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
  2. LeWitt, Sol (1967), Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum, No.5 (Summer 1967). pp.78–83. Retrieved 8 June, 2009, from
  3. Moss, Ceci (2009), A Whole New World? On the 53rd Venice Biennale, Retrieved 12 June, 2009, from

notes about dealing with franko-b’s I Miss You!

A friend introduced me to the work of Franko-b and I’ve put off posting about it as I’m unsure about my reactions to it.

Wait, perhaps that’s a bit disingenuous. I know what my immediate reaction was. What’s taken time has been trying to put that reaction into words and work out it’s relevance.

On the one hand, I’m not good with blood, so inevitably I found the video of I Miss You! quite difficult to watch. On the other, I get a vicarious thrill from the whole practice of cutting and blood-letting, in the same way that I find many types of body modification attractive.

While watching this video I couldn’t help thinking about the beauty of the way the video was distorted by the compression – when it’s viewed full-screen especially it created abstract washes of golden colour, with regions of smooth colour gradients merging into more detailed, pixelated areas.

I was considering capturing some of the footage and isolating those parts as a work of art in itself. I thought that this would serve as a new piece of work to show my reaction to Franko-b’s work. But then I thought, hold on, why would I want to do this? Is this just me avoiding my real issues with the piece?

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Gertrude, III.ii)

My reaction to the footage, and my subsequent ways of dealing with it, gives me away. Blood-letting causes a visceral reaction on my part, I would go so far as to say a revulsion, and my coping strategy is to transfer my attention away from that aspect of what is being shown to an aspect of the video that I am comfortable with, in this case the aesthetic of the semi-random pixel effects. This sounds like trauma to me, but I am not well versed in its extensive history, so wouldn’t like to trivialise the subject. The following comes from a text that I happen to have just read, but I should go back to the primary sources, whatever they may be:

…trauma can be experienced in at least two ways: as a memory that one cannot integrate into one’s own experience, and as a catastrophic knowledge that one cannot communicate to others.

Avital Ronell, “Haunted TV” Artforum, 31, 1 (September 1992), pp. 70–3.

And here I am being completely distracted from the work itself by my own reactions to it. Have I nothing to say about the piece or the artist in themselves? I should consider whether this an intended effect of the work*. Can I judge the work separately from it’s effect on me? Can I/Should I be objective about it?

The work asserted the body as a site for the representation of pain and fear, intrinsic to the human condition.

* This point reminds me of another of Franko-b’s works Why Are You Here (Aktion 893)