Via the Dead to Life
Since belonging to the group SEMEFO, whose name is derived from the forensic medical service, the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has chosen as her atelier the morgue and the dissecting room. Both are places of death but also places which bear witness to social unrest in what may be the world´s biggest metropolis, Mexico City. Margolles works not so much directly with the remains of bodies but rather with the traces of past life, with shrouds, burial and memory. The nameless and anonymous victims draw attention to inhuman relationships in modern overcrowded societies.
In 1990 Teresa Margolles was a founding member of the group SEMEFO (Servicio Médico Forense/Forensic Medical Service) and has in this capacity since held performances, made installations, objects and videos and intervened in public places. For several years she has also been working on her own to continue the joint program, taking as her basis the morgue, which in a metropolis like Mexico City is a focal point of social relationships, involving on the one hand poverty, exploitation and criminality and on the other wealth and modern technology. Themes like violence, death, burial, organ transplants and cosmetic operations are at the heart of her often shocking consideration of the relics of life. Though the group engages in theatrical actions, Teresa Margolles is loath to stand in the limelight and either asks others to carry out ideas or lets objects speak for themselves.
In an interview with Gerald Matt, Margolles describes her path: ´Since the start of my career early in the 90s, I have been working on an aesthetic approach less about death than about corpses in their various phases and their socio-cultural implications. I work on lifeless bodies, with what is decaying, and always start with the question: "How much does a corpse experience?" I, too, have gone through various phases. I began by showing the corpse in terms of direct violence. Finally I came to the cleansing of objects, which I let express a symbolic content or other factors´ (exhibition catalogue T.M., Kunsthalle Wien project space 2003, p. 19-20). Margolles sees parallels to the Viennese actionists Mühl, Nitsch and Schwarzkogler but turns ´to a society in which violence is nearly a habit and allegory and in which the insensitivity to pain, lack of solidarity and individual struggle are increasing more and more“ (ibid, p. 23).
The works of the group SEMEFO include ´Dermis´ (1995), made up of bed-sheets from a public hospital whose logo is printed on them and which bear the bloody impress of corpses (Cuauhtémoc Medina calls it a mimicry of Yves Kleins ´Anthropométries´ in Parachute No. 104, p. 36f.), and ´Estudio de la ropa de cadáveres´, made up of grubby shirts from children who have died in accidents, shown in 1997 in ´Así está la cosa´ in Mexico City, an overview of installation- and object-art in Latin America.
Margolles’ work ´Entierro/Burial´ (1999) consists of a flat unremarkable cube of concrete recalling minimal art but actually a coffin. After a miscarriage a penniless woman begged the artist not to have the baby disposed of in a hospital but preserved in a work of art, so Margolles made a concrete burial chamber, to contain it in an airtight hollow.
In the action ´Andén. Escultura colectiva por la paz´ (1999) Margolles had 36 metres of a path in the Parque Panamericano in the drug metropolis Cali dug up then let the relatives of drug-victims to place souvenirs in the ´wound´, which was then filled in and tarred.
´Lengua´ (2000) consists of a killed youthful heroin addict´s pierced tongue, which Margolla conserved and put on show. For the artistic use of this genuine body part, Margolles gave the bereaved family some money with which to bury the rest of the body. Then - as later in Berlin - Margolles used human fat siphoned off in the anatomy institute in Mexico City, from which she had smuggled it. She smeared it onto public buildings in Cuba to ´restore´ them (´Ciudad en espera´, Havana 2000) or used a live person (a Moroccan immigrant in Spain, who dealt in contaminated drugs) as a poster-bearer (´Grumo sobre la piel´, Barcelona 2001). This dealer was smeared with the fat then finally washed clean. The work ´Fin´ (2002) consisted in pouring out, into a gallery due to be closed, a mixture of cement and water with which corpses had been washed, thus forcing viewers out onto the street.
