Authenticity: Artworks that cheat

“What Else Could We Talk About?” [Venice Biennale, Mexican Pavilion by artist Teresa Margolles] addresses the increasing violence and record homicide rate in her home country with a series of visually understated installations including several rooms left empty except for a bucket and mop, which are periodically used to wash the stone floors by one of the pavilion’s attendants. The wall text reveals that the water has been infused with the blood of murder victims, so, in a sense, we are walking on dead bodies. But my major problem with the work is this: if any of the rules are bent over the course of the six-month exhibition – the blood not real or the buckets filled with ordinary tap water, then the work loses its efficacy and authenticity. A work like this can’t simply be a metaphor: the execution should be strictly faithful to the concept; any deviation cheats the audience and makes the whole work disingenuous.1

I think this is too essentialist a view for my liking – the idea that an artwork consists of rules and they must be followed for it to be successful (do I mean that? There are many works that I value because they are convincing expositions of their raison d’être, which is where their power comes from). When the meaning of art is in the head, à la Conceptualism, the actual form is demoted in importance. As arch-Conceptualist, Sol LeWitt said:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.2

So, in this case, I already get the idea behind the piece, but does it matter if—in reality—it’s real blood being used? And, if it’s the actual blood of murder victims? Personally, I think not.

To be honest, I think that if you find yourself raising questions like this, it reflects a deficiency in the piece itself: it could just as easily have remained an idea. The execution (as light as it is) actually pushes the piece over the edge into heavy-handedness. But as an idea it’s a pretty lightweight response to the subject matter, and raises practical questions like: how is all this blood being obtained? Questions which are not entirely irrelevant, but perhaps subsumed to the original meaning of the work, and end up being distractions. I think if you’re asking questions like this, it’s a good symptom that the work has failed in it’s purpose.

UPDATE: More information about the Teresa Margolles piece:

For the last two decades, the artist has brought to light the bureaucracy and protocol that has arisen in order to process the dead in Mexico City’s morgues, many of whom are casualties of police corruption, gang violence, drug wars, and poverty. Her work is an attempt to create a memorial and a space of contemplation for the cyclical violence that has prematurely ended these lives by using the material traces left behind– the water used to wash corpses, the blood stained rags from the clean up of a scene of an execution, and the shards of glass embedded in the skin of a victim of a drive-by shooting. The exhibition was staged in the crumbling, dilapidated sixteenth century Palazzo Rota Ivancich in the Castello district, whose uneven floorboards, peeling baroque wallpaper, and rusted light fixtures recalled an aristocracy that had long since vacated the premises. The interior was left exactly as is, and each day the floors were washed with water containing blood from damp rags used to mop up crime scenes after the official forensic work was complete. These same rags were hung up and hydrated on the ground floor of the building, and the pools of water collected underneath were then used in the next day’s cleaning. The interdependence between Mexico’s drug wars and a globalized economy were brought to the fore by the artist’s intervention in the Giardini grounds a week before the opening. Margolles hung fabric infused with the blood of executed people from drug-related crimes in the northern border of Mexico on the entrance of the United States Pavilion, signaling the U.S.’s inextricable ties to the Mexican drug trade and resulting violence.…Margolles and Todorovic’s investigations of the fate of the human body vis-à-vis biopolitical control underscore the fact that artists often do not have the privilege to make worlds, but must create in the worlds made for them.3

  1. Lange, Christy (2009), Editors’ Blog: Postcards from Venice – Part 6: The Awards, Frieze Magazine. Retrieved 8 June, 2009, from http://www.frieze.com/blog/entry/postcards_from_venice_part_6_the_awards/
  2. LeWitt, Sol (1967), Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum, No.5 (Summer 1967). pp.78–83. Retrieved 8 June, 2009, from http://www.ddooss.org/articulos/idiomas/Sol_Lewitt.htm
  3. Moss, Ceci (2009), A Whole New World? On the 53rd Venice Biennale, Rhizome.org. Retrieved 12 June, 2009, from http://rhizome.org/editorial/2695
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