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When Art Begins at the Scene of a Crime


The Walmart on Gateway Boulevard in El Paso is where a 21-year-old man from across the state, driven by his anger at a “Hispanic invasion,” showed up last Aug. 3 on a murder mission. Firing an assault rifle, he killed 22 people and injured another 24.

Last month, the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles made a pilgrimage to the scene. Ms. Margolles’s work focuses on violent death and its aftermath, which she expresses in tough photographs and installations that often involve material residue from murder sites. She knew the Walmart for having often shopped there: Though based in Madrid, Spain, she has worked for many years in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, and much of her art responds to the borderland’s cartel wars, trafficking and gender violence.

Walmart stopped selling certain classes of ammunition after the massacre, but not all, so Ms. Margolles purchased a box of Winchester 12-gauge shells. Her large-format photograph of the shells is part of her spare but powerful new exhibition, “El asesinato cambia el mundo / Assassination changes the world,” at James Cohan gallery, in TriBeCa. Bright red with shiny metal ends, they are jumbled on a black surface in a pile that reminded me of a human heart with its valves and sinews. This ability to make visceral the ordinary tools and circumstances of murder is a hallmark of Ms. Margolles’s work.

The box of 25 shells cost $5.48, plus tax. Ms. Margolles paid cash. The original receipt is on view next to the image. It will fade during the show’s run, as receipts do, but you can take away your own reproduction, enlarged to poster size, from a stack at the gallery entrance. (When I photographed the stack, my phone invited me to scan the QR code for Walmart coupons.)

Ms. Margolles, 56, is one of Mexico’s most prominent artists. Her installations, photographs and performances have been widely presented around the world, but less so in the United States. (She had a solo exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., in 2015, and this is her second solo gallery show in New York.)

One of her contributions to last year’s Venice Biennale, reprising a wrenching piece she developed in 2014, was a knockout. Set up in a darkened room, “La búsqueda (The Search)” employed vertical wood frames that held glass plates scavenged from closed businesses in Juárez. Still stuck to these panes were torn and faded search notices for young women gone missing in the city’s nearly three-decade epidemic of sexual violence and femicide.

Periodically, a low rumble traversed the room, shaking the glass. It was a conversion of sound recordings of the trains that run through the center of Juárez, a key element in the border’s economic infrastructure. Many of the women killed in Juárez came to work in factories serving the United States market.

Ms. Margolles’s art used to be more graphic. At the Mexican pavilion at the Biennale in 2009, she invited people from Juárez, relatives of victims, to mop the floor of the palazzo with water into which she had dipped a cloth carrying blood from murder sites. Outside the pavilion, in lieu of the Mexican flag, she flew fabric reddened by a similar infusion.

And in her early career, in the 1990s, she worked directly with dead bodies — at the morgue in Mexico City, where she earned a certificate in forensic medicine after her degree in social sciences, and as a member of the art collective Semefo, which took its name from the acronym for the city’s coroner’s service. She photographed incisions, stitches, bodies being washed; she smuggled out blood and grease from autopsy trays and used them in sculptures. One mother gave her a stillborn fetus, which she entombed in a block of cement, leaving no trace of its tragic content.

This exhibition is compact, with just eight works, and contained, emphasizing texture and form in all save the pieces prompted by the Walmart shooting. It feels like a placeholder for the major museum retrospective that her career warrants.

Still, these pieces strikingly convey her methods. Past an industrial curtain of plastic flaps, the first room contains three black garments on mannequins — one a full-length dress, the other two other chest-pieces — lit so as to highlight the shimmer of the ornaments in their stitching. These include sequins, paillettes and hundreds of glass shards sewn in with 24-karat gold thread. The glass comes from car windows exploded by shootings in three locations: El Paso, Juárez, and Culiacán, Ms. Margolles’s hometown, capital of Sinaloa state and center of its notorious cartel.

A long wall is devoted to 2,300 earthwork tiles in tones of dark brown to black, buffed to a gentle shine and precisely aligned. Ms. Margolles had them manufactured in Mata Ortiz, a village of potters in Chihuahua State whose livelihood has suffered from all the violence. The earth is local, and so is the technique, the color achieved through smoke from burning cow manure. It is a mourning piece, for those known and unknown. (Near the end of production, the lethal ambush of a fundamentalist Mormon family took place nearby.)

One can contemplate this piece from a pair of cement benches. They are, as one might suspect, made by Ms. Margolles’s infusion technique, blending dirt and residue from a murder site in northern Mexico with New York City water.

Wherever Ms. Margolles exhibits, she involves local materials, ideas, and people — often from groups threatened by violence, like sex workers or trans people. For a public art program in Los Angeles in 2016, she built a huge concrete stele using matter from 100 shooting sites in the city, and made with local artists.

New York plays a distinct, and not entirely positive, role in Ms. Margolles’s social geography. It is the financial center, where money invested on Wall Street or laundered into real estate is far removed from the border economy and from the United States-driven flow of drugs and weapons that accounts for so much pain. It is also the hub of the art industry, and one gets the sense that the openings and parties are not Ms. Margolles’s favorite event.

She has nodded instead toward New York the fashion capital, hiring local designers to imagine and confection the show’s couture-like dresses. They invite us to consider how much violence is embedded in luxury and status, even as the death toll mounts, implacably, out of view.


Teresa Margolles: El asesinato cambia el mundo / Assassination changes the world

Through March 1 at James Cohan, 48 Walker Street, Manhattan; 212-714-9500, jamescohan.com.



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