From Thanatophilia to Necropolitics: On the work of SEMEFO and Teresa Margolles, 1990–Now

This piece is Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción’s M.A. thesis, written in 2015 as part of graduation requisites for a graduate degree in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California

Introduction: Exhuming SEMEFO

In 1994, the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City presented the work of controversial Mexican collective SEMEFO in the exhibition Lavatio Corporis (Washing of the body), which consisted of sculptures fashioned out of wood, steel, coal, and the embalmed cadavers of a horse, a mule, and a number of unborn foals—all acquired at a local rastro (an unofficial abattoir specializing in the sale of horsemeat) [Figures 1]. The works took inspiration from José Clemente Orozco’s painting Los Teules IV (1947) [Figure 2], a dramatic depiction of the fallen body of a horse and its rider in the midst of a military confrontation, which alludes to the violence of the Spanish conquest of Mexico to comment on the violence that Orozco witnessed during the Mexican Civil War in the early twentieth century.

Figure 1b. Teul I, Lavatio Corporis (Washing of the body) (1994), sculpture, by SEMEFO. Exhibition held at the Carrillo Gil Art Museum. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.
Figure 1. Teul I, Lavatio Corporis (Washing of the body) (1994), sculpture, by SEMEFO. Exhibition held at the Carrillo Gil Art Museum. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.
Figure 2. Los Teules IV, (1947), by José Clemente Orozco. Oil on masonite, 48.8 x 63 in. (124 x 160 cm). Carrillo Gil Museum Collection, Mexico City.
Figure 2. Los Teules IV, (1947), by José Clemente Orozco. Oil on masonite, 48.8 x 63 in. (124 x 160 cm). Carrillo Gil Museum Collection, Mexico City.

Los Teules IV suggests a temporary triumph on the part of the indigenous Aztec warriors—for teul was a derisive Aztec term used to address the Spaniards, and the horse is famously a symbol for the forces of colonialism. And Teul entitled the centerpiece sculpture in Lavatio Corporis: the embalmed cadaver.[1] Much like Orozco had before them, SEMEFO spoke in this exhibition from within another violent and fraught period in the history of Mexico, one marred by deadly conflicts between drug cartels and the Mexican police and military forces as well as the growing pressures placed on the Mexican population in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.

SEMEFO began its collaborative work by exploring a shared aesthetic interest in the drama of death, architectural ruins, and putrefaction, initially expressed as visceral, death-metal-inspired performances in disused spaces—such as an abandoned insane asylum. They later evolved their practice into a more refined, object-oriented and gallery-based enterprise, although they continued to appropriate materials from the forensic medical service (the Servicio Médico Forense—hence the acronym SEMEFO in Spanish) highlighting a surge in unclaimed, anonymous corpses, victims of the Mexican narco-wars at the time.

When asked about the name SEMEFO, former member Mónica Salcido stated that it was chosen because “of what the Forensic Medical Service means in a city so terrifyingly large like Mexico City, where cadavers arrive by the wagonful; this agency is a drain, a funnel of slag, a place where unknown citizens touched by death on the streets find their last shelter.”[2] Here, Salcido offers two very important clues to the motives of the collective: a mutual interest in the abject or the powers of horror;[3] and a critique of the conditions of life (and death) in Mexico City.

This thesis analyzes SEMEFO, active from 1990–99, and in particular the work of artist Teresa Margolles, one of its former members, by discussing notions of thanatophilia and necropolitics in contrast to its characterization by curator Cuauhtémoc Medina as necrophilic, which has had the unintended consequence of reducing the complexity of their artistic production.[4] In this thesis, I would like to give some background on the motives and inspiration of SEMEFO and Margolles, taking into consideration their points of view and their accounts of their history, departing from Medina’s discussion of their work (who links it to the performance and action groups of Europe, thus, external to their context) by connecting it firmly to Mexican politics of the day. While I agree that Medina’s discussion of their work in Parachute Magazine leads to a compelling understanding of SEMEFO, it requires expansion and reorientation. In this thesis, I attempt to complicate the record on this work by engaging artworks and former member accounts.

For instance, in an interview, former SEMEFO member Juan Zavaleta stated, “SEMEFO’s work was never necrophilic, in spite of all that has been written. Our work was thanatophilic, and it was an interest that united us as a collective.”[5] Deriving from Thanatos, ancient Greek for the personification of death, this term commonly and incorrectly appears as a synonym of necrophilia, defined as a sexual fetishization of “death.” While the necrophiliac actively sexualizes a dead body, the thanatophile does not see death as erotic, but rather the summum of all beauty. SEMEFO’s work, beyond the tradition of the vanitas (a depiction of the finite nature and transience of life), represented real violence and death in a society within which its members had to cope.

