At this year's Biennale, the most eloquent work on display is made from the blood, grime and detritus of violent crime. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Italy on the transformative work of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, and on the dwindling usefulness of nationally-defined art. Once a day, a young man mops the floor of a dilapidated palazzo in Venice. With his head down and his two hands gripping a long handle, he pushes a damp lump of soiled rags from room to room. The rags have been soaked in the blood and filth of crime scenes in Mexico, dried, transported to Italy, and are then plunged into buckets of water and sloshed back and forth in half-moon patterns across the floor. Every day they leave behind a thin layer of grime and the unmistakable stench of death. This quotidian routine, which is more about accumulating residue than removing it, is part of an extended performance piece conceived by the artist Teresa Margolles, whose work comprises Mexico's official participation in this year's Venice Biennale.
One of the most controversial figures in the recent history of the Mexico City art scene, Margolles has been making work from the material traces of death for 20 years. In 1989, she joined a group of radical artists, musicians and performers to form SEMEFO, an acronym for Servicio Medico Forense, or Forensic Medical Service. The collective, which disbanded in 1999, used municipal morgues as studios and turned the refuse of crimes into an artistic medium. Along the way, the group created a template for artists to act as amateur detectives, picking up clues not for the purpose of solving individual crimes but rather to address the long-term damage that criminal activity does to a society when murders become commonplace.
Turning inside out the spaces that usually serve to contain death - the morgue, the police precinct, the newspaper crime report - Margolles and her colleagues framed the evidence they gathered in the aesthetic languages of minimal and conceptual art, and exported it to the world by way of exhibitions, biennials and festivals. Working both collaboratively and on her own, Margolles has exhibited a dead man's severed tongue as sculpture; she has created a sound installation from the noise of an autopsy; smeared buildings with fats and oils extracted from corpses, and constructed machines for blowing soap bubbles using the disinfected fluids that are used in morgues to clean cadavers. From the streets of Mexico City, she has collected two tonnes of broken glass - the remains of car windows shattered in drive-by shootings - to create glittering public art projects and a collection of luxury jewels.
Margolles' work explores the harrowing social consequences of the narcotics trade, where drug cartels and law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States are complicit in forging an atmosphere of extreme violence and fear, such that the murder rate in Mexico now surpasses that of several war zones around the world. More broadly, she collects the traces of murders and crimes to consider the dark sides of globalisation, arguing that in places like Mexico, modernity held out the promise of social progress and economic growth but delivered instead instability and unrest. Whether they are poetic, visceral, metaphoric or methodical, Margolles' performances and installations call attention to a grim and seemingly untenable situation where demand for illicit substances meets an endless supply of violence, where trade liberalisation results in economic collapse, where class divides widen, poverty deepens and the killings that cut down young members of the lower social classes - drug dealers, junkies, prostitutes, the homeless, the unemployed and the poor - become normalised, contained and removed from the everyday lives of elites. Margolles' contribution to the Venice Biennale is an exhibition entitled What Else Could We Talk About? It's a loaded question, of course, as it speaks directly to the strange and distorted circumstances of the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art in the world.
Founded in 1895, the Venice Biennale was originally conceived as an opportunity to view the work of Italian artists alongside that of their foreign counterparts. But as the 20th century got underway, European countries (mostly the imperial powerhouses of the day) began constructing national pavilions on the grounds of the Biennale, which gave rise to the practice of countries sending works to represent them. Now, for the 53rd iteration of the event, there are 77 national pavilions, 28 of them located in the Giardini (Venice's sprawling public park), six situated in the Arsenale (the former site of the city's shipyards) and the rest scattered all over the city. There are also 44 collateral events (shows that are not part of the official contribution of a country) and hundreds of exhibitions ranging from major to minor that have nothing to do with the official Biennale but are glommed onto it nonetheless. And there is the event that has become the Biennale's main attraction, an international exhibition, curated this year by Daniel Birnbaum, which features more than 90 artists, whose works tumble across a huge pavilion in the Giardini and through a long corridor in the Arsenale.
The international exhibition may be the most obvious place to assess the state of contemporary art today, to play with what constitutes contemporary art in the first place and to test out alternative formats for organising huge, international exhibitions. At its best, it is a laboratory for bold experimentation. It also holds out the potential to be a hothouse for nurturing curatorial approaches that could one day do away with geography as an organising principle altogether, discarding all the passports, maps and bios with the "born in, lives in, works in" line completely. Such approaches, if they are ever to be truly tested out in Venice, might do more justice to the complexities of contemporary art, and in the process formulate post-national styles of exhibition-making that avoid the temptation to smooth very different and disparate works into a singular, homogenised visual language. But the national pavilions are archaic in that they are still somewhat stuck with notions of national representation in a layout that bears little resemblance to the actual outlines of the world. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are absent from this year's Venice Biennale, as are Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. Ten Central and South American countries share a single pavilion, as do Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Finland's got its own, thanks). Besides Egypt, Morocco and Gabon, the African continent is off the map. Macedonia has two separate pavilions, Serbia remains in the old Yugoslav pavilion and the Czech Republic's pavilion still bears the name Czechoslovakia. The Syrian pavilion, effectively co-opted by a local art dealer, is almost entirely full of Italian painters, a move that seems rather less deliberately transnational than Germany's decision to send a British artist, Liam Gillick, to show work in its pavilion. Palestine has a presence, but it's on the same level as Wales, among the collateral, non-national events.
