What Else Could We Speak About? Favorite 

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Sep 1 2009

DEATH IN VENICE
by: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

One of the most controversial figures in the recent history of the Mexico City art scene, Margolles has been making work from the material traces of death for 20 years. In 1989, she joined a group of radical artists, musicians and performers to form SEMEFO, an acronym for Servicio Medico Forense, or Forensic Medical Service. The collective, which disbanded in 1999, used municipal morgues as studios and turned the refuse of crimes into an artistic medium. Along the way, the group created a template for artists to act as amateur detectives, picking up clues not for the purpose of solving individual crimes but rather to address the long-term damage that criminal activity does to a society when murders become commonplace.

Turning inside out the spaces that usually serve to contain death - the morgue, the police precinct, the newspaper crime report - Margolles and her colleagues framed the evidence they gathered in the aesthetic languages of minimal and conceptual art, and exported it to the world by way of exhibitions, biennials and festivals. Working both collaboratively and on her own, Margolles has exhibited a dead man's severed tongue as sculpture; she has created a sound installation from the noise of an autopsy; smeared buildings with fats and oils extracted from corpses, and constructed machines for blowing soap bubbles using the disinfected fluids that are used in morgues to clean cadavers. From the streets of Mexico City, she has collected two tonnes of broken glass - the remains of car windows shattered in drive-by shootings - to create glittering public art projects and a collection of luxury jewels.

Margolles' work explores the harrowing social consequences of the narcotics trade, where drug cartels and law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States are complicit in forging an atmosphere of extreme violence and fear, such that the murder rate in Mexico now surpasses that of several war zones around the world. More broadly, she collects the traces of murders and crimes to consider the dark sides of globalization, arguing that in places like Mexico, modernity held out the promise of social progress and economic growth but delivered instead instability and unrest. Whether they are poetic, visceral, metaphoric or methodical, Margolles' performances and installations call attention to a grim and seemingly untenable situation where demand for illicit substances meets an endless supply of violence, where trade liberalization results in economic collapse, where class divides widen, poverty deepens and the killings that cut down young members of the lower social classes - drug dealers, junkies, prostitutes, the homeless, the unemployed and the poor - become normalized, contained and removed from the everyday lives of elites. Margolles' contribution to the Venice Biennale is an exhibition entitled What Else Could We Talk About? It's a loaded question, of course, as it speaks directly to the strange and distorted circumstances of the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art in the world.

What makes Margolles' exhibition so strong is more than just the horrors that are present in her work. What Else Could We Talk About? directly challenges what a national pavilion could or should be. It doesn't construct an idealized image of a country. It doesn't put on a good face for the world. It doesn't advertise or promote the cultural strategy of a nation-state or its potential to attract tourists. It doesn't show off or get defensive about the cosmopolitan character, critical bent or conceptual sophistication of an art scene. It uses the space and time of the Biennale to take a position, articulate a condition and make visible a situation of explosive inequity that currently afflicts much of the world, even as those inequities tend to remain out of sight in the rarefied setting of an event such as the Venice Biennale. Implicit in the question that is posed by the exhibition's title is the assumption that someone, somewhere, whether in Mexico City or Venice, would inevitably ask the artist, "Couldn't you talk about something else, show something more beautiful or export a more promising image of the country?" Margolles offers a pre-emptive response in an interview published in the exhibition's accompanying catalogue. Considering the fact that last year, more than 5,000 people lost their lives in Mexico due to violent crimes related to the narcotics trade and gestures to curb it, she says: "We're losing a generation that will demand redress for our having remained silent. How can you not mop the floor of a Mexican pavilion at the Venice Biennale with the remains of the dead? Are you going to dress it up, or give it a slick design?" In addition to Limpieza, the performance piece that involves the young man mopping the floor, What Else Could We Talk About? includes Sangre Recuperada, which consists of several bolts of fabric that have been used to scrub sites in northern Mexico where people have been murdered or their bodies buried in unmarked graves. These cloths have been dried, re-humidified in Venice, and hung in a long corridor like monumental abstract paintings, the difference being that they are caked in mud rather than paint, and are slowly dripping diluted blood into collecting pools beneath them. More bloodstained fabrics, for the series Narcomensajes, are hanging together in a room. Over the course of the five-month Biennale, Margolles is embellishing them with gold embroidery, slowly stitching in sentences that she has clipped from the outrageous, melodramatic notes that drug cartels often leave behind after they've carried out an execution as missives of warning to the victim's friends, family members or associates. Outside the pavilion, another blood-soaked cloth is hanging from a flagpole between the banners of Venice and the European Union. Inside the entrance, she has placed a utilitarian desk made of concrete mixed with more matter from assassination sites. Nestled into the wall of a room on the first floor is a safe allegedly containing Margolles' glass-encrusted jewels. Prior to the opening of the Biennale, the artist dipped long swathes of bloodied and muddied fabrics into the sea and then dragged them across a beach on the Venetian island of Lido. She also temporarily covered the doors and windows of the US pavilion with her contaminated cloths. If that was a gesture suggesting complicity, so was her decision to distribute 10,000 invitations during the Biennale's press preview, printed on plastic cards (like mock credit cards) that bore an image of a murdered man's bashed-in head and torso on one side - and the instructions "Card to cut cocaine" on the other. The message seemed to be that, for all the art world's piety, the Venice Biennale is at its most base just another stop on the global party circuit, which gives the drug cartels some business and, however inadvertently, gets some innocent people killed in the crossfire, too. With all those performances, Margolles has expanded her exhibition well beyond the walls of the Mexican pavilion itself. Even within the actual building, the show is arranged in such a manner that viewers experience the work as both a carefully orchestrated performance and a sprawling, interactive installation through which you must find your way. When you walk through the door the curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, greets you with the words: "Go through the exhibition and then we can talk. Those are the rules." From there you proceed up the stairs, through the rooms and back down again, guided by assistants, all young women who are silent, sober and do not smile. On one hand, your comprehension of the pieces depends entirely on the wall texts - you have to read them to understand what you are looking at, why and how it might mean something to you. On the other hand, the smell, the soberness of the site and the heaviness of the atmosphere can all be palpably felt without any words being spoken or written. One could argue, convincingly, that Margolles' exhibition is too earnest and too self-righteous, that the works serve to silence and humble rather than challenge or provoke, and that the whole thing is just too much. But that creeping sense of unease and initial impulse to reject might also be precisely the point. After all, the show ultimately hinges on excess: Why so many pieces? Why so many permutations of the same idea? Isn't the point sufficiently made by the one young man mopping the floor? But then again, the excess of permutations corresponds to the excess of violence about which the exhibition speaks. What is remarkable is that the exhibition speaks so well with materials and actions - blood and guts, mud and broken glass, mopping and stitching and soaking and dripping - that are barely considered acceptable as works of art at all.

Posted by Mariana Davila Moreno on