Necropolitics is a term articulated by the postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe who sees it as a reversal of biopolitics, a concept proposed by philosopher Michel Foucault to understand the notion of sovereignty, its relationship to the military-industrial complex and warfare, and ultimately the power over the domain of life exercised by, as he states, “a set of mechanisms through which the biological features of the human species [become] the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power…”[6] In short, biopolitics refers to the capacity of states to negotiate the terms for administering all life within their borders—and within a transnational and globalized contexts as well. For Mbembe, informed by postcolonial thought and experience, Foucault’s biopolitics has greater implications and raises troubling questions once the concept of bio (life) is replaced with necro (death). He argues that in the wake of the counter-revolutions of the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties and the rise of militarized violence across the globe, the agenda of biopower had turned to and been placed in the hands of, “figures of sovereignty whose central project is the generalized instrumentalization of human existence, and the material destruction of the bodies and populations judged as expendable or superfluous.”[7] Significantly, Mbembe asks, “Is the notion of biopower [and biopolitics] sufficient to account for the contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war, of resistance, or of the fight against terror [or drugs], makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective?”[8] Here, Mbembe puts state power over life and death into consideration, thereby departing from Foucault’s analysis of state power over life in general. I argue that the later work of SEMEFO and Teresa Margolles undertakes aesthetic explorations of death and violence in Mexico, but does so to address and directly engage necropolitics and the reality of life-and-death experience there in the nineteen nineties.

By taking the name of the morgue, SEMEFO demonstrated an interest in death, but by the middle part of the decade, when they began to produce sculptures and installations using traces from bodies taken by violence—and Margolles gained a more prominent role in the collective—they entered the field of necropolitical critique in the gallery spaces in which they exhibited. I argue that Margolles’ solo practice since SEMEFO dissolved in 1999 continued to critique the violence in Mexico while switching focus from the morgue to the streets of Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez to address issues such as forced migration and modes of civil resistance. SEMEFO’s work and the materials and subjects they engaged had received critical attention in the conversation about contemporary Mexican art, both within Mexico and further afield, especially as the Mexican state instrumentalized it as a national brand.[9]

Neoliberalism and Politics in Latin America: Brief Notes   

In the context of democracy, one usually finds a perpetual struggle between security and rights. The capacity of a government to provide for the security of its people—exercised through bio and necropolitics—as anthropologist Austin Ziederman argues, is “globally ascendant as a paradigm for organizing social and political life, and Latin America is a particularly good place to analyze its entanglement with democracy and neoliberalism.”[10] In other words, in Latin America the scale of debate and civil confrontation is a visible feature in every country’s modern history, where neoliberal reforms have precluded achieving a potential balance of security and rights. In some instances, civil society has been aggressively subordinated in the interest of security, as has happened in Mexico, Colombia, and other parts of Latin America. In these national debates and in the rationalization of the use of force by the state or paramilitary groups, politics and economics are usually commingled to deleterious effect.

It is important to consider that the economic inequality that resulted from NAFTA displaced over 20 million farm workers across the Mexican countryside, forcing many to find work in free trade enclaves, called maquiladoras, set up along the U.S./Mexico border, which provided day work with very little pay.[11] One might argue that a tempting alternative to this low wage work in maquiladoras was (and still is) joining narco organizations.

Many who join the drug trade lose their lives in bloody turf wars or debt settling, their bodies thus entering the system of the forensic medical service as unidentified individuals or John Does. Because the families of these victims often cannot pay for a proper burial and may themselves live under threat of violence, bodies remain unclaimed at morgues. Once at this stage, as curator Amanda Coulson has noted, “[t]he corpses get sucked into a bureaucratic system of ‘disposal,’ [intended] to make them smoothly disappear.”[12] More specifically, the bodies go through a series of transformations including quartering, slicing, and chemical treatments, after dissections by medical students in a process that Margolles calls the “life of the corpse,”[13] which one may argue has been a primary concern in her artistic career.

From SEMEFO to Teresa Margolles: From the Morgue to the Museum

In the early days of their practice, during the late eighties and early nineties, SEMEFO’s membership consisted of Arturo “Doctor” Angulo, a visual and performance artist; Mónica Salcido, an actress and performance theorist; Juan Pernás, an actor and visual artist; Teresa Margolles, a visual artist who went on to pursue a degree in forensic medical science; Juan Zavaleta, a visual and performance artist; Carlos and Arturo López, musician brothers who played for a number of death metal bands and collaborated with SEMEFO; and many collaborators from the art scene and Forensic Medical Service, the latter being associates of Margolles.[14] Their composite artistic interests and skill sets ultimately converged in the midst of personal relationships and friendships to enable them to articulate a series of messages and ideas that were important to their coterie, mostly criticism of the conditions of violence that civilians had to endure in Mexico. This exploration would become a complex pursuit of the materiality of that violence, one that would also test the limits of their collaboration and shared artistic perspectives.[15]

As SEMEFO’s notoriety grew, a shift occurred in their approach to making art, causing them to phase out their death metal/punk performances. Due to their growing recognition in the sphere of art, with exhibitions realized in La Panadería and the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City, the collective began to produce more visual art works, some of which garnered critical acclaim for their iconoclastic approach to sculpture and installation. It is important to note that during the middle to late nineties Margolles also produced her own individual photographic work (greatly influenced by the artist Alejandro Montoya whose work also drew upon his access to mortuaries) and participated in exhibitions as a solo artist—simultaneously cultivating support for SEMEFO as well as her solo career from the art scene in Mexico City.[16]

SEMEFO’s death/thrash metal acts were characterized by elaborate and scripted theatrical performances that accompanied musical presentations.[17] In these underground musical events—most of which took place in abandoned industrial spaces on the outskirts of Mexico City—SEMEFO engaged audiences with performances that drew on ancient pagan rites and also sometimes involved bondage, S&M, and the use of body elements like their orifices, appendages, body fluids, dirt, animal blood, and animal body parts.[18] According to Juan Zavaleta, the animal components used in these performances were acquired in the many unlicensed butcher shops across Mexico City. In these locations, SEMEFO members negotiated to procure the animals whole or in parts, as well as other raw materials to include in their visceral and emotive hybrid performances.[19] They staged events at an abandoned mental hospital named La Floresta, where they worked to highlight its dilapidation, exploring the aesthetic and poetic potential of the insane asylum. Mónica Salcido, a former member of SEMEFO, summarized their intentions for working at the mental hospital as a venue in the following: “With the performances we were not just realizing the scenic goal as a theatrical convention; in between the group and spectators there was no proscenium: we all belonged in that moment to the same space with all the elements at disposition, it was not just seeing a rock group and having a beer, there were no limits, the spectator had another option.”[20] In these performances, there was no separation between the stage and the public, and the actions associated with it were carried out throughout the entire space and among the people who came to see and participate.