What makes Margolles' exhibition so strong is more than just the horrors that are present in her work. What Else Could We Talk About? directly challenges what a national pavilion could or should be. It doesn't construct an idealised image of a country. It doesn't put on a good face for the world. It doesn't advertise or promote the cultural strategy of a nation-state or its potential to attract tourists. It doesn't show off or get defensive about the cosmopolitan character, critical bent or conceptual sophistication of an art scene. It uses the space and time of the Biennale to take a position, articulate a condition and make visible a situation of explosive inequity that currently afflicts much of the world, even as those inequities tend to remain out of sight in the rarefied setting of an event such as the Venice Biennale. Implicit in the question that is posed by the exhibition's title is the assumption that someone, somewhere, whether in Mexico City or Venice, would inevitably ask the artist, "Couldn't you talk about something else, show something more beautiful or export a more promising image of the country?" Margolles offers a pre-emptive response in an interview published in the exhibition's accompanying catalogue. Considering the fact that last year, more than 5,000 people lost their lives in Mexico due to violent crimes related to the narcotics trade and gestures to curb it, she says: "We're losing a generation that will demand redress for our having remained silent. How can you not mop the floor of a Mexican pavilion at the Venice Biennale with the remains of the dead? Are you going to dress it up, or give it a slick design?" In addition to Limpieza, the performance piece that involves the young man mopping the floor, What Else Could We Talk About? includes Sangre Recuperada, which consists of several bolts of fabric that have been used to scrub sites in northern Mexico where people have been murdered or their bodies buried in unmarked graves. These cloths have been dried, re-humidified in Venice, and hung in a long corridor like monumental abstract paintings, the difference being that they are caked in mud rather than paint, and are slowly dripping diluted blood into collecting pools beneath them. More bloodstained fabrics, for the series Narcomensajes, are hanging together in a room. Over the course of the five-month Biennale, Margolles is embellishing them with gold embroidery, slowly stitching in sentences that she has clipped from the outrageous, melodramatic notes that drug cartels often leave behind after they've carried out an execution as missives of warning to the victim's friends, family members or associates. Outside the pavilion, another blood-soaked cloth is hanging from a flagpole between the banners of Venice and the European Union. Inside the entrance, she has placed a utilitarian desk made of concrete mixed with more matter from assassination sites. Nestled into the wall of a room on the first floor is a safe allegedly containing Margolles' glass-encrusted jewels. Prior to the opening of the Biennale, the artist dipped long swathes of bloodied and muddied fabrics into the sea and then dragged them across a beach on the Venetian island of Lido. She also temporarily covered the doors and windows of the US pavilion with her contaminated cloths. If that was a gesture suggesting complicity, so was her decision to distribute 10,000 invitations during the Biennale's press preview, printed on plastic cards (like mock credit cards) that bore an image of a murdered man's bashed-in head and torso on one side - and the instructions "Card to cut cocaine" on the other. The message seemed to be that, for all the art world's piety, the Venice Biennale is at its most base just another stop on the global party circuit, which gives the drug cartels some business and, however inadvertently, gets some innocent people killed in the crossfire, too. With all those performances, Margolles has expanded her exhibition well beyond the walls of the Mexican pavilion itself. Even within the actual building, the show is arranged in such a manner that viewers experience the work as both a carefully orchestrated performance and a sprawling, interactive installation through which you must find your way. When you walk through the door the curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, greets you with the words: "Go through the exhibition and then we can talk. Those are the rules." From there you proceed up the stairs, through the rooms and back down again, guided by assistants, all young women who are silent, sober and do not smile. On one hand, your comprehension of the pieces depends entirely on the wall texts - you have to read them to understand what you are looking at, why and how it might mean something to you. On the other hand, the smell, the soberness of the site and the heaviness of the atmosphere can all be palpably felt without any words being spoken or written. One could argue, convincingly, that Margolles' exhibition is too earnest and too self-righteous, that the works serve to silence and humble rather than challenge or provoke, and that the whole thing is just too much. But that creeping sense of unease and initial impulse to reject might also be precisely the point. After all, the show ultimately hinges on excess: Why so many pieces? Why so many permutations of the same idea? Isn't the point sufficiently made by the one young man mopping the floor? But then again, the excess of permutations corresponds to the excess of violence about which the exhibition speaks. What is remarkable is that the exhibition speaks so well with materials and actions - blood and guts, mud and broken glass, mopping and stitching and soaking and dripping - that are barely considered acceptable as works of art at all.
