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Grave Matters

The MFAH gives life to a provocative exhibition of Latin American art

You walk down a long hall and make a U-turn into a stark, brightly lit, empty white room. Inside, a man crouches in a corner. It's disconcerting, until you realize it's a mannequin…but then it starts to move. The work, TO MAKE A BLIND MAN MURDER FOR THE THINGS HE'S SEEN (Happiness Is Over-Rated) (2002) by Los Angeles artist Daniel Martinez, is part of "Indelible Images (Trafficking Between Life and Death)" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The MFAH organized the exhibition under the direction of Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator of Latin American art. It's a well chosen and provocative show featuring politically charged, often poignant works by Latin American and Latino artists.

As you stand watching the figure in Martinez's installation, the mannequin lowers his head and turns his wrist to display a red gash. His hands, which clutch razor blades, take a swipe at the wounds on one wrist and then the other. The man throws back his head and laughs maniacally as he stares vacantly into space.

Daniel Martinez's crouching mannequin will creep you 
out.
Tom Dubrock, MFAH
Daniel Martinez's crouching mannequin will creep you out.

Details

Through April 30
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300

The mannequin is an animatronic figure made of cast silicone stretched over a fiberglass skeleton. The pigment is wearing off at his neck, but his hands are incredibly realistic, bone and tendon seeming to show through the flesh. Other lifelike details include razor stubble, slightly crooked teeth and a receding hairline -- Martinez modeled the figure on himself.

The figure's actions are creepy, but of course animatronic figures are creepy in general (just look at Dick Cheney). There's always something incredibly disturbing about them, even -- or especially -- the seemingly innocuous Disney World versions. They look close to human, but their eyes never connect and they never move correctly. What you get is something that presents itself as human, but in the most unnatural and disturbing way.

This quality plays right into Martinez's hands. Each movement of the figure is punctuated by a hiss of air from the computer-controlled pneumatics. Martinez has dressed his double in the navy-blue work clothes we associate with maintenance workers in the United States. The wrist-slashing janitor becomes a metaphor for desperation spurred by socioeconomic inequality.

Labor, poverty and violence underlie the work of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. Walking long distances to work at low-paying jobs at foreign-owned maquiladoras, hundreds of women along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border have been sexually assaulted, murdered and dumped in the desert. Their killers remain at large. In her DVD Anapra (2005), Margolles presents nighttime images of the desolate landscape surrounding Ciudad Juárez. The camera films rocky, lonely roads dimly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Occasionally the car passes another vehicle or an isolated house. City lights blink far in the distance. You watch and wonder: Is this the route someone walked on the way to her death? Is this the road a killer drove along to dump a body? In the darkness and remoteness, you feel anything could happen. Margolles creates tension out of completely banal and uneventful footage. You keep expecting the headlights to happen upon a body, a crime.

Margolles, who spent more than a decade as a forensic technician in a Mexico City morgue, brings a biological element to her conceptual sculptures. In front of the video are three concrete benches; the concrete was mixed using the water that washed the body of an eight-year-old girl killed in her Ciudad Juárez home while her mother worked at a maquiladora. Suddenly the concrete becomes like a reliquary for the suffering of the murdered girl. The cool, impersonal, minimalist forms of the benches are now weighted with grief and tragedy. Sitting on the benches seems a sacrilege, so you stand behind them as the video plays out like a record of the girl's fate.

For Lote Bravo (2005), Margolles collected sand from more than 100 locations in and around Ciudad Juárez where the bodies of sexually abused and murdered women have been found. She packed the sand into more than 100 bricklike shapes; they're neatly stacked up like cordwood, representing two massive walls of corpses. Each brick is a link to a murdered woman. It's a rough and poignant monument that begs for these women to be remembered. Margolles makes art like a detective, collecting evidence and trying to find enough to get to the heart of the thing.

The idea of using objects to symbolize a body also occurs in the work of Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His 1991 sculpture Untitled (For a Man in Uniform) was made at the time of the first Gulf War. Gonzalez-Torres, who lost a lover to AIDS and eventually died of it himself, was attuned to death and loss, not to mention the political climate for gay men. The sculpture consists of a mound of lollipops piled in the corner of the room. Originally, his 220-pound candy pile, the weight of a beefy male specimen, was created with Astro Patriot Pops. Patriot Pops, bizarrely introduced during the Gulf War, were red, white and blue lollipops with a cylindrical, distinctly phallic shape.

The work is re-created with a fresh candy pile each time, as viewers are each encouraged to take away a piece, causing slow disintegration of the "body." But the manufacturer quit making Astro Patriot Pops in 2002, and the current version of the work was re-created with circular lollipops in the same colors. (FYI, the red ones taste like Robitussin.) While this may be conceptually legitimate, it ain't quite the same effect as the phallic red, white and blue candies Gonzalez-Torres selected, which were a more obvious jab at nationalism and military homophobia.

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