Latin American Theatre

Amy Carroll, Literature Program, Duke University


(Spanish Abstract)

Antigone: Decide. Will you share the labor, share the work?

The Mexican performance collective SEMEFO [a word which shortens the Spanish "Servicio Médico Forense" (Medical Forensic Service)], is famous for working with dead bodies--dogs, horses, human beings--in considering "the life of the corpse" (Margolles 2000a). For example, SEMEFO has displayed tattoos cut from corpses; and, later, gesso, which they had pressed against unclaimed morgue bodies, so that bits of skin remained in the gesso when they pulled it away. Or, for their solo show Lavatio Corporis (1994) in Mexico City's Museo de Carrillo Gil, the group constructed a carousel of dead horses. Numerous art critics have commented on SEMEFO's deployment of a "Mexican fascination with the (Day of the) Dead." Many have cited José Guadalupe Posada's skeletons and popular culture's uses of the skeleton/cadaver as influences upon the group. More "sophisticated" commentators have made connections between SEMEFO'S projects and the Viennese Actionists' sacrificial use of animals in their performances (among others, see Galindo 1994, Aranda Márquez 1996, Sánchez 1997, de Diego 1998, Zamudio Taylor 2000). While gesturing toward the plausibility of these interpretations, Teresa Margolles, one of the group's founders, prefers to attribute SEMEFO's influences to other precursors: Aristotle's cathartic shudder, Bataille's visions of excess. Margolles' alternative list, or perhaps more importantly, her deceptively simple narrative of intentionality ["Mi ética es mi estética" (2000a)], relocate SEMEFO's efforts in the vein of Coco Fusco's interpretations of the group's representational strategies as a response to NAFTA (a.k.a. globalization and neoliberalism).
Fusco aptly connects the endeavors of SEMEFO, Santiago Sierra, and Electronic Disturbance Theatre in her essay "The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA" (2001). Anecdotally presenting her initial exposure to SEMEFO via Lavatio Corporis (1994), Fusco argues SEMEFO's choice of horses demands "a reading in relation to Mexican national allegory" (62) insofar as horses function as "a well-known icon of colonialism" (ibid), an allusion made apparent by SEMEFO's juxtaposition of their own installation to a reproduction of José Clemente Orozco's painting "Los Teules" ["the epithet the Aztecs used to denigrate the Spanish conquistadors" (ibid)]. Although Fusco's mention of "national allegory" acts as a passing reference in her argument, it has provided me with a point of entry into a consideration of the allegorical significance of gender--the curious collapse of the figure and work of Teresa Margolles into each other--in Margolles' work. Therefore, while this paper aspires to explore Margolles' individual project in relation to the overarching significance of SEMEFO's contributions to contemporary Mexican cultural production, it likewise seeks to expand the liminal spaces of its own formation, by both examining the echoes of national allegory which structure SEMEFO and Margolles' respective works and by attempting to imagine the figure of Margolles allegorically.
Which is to say, in what ensues, I loosely contrast the figure of Sophocles' Antigone with that of Margolles, reading Sophocles' character and play both as a kind of allegorical foil to Margolles' work and person and as an allegorical interlocutor in contemporary debates concerning (feminist/female) agency in the age of the post-'s. Put differently, in partial response to Jean Franco's suggestion that historically Mexican women in the face of "national allegory" have been unable to act as Antigones, but instead have been relegated to the role of la Malinche, I imagine Margolles, via her aesthetic production [in Ismene's words, "in love with impossibility" (1982: 64)] as a contemporary Antigone, aesthetically demanding the last "rights" for the disenfranchised dead, rebuking the authority of the Mexican city-nation-state, revoking the thematic of Sophocles' play which pits the laws of the city against the laws of the gods, the monetary against the human, through the go-between of Woman.
Allegorizing the City-Nation-State: Representing the Terms of Debate
Leader: The man in the street, you know, dreads your glance,
he'd never say anything displeasing to your face.
But it's for me to catch the murmurs in the dark,
The way the city mourns for this young girl.
