Teresa Margolles: Translating The Horror

Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.

Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.

Photo credit: Scott Dalton.

Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?

Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.

Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.

But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.

It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.

This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.

En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.

Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.

Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.

Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.

Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.

Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.

Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.

Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered  women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.

Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).

37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.

¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.

It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.

For this post I am indebted to Bethany Tabor, who at Death & The Maiden Conference presented her brilliant paper Performative Remains: The Forensic Art of Teresa Margolles, focusing on the Deleuzian implications of Margolle’s works.
A couple of available essays on Margolles are
What Else Could We Talk About? and Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death.

Balthus’ adolescents

Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.

(Cesar A. Cruz)

Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.

In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.

Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.

The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).

But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?

Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.

Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.

Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and  meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).

In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.

Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.

Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.

Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.

Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.

Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.

But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.

This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.

And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.

La festa delle teste surrealiste

Che la famiglia Rothschild si trovi da sempre al centro di speculazioni e teorie del complotto non deve stupire, dato che per un lungo periodo è stata probabilmente la più ricca e influente dell’intero pianeta, prima che l’immenso patrimonio della casata venisse suddiviso fra centinaia di eredi. A causa dell’impero bancario, e della impenetrabile riservatezza delle loro vite private, i Rothschild si sono dunque attirati il rancore e le accuse di chi è convinto che dietro ai grandi sconvolgimenti storici debba per forza esservi un’élite di grandi potenti che dominano le sorti del mondo.


La branca francese della famiglia contava fra i suoi membri il Barone Guy de Rothschild, che nel 1957 convolò in seconde nozze con la Baronessa Marie-Hélène. Più giovane di lui di 18 anni, la Baronessa si assunse l’incarico di rimettere a nuovo la loro residenza, Château de Ferrières, il più grande castello del XIX Secolo, nel quale suo marito aveva trascorso la giovinezza.

Una cosa è certa, Marie-Hélène ci sapeva fare: in pochissimo tempo il castello divenne il posto più “in” ed esclusivo d’Europa. La Baronessa vi organizzava dei lussuosissimi ricevimenti, sfarzosi party mondani a cui partecipava ovviamente l’alta nobiltà, ma anche attori, artisti, letterati, musicisti: fra i più celebri habitué delle feste dei Rothschield si ricordano Salvador Dalì, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor.
Queste serate erano spesso a tema, e una volta definito l’argomento venivano ingaggiati stilisti del calibro di Yves Saint Laurent per disegnare scenografie e abiti.

Come dicevamo, i Rothschild hanno sempre mantenuto un profilo riservato. Di conseguenza, poco o nulla è trapelato di queste tanto vagheggiate notti di eccessi e di sontuosità. Eppure il 12 dicembre del 1972 i Baroni Guy e Marie-Hélène de Rothschild tennero la più incredibile delle loro feste e, fortunatamente, di questo evento sono arrivate fino a noi delle fotografie davvero straordinarie.

Già i biglietti di invito preannunciavano una serata inusuale: le parole sul cartoncino, scritte all’incontrario e leggibili soltanto utilizzando uno specchio, facevano capolino da alcune nuvole dipinte. Dicevano semplicemente: Cravatta nera, abiti lunghi, e teste surrealiste.


Al loro arrivo, gli invitati si trovarono di fronte un Château de Ferrières che sembrava in fiamme: l’illuminazione era stata studiata per simulare il divampare di un gigantesco incendio.




All’interno, i servitori erano vestiti da gatti, e fingevano di dormire sui gradini della grande scalinata. Ragnatele finte adornavano le pareti dei corridoi, bambole rotte e strani segnaposti accoglievano i commensali nella sala da pranzo. Ma il vero tableau vivant erano gli ospiti stessi.





Ci fu chi si vestì, come l’attrice Jacqueline Delubac, da quadro di Magritte; chi sfoggiava facce o teste doppie, come il Barone Alexis de Redé; chi, come Audrey Hepburn, si presentò con una gabbia per uccelli in testa; e ovunque fantasie floreali, accostamenti bizzarri, copricapi impossibili. La Baronessa Marie-Hélène indossava una maschera di cervo che piangeva lacrime di diamanti. Ma senza dubbio la testa più genuinamente “surrealista” fra tutte era quella di Salvador Dalì, che proprio per questo motivo arrivò vestito con un normalissimo frac.






Guardando questa barocca e appariscente sfilata di costumi viene da chiedersi cosa ne avrebbe pensato André Breton, morto sei anni prima. Quando aveva fondato il Surrealismo nel 1924, assieme a poeti e scrittori del calibro di Aragon, Desnos, Éluard, Artaud, Queneau o Prévert, tutto aveva in mente fuorché un manipolo di aristocratici che gozzovigliavano agghindati con maschere assurde e milionarie. Se avesse potuto assistere alla “festa surrealista” dei Rothschild, la sua voce avrebbe certamente tuonato, come aveva fatto tante volte per motivi molto meno gravi, di fronte a questo scempio.