As part of the festival MEXartes-berlin.de (2002) Teresa Margolles showed two installations. In ´Zebra Crossing´ she exhibited ´Vaporización/Vaporisation´, a room with coolers to turn water, used for washing corpses and then disinfected, to steam: ´Her performance not only visualised the physical remembrance of the last washing but also the process of dissolution and vanishing - the vanishing of a certain person in the thick fog of a city with more than 20 million denizens.´ (Klaus Biesenbach, in the exhibition catalogue Mexico City. An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values, p. 151). A notice at the entrance to the foggy room explained the history and harmlessness of the steam.
A second work of hers was shown in ´Mexico City. An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values´ in the Kunstwerken. The work was a monumental monochrome fresco for which Margolles had used fat siphoned off during cosmetic operations. ´The installation is often taken to be a commentary on obsessive vanity, with the fat symbolising the excesses of well-to-do patients. Body-fat as a measure of wealth and nourishment has here become a waste product of folk who, worried about over-eating, seek an easy but costly remedy´ (Klaus Biesenbach, ibid).
In spring 2003 Margolles held an exhibition called ´Das Leichentuch´ in the Kunsthalle in Vienna. To be seen was an installation consisting of a 2 x 24 m. cloth with human imprints of non-identifiable tramps handed over for dissection. The pungent smell of the chemicals used to hinder decomposition made it necessary at times to remove the cloth. To be seen were also videos of Margolles´ earlier performances and installations. Whereas the installation was received coolly by the Berlin press, which took it to be tongue in cheek - ´The installations are rather flat, translucent and shallow but simply grandiose´ (Uta Baier in the Berliner Morgenpost, 21.9.2002), in Vienna it was taken to be scandalous. Uproar was caused less by the grave-cloth than by the video ´Bañando el bebé´, showing the conservation of a still-born baby (for the work ´Entierro/Burial´ described above). Questions were raised by the FPÖ in the Viennese council, the exhibition was said to be sickening, perverse and inhuman, and calls were made for the ´tasteless show´ to be shut. But newspapers felt that its worrying and vexing elements paid off.
Margolles, who is said to be a ´borderline artist of existential origins´ (Karlheinz Schmid, in: Kunstzeitung, November 2002) and ´one of the unchallenged representatives of a new minimal body art´ (Niklas Maak in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 21.3.2003) touches taboos with her carefully dosed artistic transformations, spectacular and full of pathos. Her work with corpses handed over for autopsies draws attention to widespread anonymity and poverty, which does not allow bodies to be buried with dignity. But Margolles focuses not on the dead but on the physical traces left by death, violence and social exclusion and uses them as didactic and cathartic elements of a subtle and disturbing socially critical art.
Author: Michael Nungesser
Teresa Margolles was born on the 14th of July 1963 in Culiacán/Sinaloa, where she studied art at the Dirección de Fomento a la Cultura Regional del Estado de Sinaloa (DIFOCUR) and communication sciences at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and was awarded by the Servicio Médico Forense a diploma in forensic medicine. In 1990 she founded together with Arturo Ángulo Gallardo, Juan Luis García Zavaleta and Carlos López Orozco the group SEMEFO – short for ´Servicio Médico Forense´, which refers deliberately to the forensic medical service. At first the group was active mainly as the Death Metal Rock Band and an underground performance group, then it moved into the art-scene with its first exhibition in 1993. The number of members fluctuates.
In 1996 Margolles and the rest of the group SEMEFO held a course for children, teaching them how to stuff animals. From the Fondo Nacional de Cultura y las Artes, she was awarded in the years 1994 (with SEMEFO) and 1996 the grant Jóvenes Creadores (for sculpture and alternative media) and from 2001-03 took part in the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte. She has received many prizes including in 1996 the first prize in the Salón de Plástica Sinaloense, in 2000 an acquisition prize in the competition Cuerpo y Fruta of the French Embassy in Mexico City, and in 2001 an honourable mention at the Northwest Biennale in Culiacán and an acquisition prize at the 7th Biennale of Cuenca in Ecuador. With the group SEMEFO she was awarded an acquisition prize at the Biennale of Monterrey in 1999, the year in which she took part in the art exchange program between Mexico and Columbia. Teresa Margolles, the only member of the group to work and exhibit on her own, lives in Mexico City.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
The Mexico-festival in Berlin
(15 September 02 - 01 December 02)