SEMEFO's members and numbers have varied over time (as many as fifty people have participated), but Margolles has been one of only two women to take part in the group's activities. Margolles' central participatory status, in what many have stereotyped as a "masculine aesthetic," has garnered for her extra attention, even as she has functioned as a spokesperson for the group. Margolles has helped to shape the direction of SEMEFO's efforts and, her leadership role is no more apparent than in her narrative of intentionality concerning both her own and SEMEFO's uses of (human) remains as a medium.
Margolles contends that SEMEFO's and her own works respond to a universal quest in art to consider the fine line between life and death and address the routine violences of urban culture and the particular realities city residents face as they are forced to concede to the fragility of life in Mexico City. However, while forefronting, and perhaps for the first time most clearly articulating, the so-called "universal" issues of human rights, death, violence, and "the body" as evidence/remains in artistic practices and official state discourses present in SEMEFO's project, I would argue Margolles' independent pieces likewise put such concerns in conversation with others addressing the place of Woman in Mexican and transnational spaces. As such, Margolles' independent work "genders" SEMEFO's material attentions to "the death of the subject"/"the death of the political" while simultaneously clarifying the stark stakes of a (neo)baroque reliance upon "the living dead" in debates concerning the inseparability of the public and private.
As one might recall, central to Fredric Jameson's most well-known (read, controversial) ruminations on "national allegory" is his attention to the question of the political/personal (public/private) ratio in Third World literature (1986). In the context of postrevolutionary (and now post-NAFTA) Mexican cultural production, it strikes me that while ratios might be important to take into account, perhaps the most pressing or prevalent fraction to consider in Mexico's context might amount to a site-specific variation on some post/modernist dilemma concerning the relationship between the aesthetic and the political. What seems noteworthy about SEMEFO and Margolles' work in this regard is their rewriting of this fictional fractional conundrum, replacing the repetition compulsion of questions concerning "the political" in Mexican cultural production with questions concerning another ratio, that of the ethical and the aesthetic.
SEMEFO, in many respects, demands that its viewers ask a variety of predictable questions concerning the ethics of the group's artistic projects. For example, if the genre of performance is often talked about in terms of its reliance upon the body as medium, what does it mean to experiment/utilize bodies beyond the artist's own without the consent of the bodies' "owners"? Does a remembrance and deployment of dead bodies, whose owners were victims of violence, give the bodies/owners voice or further "victimize" (read "objectify") dead subjects? Does the audience participate in a kind of necrovoyeurism when viewing SEMEFO's projects? While I do not wish to diminish or dismiss such questions; I would like to revisit their generation in terms of the (dis)location of the "political" and the foregrounding of the "material" in SEMEFO and Margolles' efforts.
In particular, I want to suggest that the creation of the questions themselves exemplifies the ways by which SEMEFO and Margolles' individual works facilitate a more general shift away from concerns regarding some abstract "political" to those addressing a more concrete merging of "the material" and "the ethical;" meaning, political commentary in the context of SEMEFO's work depends upon viewers' attention to the ethical materialism of SEMEFO's overarching artistic philosophy. Furthermore, this shift is made obvious via the individual work of Margolles, in her attentions to gendered, but not necessarily feminist, cultural production. Which is to say, Margolles' focus upon gender revisits the criticisms leveled against the group concerning its politics/ethics, providing a lens through which to view the group's endeavors as disinterring alternatives to the bricked-over exit of some nationalized aesthetic/political ratio-turned-conundrum.
Gender, then, embodied in the work and figure of Margolles as Woman/not-Woman (although perhaps it is important to note that Margolles both encourages and resists the conflation of her self and work), is, in this instance, what most seriously challenges a national allegorical tradition which depends upon the fiction of an, at best, political/aesthetic dialectic. Furthermore, Margolles' dubious location in and to her own work alerts the viewer of the thematic of closeness and distance which informs the presence/absence of Margolles in the projects in question and likewise structures the works' flirtation and dissatisfaction with "the political." Which is to say, closeness/distance, presence/absence in Margolles' pieces, become the barometers of other allegorical traditions, which, like "murmurs in the dark," represent (national) congealments of constructs such as "gender."