According to the Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, SEMEFO’s early actions were inspired in part by the Viennese Actionists, a loose association of Austrian artists who in the sixties and seventies enacted visceral performances engaging themes of genocide, carnage, and destruction following the World Wars in Europe. He said that SEMEFO was also motivated by the contemporary Catalan theater group La Fura dels Baus, whose performances were influenced by the French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud’s epic journeys into the unconscious and what he termed the “theater of cruelty.”[21] Medina’s historicization of SEMEFO presents the group within a broader context of performance art and actionism, a gesture that resonated with the exportation of their work first to Spain and later to other European cities; it also presents a series of misreadings that have reverberated through what has been written about the collective after the publication of “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO and beyond” in Parachute magazine in 2001.

Medina’s rise in the curatorial field in Mexico has made his historicization of SEMEFO and Margolles a largely uncontested one, and I, as previously mentioned, challenge his perspective in this thesis. In an interview between writer Amy Sara Carroll and Medina, SEMEFO’s “swerve into conceptual art” occurred sometime in the mid-nineties when, according to Medina, the group began a “systematic dissection of the corpse of conceptualism and minimalism, adjusting such traditions to the third world’s dark social setting.”[22] Here, Medina refers to the group’s shift from staging death metal/punk performances to creating sculpture and installation art. It is important to note that Carroll underlines Medina’s accounts of SEMEFO’s work, which sees the significance of the group as being virtually indistinguishable from that of Margolles’ art in this interview. Such confusion, Carroll explains, is due to a misunderstanding, which lends itself to a “discursive chain reaction whereby Margolles seemingly stands in as a part to the whole (even as she stands apart from that whole).”[23] What are the implications of this interchangeability? How can a nuanced account of this work supplant this confusion and reduction?

This confusion is perhaps not surprising given Medina’s compelling, but hasty historiography of the collective in the Parachute essay. There, while he mentions that SEMEFO’s work partly emerged out of a biopolitical critique, in the Foucaultian sense, he does not develop this notion much further and proposes that SEMEFO and Margolles produced artworks as a necrophilic revision of art history.[24]

One might argue that SEMEFO’s thanatophilic rather than necrophilic interest mirrors a familiarity and proximity to death in Mexican culture, demonstrated through modern celebrations like the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Through such celebrations, death has become not just a social issue, but a national image—an aesthetic project. The anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz explains that in recent years the ties between the iconic power or the symbolism of Mexican death and revolutionary nationalism has generated many critiques of the death totem in Mexico: “It is more and more common that authors see with suspicion the representations of the attitudes of the Mexican people towards death, and argue that death has always terrified, and continues to terrify, the Mexican as it would any other person.”[25] In this manner, SEMEFO’s work can be seen as an attempt to implode the alleged kinship Mexicans have with death by showing not the lavish colorful altars of the Day of the Dead but the filthy materiality of the morgue and death’s truly harrowing social dimension. Some have argued that official and independent art institutions producing a new brand of Mexican art instrumentalize artists such as SEMEFO. For example, the artist and writer Coco Fusco has written about SEMEFO’s rise to fame in the wake of NAFTA, arguing that their work fulfilled a desire of official Mexican art institutions to “break with a long history of promoting indigenist populism[26] and to engage in the promotion of an art that was “directed toward inserting younger, more experimental artists into the international art market, forging collaborations with American foundations and the private sector, and promoting a more modern image of Mexican culture.”[27] Of course, the modern image of Mexico that SEMEFO presented was a visceral and often controversial one, which raises questions about why their particular image was authorized and, by extension, received.

An exhibition that marked SEMEFO’s turn from thanatophilic performance practice to necropolitical installation and sculpture is Dermis [Figure 3], held in 1996 at the alternative art space La Panadería.[28] In this exhibition, SEMEFO used human remains for the first time and presented soiled linens from a morgue used by forensic technicians to cover victims of violent crime. The cotton fibers retained blood and sweat stains from enshrouded corpses, creating imprints of deceased bodies. Dermis also included tattoos cut from unclaimed bodies whose legally allotted time for storage at the morgue had transpired and were scheduled for a process of disposal intended to make them discreetly disappear. SEMEFO stretched the tattooed skins with surgical hooks on a metal ring and attached a lamp with a single halogen light bulb whose intense light enabled the visitor to get an illuminated view of the tattoo while the heat eventually melted the fat still present in the skins, causing them to drip. The skins were acquired through the Forensic Medical Service, under the rationale that the unclaimed anonymous corpses were ultimately going to be destroyed by incineration; there was no one to advocate for these bodies—i.e., to approve or disapprove on their behalf, as it were—so the gesture of showing them would be a solemn, deeply political incursion into the gallery space, embroiling forensic and art systems. Is this removal of body parts or tissues legal or ethical outside the context of a medical procedure or forensic investigation? What were they trying to achieve with this overtly illegal and unethical insertion into the gallery space? I argue that SEMEFO used the exhibition’s format as a way to challenge contemporary art’s claim to being a domain that embraces other social and political structures by provoking a collision between the discrete reality of the art world and the harsh social and economic reality their work addresses. Most of the unclaimed bodies were suspected of belonging to farm workers who once led peasant lives but then turned to narco organizations in order to survive in an economy that displaced them and under a government that abandoned them. Neither paperwork nor identification existed for these individuals because in Mexico governability dissipates as a function of distance from urban centers, and many were born without any form of government registration or acknowledgement.

