Teresa Margolles: Ajuste de Cuentas (Score Settling)

By Tehezeeb Moitra

Ajuste de Cuentas, Score Settling (Score 11) by the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, is part of a larger collection of twenty-one settled scores that take form in various pieces of ‘jewelry’ that include rings, bangles, pendants, earrings and chains. The title of the work is a reference to the killings that were caused as a result of scores being settled for drug related disputes in the Sinaloa region of Mexico where Margolles was born.

Teresa Margolles, Score Settling, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Much in keeping with the broader style of Margolles’ practices, Score Settling requires much more than just a cursory visual appraisal, insisting instead on an engagement that makes the viewer rethink the initial interaction with the work. In Score Settling, what at first glance appears to be six mounted vitrines housing fairly garish pieces of jewelry, on closer inspection proves to be a loaded socio-political gesture that demands the viewers’ full attention. With all the appearance of an artifact, each piece of jewelry on display is in fact a relic that represents an individual that died as a result of drug trafficking.

Ever attentive to detail, Margolles handcrafted the jewelry at Joyería Anne in the Rafael Buelna market, located in Culiacán, a venue notoriously linked to the local drug trade. The ornaments are set, not with precious stones in the traditional sense, but rather with pieces of glass that were collected either by Margolles herself or by police officers from the crime scene investigations. Addressing her choice of inlay Margolles says, “I wanted to take the value away from these jewels and replace it with their score-settling incidents, so that they can see their deaths”. The specificity of the subject that Margolles invokes in her sentence is deliberately unclear and addresses the fundamental double bind that underpins most of her work.

Pieces of evidence that serve as testimony to the brutality of the acts, the shards of glass come from shot-out car windscreens or, in some cases, from the very corpses themselves. The ornaments are overwhelming gaudy and are intentionally fashioned to look like the stereotypically flashy jewelry worn by the narcos1 who committed the murders. The chunky pieces, gold and glistening, are encased in vitrines and mounted on plinth-like pedestals. The jewelry then assumes an almost metonymic-like materiality and significance, representing a twisted irony that intertwines the lives of the victim and the perpetrator.

Working in conjunction with the pedestals, Margolles uses the common museum trope of providing a brief, rather clinical description to correspond with each piece. However, rather than the physical description of the jewelry itself, the viewer is confronted with a bilingual account, (English and in Spanish) of how the act was carried out and more significantly, to whom. The description of the atrocities frames the violence that went behind, literally and metaphorically, the jewelry on show. By directly connecting every piece of jewelry to a particular victim Margolles provides a platform for the individual voice that often gets smothered underneath the blanket of collective violence.

Teresa Margolles, Score Settling, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

However Margolles does not stop there, as she forces the viewer to recognise and indeed participate in an even deeper, arguably more aggressive engagement. By the very presentation of the work itself Morgolles places the viewer in a role that shifts from that of a naive ingénue to a sentient accomplice. The glowing vitrines, in the dark crypt-like space of the display create an atmosphere that is at once both eerie and reverential, entice the viewer to come closer to behold jewelry precious enough to warrant such a backdrop. And, once the viewer is cognisant of what is being looked at, the initial seduction toward the superficial aesthetics of the work is replaced by something much more uncomfortable.

Suddenly, the viewer is keenly aware that it was precisely that attraction to the outward presentation of gold jewelry in a dramatically lit room that encouraged further engagement. It is that sense of awareness juxtaposed alongside the realization that what is being offered up for viewing pleasure is in fact death itself that forces the viewer to reassess his entire approach to Score Settling. Additionally, it is the very appearance of innocuousness that catches the viewer off guard, heightening the intensity of what is “actually” being looked at, thereby adding yet another, almost macabre layer to the work.

Score Settling is then situated in the lacuna between not just the expected and the unexpected but in the viewers’ complicit participation in the same. Through form and content, Margolles creates a sort of weld that fuses together, all at once - crime, criminal, victim and viewer. This is particularly encapsulated in the vitrine that holds up for the viewer, on its black velvet cloth, a handful of glass- shimmering like diamonds- there is no description- the piece speaks for itself.  
1The term narcos, is Spanish slang for ‘drug traffickers’.                 

Brief Biography of Artist
Teresa Margolles was born on the 14th of July 1963 in Culiacán, in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, which is also where she currently lives and works. Much in keeping with Margolles’ larger practices this particular work too focuses on the local, specifically in this case, the drug problems in Sinaloa. Margolles has degrees in both art (from Dirección de Fomento a la Cultura Regional del Estado de Sinaloa) and forensic medicine (from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Evidence of the influence of her educational background is more than apparent in her work. In 1990, in collaboration with Arturo Ángulo Gallardo, Juan Luis García Zavaleta and Carlos López Orozco Margolles founded the artists’ collective  ́Servicio Médico Forense ́ (SEMEFO), which translates into the English as forensic medical service. Interestingly, in spite of drawing on subject matter particularly related to Mexico, Margolles has received wide international acclaim.