In Absentia: Body Politics in the Absence of Human Form

“When you look at the imprint of our image, it is us that you will see,” Saint Symeon said to a disciple in response to a priest asking that his ill son remain in the saint’s presence. He refused the request and deflected divine power onto a clay token bearing his imprinted image, diverting attention from his person and instead instilling an ambiguous divine power within the object. Since antiquity, traces of a human figure transferred onto an object have carried enormous weight in communities of the cult. Imbued with talismanic powers, reproductions become relics and icons, worshipped by followers of particular religious doctrines – in these instances it is the relationship to a deified body that renders these objects meaningful, even holy.

In Mexico, a country whose religious practices are rooted in Aztec ritual and Catholic belief, relics, icons, and other holy objects that refer to divine bodies are essential. Dominant cultural traditions use auspicious items to worship and commemorate ancestors. They become meaningful thanks to their relationship with an identified but absent individual, whether a religious figure or a loved one. But what does it mean when an object signifies contact with an anonymous body, when that very body has been destroyed by violence and their identity erased?

Contemporary Mexican artist Teresa Margolles questions the notion of death as the great equalizer. Her work narrates violent histories, exercises of power and erasure as they affect the human body. In recent years growing pressures in Mexico have resulted in deadly conflicts between drug cartels and government forces. Margolles’ work explores legacies of disappeared bodies and uses unidentified remains in morgues to create mixed-media pieces bearing imprints or casts of these corpses. Her 1997 plaster casts of autopsied corpses entitled Catafalque show the imprint of a mutilated body, with only vague suggestions of specific features. There are no recognizable identifiers for any particular cadaver, but the casts remain explicitly and hauntingly human – the identity of the individual may be gone, but an image of their death is immortalized in plaster.

In 1996 Margolles and SEMOFO, an artist collective with which she worked, prepared an installation entitled Dermis, using human remains and soiled linens that had been used to cover murder victims in a morgue. These textiles bore the literal blood and sweat of the deceased bodies, creating gruesome imprints not dissimilar, visually at least, to the Turin Shroud. They became relics of mutilated Joe Bloggses, points of contact between violent erasure and members of a society forced to cope. In the wake of these deaths, Margolles’ work demands recognition of untold stories written in corpses and prohibits the destruction of these narratives even as their victims disappear. The imprinted forms and human stains elicit visceral responses to the cruelties of life that remain visible in death.