by historians of death as core characteristics of Euro-Americ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. List of Illustrations
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  8. Chapter 1: From Social Corpus to Social Corpse: Social Issues in Teresa Margolles’ Artwork
  9. Chapter 2: The Aesthetics of Death
  10. Chapter 3: Morgue and Corpse Art
  11. Chapter 4: Performance of Objects and Substances
  12. Chapter 5: Margolles, Mexican Art and Mexicanness
  13. Conclusions
  14. Notes
  15. Bibliography
Stili delle citazioni per Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death

APA 6 Citation

Banwell, J. (2015). Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death (1st ed.). University of Wales Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/573171/teresa-margolles-and-the-aesthetics-of-death-pdf (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

Banwell, Julia. (2015) 2015. Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death. 1st ed. University of Wales Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/573171/teresa-margolles-and-the-aesthetics-of-death-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Banwell, J. (2015) Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death. 1st edn. University of Wales Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/573171/teresa-margolles-and-the-aesthetics-of-death-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Banwell, Julia. Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death. 1st ed. University of Wales Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.