Figure 3. Dermis (1996), sculptures and installation at La Panadería, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.
Figure 3. Dermis (1996), sculptures and installation at La Panadería, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.

In 1997, both the Viennese Actionists and SEMEFO were compared and contrasted in an exhibition titled Accionismo (Actionism) organized by Art & Idea in Mexico City. This exhibition featured the work of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, as well as an installation by SEMEFO. The latter presented the installation Untitled (1997) [Figure 4], a biomedical sculpture that consisted of eight burnt oil drums placed on the gallery floor. The containers were covered with soot; a viscous coat of a fatty substance encrusted their inner walls. According to SEMEFO member Zavaleta, the drums had been used repeatedly to cook and strip the flesh off bones from corpses that had been used for teaching medical students about anatomy and physiology. The bodies were unknown victims of violence, and SEMEFO, through the gesture of exhibiting these vessels, drew attention to how the unclaimed bodies of narco killings disappeared in horrifying ways. The drums were acquired through a paid anonymous agent who worked at the Forensic Medical Service and who sold them illegally to the collective.

Figure 4. Untitled (1997), sculpture installation of forensic biomedical equipment, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Installation view at exhibition titled Accionismo held at Art & Idea Gallery in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1997. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.
Figure 4. Untitled (1997), sculpture installation of forensic biomedical equipment, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Installation view at exhibition titled Accionismo held at Art & Idea Gallery in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1997. Courtesy of personal archive of artist Juan Zavaleta.

In conversation with Untitled, because of its reference to the dark side of the forensic process, is the series titled Autorretratos en la morgue (Self-portraits in the morgue) (1998) [Figure 5]—credited to SEMEFO but produced by Margolles. In these photographs, Margolles stands wearing a white laboratory coat and black rubber gloves—the forensic medical technician’s uniform—next to the cadaver of an unclaimed victim of violent crime. She confronts the camera by looking directly into it with a somber expression. In each photograph the artist appears next to a different corpse, in one that of a middle aged man; in another, a younger man. There is also a young girl who appears to have been mutilated and partially burned. The cadavers in this series are stored in the morgue in the hope that some family member or friend will claim them and give them the dignity of a proper burial. The attribution of authorship of this series and other works produced around this time is given to SEMEFO—in spite of Margolles’ central role—perhaps showing her strong influence over the collective’s work and her commitment to examining the circulation of bodies around the mortuaries of Mexico City. While the bodies remain unclaimed, Margolles (and SEMEFO) stand in as their keepers or representatives. We see here evidence that the work of Margolles becomes more focused, as more of her works create both empathic bridges between the victims of drug-related violence and the public that visits the museum or the gallery, and a confrontational gesture to narcos and Mexican authorities. In other words, Margolles makes visible to the world the unclaimed victims of the illegal drug trade, and the difficulty of the forensic profession in Mexico, in sharp contrast to the theatricality or spectacle of SEMEFO’s earlier works.

Figure 5. Autorretratos en la morgue (Self portraits in the morgue) (1998), photographic series, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Courtesy of Galería Labor, Mexico City, Mexico.
Figure 5. Autorretratos en la morgue (Self portraits in the morgue) (1998), photographic series, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Courtesy of Galería Labor, Mexico City, Mexico.

The collective’s breakup is chronicled in Medina’s Parachute essay. There, Medina unfortunately alternates from describing the practice of SEMEFO and of Margolles, summarily excluding contributions from other members. From this essay, one can conclude that although SEMEFO’s official dissolution had never really occurred, but each member did—after a protracted breakdown in communication—more or less leave the group by early 1999, apart from Margolles, who was left in sole custody of the name SEMEFO, as well as all the artworks and documentation that existed.[29]

Towards the end of their time together the group no longer appeared to be engaging the medium of performance, but made work for galleries and museums. At this point, some of the members were not allowed to participate in the work produced inside the morgue or have access to its materials according to Zavaleta[30] (Margolles, however, could still access the morgue because of her training and connections there.) This fact created a series of rifts within the group, which in time weakened the bonds that held them together and caused the collective’s social structure to dissolve. Medina, who has not surprisingly played a pivotal role in the rise of Margolles’ art career, summarized SEMEFO’s status in its latter days as follows: “Despite the progressive exodus of most of the original members of the group, by the late nineties Margolles continued making works with human remains, turning the forensic into her atelier. She befriended the workers of the morgue and learnt from them not only about their techniques, but their devotion to a job that is unfathomable to most of society. For Margolles, the morgue became a visual bank for her photographs, an ever replenished store of props and raw matter for actions, objects and installations and, in a wider sense, a laboratory from which to intervene with the social imaginary.”[31] By the end of the millenium SEMEFO ceased activities, with its artists pursuing independent interests. Some members moved to other parts of Mexico, and others moved abroad.[32] Margolles’ solo career continued to expand on themes of narco-related violence, the shattered human relationships that are left in its wake, and the social dimension of death.

