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Experimental Encounters: Tessa Margolles’ Vaporization

In a large room of a small gallery in Mexico City, indistinguishable bodies moved cautiously through the heavy mist of Teresa Margolles’ Vaporization.[1] With murky vision and wet touch we groped our way around the room, each careful to avoid awkward collisions with fellow spectators. We found ourselves at a sign that read, ‘vapour of water from the morgue’. How ironic, I thought, that it should be the water from the morgue that Margolles had used to evoke the disappearance of people in Mexico City. Margolles has argued that her work is a means of reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible to render visible and knowable the expelled bodies and lives of those who remain hidden and abstruse within Mexico City, particularly those who have suffered violent and painful deaths.[2]

tess margolles

Image: Vaporization. 2002. Installation view in ‘Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values’ at MoMA PS1.

Yet, water is used in the morgue as a cleaning agent, a means of washing away the material evidence of Mexico City’s violence and brutality that stains its victim’s bodies. Through water, the bodies are washed, cleaned and prepared for burials often in unmarked graves. Vaporization thus articulates itself in this material semiotic of disinfection, purification and eradication. Indeed, not only was the materiality of the bodies symbolically abstracted through water but the water itself was then vaporised, pumped into the gallery in a hazy mist. I extended my hand out to catch the droplets of water and recalled Karl Marx’s assertion that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. [3] Here, bodies were rendered incorporeal, disembodied, ghostly.

Although uncanny, the feeling of unknowable and threatening phantasms was familiar. News coverage of the violence in Mexico city often regurgitates the same cabalistic narratives; tales of a shadowy violence seeping into the Megalopolis, phantom figures that linger at the peripheries of society; never quite visible, never quite human. The vaporised water seemed like a gesture towards these tropes of incorporeality and ghostliness. Here, articulated through the paradigm of decontamination that was similarly carried through the intangible mist to anaesthetize our social relations. The process of vaporisation replicating the semiotic processes through which we recoil into ourselves in the face of Others and placate the material realities of which we are a part.

Yet, this vapour was sourced from the water that had touched the bodies of the dead. The vapour itself was an archive of previous violence, a document, or evidence, of a material reality. Immersed in the mist I no longer felt the comfort of social immunity; I felt contaminated, compromised, invaded by the bodily particles of the dead. Indeed, the installation required my body to participate with the vapour, collaborate and cohabitate with it. I could feel the touch of the viscous vapour as it formed a watery layer on my skin, I could smell the wetness in the air, I could taste it on my tongue, I could hear it hissing through the fog machine. Margolles wasn’t simply representing the haunting of a society by violence, but was rendering it sensory so that it could be perceived, felt and challenged within the gallery.

Erwin Strauss writes that ‘in sensory experience, there unfolds both the becoming of the subject and the happening of the world […] in sensing, both self and world unfold simultaneously for the sensing subject; the sensing being experiences himself and the world, himself in the world, himself with the world’.[4] Through my multisensory collaboration with the vapour, I felt myself enfolded in the intensities and sensations of the work; deterritorialized and entangled with the traces of the dead.

If the installation smeared the lines between self and alterity, between present and past, between the living and dead, then, as an artwork it also smeared the lines of its own practice somewhere between chemistry experiment, social action, installation and performance. I felt the impact of Margolles’ forensic background, as though as in entering the installation we had all become unwilling participants in an experimental autopsy. Margolles was playing with the permeability and porosity of our bodies; we breathe in, inhale and gestate the traces of the dead carried in the particles of water, we breathe out and allow our breath to mingle in the vapour. Our communal inhalations and exhalations circulated in the air between our bodies and within our bodies; folding, unfolding, recomposing the environment that surrounded us. In this, what Achille Mbembe describes as the ‘biological caesura’ between one and the other, was broken down.[5] The collective act of breathing and moving within the installation producing counter networks and more haptic cartographies between our bodies; the world metabolised through our bodies, and our bodies metabolised through the world. We were drawn to the space that held our bodies together.

