Friday, November 16, 2012

Teresa Margolles: Death in Mexico and the War on Drugs

“According to the Mexican press,” writes Mexican curator and art critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, “More bullets were fired in 2008 than any other year of the country’s recent history.”  According to statistics, more than 5,000 people died in connection to drug trafficking, almost twice as many victims as the year previous.  The United States Department of Defense published a report promoting the idea that Mexico’s sudden upsurge of violence was due to its gang population.  This report was refuted by Mexican diplomats, and the United States developed a more placatory statement, acknowledging greater North America’s role in the violence.  Even after Mexican troops were sent to the border to quell the violence, over 1,900 died in executions, decapitations, and shoot-outs at the beginning of 2009. Writes Medina, "…What Richard Nixon called the 'drug war' has proved to be the most ineffectual campaign in history. Its sole achievement has been the encouragement of an ever larger market for ever cheaper 'illegal substances' – and, of course, a towering mountain of corpses… As Luis Astorga has pointed out…'the real goal of this alleged war seems to be its own perpetuation.'” 

In 2009, Medina collaborated with artist Teresa Margolles to work on an installation for the Venice Biennale. For decades, Mexico did not have an official pavilion and artists did not consistently exhibit at this international art fair.  It was revolutionary that Medina and Margolles represented Mexico in this year and executed such a politically charged installation entitled, ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?) In What Else Could We Talk About Margolles forces the international audience to face the reality of violence in Mexico.  Using the interior of the Rota Ivancich Palace, Margolles installed a group of cleaners to once a day mop the floors of the building with a mixture of water and blood of murdered people from Mexico. When the viewer enters these rooms, the reason why the area is being cleaned is ambiguous and mysterious, but the act of cleaning itself shows that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  The repetitive, domestic chore of mopping is to clean up routine and accumulated filth as well as the innocuous accidents of spills.  Margolles’s use of repetitive mopping prompts the viewer to ask, what’s wrong?  What happened?  What is it that is being corrected?  The silence itself is overwhelming. When the viewer realizes that the mopping is a futile attempt at cleaning and that over time these layers of blood are actually accumulating, it is clear that something is not only wrong, it is getting worse. 

Margolles uses fabric impregnated with the blood from victims of Mexico’s violence.  Once the body is removed, and the crime scene investigation is complete, Margolles cleans the blood-stained area with damp rags, absorbing the blood into the cloth.  In Venice, she took this fabric and turned it into flags that she hung outside and inside of the pavilion.  Flags are nationalistic in nature, so hanging this blood-soaked flag outside of the Mexican pavilion is a way of exposing the country’s political violence, and emphasizing the guilt of her country in these ongoing murders. Furthering her act of cleaning, Margolles took these flags and submerged them in the waters of Lido Beach, Venice.  Mexico is saturated with the blood of its dead, but it is at the same time trying to rid itself of the violence, to hide it. 
Teresa Margolles, United States Pavilion, Venice, 2009
Bruce Nauman, Venice, 2009
In direct dialogue with the United States, Margolles took these blood-soaked fabrics, and installed them over the windows of the United States pavilion, at the heart of the Venice Biennale.  With this act, she acknowledges and confronts the United States’ role and guilt in border violence.  Like Macbeth as he vainly tries to wash his hands clean of the blood of his victim, Margolles tells the United States that the country cannot wash its hands clean of this blood.  Inside might be the comparatively whimsical work of Bruce Nauman, who would win the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for his country, but Margolles’s action is a sobering reminder of the nation’s political dominance and corruption.  As Medina said, "…Presenting her work in Venice also seeks to confront the global system's demagoguery, which continues to operate based on stylistic, linguistic, thematic and material exclusions, where the reference point of the center is never absent. In spite of numerous difficulties, and of every kind, that were involved in doing this pavilion, I always had a precise idea in mind: if an artist like Teresa Margolles can't realize her work at the Venice Biennial, then perhaps the Biennial ought not to exist."

Medina, Cuahtémoc. Teresa Margolles: What Else Could We Talk About? RM. 2010.

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