The Presence of Absence: Woman as the Inter-subject
Antigone: I was born to join in love, not hate-
Margolles argues her pieces examine violences directed against women --both literally and symbolically. For instance, in "Andén" ("Walk," 1999), Margolles travelled to Cali, Colombia, to create a public art piece, which she hoped would honor female prostitutes who have suffered at the hands of clients and other people they've encountered. In the work, she redid part of a city sidewalk that is situated in front of a major Colombian park (Parque Panamericano), famous for its drug deals and prostitution. Margolles asked residents of the area and of the park to bring material memories of loved ones who had died violent deaths--scraps of paper, their previous possessions-so that they could in turn bury these memories in a repouring of the sidewalk, rendering a public space a memorial to those who had previously walked upon it. Importantly, Margolles chose to absence herself from the project when residents were depositing their memories. She rationalized because she was "an outsider," she could conceptualize the piece, but needed to acknowledge the public "privacy" of its participants' privation/grieving by keeping a respectful distance (Margolles 2000a). Her decision highlights the centrality of questions of distance to the aesthetic and ethical materialism of Margolles' and SEMEFO's efforts.
Similarly, in two connected works, the performance/video "Bañando al bebé" ("Bathing the Baby," 1999) and the installation "Entierro" ("Burial," 1999), Margolles also plays with questions of proximity in order to honor and "gender" the dead. In "Bañando al bebé," Margolles videotaped herself bathing a dead infant. The video begins with the most clinical of gestures, the camera pans in upon Margolles' placing latex gloves on her hands. This attention to the gloves frames the ritual of the bath-the performance's religious imagery, its referencing of both the mother-and-child and Mary Magdalene bathing Christ's feet (reinforced by the presence of Margolles' hair in the video). The clinical angle of the camera continues insofar as the viewer never sees Margolles' face-instead s/he is confronted with the dead child, the circumstances of Margolles' performance of a ritual cleansing. The camera follows Margolles' presentation of a tin basin filled with water (this child will not be bathed in the sink), the stark tiles of the bathroom's claustrophobic echo (the doubling sounds of each of Margolles' gestures in contrast to her mute figure), and, then, the dead child's body-already decomposing, a vision of rigor mortis. Margolles bathes this infant with a vengeance, scrubbing the body with a brush one might use to clean a bathtub. Her gestures, then, appear, not as loving, but as necessary as she works to remove the mold on the child's decomposing form, as she cuts the child's hair, and grapples with pliers and a hammer to extract nails from the child's hands (again, the unmistakable echo of Christ, in this instance louder than the sound of the pliers meeting the bathroom tile). Finally, Margolles removes the basin and begins to wrap the infant's body in saranwrap-the ultimate double-edged gesture suggesting both clinical preservation and contemporary ritualized mummification-another sliding scale of distance and closeness.
In "Entierro," Margolles took the same dead child and, in a private "performance," buried her in a block of concrete, which she later displayed in El Chopo, one of Mexico City's university museums. Margolles explained, that because the biological mother could not afford to give the child a proper burial and because both the mother and Margolles wished for this child to be remembered, she sought to honor the child by making her an active participant in the creation of her own memorial (Margolles 2000a). In addition, Margolles suggests that in "Bañando al bebé," she intended to perform a portrait of herself as an (anti-)mother [although one might argue in this work (anti-) motherhood perhaps more closely approximates surrogate (phallic)motherhood]. Margolles' desire to represent the (anti-)maternal, to interrogate the sacred woman/child dyad, coupled with a gesture toward intersubjective self-portraiture likewise informs another of her independent projects "Autorretratos en la Morgue" ("Self-Portraits in the Morgue," 1998).
