Latinamerican Art

Teresa Margolles & Teresa Serrano

Today I will introduce two outstanding women from the Mexican contemporary art scene: Teresa Margolles and Teresa Serrano. Both their art is highly expressive; both of them are exuberant bundles of energy in the «real world». And they certainly need this energy, as they are continuously engaged in countering the most blatant wrongs, much like two artists-cum-advocates. In very different ways, and each in her own right, they have become narrators of the violence which unfortunately not only prevails the gang and drug scenes in Mexico, but which does not spare civilians, in particular women, either.

Teresa Margolles (born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, lives and works in Spain and Mexico)

Abstract realism

“My indictment is addressed to a society in which violence has become almost a habit, and in which desensitization to pain, a lack of solidarity, and a tendency to go it alone are all on the rise.” (Teresa Margolles, 2003)

It is an invaluable achievement of Teresa Margolles to have put the wrongs on the table of society with her artworks, which are rather hard to stomach. Margolles, who completed a professional training in forensic medicine, occupied herself early on with the existence and manifestations of dead bodies, initially horse carcasses. In the 1990s, in the artists’ collective Semefo (Servicio Mexicano Forense), she attempted together with her colleagues to seek out the possibilities that corpses held for art. This is a taboo issue, no doubt, but to put it into perspective, we should keep in mind that death has always played a greater role in the Mexican culture than in other cultures of the world. Mexican culture thus has fewer reservations and more experience in dealing with death at all levels. 

Project for a children’s playground, 1995/2003, Embalmed horse fetus, iron, 80 x 47 x 85 cm

How can violence be brought up in art without presenting it on a 1:1 basis? This is a question that Teresa Margolles has been pursuing intensely for many years. Over time, she increasingly shifted from a rather immediate artistic realization toward abstraction—not without directly incorporating concrete elements of death. For instance, she has the viewer pace through a fog generated from the water previously used for washing the corpses of homeless people. She employs such artistic devices to achieve her objective of deeply unsettling the viewer and thereby creating a receptiveness for the psychological and social dimensions of the issues she deals with. To this effect, she has also breached artistic and human taboos, defied prevailing conventions, and attempted to come closer to the unutterable in her artistic statements.

One topic of hers is the brutal reality of daily life, the excessive violence that has over the years become a deplorable common practice, for instance, in the countless femicides in the north Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. Teresa Margolles aims to at least halfway adequately translate this into her art—which is a stony path, requiring an utmost degree of concentration in order not to lapse into clichés and not to depart from the ethics and respect owed to those who are drawn on to provide the evidence, so to speak. The artist must also take care of remaining mentally intact herself under the psychological burden of dealing with all this filthy evil. How easy for some of the critics to berate the artist—from their cozy chair—for illegitimately «exploiting» her subject. What I would love to hear from these fault-finders instead is what their own ideas are on how to represent these issues!

Teresa Serrano, 2015, Ciudad de México

Teresa Serrano (born in 1936 in Mexico City, lives and works in Mexico City)

When I first met Teresa Serrano early this millennium in New York in her beautiful central Soho loft, I was actually visiting her life partner, the Argentinian artist Miguel Angel Rios. Only gradually did Teresa reveal that she also knew how to make art. Over the years, she increasingly introduced me to her artistic creation, up to the day when I visited them in Mexico City, and the couple both showed me their recent video works. I purchased a number of videos for the Daros Latinamerica Collection that day, however, choosing only videos by Teresa this time.

I always witness Teresa and Miguel as highly politically engaged and passionately standing up for the interests of art; they frequently gather other, mostly younger artists around them. We have talked about global events a lot, but the two of them always also reflect the big overall view onto their own local Mexican background.

Teresa Serrano came to art relatively late in life. After being a wife and mother in Mexico, she moved to New York in 1982, the city then in its heyday of art. She gradually gathered artistic impressions and experiences, which led her to video art in the mid 1990s. In my eyes she excelled in this medium like in no other and developed a power and uniqueness of her very own. She stops short of no other medium or technology either, as long as it holds the promise for her to realize her particular ideas and concepts in an adequate manner. Stylistically, her works are highly heterogeneous; it is remarkable, however, that they always have a fresh and youthful appearance that belies the artist’s age.

What fascinates me most about videos such as «Piñata» (2003), «Restraint» (2006), or her film «Boca de Tabla» (2007), is Teresa Serrano’s elegant and subtle way of artistically handling utterly brutal, psychopathological obsessiveness in a stylistically graceful and dignified manner. Whether she is dealing merely with the luxury obsessions of ladies from the Mexican upper middle class, or with the reenacted, destructive, violent fantasies that deeply disordered men inflict upon young women, torturing and killing them over many years in and around Ciudad Juárez: Teresa Serrano’s subtle empathy takes us precisely to the spot where we grasp the horror without being immediately presented with it.

Blown mold, 2012, Glass, 80 x 150 x 50 cm, Photography: Peter Schälchli, Zürich, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

Teresa Serrano is also concerned with system-immanent constraints and dangers. So she cuts to the heart of the threats emanating from religions that rule and influence all of us, and she debunks them with an elegant humor and a light hand, for example in «blown molds» (2012): A bishop’s mitre is exhibited together with three other clerical headdresses in a glass cabinet. But these ancient symbols from our Christian culture are blown from glass and transparent. In this manner, Serrano ironizes the reality of the frequently rather opaque and shady habits of our Christian dignitaries. At the same time, the glass artefacts serve as metaphors for the factual fragility of all those in our world who wear these symbols of transcendence…

  1. These are both very compelling artists. I watched the three video/films by Serrano, all intelligent and absorbing works. Her attention to sound is really special. Another discovery from you, thanks Hans.

  2. Thanks, Hans, for the blog this week on the two Teresas. Both awesome talents and really nice people — and oh so fundamentally different!

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