About the ‘unbearable weightiness of beings’

Vaporización [Figure 6] (2001) was an installation by Margolles that appeared in an exhibition titled Mexico City: An Exhibition About the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values, curated by Klaus Biesenbach in 2002 at PS1 in New York City, a public space for contemporary art affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art.[33] This artwork filled the gallery spaces with a vaporous mist, creating a foggy environment that enveloped viewers who were visible only as hazy outlines. The environment appeared innocuous; it resembled a hazy dance club. But in fact the mist was “vaporized water from the morgue that was used to wash the bodies of murder victims after autopsy.” Here, a simple sentence inserted into the wall label dramatically transformed the reception of the piece and the viewers’ relationship to the space. In this iteration of the installation, the public was required to sign a waiver prior to entering the work, absolving the institution of any legal responsibility to individuals who could potentially be terrorized or offended by the work. It is worth noting that when Vaporización was shown a year earlier in ACE Gallery (a private space also in New York City) where no signature or contract was required to enter the work, one encountered the work without institutional interference.

Figure 6. Vaporización (Vaporization) (2001), installation view at ACE Gallery in New York City, by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland.
Figure 6. Vaporización (Vaporization) (2001), installation view at ACE Gallery in New York City, by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland.

In his catalog essay, Biesenbach explained what motivated him to curate the Mexico City exhibition, offering that he was largely prompted by an analysis of megalopolitan life and how artists engage with the realities of daily life, “how they confront and assimilate these issues into a body of work.”[34] He outlined his curatorial selection for the exhibition as revolving around a very specific perspective, presenting the dangers that one typically encounters in Mexico and which translate into artistic practices that, as he argues, are “difficult to digest—even when considered from multiple viewpoints—because they do not represent a purely aesthetic ideal. […] The works reflect a certain social truth, functioning at a certain level of reality.”[35] One could argue that these statements, while partially accurate, produce a stereotype—or reinforce it—as the issues addressed by the artworks included in the exhibition are not intrinsically Mexican and can occur almost anywhere. Biesenbach’s approach (and Medina’s, as he was a curatorial advisor on this exhibition), reinscribes many failures on the part of U.S. museum policy when framing Latin American art, putting forward a kind of aesthetics of the underdeveloped and reifying it in a way that characterizes a country as a failed state. In other words, the exhibition downplayed an important reason for the conditions that plague Mexico, namely the subservient position of the Mexican state and economy to that of the U.S. due to NAFTA and the connection that exists between drug trafficking and neoliberal free-trade policies. This situation created the conditions for what anthropologist and cultural theorist Néstor García Canclini describes as, “a steady acceptance of the advance of informality and illegality in labor relations, [and] the growing power of drug-traffickers who were even conceded political protection.”[36] These turbid relations reinforced the conditions that enabled narco organizations or cartels to gain a firmer foothold in the Mexican political spheres, terrorizing civil society there with bribery, racketeering, larceny, kidnappings, and violence—what is informally known as narcocultura, or narcoculture. This is the culture around narco organizations, which in many ways resembles the ways of the Old West, involving the foregoing of official law through parallel hierarchies of organization that are charged with the production of contraband, its distribution, and enforcing and asserting their chief’s, or Don’s, dominance over geographic territories with unquestioning loyalty and brutal force. Those who enter the narcocultura, incentivized by its flashy clothes, gleaming gold jewelry, wads of cash, and easy access to drugs and sex, can never leave the lifestyle; the only release from the rule of the master is to meet death. Narcoculture exists in virtually every metropolitan context, and is a phenomenon that affects all cities in the United States as well as Mexico.

Biesenbach’s exhibition thus raises questions about how Latin American art is represented in museums in the United States. Curator Mari Carmen Ramírez challenges the institutional policies of museums in the United States when framing art from Latin America by pointing out that when these institutions do frame such work, many times they engage in a discourse that is “deeply embedded in the neocolonial legacy that has articulated U.S.–Latin American relations since the nineteenth century.”[37] By Ramírez’s measure, Biesenbach’s exhibition illustrates this perspective by contributing to the stereotype that death and violence is a way of life in Mexico—rooting it in a necropolitical context, although he doesn’t make this claim in his catalog—and exporting a reductive (and spectacularized) perspective on the complex socioeconomics of Mexico City. In spite of the validity of this curatorial criticism, in contrast to Ramírez’s skepticism, I argue that Biesenbach’s collaboration with Medina may be regarded as a cultural brokering between U.S. and Mexican agents that helped bring attention to the socioeconomic issues plaguing Mexican society to one of the centers of global financial power—deploying the exhibition as a platform of discussion regarding the dark side of neoliberalism, free trade, and political corruption.