In this series, Margolles performatively revisits the genre of self-portraiture, addressing its particular symbolic association with female artists and cultural producers-in Mexico and beyond (in Mexico, one might trace a long history of this, i.e. the work of Nahui Ollin; one might also approach this question via international stereotypes which posit the ubiquitous collapsed figure/work of Frida Kahlo as the embodiment of Mexican art-consider Kahlo's recent appearance on U.S. postage stamps). Margolles, who returned to school to study forensic medicine, did a series of wall-size portraits of herself with corpses she "met" in a morgue, where she works part-time as a forensic medical expert. The portraits place Margolles and the corpses in various poses, some of which include her displaying (versus cradling) in her arms a young, badly beaten to death twelve-year-old girl. Margolles explained that again she wanted to pay her respects to the dead, to place "life within the context of death" and to distance the female form from and/or resituate it in relation to the icon/stereotype of Madonna-and-child. It is curious that in part Margolles achieves this distance through a gesture toward the clinical/ professional/scientific, insofar as, in many of the portraits, she is wearing the coroner's/physician's white jacket. Her clinical proximity to and display of death stands in contrast to a portrait of Woman as mother/caregiver (unless one were to return to some variation of phallic motherhood, or, the figure of Antigone, whom I evoked earlier and will resurrect in a moment). The tension between the clinical and the maternal allows Margolles' work to challenge, and, in turn, to complicate naïve interpretations of the genre of self-portraiture. For, if clichéd critiques of the self-portrait might question the genre's "narcissism" (especially in the case of female artists/writers), Margolles' work exudes at the very least a kind of "subversive narcissism," in the spirit of Amelia Jones' arguments in Body Art: Performing the Subject that (U.S.) minority artists often utilize a "subversive narcissism" (1999: 215) to present the (minority) body/self as intimately intersubjective. The intersubjectivity of Margolles' work, however, is premised on a different model-that of the proximity of the clinical, the medical, the forensic, so that the self-portrait becomes one in which "the self" is not necessarily the concern of the portrait-a move which renders Margolles' person as both near and far from the project, e.g. the pieces simultaneously suggest and refute self-portraiture.
In addition, they challenge a critical tradition that would posit connections between self-portraiture, femininity, narcissism, and death (among others, see Bronfen 1992). Margolles' work rearranges the constellation of these terms-placing the female figure alongside rather than in lieu of "death" itself. The "alongside" status of Woman, then, stages a confrontation between life and death in these works, which nevertheless resolutely establishes the pair's kinship, while rendering the portrait of the artist as Woman somewhere in another "in-between," life and death's middling, connective tissue. Concomitantly, the subtleness of the shift allows the series to address yet another critical trend which, for the sake of time, I reduce to the equivalence of Woman=victim [a reduction which is markedly unjust in the manner by which it elides for instance the complications of Gayatri Spivak's arguments in the conclusions to her essay "Woman in Difference: Mahasweta Devi's 'Douloti the Bountiful'" where the dead figure of Douloti/Woman comes to stand in for "the persistent agendas of nationalisms and sexuality… encrypted… in the indifference of super-exploitation" (in Parker, et al 1992: 113 )]. Instead, Margolles' alongside-Woman, the female figure that would facilitate the meeting of life and death, disrupts the equation of Woman-as-victim to reposition Woman as witness, as an interlocutor in the tradition of Judith Butler's claim that Antigone "upsets the vocabulary of kinship" (2000: 82). The magnitude of this "upset" however only makes sense if one is willing to imagine it in relation to, among other things, models of national motherhood, so that, Woman becomes less a maternal figure and more a direct challenge to symbolic formations (the optical illusions of state power), offering alternative kinship narratives, that, to re-cite Butler represent "kinship between life and death."
The figure of Antigone, then, becomes important for thinking through the allegorical "potential" of Margolles' project as one equally concerned with imagining another kind of "Até," "a limit zone" between an ethical and aesthetic materiality. By eschewing the equation (and likewise the status) of Woman-as-victim, Margolles' work throws into question more general narratives of victimization; instead offering in the guise of "witness" a kind of aestheticized testimony of the literal effects of quotidian local and global violences, a trope which rather than seeking sympathy depends upon the flourish of "resuscitating" the dead, of illustrating how the subject continues to speak beyond the threshold of dying via the material remains of his/her/its own body. In addition, Margolles as inter-subject, revisits the more specialized, stereotypical readings of Antigone-as-victim, suggesting a revisionary interpretation of the significance of Antigone as a figure, expanding and capitalizing upon the play's own "limit zone" and/or enacting Butler's vision that "Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis" (82). Margolles' repeated fascination with the literal ways by which the dead live on--the continued growth of hair and fingernails, "the life of the corpse" locates her own and SEMEFO's aesthetic in an attention to some overly literal "material." However, in her work with dead bodies, notably in "Autorretratos," Margolles' decentered centralization of her actual person reconfigures "the answer" as a reconfiguration of the question, i.e.--not rendering the figure of Antigone central to Sophocles' play, but rendering the need for "a center" irrelevant, shot through with the wait of contradiction(s) (that is--the better to be dismantled…) and/or to pose "lo ético" rhetorically, "Decide. Will you share the labor, share the work?"