If the work was a type of postmortem experience, then what was determined through our encounter with the work was that our bodies and lives were implicated with those of the dead. Breathing in the vapour, we were rupturing our habitual mode of separation from the violence of Mexico City and so were rupturing our social repression and existential contraction. Margolles’ installation conjured, what Felix Guattari would call, a new chemistry of subjectivity through a process of complexification. The intra-actions between my body and the space of the work activated my ‘isolated’ and ‘repressed’ subjectivity and produced ‘new constellations’ of references across different bodies, different times, and different spaces.[6] I experienced a process of becoming heterogeneous with the shared, and mutually constituted, materiality of the dead.

I left the gallery with a sense of my own body as a site of conflicted relationality and materiality. I moved quickly to the open door to breathe in the clean outside air. Yet, as I breathed the outside air deep into my lungs, I felt my corporeal vulnerability: the precarity of my body that is always already forming new alliances, new assemblages. As Judith Butler writes our ‘bodies are a condition of precarity that situates our political lives in a way that is interdependent and internal’ and so our sociality always exceeds us.[7] Even outside of the gallery the air is thick with the remnants and traces of other bodies, times and places.

Indeed, the water from the morgues, although concentrated in Margolles’ installation, is part of a universal hydrological cycle. The rain that falls, the water we drink, the sweat that forms, the tears that cry; each are a part of the same water recycled always within the world. If all that is ‘solid melts into air’ it certainly doesn’t disappear. Dissolved perhaps, but still travelling transversally across other bodies, other spaces, other times.

Standing within Mexico City’s toxic pollution the materiality of the environment was palpably felt, but even here, in London, I feel my body recomposing, becoming-with the world. Perhaps, then, this is the political potential of Margolles’ work, and contemporary art practices in general. Jean- François Lyotard argues that art harbors an ‘excess, a rupture, a potential of associations that overflows all the determination of its reception and production’ and so contains the ‘promise of community of feeling’.[8] Here, the ‘community of feeling’ that is created through an encounter with an artwork is the potential of the artwork to summon new collective enunciations and new alliances between bodies that encourage us to live in the world in a better way. In this, art becomes itself a space of appearance that make claims on space and our eroded social relations through being disseminated; absorbed, reflected, and scattered through the bodies and thoughts of the spectator.

As I look to the material conditions of the environment around me, sat at my desk in London, I consider the way that my body constitutes and is constituted by it. Now, the bodies of others appear to me, no longer spectral or haunting but connected in my body by the environment that holds us all together. Just as I was folded into Margolles’ installation, so I am unfolded into the world always with the potential to summon future folds; bodily becomings and unbecomings that may just summon the missing people and the people yet to come in collective enunciations.

[1] Teresa Margolles, Vaporización/ Vaporization, ACE Gallery, Mexico City, Nov 2001.

[2] Teresa Margolles, Artist Statement, < http://www.labor.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/04/Teresa-Margolles-statement-ingl.pdf > [accessed on 28.04.2015].

[3] Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Section One, Paragraph One, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#060&gt; , [accessed 02.03.2015].

[4] Erwin Strauss, The Primary World of the Senses: A Vindication of Sensory Experience (Trans). Jacob Needleman (London: Collier-MacMillan, 1963), p. 351.

[5] Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, 15, pp.1-40.

[6] Felix Guattari, Three Ecologies (trans.) Ian Pindor and Paul Sutton, (London & Brunswick, New Jersey: The Anthlone Press, 2000), p.51.

[7] Judith Butler, ‘Bodies In Alliance and the Politics of the Street’, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, <http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en&gt; , [accessed 24.02.15].

[8] Jean- François Lyotard quoted in Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, (trans.) Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, (Les Presses du Reél, 2002), p.13.


Imogen Bakelmun is a writer based in London. She is currently finishing her Masters in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.