In 2009, in the middle of the rise in violent crime and death in Mexico, Medina was selected to curate the Mexican pavilion at the Venice Biennale, an opportunity he used to make the conditions of paramilitary and military war within his country globally known. As the nation’s art representative, he chose Margolles, an artist who by then had for two decades explored the aesthetic and social dimensions of death. Medina did this with the goal of effecting a conceptual transposition of the violence of the streets of Mexico and the lavish staging of this international art event—bringing the Mexican humanitarian crisis into the rarified atmosphere of the art world. In ¿De que mas podríamos hablar? (What else could we talk about?), a multiple intervention project spread across the city of Venice, the artist placed shrouds used to clean scenes of violence—a deed accomplished with the help of the Mexican Forensic Medical Service—as well as family members of those who had been killed or disappeared, who performed at the Mexican Pavilion, by constantly mopping its floors with water from the morgues of Mexico City used to clean the dead bodies of unclaimed victims of violent crime after their autopsy. These family members came of their own accord as members of Margolles’ equipo, or team, to raise awareness of the conditions in Mexico. They accompanied the artist and Medina to share their stories and civil resistance. The artist also produced a series of linens, like those used for the aforementioned Dermis, titled Narcomensajes (2009) [Figure 7] on which the artist and her team of embroiderers used gold thread to spell out criminal messages left behind. These notes, made popular through the press, were found next to victims of narco killings, threatening to silence anyone who spoke out or who collaborated with the authorities. Margolles’ linens were placed in stretchers and exhibited as paintings. The artist also presented a series of jewels made by a Sinaloan craftsman who created pieces for the Mexican narcos, using shards of glass gathered at the scenes of crime and criminal executions along with precious stones. These series of works, titled Ajuste de cuentas (2007) [Figure 8], juxtaposed the banality of material acquisition and the pursuit of wealth through violence and its final outcome. These jewels also showcased elements of narco lore, which in Mexico has its own patron saint, Jesus Malverde, as well as references to the cult of La Santa Muerte (The Sacred Death). These likenesses, encrusted with glass from violent crime scenes, thus formed a critical commentary on narco lore and its ultimate cost—human life.

Figure 8. Detail from Narcomensajes (Narcomessages) (2009), mixed media work, by Teresa Margolles. Shown at the 2009 Biennale de Venezia, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina Courtesy of www.bienaldevenecia.bellasartes.gob.mx
Figure 7. Detail from Narcomensajes (Narcomessages) (2009), mixed media work, by Teresa Margolles. Shown at the 2009 Biennale de Venezia, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina Courtesy of http://www.bienaldevenecia.bellasartes.gob.mx
Figure 7. 21 ajustes de cuentas (21 debt settlements) (2007), gold jewelry with image of Jesus Malverde made using gold and shards of broken glass from crime scenes, by Teresa Margolles. Shown at the 2009 Biennale de Venezia, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland. Translation: DEBT SETTLEMENT 15 Previous Investigation Eldorado, July 14, 2007 at 9:10am A 34 year old man, agent of the Municipal Police, was staked out an executed when he drove his vehicle on the Culiacán-Eldorado road by a team of gangbangers. He died consequence of multiple wounds to the head, torso, and abdomen. The agent of the Public Ministry of Eldorado officialized the death while technicians gathered a total of 30 shells from AK47, AR15, and 45mm rounds.
Figure 8. 21 ajustes de cuentas (21 debt settlements) (2007), gold jewelry with image of Jesus Malverde made using gold and shards of broken glass from crime scenes, by Teresa Margolles. Shown at the 2009 Biennale de Venezia, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland.
Translation:
DEBT SETTLEMENT 15
Previous Investigation
Eldorado, July 14, 2007 at 9:10am
A 34 year old man, agent of the Municipal Police, was staked out an executed when he drove his vehicle on the Culiacán-Eldorado road by a team of gangbangers.
He died consequence of multiple wounds to the head, torso, and abdomen.
The agent of the Public Ministry of Eldorado officialized the death while technicians gathered a total of 30 shells from AK47, AR15, and 45mm rounds.

La promesa

As a response to her consistent instrumentalization in the creation of a national image, Margolles created in 2012 an artwork that illustrated that she had left thanatophilia behind, no longer privileging a death aesthetic, but instead privileging the resilience of Mexican civil society in the face of the necropolitics that encumber it. Titled La promesa (The promise) [Figure 9], the sculpture installation and social practice work was organized by the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UNAM and was curated by Alejandra Labastida. The project consisted of a sculpture made out of the ground up remains of an entire house from Ciudad Juarez, which were compressed into a minimal sculpture in the museum in Mexico City, which would them be crumbled by the public. Margolles and her team systematically demolished the house in Ciudad Juarez, pulverizing the stone and cement that went into the structure. La promesa addresses social deconstruction and reconstruction, issues of forced migration, the marks left behind by violence, and what it means to survive. A family, whose daughter was murdered, and who were then forced to leave Ciudad Juárez and live with family elsewhere in Mexico, once inhabited the demolished house. At the site where the demolished structure once stood, the museum and the artist built a community center where young people could socialize, returning laughter and joy to a site of loss and grief.[38]

Figure 9. La promesa (The promise) (2012), sculpture installation view at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, by Teresa Margolles. An exhibition curated by Alejandra Labastida. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland.
Figure 9. La promesa (The promise) (2012), sculpture installation view at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, by Teresa Margolles. An exhibition curated by Alejandra Labastida. Courtesy of Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich, Switzerland.

Conclusion: Beyond the fantastic

For over twenty-five years, the combined work of SEMEFO and Margolles has focused on the consequences of violence in Mexico, taking different positions of resistance to them. Both of their bodies of work are fixtures in contemporary Mexican art, occupying a unique space in the Mexican and global art public’s imagination.

