Teresa Margolles

04 Dec 2010 - 20 Feb 2011

© Teresa Margolles
Wieviel kann eine Stadt aushalten, 2010
Courtesy and photo: the artist

December 4, 2010 - February 20, 2011

Using reduced but always drastic means, Teresa Margolles (born in Culiacán, Mexico, in 1963) creates extremely poignant works of art. At first glance, her works often seem to be minimalist in their form. Viewers only discover that they are deeply emotional and dramatic when they become aware of the rigorous realism in the choice of material. Margolles uses substances such as blood, body fat or even water used to wash dead corpses not only symbolically, but also palpably, attacking human beings’ fears of contact in a subtle way. In the last ten years, her art has revolved around the issue of what happens after a person dies and what death leaves behind. The artist deals with the social dimension of the dead body as well as the physical remains after autopsies, and the treatment of this subject as a taboo. In addition – as it has become increasingly apparent in her most recent groups of works – she is interested in personal mourning rituals and social strategies of repression. Margolles work stands in close connection with the everyday realities of her home country Mexico, which has been dominated for years by drug wars between enemy cartels and where thousands of people fall victim to violent crimes every year. Her art can be viewed as an act of solidarity towards those who have died, as a vehement struggle against forgetting. Furthermore, she asks questions about the future of a society whose population seems to be directly affected and traumatised by the consequences of this violence.

After studying art, Teresa Margolles received an additional degree in forensic medicine and, starting in the 1990s, worked in morgues in Mexico City parallel to her artistic pursuits. At the morgues, she was mainly confronted with lower-class victims of violence whose families could not afford a burial, and so the victims were buried in anonymous mass graves. The artist’s professed aim is to give these people, who are ignored not only during their lifetime but even in death, a voice. She assesses the state of a society based on the state of its dead. Her works suggest that not even death eradicates social inequalities. For Margolles, the autopsy room serves as a pool of sources, both regarding the histories and fates that she encounters there and explores, and the physical material she finds there and uses for her artistic work. She expresses both relentless realism and deep sensitivity in works such as Entierro (1999), for which she cast the corpse of a stillborn foetus in a concrete block. In Mexico, as in many countries, it is not customary to bury stillborn foetuses; instead the hospital disposes of them. While this smooth cube may look like a minimalist sculpture on the outside, when one knows that a foetus is buried inside it takes on an emotional aura that is deeply touching. 127 cuerpos (2006), consisting of knotted-together threads extending through the exhibition room, works in a similar way. It is only when the viewer finds out that the threads are the remains of autopsy seams that he or she realises the slight discolorations of this delicate, visually reduced work might stem from bodily fluids of dead people.

Under the title Frontera, Margolles is presenting new and pre-existing works made of diverse materials at Kunsthalle Fridericianum. While these works reflect the frightening extent to which the drug war is influencing Mexican society, they also engage with the general taboo on death and violence. Margolles confronts visitors directly with death by having water used for washing corpses taken from a Mexican autopsy room drip on to a hot steel plate in the exhibition space, thus making death perceptible both olfactorily and atmospherically. In addition, she is putting up two walls in the Kassel exhibition which she has had removed from Mexican cities and replaced with new walls. The man-high concrete-block walls are witnesses of daily violence: they display bullet holes resulting from shoot-outs that have had a lasting impact on cities such as Ciudad Juárez, where the drug war is raging with particular vehemence. With the title Frontera (frontier), Teresa Margolles alludes to the limits of what a city can endure. She shows places with no future, in which even young people grasp the futility of their situation, as one of her film works oppressively documents. Margolles also shows relics of victims of criminal violence, presenting glass display cabinets with jewellery of shot police officers, government officials, passers-by and tourists. While the golden watches, earrings, chains and bracelets are draped as though on display in a jewellery store, as vanitas symbols the valuables directly refer to the sudden, unexpected deaths of these people. Additional works, some of which are being created right at the Fridericianum, supplement Frontera, making it a synthesis of works – some more documentary, some very emotional – of the explosive realities of Mexico.

The exhibition is realised in collaboration with Museion, Bolzano and will be on view from 27 May to 21 August 2011 at the Museion.

Tags: Teresa Margolles