Margolles, minorities and the arts

On average, I enter a shopping mall once a year, and only if I can’t avoid it. I hate everything about them. This year, I already had my share. I went accompanied by my partner, who noted he was surprised by how well I was behaving, containing my typical anti-capitalist swearing about consumerism and so on. As he went to the bathroom, I noticed one cleaning employee, black, then another, also black… We left minutes after.

I live in a country where racism is now the talk of the day, not because something exceptional happened, but because the sum of several events put the topic on the news. The general rhetoric of the opinion makers is that Portugal is not a racist country, despite the evidence, everywhere. We aren’t even able to have an informed public discussion about the colonial war, and that ended about 40 years ago. Of course when we speak about a country being racist we speak about state policies and not about judging individual behaviors. And yes, the state is racist. There’s zero doubt about it. Most people who employ cleaners, at their private houses, employ migrants or black women and a lot could be said about that, but what matters here is what happens in public institutions, and there’s really no difference there. Most people just go about their lives, playing the role of the white middle class who “worked a lot to get to where they are”, as if this argument explained why they ceased to care about the general well-being.

This post is actually about Teresa Margolle’s work, but it might still take a while to get to her (either bear with me or jump ahead to her work).

These past few days, I’ve found myself in one of those bureaucratic ordeals that happen in our worst nightmares: hours in queues of state institutions and then being tossed around by employees from one place to another: social security, unemployment center, finances, you name it. I’d safely say more than 80% of the citizens I crossed paths with during this ordeal were non-white. I was profoundly intrigued by the inequality. Where was the white middle class that I saw walking around the shopping mall? Are they exempt from the state’s participation in their lives? Are they emancipated? 

I live in the outskirts of Lisbon and the majority of the population who live here does so because: 1) they work in Lisbon, but can’t afford to live there; 2) they like living in the countryside; 3) their roots are here. I’m sure there are a lot more reasons, but this is what I could think of. I’d say education is the biggest discriminatory factor. In the context where I grew up, I was thought that knowledge, per se, is a pleasurable and necessary thing, so learning for me was never about its applicability. I find that to be a privilege, meaning: to have parents who were both keen on knowledge and learning. As a teacher, I know that’s not the overall case. Most students want to know why they need to be learning this and that. What good will it serve them, they ask. Youngsters are being pushed to pursue an education that gives them financial stability. That’s the value they see in education, as if it were a horrible process that they just have to go through in order to succeed.

We can see how racist the state is by looking at the opportunities it gives. Nowadays, when hosting public discussions about racism, the government or the media always tries to be more inclusive, but even the way they think about inclusion is retrograde. There’s been progress in thinking about minorities and, specially, in caring for gender discrimination. But the major discriminatory factor in our society has never changed: we are still labelled according to our social class and moving between social classes is no easy thing to do. One only needs to spend a day in the social security offices to understand how it works, it’s like that office is a sarcastic representation of our society (I don’t want to deviate even more from the subject, but need to mention Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Welfare, 1975).

Let me give one very stupid example: during this ordeal in the social security department, I noticed I was probably the most ill-dressed person in the waiting room. But what can one take from this observation? For me it’s a privilege that I’m able to “neglect” the “way I present myself”. It’s been one of my struggles – to disrupt the way clothing catalogs individuals. So being one of the few white people in the room, but also the most ill-dressed person, says nothing about me (others might have thought I was poor, and that’s an understandable inference), but it might say a lot about those who took the time and the effort to dress well in order to talk to state’s employees.

My friend Carla, from Mexico, living in Portugal for almost one year, is working with people from Cova da Moura, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Lisbon where the Cape Verde community is rooted. Each time we meet, we end up discussing racism and inequality. It’s been quite a chock to her to see the way Portuguese deal with discrimination. Basically, we do nothing, we shrug and go about our lives. It’s our history, it’s like we measure the gravity of things by the following mantra: if I can still go about my daily life, it’s OK. I understand her better than she can imagine, I’ve struggled with this “Portuguese way of being” all my adult life, but in regards to the community that lives in Cova da Moura, there’s other things to consider when understanding why “they don’t revolt”. At one point, when we were discussing an episode of police brutality, Carla asked me why there aren’t any good news report on the subject. Would the journalists be fired or threatened if they did a serious reportage on the subject, she asked? I laughed. No, they wouldn’t, there just isn’t any interest in discussing the subject, is as harsh as that.

Being from Mexico, Carla has a very different take on social justice and so does Teresa Margolles (finally, I know). What they’ve experienced over the years (Carla has a documentary about the 43 students who were killed in 2014) has really no comparison to the Portuguese reality. Margolles is a female Mexican artist born in the 60’s who is also (or was) a morgue employee in Mexico City with a degree in forensic medicine. I’d say her work is about death and corpses, primarily focused on the impact of violence in the Mexican society and the overall impunity of those who instigate that violence (I’m sure she’d describe her work in a very different way…) What strikes my about her work is its autonomy, materiality and transformative power, which I find most socially compromised artworks lack. But I’ve never seen one of her installations, so I’m sure I still have to experience that “transformative power”. There’s something else in her work that intrigues me in a not so positive way, namely the repetition, the seriality, the multiples, ultimately the lack of singularity. I would think that dealing with anonymity and death, one would want to discriminate, but that’s not the case in Margolles’ work. 

