“Irrigacion” by Teresa Margolles and drug wars in Mexico
December 7, 2017
The single channel video projection titled Irrigación (Irrigation) was created by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. The work was made in 2010 (Fig.1), and is connected to the victims of drug wars in Ciudad Juarez. I believe that some methods used by Teresa Margolles in Irrigación underline and reflect on the connection between drug wars in Mexico and the role of the US, as well as explore the philosophical underpinnings of categories of absence and presence employed in this specific video work.
Teresa Margolles is a Mexican artist. Her works reflect and explore the violent deaths occurred in Mexico during crimes such as drug wars, femicides, and social injustice. Margolles studied art, communications, and forensic medicine. Being a trained medical examiner, in addition to being an artist, Margolles works in a morgue in Mexico city. According to Margolles, morgues serve as an indicator of the state of the society. Working in the morgue, she sees the struggle, and death of people who are poor, and statistically much more likely to become victims of violence.
This consistent and immediate closeness to death, and professional experience with corpses directly affects Margolles’ art. The materials used by the artist are the cornerstone of her artistic practice. Margolles’ works look completely innocuous until the viewer acquires more information about the materials used in the work. All of her works contain tangible elements collected from the scenes of crimes, those elements being not only objects, but also bodily matter, and blood. Morgues and hospitals are often the places where she acquires her materials. Her art being generally sociopolitical, presents the viewer with the reality of death in a shockingly present yet hidden-in-plain-sight fashion. Often, Margolles chooses to disguise her works not just as innocent objects, but also as daily routine actions.
The work Irrigación can be characterized by all of the elements generally typical for Margolles’ work. Irrigación (Irrigation) is a single channel video projection. In Canada, it was presented in the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal as part of Mundos, the first solo exhibition of Teresa Margolles’ work in the country. The exhibition ran from February 16 to May 14, 2017, and was curated by John Zeppetelli, the Director and Chief Curator of the Musée, and Emeren García, the Head of Travelling Exhibitions of the Musée.
The single channel video Irrigación was displayed as a large scale projection playing on the loop in a separate dark room. The sound was audible through stereo speakers, and the viewers could sit on a small bench, located about 4 meters away from the screen.
The work directly responds to the violent drug wars that were taking place in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and before discussing the artwork and the used materials in depth, we need to provide some background information on the murders in Ciudad Juárez.
Unfortunately, the wave of drug related violence in Mexico cannot be limited to one short period of time. According to the article published by The Washington Post, more than 47,000 people have been killed within 2006-2012 during the drug cartel fights. Ciudad Juárez is located right on the border with Texas, US. The Los Angeles Time published an article in 2008, stating:
More than 90% of guns seized at the border or after raids and shootings in Mexico have been traced to the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Last year, 2,455 weapons traces requested by Mexico showed that guns had been purchased in the United States, according to the ATF. Texas, Arizona and California accounted for 1,805 of those traced weapons.
In 2010, when Margolles created Irrigación, the situation was particularly catastrophic, as victims included not only people directly involved in drug cartels, but also innocent women, men, and children of Ciudad Juárez. Rorry Carrol, a US west coast correspondent for The Guardian, and Andrew Chung, the staff reporter for The Toronto Star were among the journalists who wrote about the critical situation in Ciudad Juárez in 2010. In the article published by The Toronto Star in 2010, Chung writes:
The light is falling, the heat is letting up and gunmen have arrived at the modest house with the concrete front yard where there is a birthday party going on. With quiet efficiency they approach the painted wrought iron gates and begin spraying the adults with bullets. Three men crumple to the ground, dead. Two others succumb later in hospital. The evening has begun with a massacre, but it’s still early.
Rorry Carrol also notes the fear of the residents of Juárez at that time. The fear comes from the fact that they feel completely unprotected from the drug lords by their government. The fear for their lives and those of the relatives, prevents them from speaking to journalists: “The pair of human heads left in a coolbox on the corner of the plaza? A mystery. The 18 houses burnt in a single night? An enigma. The doctor and his family who disappeared? A rumour.” Irrigación is a powerful response of to the continuous wave of murders.
