In a Dark Place. Teresa Margolles. La búsqueda

Dora Imhof
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 03.08.2014

Since the early 1990s, Teresa Margolles has been dealing with the representation of death. Reasons for this can be found in the biography of the artist, who was born in Culiacán in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1963 and today lives in Mexico City. After studying art, she was trained to become a forensic physician and frequently worked for forensic institutes—where there’s lot of work to be done. Due to the drug wars and political failure, Mexico has an extremely high murder rate (according to a UNO report, 21.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012). In Margolles’ art, the focus is also on persons, often from the fringes of society, who have suffered a violent death and remain anonymous even after they have died.
  That alone would be a subject matter explosive enough to raise far-reaching questions: What can art effect in this context and in a society shaped by violence? And how is it possible in the first place to transfer these experiences to the context of art? The issue becomes even more fundamental when viewing Margolles’ work in the broader context of art theory and cultural studies. In 2007 Thomas Macho and Kristin Marek ascertained a new visibility of death.[1] Relevant for their studies was the image theory of Maurice Blanchot, whose essay Les deux versions de l’imaginaíre (1951) starts with the question of what a picture is, and then stresses the similarity between the corpse and the picture. Susan Sontag approaches this theme from an entirely different direction by raising the (ethical) question, in Regarding the Pain of Others, as to the representability of suffering and—violent—death. Sontag argues that war, torture and extreme suffering go beyond what we can imagine, with depictions of the horrible turning us into voyeurs: “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.”[2] Teresa Margolles has developed different artistic strategies to deal with these questions and the limits of representability. There are documentary pieces showing work in a morgue and a series of self-portraits with corpses (Autorretratos, 1998). However, Margolles has departed from especially shocking depictions: “While the photos used to be brutal—they showed corpses in a state of decay, for example—I now no longer attempt to represent physical horror, but rather silence.”[3] Particularly well-known are her minimalistic sculptural works and installations based on things that were in direct physical contact with corpses. For example, 127 threads with which dead bodies were stitched at an autopsy (127 Cuerpos / 127 Bodies, 2006) spanned through the exhibition space, or water with which the dead were washed turning into soap bubbles (En el Aire, 2003) or dripping from above onto a hot steel plate in a dark room (Plancha, 2010). As an indexical trace, they refer to the absent dead body. Touch is also pivotal as an impression in the photographs of cloths or the cloths themselves with which the dead were covered, reminding one of the vera icon, the Shroud of Veronica.
  Margolles’ art which is consistently dedicated to death or the traces of corpses is not uncontroversial. Niklas Maak, on the occasion of a major show at the Frankfurter Museum für Moderne Kunst in 2004, spoke of an “artistic traveling cemetery” and summed it up as follows: “Teresa Margolles navigates along a tricky border between kitsch and creepiness, and the astonishing thing is that she succeeds in not immediately falling from this thin line”.[4] One can indeed make the accusation that several of her works stage spine-chilling effects in the gallery space in an emotive, spectacular and at times problematic manner. This is especially true of her extreme works such as Lengua (2000), the dissected, pierced tongue of a drug addict who was murdered. Margolles had acquired the organ from the family by paying for the funeral of the young man. But it can also be positively pointed out that Margolles does not shy away from addressing controversial themes that affect us all in an elementary way and provoke intellectual as well as emotional and physical reactions.
  This also applies to her newest piece on view at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. La búsqueda (The Search, 2014) deals with the series of murders in the north Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, where more than 600 mostly very young women were murdered between 1993 and 2013. The installation is on display in a darkened room in the middle of which stands a row of eight glass panes in metal frames. Missing person reports with information on the young women who have disappeared are pasted to the dusty and smeared panes.

Teresa Margolles. Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich Fig. 1

All the posters are of recent date, usually official ones, although some appear to be private. They show photos of the missing women and specify a reward for finding them. The windowpanes are from shops in the city. They reveal the traces that the missing have left in the architecture of Ciudad Juárez. At the same time, they now become obituaries or remind one of gravestones embellished with a picture and thus of the old function of art as memoria, a commemoration of the dead. There was probably little hope of the young women and girls still being alive when the posters were put up; on account of this, and due to the unpleasant feeling of gazing at the faces of murdered persons, viewing the work becomes particularly stirring. And also because the dead persons have a name here, while they otherwise almost always remain anonymous in Margolles’ works. The installation also has an audio component: The sound of a train driving through the historical center of Ciudad Juárez was transformed into low frequencies, and this sound permeates the exhibition space, rattling the glass panes with the posters. The sound not only evokes the distant place; since the vibrations of the panes are probably meant to affect the visitors as well, the sound effect of the trains brings the otherwise austere installation dangerously close to a tunnel of horror.

Teresa Margolles. Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich Fig. 2

  The corpses and the horror of violent death are not shown in La búsqueda. The fact that their dead bodies are not (once again) objectified speaks in favor of the installation. But can the death of young women be turned into a work of art that operates strongly with evocative effects? What are possible alternatives for treating this theme: documentation and sociological analysis? Or overburdening the recipients, as is done in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 with its seemingly endless listing of murdered women and the conditions of the found bodies that were often tortured? It must be credited to Teresa Margolles’ pieces that they prompt one to reflect upon these questions, even if they will probably also remain documents of a representation that fails. As is differently the case, by the way, with John Baldessari’s project Cadaver Piece, in which the artist wanted to exhibit a dead person—something which, as yet, has not been possible in an art institution for ethical and legal reasons (the documentation of the project was recently featured in 14 Rooms, see the review by Mechtild Widrich in Terpentin, 07/1/2014). Or, as Duchamp’s gravestone reads, it’s always other people who die. 

Teresa Margolles: La búsqueda
May 24th – August 17th 2014 at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Limmatstrasse 270, CH-8005 Zürich

[1] Thomas Macho, Kristin Marek (eds.), Die neue Sichtbarkeit des Todes, Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2007.

[2] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 41.

[3] Teresa Margolles in Macho/Marek, see note 1, p. 315.

[4] Niklas Maak, “Die Schönen und die Leichen,” in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 24, 2004, p. 41..

Fig. 1
Teresa Margolles, La búsqueda, 2014, intervention with sound frequency on glass panels, exhibition view Migros Musuem für Gegenwartskunst
Courtesy the Artist und Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich
Foto: FBM Studio

Fig. 2
Detail from Fig. 1

Dora Imhof is an art historian and postdoc at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) of the ETH Zürich.