I don’t care for a big part of her work (particularly her photography-based work). I find it to be too polished, too contained, too arranged, relying too much either on its conceptual nature or on its repetition. On the other hand, I find some of her work really impressive, truthful and overwhelming. I chose to focus on En el Aire (In the Air), from 2003. As I kept reading about this and other works, my doubts about their significance kept growing, but I’ll get to that latter on…

© Teresa Margolles, installation view from ‘En el Aire” (In the Air), 2003.

Mortician Caitlin Doughty, founder of Order of the God Death, writing about Margolles’ works, states that they “actually make tangible the thing that we, as a culture, spend our lives ignoring/peeing our pants at the thought of”, to which she adds that Margolles “goes beyond shocking the senses with images of death in favor of finding a way to actually make us part of death, or rather, it a part of us”. But does the act of containing traces of death in cloths and papers approximates or alienates the observer from the referent? On Seismopolite, Christina Grevenbrock says that Margolles’ art “is tangible, and thus in some proportion eliminates the distance between the living and the realm of the dead”, remarking that:

This transgression is especially terrifying, because it leads into highly taboo territory, while at the same time making it impossible to repress the experience due to the immediacy of the confrontation. By cancelling out all psychological defense mechanisms, she enables a primary experience of mortality and death as well as the social plight that lead to the deaths of these people.

© Teresa Margolles, installation view from ‘Papeles’ (Papers), 2003.

I have huge doubts about this, meaning, I struggle to understand how a work like Papeles (2003) would confront the observer with the experience of death. On the other hand, with In the Air, I do see how the experience is effective. What happens in this installation is that “A machine blows delicate bubbles into an otherwise empty room, where they float to the ground and burst on the touch of a visitor’s skin […] The bubbles are made of water that was collected in the morgues of Mexico City after the cleaning of corpses”. The viewer is only confronted with the information about the origin of the water after being in contact with the bubbles, so the work has multiple layers and it addresses our responsibility and, overall, how thin is the layer that separates the perpetrator and the victim. I suspect what I find most effective here is that the experience is not condensed in one sense, as is with works where it’s all about seeing and understanding. 

© Teresa Margolles, installation view from ‘En el Aire” (In the Air), 2003.

Amanda Coulson writes that “the bubble has long been used as a memento mori, a reminder of the transitory nature of life”, but I find that the core of this work is not in the symbolic nature of the bubble. In 2001, Margolles made another installation, called Vaporization, that had exactly the same premise, with the difference that the viewer entered a foggy room where eventually they saw a sign that read vapour of water from the morgue. Maybe the clash between the vapor and the realization of its meaning is not as effective as the one that happens with the bubble, but other than that, it’s the same. She also presented Air, which is more of the same. I read the description of a viewer, Imogen Bakelmun, who said the following about Vaporization

Through water, the bodies are washed, cleaned and prepared for burials often in unmarked graves. Vaporization thus articulates itself in this material semiotic of disinfection, purification and eradication. Indeed, not only was the materiality of the bodies symbolically abstracted through water but the water itself was then vaporised, pumped into the gallery in a hazy mist. I extended my hand out to catch the droplets of water and recalled Karl Marx’s assertion that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Here, bodies were rendered incorporeal, disembodied, ghostly. Although uncanny, the feeling of unknowable and threatening phantasms was familiar. News coverage of the violence in Mexico city often regurgitates the same cabalistic narratives; tales of a shadowy violence seeping into the Megalopolis, phantom figures that linger at the peripheries of society; never quite visible, never quite human. The vaporised water seemed like a gesture towards these tropes of incorporeality and ghostliness. Here, articulated through the paradigm of decontamination that was similarly carried through the intangible mist to anaesthetize our social relations. The process of vaporisation replicating the semiotic processes through which we recoil into ourselves in the face of Others and placate the material realities of which we are a part.

© Teresa Margolles, Vaporization, 2001.

When I began writing this article, I had an idea about Margolles’ work and it was very different from the one I have now. I don’t think I would now participate in an installation like this. I understand her work aims at transgression and her voice is needed. However, my choice (when I’m able to make it) is not to participate in the commodification of other’s suffering and, in the end, I think that happens in her work (the beautiful big canvas with golden tread showed in the Venice Biennial is just an example)  Do I condemn it? Of course not! I’ll insist, I think art has an autonomy that is also moral and I see nothing profoundly unethical about her work (apart from the series of Self portraits in the morgue – beware it’s very explicit content).


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