Muerte sin fin
"Other experiences, other deaths await us."
Teresa Margolles works with death or, more specifically, with dead bodies. She does this in Mexico City. Margolles participates in the work at one of the city's morgue and is an artist as well. The dead bodies she encounters and which become the subject of her artistic work are victims of violence or drug abuse, traffic casualties, unidentified corpses, etc. Most of them are the bodies of young people, among them children.
When Teresa Margolles says she is interested in the "life of the corpses", what she means is the fate of the bodies, what they experience after their death, and the connections between their lives before and their "lives" after death. Circumstances such as cause of death and age at death and the chosen forms of burial and commemoration are all directly contingent on social, economic and political conditions. The bodies Teresa Margolles encounters are often buried in anonymous graves or, if the families and friends cannot afford a burial at all, cremated. The affectionate attention paid to that which death has left behind is the source of the distressing violence in these works. They hover at the very limits of the depictable, at the limits of art, precisely there where death - beyond any and all symbolisation - just manages to remain visible as the dissolution of form. By means of artistic intervention, Teresa Margolles transports past life into a state of perceptibility, thus wresting the dead from anonymity and oblivion. Using highly unusual methods of eliminating the distance we usually place between ourselves and the dead, Margolles carries her work to an existential extreme. She succeeds in transcending aesthetic boundaries with artistic means that function silently. Often it is solely the spectator's power of imagination that lends the inconceivable a momentary presence. The works of Teresa Margolles are saddening and at the same time, by virtue of their beauty, captivating. In many instances they evade any attempt at rational explanation by forcing the spectator into virtually physical contact with anonymous corpses. The exhibition presents a great, moving, overwhelming oeuvre - provided we do not close our eyes to death. Teresa Margolles does not.
I En el aire
In the main hall of the museum, soap bubbles are churned into the air by machines. An installation of ethereal beauty, En el aire (2003), turns on us with shocking vengeance when we learn that the water in these soap bubbles comes from the morgue and has been used to clean dead bodies prior to autopsy. For the spectator, the fact that the water has been disinfected is no longer relevant. The difference between the soap bubble before and after the information as to the water's origin is the difference between the living body and the dead one. Through death, an object once beautiful and desirable becomes repulsive. As a traditional symbol of Vanitas and pictorial realisation of the "homo bulla", the soap bubble takes a dramatic turn in Margolles' installation. The life of the cleansed body has already "burst" - under violent circumstances. With the aid of machines, the water takes on a new shape: almost identical iridescent globes, in a perfect form for only an instant before they pop again on the floor of the museum or, perhaps, on the back of a museum visitor's hand. Like a horrifying return from death, the bubbles serve as reminders of life destroyed; at the same time, breaking on our skin, they confirm our own vitality: Whereas motifs of Vanitas traditionally remind us of our mortality, the work of Teresa Margolles reminds us that we are alive.
Sheets of watercolour paper are arranged in several rows, one above the other, paper the artist has drawn slowly through water previously used to wash corpses following autopsy. In the course of the examination, organic substances such as blood and fat have made their way to the body's surface; now they cling to the absorbent paper. By immersing each sheet in the water used to wash a different body, the artist has created anonymous "portraits" of the dead. The Papeles (2003) are arranged in a manner reminiscent of a traditional portrait series, but niche walls for crematory urns also come to mind. Tacked to the wall without the protection of glass or a frame, the paper bears the traces of the violated bodies.
The hollow forms of Catafalco (1997), two plaster casts of autopsied corpses, speak of loss. Standing upright, the negative forms reveal the impressions of bodies, faces. As in the case of the soap bubbles, they are nothing more than outer skins, though individualised here. The hollows contain traces of destroyed life. Hair, particles of skin, etc. have adhered to the plaster in the casting process and, like fingerprints, certify the genuineness of the forms. Catafalco and Papeles are similar in that both employ techniques of painting and sculpture to carry on the tradition of "true representation". Like the veil of St. Veronica (vera icon) or the Shroud of Turin, the plaster casts provide us with individual, abstracted "imprints" of dead persons and, as such, evidence of their existence and their suffering.
Whereas in many of Margolles' works bodies are present only in peripheral materials, Entierro (1999) forms an actual grave. At the centre of this concrete block is the corpse of a stillborn child. Stillbirths are not treated as corpses, but as medical "waste". What is more, the child's mother could not have afforded the costs of a regular burial. Teresa Margolles gave the child a solid but transportable grave. The pain and mourning over the death of the foetus, as well as its state of existence without a place or rights to call its own, find expression in the small, coarse block. Originally slated to end in an interminable void, the tiny body has received a solid, virtually armoured spatial accommodation. At the same time, the manner in which Teresa Margolles' works violate limits comes sharply into focus here. Death and its accompanying circumstances are not represented, but presented. The dead persons are not illustrated; rather they are present in all their physical reality. They are not mere examples of extreme living circumstances; they are individual and unique. Margolles invests all of these dead bodies with the very right that was denied them in death - the right to attention and acknowledgement. Although they are anonymous, they are not abandoned to complete oblivion but persist as remains, that trigger repulsion.
V El agua
The brief video sequence from El agua en la ciudad de Mexico (2001) shows a reality present until now only in the form of information: the origins of the water that plays a central role in many of Teresa Margolles' works. The film shows the washing of a corpse with hot water prior to its post-mortem examination in a forensic laboratory. The rising steam fills the rooms of the forensic institute; the used water makes its way back to the environment through the sewerage system. Through the media of air and water, the spheres of the dead and the living thus mingle, they merge. Concrete benches have been set up, providing seats for the watchers of the video projection. The concrete has been mixed with this water. The distance characterising the merely pictorial presence of the dead bodies and the site of their forensic treatment is eliminated by the concrete components of the benches.
In a remote corner of the gallery, above the Joseph Beuys installation Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch, the audio work Trepanaciones (2003) is accessible by way of headphones. In a manner similar to the experience of En el aire, the remote sound of an electric saw takes on a sudden ghastly quality when we are enlightened as to its source. It is the opening of a skull that we witness through the two little loudspeakers pressing against our ears, i.e., virtually in our heads.
VII Aire, Llorado
The two installations Aire (2003) and Llorado (2004) form the exhibition's conclusion. Both works are based on water. In Aire, the air of the room is humidified with water used to wash corpses before autopsy. The "traces of life" contained in that water spread invisibly through the air, allowing the dead a renewed presence in miniscule particles of matter. Here our encounter with the dead is reduced to a minimum and, at the same time, carried to the farthest extreme. Only a faint odour testifies to their presence. But because we breathe the air, our physical contact is immediate and direct. The embodiment still visible (and thus separate from the spectator) in En el aire in the form of soap bubbles now takes place within the body of the visitor himself. The result is identification with the dead, immediate unification: The dead are brought to life by the visitor, the visitor made mortal by the dead.For the exhibition in Frankfurt, Teresa Margolles created a new work which can be regarded as a retrospect, or sum: Llorado (cried). From the ceiling, normal tap water drips through numerous small valves onto the floor and the visitors. The idea of circulation, of alternating evaporation and precipitation, is to be understood as a commentary on the entire exhibition and on the essence of Teresa Margolles' work. In Mexico City - as elsewhere - the corpses are made to disappear by means of a well-contrived and smoothly running system of bureaucratic "disposal." The scandal that every death signifies is thus provisorily settled, the case closed. But death remains in the air, where it is subject to condensation and precipitation. No matter how carefully we wipe away its traces, it seeps back into our lives through every little crack. In this sense, all water, the water we wash ourselves with, the water we drink, is of the same quality as the water from the forensic laboratory in Mexico City.