Anche oggi, c’è chi vuole vedere in queste fotografie il declino morale della nobiltà, leggendovi un’atmosfera lugubre e decadente come quella della celebre orgia di Eys Wide Shut, o addirittura credendo di riconoscere simboli satanici, massonici o relativi ai misteriosi Illuminati. Eppure per noi, queste fotografie hanno un sapore particolare. Testimoniano di un’epoca inimitabile, quella a cavallo fra anni ’60 e ’70, in cui ci sembra di riconoscere una spregidicatezza e un senso di libertà sociale e culturale del tutto inedite. C’era una vibrante voglia di osare, di sperimentare in tutti i campi – pensiamo al cinema, all’arte, alla sessualità; ed è emblematico vedere come questa energia fosse arrivata a contagiare, seppure spogliata di qualsiasi profondità e sovversività, anche quella parte della società tradizionalmente più conservatrice.

(Grazie, Marco!)

Grand Guignol

A vederlo da fuori, non faceva chissà quale impressione: era un teatrino posto alla fine di un vicolo cieco nel 9° arrondissement, e poteva contenere soltanto 300 persone: una miseria, rispetto agli altri teatri parigini. Eppure il Grand-Guignol registrava il tutto esaurito, ogni sera, ad ognuno dei suoi spettacoli distribuiti su diversi orari.

No, non c’erano affascinanti donnine nude in quegli spettacoli. Niente cabaret o gonne rialzate come al Moulin Rouge. Quello che il Grand-Guignol offriva era davvero unico: dalla data della sua apertura, nel 1897, il suo fondatore Oscar Métenier aveva deciso che il suo teatro avrebbe mostrato la faccia della realtà che il teatro borghese “alto” non avrebbe mai potuto rappresentare. Cominciò così ad adattare per il suo teatro quella “Mademoiselle Fifi” protagonista di un romanzo di Maupassant. Si trattava della prima prostituta protagonista su un palcoscenico. Risultato: il Guignol venne temporaneamente chiuso dalla polizia per motivi di censura. Nella seguente pièce “Lui!”, Métenier piazzava in una stanza d’hotel un’altra prostituta e un criminale.

A sostituire Métenier alla direzione del teatro arrivò quasi subito Max Maurey: fu lui che ebbe l’illuminazione – il Grand-Guignol si sarebbe trasformato in una casa dell’orrore! I suoi protagonisti sarebbero stati i derelitti – prostitute, uomini di malaffare, malviventi, trafficanti, assassini. Le storie che li vedevano protagonisti dovevano essere ancora più sordide: tradimenti, vendette, infanticidi, torture, accoltellamenti, decapitazioni, e tutto un armamentario di crudeltà assortite. Maurey decise che avrebbe misurato la riuscita di ogni spettacolo dal numero di svenimenti in sala…

Assunse così il drammaturgo André De Lorde, che scrisse e mise in scena centinaia di questi drammi nerissimi; sul palcoscenico, grazie all’uso di effetti speciali (talvolta raffazzonati, ma talvolta fin troppo convincenti), si poteva vedere una vecchia a cui veniva premuta la faccia sulla piastra ardente della cucina… una bella donna trafitta da una dozzina di coltelli… sgozzamenti fra mariti e mogli, regolamenti di conti fra luridi individui, cadaveri, urla, sangue finto e molto, molto sensazionalismo.

La formula era davvero magica. Per appagare questo segreto e inconfessabile piacere, i parigini riempivano la sala più volte a sera. Pian piano il tema centrale degli spettacoli del Grand-Guignol divenne la follia (che in quel periodo si iniziava appena a studiare), declinata in mille manie e perversioni diverse: c’era il necrofilo che disseppelliva i corpi, c’era la tata che provava l’impulso di strangolare i bambini che teneva in custodia, ecc. Allo stesso modo altre malattie fecero fortuna all’interno delle pièce: la rabbia sopra a tutte, ma anche la lebbra (faceva sempre effetto vedere gli attori che perdevano pezzi di corpo), o la vergognosa sifilide.

Nei suoi quasi 70 anni di attività, il Grand-Guignol ebbe anche la sua star: Paula Maxa.

Lungo la sua carriera al Grand-Guignol, Maxa, “la donna assassinata più volte al mondo”, subì una serie di torture senza pari nella storia del teatro: le spararono, con il fucile e con la pistola, le fecero lo scalpo. Fu strangolata, sventrata, stuprata, ghigliottinata, impiccata, squartata, bruciata, dissezionata, tagliata in 83 pezzi da una spada invisibile spagnola, morsa da uno scorpione, avvelenata con l’arsenico, divorata da un puma, strangolata con una collana di perle, e frustata.

Oltre a questo, fu soggetta ad una spettacolare mutazione che un critico teatrale dell’epoca descrisse così: “Per duecento notti di fila, lei semplicemente si decompose sul palcoscenico di fronte a una platea che non avrebbe scambiato il proprio posto con tutto l’oro delle Americhe. L’operazione durava due minuti buoni, durante i quali la giovane donna si trasformava a poco a poco in un cadavere orribile”.

Ma poi arrivò la Seconda Guerra Mondiale, che tolse l’innocenza a tutti e tutto. Se il pubblico aveva potuto essere spaventato in modo fanciullesco dagli orrori del Grand-Guignol, dopo il conflitto non fu più possibile. Nel 1962, dopo un’ultima stanca stagione, il teatro chiuse i battenti per sempre. Il suo ultimo direttore, Charles Nonon, spiegò le motivazioni della sua decisione: “Non avremmo mai potuto competere con Buchenwald. Prima della guerra, tutti credevano che quello che succedeva sul palcoscenico era puramente immaginario; ora sappiamo che queste cose sono possibili – anzi, che può esserci anche di peggio”.