The work of SEMEFO and Margolles—commonly perceived, valued, and promoted almost exclusively for its association with a death cult image and aesthetes—addresses necropolitics, the lives of those that are deemed not deserving of being mourned,[39] and the archival role of a city’s morgues. The understanding of how their work developed from a death metal act into a sophisticated artistic practice has been the motor for the research I present in this thesis. Coming from a family of funeral directors, morticians, and forensic medical technicians—like Margolles and other members of SEMEFO—I have a deep empathy for the important service they provide to society, and I understand the scope of their necropolitical engagement. The morgue is after all an institution that serves as a “social thermometer for any nation,” as Margolles stated in an interview in 2004,[40] and it is through this institution that one can achieve a clear perspective of how people live and die. SEMEFO took the forensic service’s name, which led to a process of unraveling and development that deserves to be framed as a sophisticated exploration of the materiality of death. This exploration consistently opened new strategies of commemoration and critical consideration of the circulation of corpses as well as forced migrations in a megalopolitan context. Their work evolved from thanatophilia to necropolitics, challenging the idea of Mexican kinship with death, emerging in the midst of a political maelstrom, and taking serious legal risks to pay tribute to people they had never even met. To me, this evolution evidences the primary role that empathy and commemoration have played in their progress.

Since her departure from SEMEFO, Margolles continues to press the importance of these issues and proposes that they be collectively meditated upon through a series of deeds that can hardly be rationalized outside the realm of art. As an artist she recognizes that she has a special social status, one that she can instrumentalize in the interest of not just the attention of the art public, but Mexican society at large. Through my arguments I contest any reductionism or oversimplification of the work of SEMEFO or Margolles, and ask that any researcher looking into their practice to consider the deeply human sensibility and quest for healing that drive Margolles’ solo work.

This aesthetic shift compels a new appraisal of her history within SEMEFO and beyond, as her work now comes under criticism of not just Mexican curators and art historians, but also from other cultural archives.

Margolles’ work can be said to have created a space within art systems for the public to ventilate their fears, anxieties, and hopes in the midst of rising global violence. As her exhibition in Venice in 2009 was titled ¿De que mas podemos hablar? (What more can we talk about?) She proposes we use the gallery space as a venue for dialogue, where the artwork behaves as a point of departure towards a deeper understanding of life, death, and the politics, choices, and attitudes that are behind both. It is this type of gesture that opens multilateral conversations and solutions and that makes her approach and practice some of what is in my opinion the most pertinent and socially restorative work that can be done when society collectively faces a difficult or dangerous situation, one that exposes the erosion of trust among individuals and institutions, and which simultaneously reveals dark agendas.

Notes:

[1] This sculpture was inspired by a nightmare that SEMEFO member Arturo Angulo had featuring a horse seated on a throne displaying its erect phallus, ejaculating semen and blood on a floor of burning coal.

[2] Salcido, Mónica. Interview with the author. February 17, 2015.

[3] See Kristeva, Julia. “The Powers of Horror.” The Severed Head: Capital Visions. Columbia University Press. New York. 2012. 103-120. On page 107, she writes: “Because such is the power of horror: it subjugates, it gains a following, it creates sects. One begins by exploring it and ends up a believer.”

[4] Medina made this characterization in an essay published in Parachute Magazine in 2001, titled Zones of Tolerance, Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO and Beyond.

[5] Zavaleta, Juan. Interview with the author in a series of Skype interviews. November 1, 2014 — February 7, 2015. Thanatos is also the root of the term thanatology, used to define the scientific field of inquiry into dying, decomposition as a process, and bereavement.

[6] Foucault, Michel, and Michel Senellart. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1977-78. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 1.

[7] Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics, a Critical Revision,” Aesthetics and Violence: Necropolitics, Militarization and Mourned Lives, 2012, 1-2.

[8] Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, Winter 2003, 11-40.

[9] See Lomnitz, Claudio. “Intimacy with Death,” Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books, 2008. 53-60. On pages 66-67, Lomnitz writes: “The peculiarity of the Mexican cult of death becomes evident when it is understood that what is at stake is not the sublimation of a stoic death (although that one also exists in Mexico), but the nationalization of the playful familiarity and proximity to death.”

[10] Zeiderman, Austin. “Living dangerously: biopolitics and urban citizenship in Bogotá, Colombia,” American Ethnologist, No. 40, 2013, 72-73.

[11] Gonzalez, Aureliano. What is a Maquiladora. Online article. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.udel.edu/leipzig/texts2/vox128.htm. The Mexican In-Bond (Maquila) Program “entitles [a] company, first, to foreign investment participation in the capital — and in management — of up to 100% without need of any special authorization; second, it entitles the company to special customs treatment, allowing duty free temporary import of machinery, equipment, parts and materials, and administrative equipment such as computers, and communications devices, subject only to posting a bond guaranteeing that such goods will not remain in Mexico permanently.”

