Bringing art to a Mexican horror

Mon, Dec 17, 2012, 00:00

An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, in Carlow’s Visual arts centre, is an exhibition that concentrates on one dreadful manifestation of the corrosive effect of the country’s ongoing drug war on Mexico’s social fabric.

Against a background of vicious internecine struggles between competing cartels, a great tragedy of the drug war is that it has infected the institutions of the state and poisoned basic moral values. It has enabled a world in which fear, corruption, abduction, torture, rape and murder are commonplace, with migrant and immigrant workers and journalists numbering among those killed.

The Carlow exhibition, which includes works by Brian Maguire, Teresa Margolles, Lise Bjorne Linnert, Mark McLoughlin and Lanka Haouche Perren, looks to the city of Juárez in the state of Chihuahau, on the Rio Grande, directly adjacent to El Paso, Texas, across the border to the north.

Apart from being for some time one of the fastest growing cities in the world, as people arrived to work in new assembly plants, Ciudad Juárez is also one of the most dangerous, and the violence is directly related to the drug trade and the concomitant degeneration of behavioural standards and norms that it engenders.

“Violence began in Juárez at the same time the manufacturing industry reached maturity,” wrote Julián Cardona, a journalist who worked for a local daily newspaper. “At that time, the local narcotics market began to grow, addictions spread to all spheres of society, there was gang warfare, murders were being perpetrated mostly with firearms, men who purportedly had ties to drug trafficking disappeared, and the bodies of murdered women were showing up in abandoned lots or in the desert surrounding the city.”

A shocking fact emerged. Official dysfunction makes reliable statistics hard to come by, but estimates suggest that at least 800 and probably well in excess of 1,000 young women died violently in and around Juárez, mostly between 1993 and 2004, but continuing up to the present day. The casual, brutal murder of many hundreds of young women was largely greeted with indifference on the part of the authorities. But the sheer horror generated increasing outrage, locally and nationally, and the scale of the Juárez femicide became an internationally recognised scandal.

The immediate families of the murdered women have had to deal with their own grief at the cruel deaths of their loved ones – and be warned, many of the individual reports cited in the exhibition publication are extremely disturbing to read, and point to almost incomprehensible levels of savagery and sadism, evidence of the wider corrosion of personal and social structures. Often family members have had to deal with something beyond official indifference or incompetence, with active and on occasion violent resistance to any attempt to find the truth.

Many concerned individuals, including legal activists, journalists and artists, have ventured into the Juárez minefield, into a mental as much as a geographical space in which society seems continually on the brink of moral collapse.

One of those who felt compelled to address the subject was the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. One of several strands of his final, monumental novel 2666 is about the murders in Juárez, renamed Santa Teresa in the book.

Bolaño posits a metaphysical dark secret underlying the killings, and the other troubling histories that collectively make up 2666, but in reality the secret seems all too obvious.

Mundane, violent death

In her work, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, who has just been awarded the Artes Mundi prize in Wales, repeatedly reminds us just how obvious it is. Her installations present us with the mundane reality of violent death in her home country, usually in the form of direct physical evidence, including blood and water from mortuaries (she qualified in forensic medicine).

In Through, human sweat suspended in oil is smeared over the windows of the gallery at Visual, a faint physical trace that stands in for the young people who drift through Mexico and are often recruited into organised crime, invisible and expendable. On the other side of the room, The Sound of Horror is a series of audio recordings made at the sites where the bodies of murder victims were found. The sounds are the sounds of daily life. It’s a remarkably effective work, allowing us to dwell on what is unseen and unacknowledged.

Mark McLoughlin’s film Disposable documents and elucidates Brian Maguire’s way of working. They travelled to Juárez and met relatives, mostly mothers, of some of the murdered women. Maguire made portraits, which occupy the main gallery in Visual. Versions of them also hang in the homes of their subjects.

Made with Maguire’s characteristically rough lyricism, they are not quiet, elegiac images. Although usually based on photographs in which the subjects are smiling, the paintings are agitated, even turbulent. Brief accounts of what happened to each person accompany the paintings.

As McLoughlin puts it, Maguire is “a sort of hunter gatherer . . . [who] has been entrusted by the mothers of the femicide victims of Juárez to take the stories beyond the borders of Mexico in the hope that wider attention will be brought to their cases”. Art, as he pragmatically sees is, is a last resort.

The idea of spreading the word, and of bearing witness lies behind Lise Bjorne Linnert’s ongoing project Desconocida Unknown Ukjent. She enlists local workshop participants in embroidering the names of the murdered women of Juárez, together with an Unknown standing in for other, unknown victims globally. They are displayed on a pink background at Visual, referring to the colour that the women of Juárez use in their protests.

When asked about her subject matter, Margolles summed up her attitude in the title of her exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2009: What Else Could We Talk About? Stefan van Ray quotes her as saying, in 2006: “I have no hope”. Alas, he notes, “In 2012 this is still the bitter reality.”


An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom is at Visual, Old Dublin Road, Carlow until January 6th

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