Death, Ritual, and Latin America Through the Ages

Timed with Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—this year, Cristin Tierney’s “Dear Mr. Thanatos” presents an assortment of historical and contemporary work by various artists, focusing on the rituals and anxieties surrounding loss, trauma, and fear. All of the artists are originally from Latin America, and in videos, sound art, photographs, sculptures, prints, and paintings, they explore the region’s complicated relationship to death, both as a process and a specter.

Original prints by José Guadalupe Posada, featuring his delightfully spooky calavera skeleton figures, are some of the earliest works in the exhibition. Posada illustrated newspapers and leaflets in Mexico City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; his iconic skeleton figures chronicled and satirized the political upheavals of the time. Calavera del drenaje (“skull drain,” made sometime between 1890-1913) depicts eight skulls, printed with accompanying poems describing the lives of working class Mexicans and their follies. Posada’s tone is jocular, but affectionate, and the stories of the workers’ tragedies were meant not only to entertain but also to call attention to their poor working conditions and hardships. Likewise, Teresa Margolles’s Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003), which translates to “trepanation, sounds of the morgue,” updates the image of a head drained of life and thought, of memory, by relaying an audio witness of the sights and events of a morgue. Like Stan Brakhage’s famous The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), which depicts the visual experience of witnessing an autopsy (without sound), Margolles’s work provides a partial snapshot of death, in memoriam.

Ana Mendieta’s notorious 1973 photo suite, Untitled (Rape Scene), vividly depicts an act of sexual violence, using cinematic framing and gory fake blood on the artist’s backside and legs. Mendieta wrote, “My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world.” In her work, the body becomes a site of ritual and magic, though sometimes also a locus of violence and danger. In a video by Regina José Galindo (which documents a performance by the artist), references to Mendieta’s work abound, as José Galindo stands nude in a forest as dirt from a shallow grave is heaped upon her. The use of site and ceremonial action connect her not only to earlier feminist artists, but also to Latin America’s pre-Columbian cultures.

Dear Mr. Thanatos” is on view at Cristin Tierney, New York, Oct. 2–Dec. 13, 2014. 

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