Alternative Materialities (Continued): Bodily Ethics versus Money
Creon: … Money!…you demolish cities, root men from their homes, you train and twist good minds and set them on to the most atrocious schemes. No limit, you make them adept at every kind of outrage…

In Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Butler conjures the figure of Antigone to consider the location of the feminine in relation to symbolic masculine authority. Butler reviews various critics' uses of Sophocles' play and character, including Irigaray's construction of the "feminine as … bring(ing) into relief the violent forgetting of primary kin relations in the inauguration of symbolic masculine authority" and Hegel's conflation of Antigone as "the power of the mother, one whose sole task within the travels of Spirit is to produce a son for the purposes of the state, a son who leaves the family in order to become a warring citizen" (12), and finally Lacan's discussion of Antigone as marking "the limit of human existence" (47). Yet, what fascinates Butler throughout her analysis is what she considers to be Antigone's location "outside the symbolic or, indeed, outside the public sphere, but within its terms and as an unanticipated appropriation and perversion of its mandate" (54). Butler's shift away from more conventional (and, I would add, feminist) readings of Antigone is crucial in terms beyond a rereading of the play and/or its eponymic character. In part Butler relocates the possibility of agency in the work, and by extension "difference," which instead of working from the space of the so-called "oppositional" comes to reveal the contradictions of "the sanctioned." Which is to say, Butler suggests Antigone utilizes the contradictions which constitute "the melancholy of the public sphere" (81) to throw this sphere into crisis.
In contrast, Diana Taylor, in her doubled reading of Griselda Gambaro's Antígona furiosa and before and after this, the Madres' movement, is more guarded/sparing in her gestures toward an optimistic reading of appropriative potentialities. In her chapter "Trapped in Bad Scripts: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo," Taylor argues,
The Madres challenged the military but played into the narrative. The junta might be performing the authoritarian father while the Madres took the role of the castrated mother, but both parties were reenacting the same old story. Their positions were, in a sense, already scripted. (1997: 205)
Taylor goes onto ponder whether it is ever really possible for women to use strategies of appropriation to rewrite roles and language. The close of Taylor's chapter reflects its overall dissatisfaction with available imaginings, arguing that "we won't have new answers until we have more choices" (222). The contrast between Taylor and Butler's use of the figure of Antigone to forward their arguments is notable. One might ask, "Is this a product of the specific cultural context of Taylor's argument versus the unexamined, but assumed, universality of Butler's?" Perhaps; but, concomitantly it strikes me that Butler and Taylor's rhetorical accents on gender diverge in their arguments.
Butler suggests that the figure of Antigone must be reappropriated from prior theoretical appropriations. She, then, returns to Sophocles' drama to reintroduce (reproduce) Antigone, as a different kind of middling agent (beyond that of symbolic Woman "between men"), evoking "gender" as an allegorical operation with material and ethical consequences. In contrast, Taylor reads "gender" symbolically, even as she examines symbolic readings of it, a choice which does not allow for the mobility and disjuncture the allegorical affords Butler in thinking through potentially "disidentificatory" national allegories and/or their evocations of Woman.
