Memorialization and Commemoration: Teresa Margolles

Teresa Margolles, Pista de baile del “Nightclub Irma’s” [Dance floor from “Nightclub Irma’s”], 2016. Colour print on cotton paper. Transgender sex worker standing on the ruins of the dance floor of a demolished nightclub in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. 125 x 185 cm (framed). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

The age-old observation that “art imitates life” is unmistakable in the work of Teresa Margolles.

As a photographer, videographer, performance and conceptual artist, Margolles has established a practice that highlights social and political injustice and reveals the violence that has long devastated her native Mexico. In the exhibition Teresa Margolles: Mundos, on view at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), Margolles confronts marginalization, exploring the widespread disappearance and death of women in the perilous border city of Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. 

“The works in this exhibition are amazing, despite the fact that they’re very difficult to look at,” said John Zeppetelli, Director and Chief Curator at the MACM, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Teresa’s work has a striking sensitivity to it, combining traditions of fine art and minimalism in a refreshingly contemporary way.” 

Teresa Margolles, La Promesa [The Promise] (detail, performative action), 2012. Sculptural block made of ground-up remains from a demolished house in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Dimensions variable. Installation view of the action performed at the MUAC, Mexico City, 2012. Collection Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), UNAM, Mexico City. Photo: Rafael Burillo

Margolles was born in Culiacán, Mexico in 1963. Her studies in forensic medicine influenced the development of her artistic practice which, over the past three decades, has earned her a reputation as one of the foremost Mexican artists of her generation. In addition to representing her country at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Margolles has received numerous accolades, including the Artes Mundi Prize (Cardiff, Wales) and the Prince Claus Award (The Netherlands) in 2012. Her latest exhibition at the MACM — titled Mundos, or “Worlds” — is her first solo show in Canada. 

Focusing on work from the past ten years, the exhibition is grounded in the context of Juárez, which Zeppetelli says was an industrial powerhouse before succumbing to the violence that has accompanied the Mexican drug war. The first photographs on view depict transgendered sex workers standing on the rubble of demolished nightclubs in the city. “Teresa found the former workplaces of these women and had them pose proudly on the dance floors, which she dusted out and brushed away like an archaeologist,” says Zeppetelli. “Teresa sees these women, many of whom are now sadly dead, as emblems of resistance in a completely failed city or state.”

Teresa Margolles, Pesquisas [Enquêtes], 2016. Mural installation, 30 colour prints of posters photographed on the streets of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, portraying women who have disappeared, from the late 1990s through to the present. 303 x 705 cm (approx. overall). Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

Around the corner from the photographs, Margolles has installed a mural titled Pesquisas (2016), depicting the faces of thirty missing girls and women from the late 1990s to the present day. “The city is filled with these posters,” says Zeppetelli, explaining that the victims are feared to have been abducted, sexually abused, and discarded. “It’s hideous beyond belief.” Accompanying the mural are sound recordings from sites where their violent murders are suspected to have taken place.

Other installations include a sculptural block made from the debris of a house belonging to a missing girl in Juárez, and an empty room that produces a cascade of bubbles as visitors walk through. “Teresa infused the bubbles with water sourced from a morgue that was used to clean corpses after autopsies,” says Zeppetelli. “The bubbles need to burst on the flesh of the visitors, because we are all witness to these deaths.”

Teresa Margolles, 
Tela bordada (Embroidered fabric), 2012, traditional Maya embroidery on fabric; made by indigenous activist women from Guatemala (Lucy Andrea López, Silvia Menchú, Bonifacia Cocom Tambriz, María Josefina Tuy Churunel, Marcelina Cumes, Rosamelia Cocolajay, Yury Cocolajay, Alba Cocolajay and Cristina López). Previously, in the morgue, the fabric absorbed the fluids of a woman's body that was murdered in Guatemala City. Unique, 200 x 200 cm (78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in.). Courtesy the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich. Photo : NGC

Two works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada are also included in the show. Tela Bordada (2012) is a blanket embroidered by Indigenous activist women from Guatemala, made from cloth once wrapped around the bodies of murdered women in the morgue. Accompanying the work is a video, featured in the 2013 NGC exhibition, Sakahàn, depicting the production of the embroidered piece itself. 

“There’s a sense of protest and resilience in the works on loan from the National Gallery,” says Zeppetelli. “The women are embroidering stained cloth as an act of willful resistance to this outrageous violence that just doesn’t seem to stop.”

Taken as a whole, the exhibition hauntingly yet delicately pays tribute to victims lost and forgotten. “Teresa’s art expertly puts forward the difficulties of an entire society,” he concludes, “memorializing and commemorating these voiceless victims in a beautiful, powerful and emblematic way.”

Teresa Margolles: Mundos is on view at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal until May 14, 2017.

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