Irrigación presents a documentation of irrigating Highway 90 located in Texas, US, 400 kilometers away from the border with Mexico. The truck irrigates the section between the cities of Marfa and Alpine, both located in Texas.
For the creation of the video, Margolles first placed dampened fabric at various locations in Juárez where drug-war murders occurred. As a result, bodily matter and other debris adhered to the fabric. She then dissolved the material in 5,000 gallons of water, pumped into an irrigation truck, transported the water across the border to Texas, and sprayed this water along a stretch of Highway 90. This action transported the victims of violence from Mexico to the US.
Irrigación is more than a single channel video. It is a video documentation of a site specific performance. The performance looks like an ordinary action so people witnessing it are unaware of what it actually represents. Tangible presence of violence and death that is nonetheless invisible to the viewer connects to the perpetual cycle of violence in general, and the underinvestigated role of the US in gun trade to Mexico.
Notably, Margolles chose to irrigate Highway 90 which does not cross the US and Mexico border. Although the artist could have chosen Highway 67, which crosses the border between the US and Mexico, and runs through Marfa, she didn’t (Fig. 2.). I would argue that this choice is a political statement gesturing at the influence of the US on Mexico, and underinvestigated trade of firearms coming to Mexico from the US. There is more coverage on violence in Mexico than on one of the main suppliers of this violence, the US itself.
Looking at Irrigación one is startled by absence of violent imagery in an artwork that talks about such a violent issue. Speaking about the depiction of violence in photographs, Susan Sontag noted: ”Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience...” Contrary to that, Irrigación is highly minimalistic, and presents only one scene: a truck irrigating a highway. As such, it could have equally been a photograph.
In the age when indexicality of mediums of video (film) and photography have been scrutinized by numerous artists (Joan Fontcuberta, Woody Allen, etc), when people, arguably, became desensitized to violence because of abundance of graphic imagery, visually removing violence in an artwork that speaks about violent deaths only increases the importance of the subject. In Irrigación Teresa Margolles prefered forensic evidence collected at the crime scenes to the indexicality of the image. Furthermore, the work creates a shock when viewers find out that the artist actually transported the victims of drug wars from Mexico to the US, and sprayed them along the highway in the very country, where, according to the reports, Mexico gets its guns from.
Thus, the work is disrupting the binary of presence and absence, aligning it in a new way: violent death is visually absent, but at the same time tangibly represented.
In a way, Irrigación can be compared to simulacrum as described by Gilles Deleuze, who noted that simulacrum, because of it’s absence of resemblance, becomes an entity possessing a different kind of presence. The simulacrum of Deleuze is an absent presence, “The copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance,” Deleuze says In the age when violent imagery is easily accessible, the pain we feel when we are the victims is, and always will be, just as cruel and destructive as ever. An image of an open wound, a video of a murder will shock, but would not represent a ruined life. The play of absence, presence, and representation in Irrigación alludes to, and evokes the very real pain, and the very real murders. In its aim to speak about the subject of drug wars, murders, politics, Irrigación is more powerful than explicit and violent imagery.
To summarize, Irrigación by Teresa Margolles brings forward the sociopolitical issues connected with the drug wars in Ciudad Juárez and points at the involvement of the US, where the majority of gun supplies come from. Using the philosophical categories of absence and presence, Margolles removes all the violent imagery from her work. Using bodily matter as material for her work, Margolles is bringing the tangible, but invisible, evidence of deaths into it. This combination of visual absence with tangible presence is one of the key elements of Irrigación.
Fig.1 Teresa Margolles, Irrigación, 2010 [Irrigation] Single-channel video projection, colour, sound, 34 min 12 s, loop. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich. http://shivagallery.org/portfolio/teresa-margolles/ Accessed: December 2017
Fig 2. Google Maps. Map showing the border between Mexico and the US, and positions of Highways 90 and 67. Screenshot. https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-104.0544254,10.25z Accessed: December 2017
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