Still, in many ways one might approach Butler and Taylor's disparate imaginings of Antigone's rhetorical potential as a classic opposition between the glass half-full or half-empty. While Taylor laments "a lack of choices," Butler celebrates Antigone's claim as the "social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future" (82). I would like to suggest that Margolles' work could be read as a line which brushes the circularity of Butler and Taylor's respective arguments, the legacies of Antigone, in order to posit another narrative for the figure of Woman, which might not operate as the feminine's death sentence. In particular, I am invested in reading Margolles' (and others') works as underscoring another thematic of Sophocles' drama (one which Butler, Taylor, and others do not mention)-- the opposition Sophocles stages between the monetary and the human (as remains/excess), an opposition often lost (or, relegated to the parenthetical) in discussions concerning the tension between divine and human laws in the play. It is to this opposition that I briefly turn, because I view it as one axis of value around which the ethic-aesthetic of Margolles and SEMEFO's projects rotate.
Margolles has bartered with families for the use of their relative's body (parts). In one instance, she offered relatives a choice: She would bury a family's son in exchange for the artistic use of either his penis or his tongue (2000a). Margolles' aesthetic as a system of exchange both highlights the material costs of death (the burial, etcetera); but also juxtaposes other materialities-the interlacing of the economic and the human [the contrast I reference above between Antigone's concerns for the "materiality" of the body and its relation to respect, the soul…. and Creon's paranoid assertions that "money has ruined many men" (69)]. As such, Margolles and, by extension, SEMEFO's work, like that of many contemporary D.F.- (and internationally-) based visual artists places both artistic production and political rhetoric within a wider realm of production and consumption, reiterating the inseparability of the economic and the cultural.
If the bodies Margolles and SEMEFO use could be read as the "victims" of economic inequalities, SEMEFO and Margolles' choice to use the dead as a medium is mediated by location--Margolles' sardonic comment that her/SEMEFO's work "would not be possible in the First World because it would not be legal." As such, Margolles' project sheds site-specific light on SEMEFO's relationship to iconic representations of death and the body; but, also makes clear the critical intervention both SEMEFO and Margolles' individual efforts instantiate in discussions concerning the political and the aesthetic in contemporary Mexican cultural production in terms that not only render that ratio questionable, but, likewise point to other proliferating, incestuous constructs-the material, the aesthetic, the ethical…. Just as early feminist declarations that "the personal is the political" altered the terms of debate in what we might call certain national allegorical traditions, Margolles' material aesthetic-ethic in her work both revises compulsory narratives which symbolically fix (affix) the female figure (like a postage stamp on a letter with no return address) in place, but also relocates "the feminine" as some more generalizable representation of "difference" in Mexican identitarian narratives. Put differently, Margolles' attentions to death AND gender highlights how a use of dead bodies does not represent some gothic "death for death's sake," but an enabling process through which the material-turned-aesthetic is put to use as witness, throwing into question the social relations of a city-state-nation which increasingly has become (in)famous for reproducing the unclaimed, but anonymous, "living dead."
In the case of Margolles' oeuvre, "Antigone's claim" resurfaces breathless as a kind of shifting kaleidoscopic vision: Margolles performs Antigone's efforts to avail her "brother" a proper burial, and her pieces as gendered fragments allegorize "a melancholy of the public sphere," suggesting death's double-jointed materiality as a living presence. Death, in Margolles', and by extension SEMEFO's work, operates as an excess which haunts the expanding circles that constitute the works' audience(s). Like a stone thrown into the realm of reception, death becomes the allegorical linchpin of Margolles and SEMEFO's projects, signifying the ruins of "national allegory" and the limits of urban and (trans)national subjectivity. Therefore, while SEMEFO and Margolles' works pose "classical" questions to their audiences, regarding the responsibilities of the witness, and the location of "ethics after idealism" [to evoke the preoccupations of Rey Chow (1998)]; they likewise situate part of the public sphere's melancholy in its mathematics of economic exclusion, merging Creon's concerns with money and Antigone's address to the rites of the dead to slipknot the noose of divine and human laws and reveal the political/aesthetic divide as an exhausted construct. Consequently, in the works of Margolles and SEMEFO the materiality of a merged ethics/aesthetics replaces the fractal verticality--implied by ratios--with a horizontal intentionality that fragments (to disidentify with) various versions of postrevolutionary national allegory that would fashion "difference" as mere bifurcation.
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