Art-world observers love and hate the Venice Biennale in equal measure. Every two years, they complain bitterly that it has become too large and too busy, that it is now thoroughly impossible to take it all in, that due to its size it celebrates only spectacles and tricks at the expense of art that takes time, that Venice is too hot and too expensive and too clogged with tourists and that its canals stink in the summer, and that anyway, such an old, obnoxiously preserved and ruthlessly mercantile city is an unsuitable setting for contemporary art, which could do without all that surfeit of history. The Biennale's organising logic - to break the global art world down into national pavilions - is likewise an easy target for the critics' ire. But perhaps because of its structure, the Venice Biennale provides the most prescient opportunity to challenge the utility of national representation. Some of the most thrilling and thought-provoking exhibitions this time around are those that stand easily on their own, such as Elmgreen & Dragset's show The Collectors (in the Danish and Nordic pavilions, an attempt to construct a "transnational neighbourhood" in the Giardini), Fiona Tan's two-screen video installation Disorient (in the Dutch pavilion, which reconsiders the adventures of Marco Polo from a contemporary point of view), Krzysztof Wodiczko's mesmerising shadow-projection entitled Guests (in the Polish pavilion) and the collaboration between Banu Cennetoglu and Ahmet Ögüt (for the Turkish pavilion). Strip away the identification by state and these works lose none of their power.
Elsewhere, the Emirati artist Lamya Gargash might have been better off if her photographs had been left alone, without the presence of small-scale, trade-fair style models of museums and cultural districts in the UAE (all part of curator Tirdad Zolghadr's clever but frequently misinterpreted attempt to link the Biennale format to that of 19th-century world fairs). Likewise, the collateral event organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, and curated by Catherine David, would have benefited from more art and less advertising. So too the tremendously moving sound installation by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, entitled Ramallah Syndrome and included in another collateral event, Palestine c/o Venice, which could have benefited from being installed on its own. Daniel Birnbaum's international exhibition, titled Making Worlds, offers an intriguing survey of contemporary art. It lends itself to multiple interpretations, yields numerous thematic pathways and is peppered throughout with excellent works. But it is overall too professional and too polite, an opportunity lost. A consummate art-world insider, Birnbaum is the youngest curator ever to talk the helm of the Venice Biennale. His tenure comes at a time when curatorship is in crisis. In his afterword to A Brief History of Curating, a book of interviews published last year by Hans Ulrich Obrist, another art-world insider, Birnbaum laments the fact that just as curators once superseded critics, commercial art fairs have now eclipsed non-commercial biennials: "The successful museum has become a corporation, the Biennale is in crisis. What is waiting around the corner? Of course art fairs that pretend that they are exhibitions, and a brand new park in Abu Dhabi where perhaps, in a few years, there will be a supersized biennial on steroids." Both Birnbaum and Obrist argue for excursions into the history of curating to find ways out of this mess. But it seems that Medina's presentation of Teresa Margolles' work for the Mexican pavilion provides the best example in this edition of the Venice Biennale. In one of Obrist's interviews, the German curator Johannes Cladders remarks: "I have always believed that it is the artist who creates a work, but a society that turns it into a work of art It was always clear to me that I did not need to do anything for works already declared art by common consent. Instead, I was interested in those that had not found that common consent and so they were still works, not works of art." Cladders argues for "the permanent renewal of art," and the relentless replenishment of its power. It is perhaps fitting that Cladders was one of the curators most responsible for bringing the work of Joseph Beuys to international attention. In an interview with Santiago Sierra - another artist who shook up the Venice Biennale's format when he blocked the front entrance to the Spanish pavilion in 2003 and allowed only Spanish passport-holders in through the back door - Teresa Margolles once said that the first time she saw the work of Beuys, "I almost fainted. I felt like vomiting and leaving. I said to myself: Would you dare to do something like this? Would you have the balls to do it? The power of art scares me." Margolles is a worthy heir of Beuys' lineage, just as Medina is an admirable successor of Cladders' curatorial daring. If more artists and curators follow their lead in the future, and use the space and time of the Venice Biennale to take risks and push the boundaries of contemporary art - bringing it back into the stuff of everyday life rather than letting it ossify in ever smaller and more exclusive circles of friends - then they will succeed in revamping the event's mandate.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review. She lives in Beirut.