Teresa Margolles in Search of the Missing
Since the early 1990s, artist Teresa Margolles has been searching for ways to communicate her charged experiences of violent death and her outrage at the lack of responsibility assumed by authorities and institutions in her native Mexico. The artist was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, one of the country’s most prominent drug-trafficking zones. She was a founding member of the artist collective Semefo (an acronym of Servicio Médico Forense, the Mexican Forensic Service). The group was formed through their interest in representations of death that focused on abjection, a confounding experience where a person is considered as both an individual (or subject) and an object. Collectively and individually, they produced works that documented and critiqued the impact of violence on life in Mexico City.
Having studied fine arts and holding academic degrees in science communication and forensic medicine, Margolles worked for many years as a forensic pathologist at a state-run morgue in Mexico City. In this facility, she witnessed firsthand the effects of drug trafficking and of violence on the bodies of countless victims and their families. In her art practice, Margolles looks for ways of processing these grim observations and translating them for art audiences. Quoted in Michy Marxuach's 2018 catalogue Ya Basta Hijos de Puta: Teresa Margolles, the artist stated: “To be able to capture the feeling of being there, of looking at the processes of dead bodies entering and filling the space, and then, going out and find the family waiting, is an emotional challenge that makes me question how I filter these images from inside the morgue and take them outside to present to the public.” While working across a wide range of mediums – including sculpture, textiles, photography, video, sound and performance – her visual vocabulary is often described as “minimalist.” Rigorous in its form, her work blends her scientific approach with her desire to create moving experiences, giving voice to other, more visceral ways of knowing. As cited in 2014 in Teresa Margolles: La búsqueda by curator Raphael Gygax, the artist explains: “It is a form of perverse minimalism. Historical minimalism has no emotions. However, all of my works are filled with emotions. People are better at concentrating when faced with minimalist forms.”
Through a painstaking process of research, documentation of images, sounds, stories and the collection of traces, Margolles investigates violent crimes. She then recounts and denounces these events by offering disturbing re-enactments: “I want to show how it really is, that death is not fiction. I do not try to hide where it comes from and how it occurs. As I have often said before, I work with the corpse, with reality, I'm searching for 'who?' and 'why'?”
A case in point is the installation La búsqueda (2) [The Search (2)], which belongs to a body of work focused on Ciudad Juárez. Situated on the border between Mexico and the United States and colloquially known as the “city of the dead girls,” the town is a site of devastating violence. Approximately 400 girls and women have been murdered under mysterious circumstances, and an additional 800 women have disappeared without a trace since the early 1990s. The exact numbers of murdered and missing women are not precisely known. This feminicide, associated with organized crime and the powerful drug cartels that dominate the region, was first recorded in 1993. In her 2018 exhibition catalogue Ya Basta Hijos de Puta: Teresa Margolles, curator Ángel Moya García comments: “The problem was only exacerbated when the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, 1994) came into force the following year, triggering a massive emigration of women from the whole continent to work in the maquiladoras, usually foreign-owned assembly plants not subject to income tax, where any form of labour protection is completely ignored. Within this context, women exist mainly as nameless numbers – marginal, insignificant lives that easily fall prey to physical violence and sexual assault that are both extreme and serial.”
Margolles spent years working in Juárez, researching the disappearance of these women and girls. In her search for answers, she enlisted the help of many individuals and activists from task forces and community watch groups. She profiled the missing women, discovered locations in Lote Bravo, Anapra, Lomas de Poleo and the surrounding Chihuahuan desert, which are most commonly used to discard human remains, and documented the ways that young women and girls have to travel between their homes and the factories that employ them.
La búsqueda (2) is a poignant result of this investigation. The installation consists of glass panels, set into a disquieting, vibrating motion every fifteen minutes by the work’s audio component. Field recordings of a freight train that traverses Juárez over a 12-km distance to transport goods to El Paso in Texas, are transformed by audio transducers into low-frequency oscillations that cause the glass panes to rattle, mimicking the effect of a real train passing. The windows were removed by the artist from abandoned shops in downtown Juárez. Affixed onto their grimy and graffitied surfaces are photocopies of notices for missing women written by relatives and aid organizations, which are ubiquitous in the city.
As cited by Gygax, Margolles describes her intention: “The windows come from shops that have recently closed. The shops were full of dust, dirt and spiders. I made videos of these spaces and it struck me that life exists in two spaces: the inside and the outside space. I wanted the windows that separated these. Along with the missing persons posters. 20, 25 years have gone by, the missing persons notices were still stuck to the windows and young women strolled on past them.” These posters embody gestures of care and strategies for coping practiced by those who are left behind, and their worn and tattered edges speak to the systems of neglect that fail to address these disappearances.
The three large sculptural panels-cum-monuments to the missing are shown in a dark gallery, against black walls, each illuminated by a single spotlight. Upon first encounter, it is unclear what the piece entails; as one experiences the trembling glass and reads the information about the missing girls on the posters, one learns about their tragic fate. Underneath their pictures, details of the victims are given: Cinthia Jocabeth Casteñeda Alvarado, 13 years old, slim build, light brown hair to the shoulders, with two moles on the right side of her neck, last seen wearing blue jean pants and a white and black t-shirt on October 24, 2008, and Esmeralda Castillo Rincón, 14 years old, dark brown hair, regular build, last seen wearing a short denim skirt, black leggings, pink short-sleeved blouse, black tennis shoes, black backpack with star drawing, on May 19, 2009. Many of the notices have faded so much that they have become difficult to read. Some of the photographs have been similarly scarred by the weather and by the passage of time.
In this work, the artist preserves the memory of those who are lost and puts out a transnational call to action that resonates with Canada’s national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In many ways Margolles transposes Ciudad Juárez to the National Gallery of Canada, using traces and proof of the real events – the actual glass panes, posters and the train recording – evoking another place and time where she urges us to bear witness, acknowledge the identities of the missing women and girls, and start to mourn them.
La Búsqueda (2) by Teresa Margolles is on view in Room B202 at the National Gallery of Canada until March 2024. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.