by Stella Hsu
Broken Borders is an exhibition that examines the drug war through the works of four Mexican artists: Teresa Margolles, Rosa Maria Robles, Marcos Ramirez Erre, and Jorge Malacón. This exhibition at Satellite Gallery and Access Gallery points to a situation in Mexico where the lives of civilians have been compromised into a state of fear.
On entering Satellite Gallery, visitors are immediately confronted by a television screen. The screen offers a recollection of what has been broadcast from 2007 to 2011 about the drug war by major news media channels. While viewers can choose whether to ponder the screen or ignore it completely, the sound of running water fills the gallery space. We later learn that this sound is coming from Margolles’ video projection, Irrigation (2010). On the floor, Robles’ Red Carpet (2007 – ongoing) stretches towards the projection. Initially, I felt disconnected from the works, but on further investigation, I learned that the two works evoke a set of narratives extending beyond the borders of Mexico.
Red Carpet is an ongoing project made of blankets and the blood of Robles, the artist. The work is representative of the blankets used to wrap the deceased bodies that have been thrown on the streets in Mexico. Three blankets are placed in the middle of the gallery; like a carpet, they are meant for viewers to walk over. In many ways, the work plays with the notions of value and absence: three quilts evoke three bodies. On the opening night at Access Gallery, I had the opportunity to witness Robles’ riveting performance. The gallery was packed; many of us were sitting on the Red Carpet, unaware as to what would be happening in the next few minutes.
Robles was sitting quietly on a chair in front of us with a nurse beside her. We watched in anticipation as the nurse took out a needle and began to draw blood from Robles’ arm. A full bag of blood was drawn and the artist proceeded to the next part of the performance. She parted the audience who were sitting on the Red Carpet, which oddly reminded me of Moses parting the Red Sea. As I stood, squished in between my fellow audience, Robles poured the bag of blood into a urine bowl. She dipped her hand into the bowl and began to paint the quilts red. The audience and myself included stare in shock. Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of the performance was the sound made when Robles swerved her hand in the bowl of blood. Many of us did not know how to react when the performance ended—some clapped, some didn’t. We were all hesitant to step on the Red Carpet at first.
However, by the end of the day, the white gallery floor was covered with our bloody footprints. Consequently, the relationship between the performance and the audience participation can be found in Robles’ artistic practice. The irony of her piece is embedded not only in the title but also in its function as a carpet. If the artist’s blood is metaphorical of the blood of those who have been murdered, then perhaps the notion of the “red carpet” applies more to the artist herself. In a sense, she is immortalizing herself within the work. By staining her own blood on the blankets, Robles gives life to inanimate objects that in turns raise awareness of the value of life. Her work calls attention to the situation in Mexico where one survives through the death of another.
Margolles’ video, Irrigation, depicts a white truck dispensing 5,000 gallons of water along the highway, travelling toward and across the border between Mexico and Texas. The video is 34 minutes long, and loops continuously. At first glance, it looks as if the truck is cleaning the road. After reading about the work, we learn that the water has been diluted with the blood and fluids of those who have died at the border crossing of Ciudad Juarez. The video follows the truck from behind, leaving viewers unaware as to where it is headed, and why. The journey seems endless, as is suggested not only by the repetition of the moving vehicle but also by the title of the piece. Because the term “irrigation” can refer to the notion of agriculture, it gives reference to life. As Margolles investigates the notion of bodily transformation through the use of water, she is metaphorically giving life to those who are deceased.
The forgotten is made visible in both Margolles’ and Robles’ practice, where the absence of the body is the focus. In a sense, Margolles’ video projection becomes an extension of Robles’ carpet. There is a seat in the middle of the gallery between the two works. When seated, the viewer becomes a passenger; in front is the projection and behind is the carpet. In comparison to the news broadcast, the works speak louder through silence.
Consequently, the exhibition Broken Borders reveals to me that the drug war in Mexico is interrelated with that in other countries, such as the United States and Canada. Who are the victims of the drug war? The answer is apparent through the works of the artists. The exhibition pays homage to those who have been killed due to the drug war, to the unidentified and the forgotten. Adriana Estrada-Centelles, the exhibition curator, points out that the situation in Mexico has become one where life is sustained through death: in other words, the intrinsic connection between Mexico’s society and illegal drug trafficking has forced violence upon people’s daily life. She notes that because every country plays a role in the war on drugs, it is impossible to distinguish who is responsible for the problem. Ultimately, the exhibition reminds me that we are as much involved in the war as the people in Mexico.
Broken Borders, curated by Adriana Estrada-Centelles, is on view at the Satellite Gallery until May 5, 2012 and at the Access Gallery until April 28, 2012.