Behind the memorial: Teresa Margolles & Jason deCaires Taylor

Image: Peter Kilchmann Gallery

Part I:
[Content warning: rape, murder, feminicide]

Ciudad Juárez, more commonly known as ‘The City of Dead Girls’, is a city on the border of Mexico. The frequent disappearances and murders of women and girls and the government’s inactive approach has come under increasing international scrutiny, following the discovery of Angelica Luna Villalobos’s body in 1993 [1]. The term ‘feminicide’ is derived  from the word ‘femicide’, which refers to the homicide of women. Feminicide refers specifically to the violation of female human rights that occur when historical and social conditions ‘allow for violent attempts against the integrity, health, liberties, and lives and girls and women’ [2]. Since 1993, Ciudad Juárez has witnessed a surge in the number of grassroots groups, activists and critical media attention calling an end to feminicidi crimes, as the number of disappeared and murdered women and girls continues to rise. Whilst the exact number of raped and murdered females remains unknown, the border city of Ciudad Juárez is now notorious for having one of the longest epidemics of femicidial violence in modern-day history.

In memorialisation practices, artists must consider the ethical implications of depicting violence without reproducing it. In the case of feminicide crimes, there is the question of how to protest the crimes and pay tribute to victims, without sensationalising the violence. Memorial artists run the risk of commodifying and commercialising those that they seek to remember, especially if their memorial artworks are located in private galleries or museums, rather than accessible spaces such as in streets, parks or in memorial grounds.

Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has created numerous works of art memorialisation that address the violent climate of Mexico. Her controversial artistic practices have proven problematic: concern has been raised over her use of corpses and bodily fluids, including blood, semen and sweat. Margolles was a founding member of SEMEFO (Servicio Médico Forense), an artist’s collective in Mexico City that created visceral artworks using forensic materials between 1990-1999. Now working independently, she creates artistic encounters that extend beyond the mortuary.

In 2005, Margolles travelled to the city of Ciudad Juárez to study the feminicide and has since produced multiple artworks that address the murders. The most famous of these memorialisations is Lote Bravo (2005). To create this piece, Margolles travelled to sites of violent crimes. She collected earth from these places, mixed it with clay and straw and left it to dry creating 500 adobe brickwork stones, which held the bodily fluids from both victims and perpetrators. Lote Bravo has elicited both positive and negative media responses, ranging from ‘the first artwork of the 21st century’ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitug) to ‘the wall of disgust’ (Bildzeitung) but is overwhelmingly appreciated by scholars and art critics as Margolles endeavours to depict the brutal violence, structural instability and poverty that is becoming increasingly devastating in Mexico.

The memorial installation was exhibited internationally at the Peter Kilchmann Gallery (GPK) in Zurich, (‘Ciudad Juárez exhibition’, 2005) and then at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, US (MFAH), (‘Indelible Images’, 2006) and (‘North Looks South’, 2009) in which it took on contrasting formations. At the MFAH, visitors are presented with two walls consisting of 400-500 handmade adobe mud bricks placed horizontally and vertically on top of one another, with each brick measuring at 40x25x10cm. In contrast, the GPK installation consists of 50 hand-made adobe bricks which are individually placed, standing alone and upright, in an equal distance apart from one another. 

Despite being considered as a ‘morbid’ artwork [3], Lote Bravo speaks with a powerful sense of urgency, and does not rely on the sensationalism that accompanies artworks that rely on fetishistic and exploitative renderings. Filmic representations that depict the Ciudad Juárez atrocities such as El Traspatio (2009) and El Otro Sueño Americano (2004) depend on the naked, fetishized bodies to galvanise public attention and action. Other artistic memorialisation conventions include the Cross Campaign which was initiated by grassroots group ‘Voces Sin Eco’, where activists and artists paint pink crosses onto black backgrounds, carry pink crosses on protests and erect them at murder sites. However, Lourdes Portillo’s documentary Señorita extraviada (2001) suggests that the association between the pink crosses and feminicide has become lost or disassociated. Lote Bravo, by incorporating unclaimed bodily traces into the artwork, resists any dissociation of meaning and draws bleak attention to the violence in Ciudad Juárez. In doing this, Lote Bravo projects a second message, by nature of the fact that Margolles was able to use the remnants as material for high-end art, and exhibited in cities far from their own as isolated bodily bricks. Margolles reinforces the expendable status of the victims both in life and in death, by using bodily residue as a conceptual tool to inform viewership of the vulnerable and precarious nature of women in Ciudad Juárez. 

The production of Lote Bravo also highlights the ethical concerns of art-memorialisation: how and why do societies take it upon themselves to value human worth? Death, in the case of Lote Bravo, is exported. Margolles profits financially and through the controversy of her work. Yet whilst the installation undoubtedly also commercialises and commodifies the victims, it does so with the intention of calling an end to the feminicide. 

Margolles’ attempt to memorialise the feminicide victims of Ciudad Juárez raises important questions of memorialisation, economics, ethics and aesthetics. Lote Bravo is a powerful and politically charged installation that calls for action, demanding change, whilst simultaneously overlapping with the global distribution circuits that ultimately determine the value of the victims in their deaths.