On ViewJames Cohan
January 10–February 29, 2020
On the opening night of Teresa Margolles’s debut solo exhibition at James Cohan, two women used 24-karat gold thread to sew glass shards onto a chic black velvet cocktail dress. The environment, with plush black carpeting and dramatic lighting, evoked a haute couture atelier. Two additional garments displayed in the room—one resembling a shortened cassock and the other partial chest armor—were also made of black velvet ornamented with glass, and incorporated rich metallic embroidery reminiscent of the embellishment on a matador’s chaquetilla.
Exquisite as they may be, these items are enmeshed with tragedy: the small bits of shimmering glass come from car windows shattered by bullets in Ciudad Juárez, Culiacán, and El Paso. I envision the artist gathering this debris from desolate streets, examining the crystalline remnants’ cut, clarity, and weight, before transporting them to her studio. One of Margolles’s assistants revealed that each garment is crafted by roughly ten people—individuals who, by way of their creative attention, commemorate the lives of people they never knew.
Originally from Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico, Margolles developed an intimate relationship with death while working as a mortician in Mexico City. There, in the early 1990s, she began making work that centered upon the human cost of drug-trafficking violence in Mexico. Her performances and installations employed post-mortem material such as blood and surgical threads to make tangible this shocking and generally unseen human loss. The artist’s oeuvre has since expanded to address brutality in other parts of the world. The present exhibition, titled El asesinato cambia el mundo / Assassination changes the world, references atrocities that occurred along the United States-Mexico border, which are often committed with US-manufactured weapons and linked to the demand for drugs.
To walk from the first atelier gallery to the main exhibition space, visitors must pass through a black beaded curtain, whose strands consequently swing and click. There is a miniscule, cat-o’nine-tails cruelty in the way the beads hit one’s torso or slap one’s legs. The curtain’s residual movement is ghostly.
The hard grays and silent surfaces repeated throughout the works in the next gallery conjure a minimalist mausoleum, and invite solemnity. Spanning the length of one wall is a grid of 2,300 burnished ceramic squares that comprise the installation El manto negro / The black shroud (2020). These squares were made by artisans in Mata Ortiz, Mexico—a village in the state of Chihuahua that produces pottery and suffers from its proximity to a cartel-controlled region. Fired with the smoke of cow manure and burnished by hand, the squares’ surfaces reveal delicate scratches and scuffs: the signatures of their makers. Together, the darkened forms are meant to represent victims of violence while gesturing toward the staggering scale of loss. Opposite the wall are two gray cement benches (Dos bancos, 2020) which blend in with the requisite polished concrete gallery floors and seem to offer a place/seat for contemplation of El manto negro. A wall label informs us, however, that the benches were created with a mixture of cement and residue left on the ground near a person shot and killed in Ciudad Juárez. Thus, when gallerygoers sit on the benches, their bodies make physical contact with bodily remains.
A second set of beaded curtains opens upon a third, brightly lit gallery space, which contains the last work in the exhibition: a photograph showing a small pile of crimson-colored bullet cartridges. Margolles herself purchased these from the same El Paso Walmart where, on August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old man shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 more using an assault rifle. The gunman had intended to target Latinos. Next to the artist’s photograph hangs the receipt from her purchase. As visitors exit the show, they can take a poster-sized copy of the receipt, located in a stack opposite the front desk, home with them. I felt compelled to take one and later regretted it. It’s still rolled up next to my shoe cabinet in Brooklyn, a chilling souvenir.
Margolles’s work is visceral. While viewing the exhibition a pit formed in my stomach and my hands felt clammy. The artist’s relocated materials and creative collaborations with suffering communities bring many of us closer to violence than we’ve ever been before. This is Margolles’s response to pervasive apathy and feelings of impotence, both of which are substantiated by our avid, superficial consumption of morbid news.
Unlike Margolles and her team, we do not mourn the victims of violence through sensitive, demanding acts of labor; as gallerygoers, we are afforded an opportunity to honor these individuals through a heightened awareness of their horrifying plights. Never has the New York winter black-on-black wardrobe seemed so appropriate; we are readymade mourners, most of whom are responsible for some degree of repercussive consumption.
But what does our unwitting participation in a grieving process truly mean when that grieving is carried out in a downtown Manhattan blue-chip gallery? What happens when the participants are fashionable New Yorkers at a wine-fueled vernissage, who, enraptured by the glitz, miss the wall text? On opening night, two women took a selfie in front of El manto negro while a man, seated on one of the bancos, checked his email. Can elegance partially eclipse brutality? What happens when human sacrifice begets the glamour of an object and the glamour of consumption? Or is that the point? Perhaps this exhibition is a performance, where we enact denial, and in so doing embody the issue driving Margolles’s work. But I want to believe that we can be alert, and that deeply felt injustice can agitate meaningful action.