[12] Coulson, Amanda, Teresa Margolles, Frieze, Issue 85, September 2004. Accessed January 25, 2015. http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/teresa_margolles/

[13] She used this phrase in a lecture she gave at the Brooklyn Museum during her participation in the Global Feminisms (2007) exhibition, where she spoke in detail about her artistic career, and the development of her practice working in Mexico’s mortuaries. Accessed December 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEO_iyYcFJ4

[14] These were the core members of the collective, but, according to former member Juan Zavaleta, a more complete list goes as follows: The aforementioned and Victor Macías, Érika Bülle, Simón Gonzalez Reyna, Carlos Aguilar, Ulises Pernás (Kyborg Trek), Alejandro Ainslie, Jorge Beltrán, Beto Centurión, Alisarine Ducolomb, Ramiro Huerta, Antonio Macedo, José Paz, Aníbal Peñuelas Margolles, Pichicuás, Elsa Sáenz, Maribel Santos, Marina Velasco, Víctor Vieyra, Mario Zaragoza, David Zaragoza, Melchor Zortybrandt, Paulina Garnica Soberanes, Eduardo Benitez Montoya, Julieta López Aranda, Enrique Villaseñor, Jose Roberto Morales (Thue), y Sabaz Mejía. These would all contribute to the performance and installation work produced by SEMEFO intermittently from 1990-99.

[15] And of their personal relationships—Teresa Margolles was for many years romantically involved with Carlos López, another member of SEMEFO. This information was revealed to me during an interview with Juan Zavaleta and corroborated by former SEMEFO member Mónica Salcido and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina in separate interviews.

[16] Zavaleta, Juan in an interview with the author, which occurred during a series of Skype interviews, November 1, 2014—February 7, 2015.

[17] In the year 1995 Carlos López released an album that he played in and co-produced. The name of the band was showcased in the album cover as SEMEFO, and the name of the recording was Larvario (Larvaerium).

[18] See García-Roiz, Luis Javier. “The music of SEMEFO: Carlos López interviewed”. SEMEFO 1990-1999. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2011, 42-45.

[19] See Mariana, David. SEMEFO 1990-1999: From the Morgue to the Museum. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. 2011.

[20] Salcido, Mónica. Interview by A.R. Vázquez-Concepción. February 17, 2015.

[21] Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO and beyond,” Parachute Contemporary Art Magazine, Vol. 104, Issue 10-12, October 1, 2001. 32-52. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-30202878.html

[22] Carroll, Amy Sara. “Muerte Sin Fin: Teresa Margolles’s Gendered States of Exception,” TDR 54:2 (Summer 2010), 105.

[23] Ibid. 106.

[24] Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO and beyond,” Parachute Contemporary Art Magazine, Vol. 104, Issue 10-12, October 1, 2001. 32-52. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-30202878.html

[25] Lomnitz, Claudio. “Genealogy of Mexican Death,” Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books, 2008, 95.

[26] Coco Fusco, “The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA,” Oct. 2003. Accessed February 10, 2015. http://mdc.ulpgc.es/cdm/ref/collection/atlantica/id/1026

[27] Ibid.

[28] Debroise, Olivier. The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997. UNAM. 2006. 374. A hub for independent artistic activity launched by the artist Yoshua Okón in 1994, according to curator Olivier Debroise in a short essay, edited by Cuauhtémoc Medina, about alternative spaces in Mexico City in the nineties.

[29] Zavaleta, Juan in an interview with the author during a series of Skype interviews that occurred between November 1, 2014 — February 7, 2015.

[30] Ibid: “I would accompany Margolles and the rest to the morgue to work, but many times I was asked to not come inside and stay outside watching the car, sometimes for hours, just because I did not have the credentials or the blessing of those who did have access to it.”

[31] Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO and beyond,” Parachute Contemporary Art Magazine, Vol. 104, Issue 10-12, October 1, 2001. 32-52. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-30202878.html

[32] For instance, former member Zavaleta moved to Canada, where he has continued to produce art.

[33] The installation was presented for the first time at ACE Gallery in New York City. This artwork filled the gallery spaces with a vaporous mist, creating a foggy environment that enveloped viewers who were visible only as hazy outlines. The environment appeared innocuous; it resembled a hazy dance club. But in fact the mist was “vaporized water from the morgue that was used to wash the bodies of murder victims after autopsy.” Here, a simple sentence inserted into the wall label dramatically transformed the reception of the piece and the viewers’ relationship to the space.

[34] Biesenbach, Klaus. Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values. Long Island City, N.Y.: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 2002, 31.

[35] Ibid. 31-32.

[36] Montezemolo, Fiamma. “Tijuana: Hybridity and Beyond,” a conversation between anthropologists Néstor García Canclini and Fiamma Montezemolo. Third Text, Vol. 23, Issue 6, 2009. Accessed March 31, 2014. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528820903371156

[37] Ramírez, Mari Carmen. “Beyond the Fantastic: Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art,” Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (Winter 1992), 60.

[38] Labastida, Alejandra in an interview with the author on February 18, 2015. It was in this interview that I discovered a shift in focus on life in Margolles’ recent work, as Labastida explained to me the process of making La promesa with the artist, and the way they both researched and presented the work. They both traveled to Ciudad Juarez and worked doing research there for many weeks. They bought the house and organized for a team of construction workers to systematically demolish it. Labastida also helped oversee the design and construction of the cultural center where the house once stood.

[39] Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. 20. Judith Butler states, “The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life? Despite our differences in location and history, my guess is that it is possible to appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”

[40] She mentioned this in a lecture she gave at Paris Photo Platform in 2013, where she spoke in detail about her artistic career, and the new turn towards addressing the efforts of civil resistance to violence in Mexico. Accessed December 11, 2014. https://vimeo.com/83498015 Margolles also goes on to state, “when I worked in the morgue I wanted to bring out the emotions, smells, textures… the humidity, as the morgues were overrun by corpses, the corpses then become the social body.”

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