'Teresa Margolles and the Pathology of Everyday Death' - Professor Oriana Baddeley

Open Lecture

Professorial Platform

Many countries have been defined by stereotypes of cultural production of limited historical meaning but tenacious shelf life, and few more so than Mexico. The visual culture of Mexico has been laden with the weight of representational meaning since the first contact of Europe and the Americas in the fifteenth century. The flora and fauna of Mexico has been explained and described, its inhabitants recognisably characterised for both internal and external audiences. Definitions of national culture have ranged from simplistic stereotypes to complex attempts at reconciling the political tensions of a racially divided post-colonial society but the visual manifestations of these processes of definition draw on a shared heritage of symbolic representations.

For artists, Mexican identity has become a commodity to be packaged, sold and resold, containment of its meaning has applied a patent copyright that allows for the themed fast food restaurant or the decoration of European suburban homes in a ‘Mexican style’ purchased at the local superstore. A longstanding theme of this commodified Mexico, however, has been the association of ‘death’ and ‘Mexicanness’, from the fascination with Aztec deities through to the popularity of the ‘day of the dead’ phenomenon. For many audiences and curators alike death remains a keyword in the evocation of Mexican culture. In many ways the association of art and death is so accepted a signifier of ‘Mexicanness’ that for international audiences it has become a required characteristic of authentic cultural expression and geographically determined meaning. It can be seen in the popularity of José Guadalupe Posada’s skeletal caricatures on T-shirts and accessories, to the visions of barbarism underpinning a film such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. In fact, obsession with the physicality of death and Mexico are frequently constructed as synonymous. Descending from the propagandist polemics of the Spanish conquest and given new impetus by the complex debates of post revolutionary Mexico, the role of death, and its imagery, has long been a constituent part of constructions of ‘Mexicanness’. A fascination with the forensics of death is not in itself an unusual focus of interest for such artists and curators but recently the work of Teresa Margolles has attracted the attention of an increasingly large audience. Her reputation has been growing since the 1990s, based on her work as a founder member of the Mexico City based collective SEMEFO (an acronym derived from Servicio Médico Forense /Forensic Medical Service). In recent years it has become established outside of Mexico and expanded from dedicated followers of her work to encompass a more general critical interest, with her intervention at the Venice Biennial 2009 receiving widescale critical acclaim. While deeply political, the themes of Margolles’ art grow out of her fascination with what she has called ‘the life of corpses’ , and the ways that even in death, social hierarchies and injustices remain. The materials that she uses in her art break taboos of realism even in the reality-addicted societies we inhabit and the re-use in her art of human remains, body parts and fluids contaminated with the ‘real’ processes of the afterlife, repel and frighten many, but nonetheless force her audiences to encounter those aspects of the passage of death usually hidden from conscious thought. This lecture will discuss the intersecting of traditions of cultural stereotype with the processes of contemporary cultural production and how this relates to the specifics of Mexico.

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