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Murder by Numbers

Maya Goded photographed the families of the murdered.
Courtesy of The Station Museum

Not even in the movies do you have such perfect crimes and no suspects," an activist sardonically remarks in Lourdes Portillo's highly acclaimed 2001 documentary Seorita Extraviada. The film is part of the exhibition "Frontera 450+" at the Station Museum, named for the more than 450 women from ages 14 to 23 who have been murdered or have disappeared in Jurez, Mexico, since 1993. Occurring across the border from El Paso, the murders are a story that periodically crops up in the American media and then disappears. But the killing continues, with the horrific crimes unsolved and the killers at liberty. This show is another in a long line of provocative exhibitions about art and politics at the Station.

Portillo's film is 74 minutes long, but it's as riveting as it is tragic. Make the time to sit through it. You have probably read or heard things about the killings, with bodies mutilated, burned or turning up as skeletons in the desert, and how the police have no leads. But Seorita Extraviada shows you just how awful things are. The stories of the devastated families are gut-wrenching, and all the more so because Portillo steps back and lets them speak for themselves. A middle-aged woman tells of surviving being kidnapped and raped while she was pregnant. In 1998, the daughter she had carried was kidnapped, raped and killed. You look at her face and marvel that she isn't dead from the grief and the horror of it all.

Portillo skillfully tracks the course of both the murders and the investigation. The corruption, cruelty and injustice in Jurez are overwhelming. She includes footage of sexist government officials blaming the victims. The investigations seem purposely bungled, and Portillo turns up frightening evidence indicating the police are behind the murders. A female prosecutor interviewed by Portillo has the believability of Nixon declaring, "I am not a crook." You see clearly how the poverty of the victims makes them disposable, and the American-owned maquiladoras where many of the women worked are part of the equation, too. During the 18 months it took to Portillo to make the film, 50 more women were murdered. At the end of Seorita Extraviada, you'll want to hit the Gun Show, head to the border and pull a Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

The real-life drama of Portillo's award-winning film is a tough act to follow. Maya Goded's work continues in a similar documentary vein, presenting a simple and effective video, a black-and-white compilation of pre-mortem images of murdered women and girls. A young girl smiles in a quinceaera photograph, and you wince, knowing her fate. In another gallery, Goded presents her large portraits of the families and homes of the murdered women shot in vivid color, making the little sister and the teenage bedroom the dead left behind all the more poignant.

The maquiladoras play a part in the work of Coco Fusco. Fusco videotaped a performance in which she played a maquiladora employee trapped in an office and being interrogated by a manager. The video has the grainy black-and-white look of a surveillance camera; subtitles tell what's being said. It feels like footage from some investigative news program. The manager goes from being abusive to declaring he is being forced to do this by his gringo bosses. Shown around the gallery on tiny black-and-white monitors, it's an effective piece that conveys the intimidating and exploitative environment of the maquiladoras.

The show includes other effective video work. The disturbing sounds of a man beating the hell out of something can be heard throughout the exhibition. Viewers will discover the source of it by peering through an opening into a darkened screening room. A wall-projected video shows a man, an actor hired by artist Teresa Serrano, groping and then beating to pieces a piata made in the shape of a young woman. At the end of the video, only the head, surrounded by a cascade of dark hair, remains. It's a staged performance and the victim is a dummy, but the scene's brutality and misogyny feel all too real.

In work by two other artists, the video portions are the weakest, detracting from and undermining the sculptural work. In Luz y Solidaridad/Light and Solidarity, Susan Plum presents three massive brooms suspended from the gallery ceiling. The straws of the brooms are made from long strands of black vinyl, gathered together and then knotted. The thick black strands look like the glossy dark hair of a young woman; you imagine it brushing across the floor. The brooms are strong, well-crafted objects.

But Plum's video portion is problematic. It records a performance of black-clad women playing musical instruments or sweeping and hitting the floor with brooms around a circle of candles in the middle of the room. The artist writes in her statement that "the performance ritual is limpia, or shamanic cleansing using brooms to draw the 'blocked' energy from deep within the earth." There is a forced, awkward sense of ritual to the piece, and the video does some hokey fade-ins.

But what is really annoying is the patronizing aspect of the performance; the artist says she wanted to find a way to "empower" the mothers of these murdered girls. Gee, what better way to be empowered than to be incorporated into Plum's art? You see three mothers in camera close-ups as they cry, and their names and the names of their murdered daughters appear on the screen. There is something exploitative about this. It's presumptuous, using these women to make the performance seem more "authentic." Adding an element of self-absorption, Plum shows a picture of herself with her name right after the mothers.

Lise Bjorn's work has similar problems. Her wall installation is effective, but her video is distracting. She developed a network of women all over the world to create the components of the installation. Each woman embroidered the name of one of the 450 dead or disappeared women on a shirt-label-size piece of fabric. They embroidered "Unknown" in their own languages for the unidentified victims. The nametags are really, really wonderful, and the idea of all these different women painstakingly embroidering the names of the dead is loving and moving. You see the care and varying degrees of skill that went into each tiny tag. The names are stitched in block letters, in italics, sometimes with little hearts or other symbols; one was even given a tiny decorative border. Complete strangers spending time doing something as laborious and intimate as hand-stitching the letters of a murdered woman's name creates a visually and conceptually poignant gesture.

The only problem with the labels is that Bjorn had to go and overwork the idea; a simple grid of labels apparently wasn't enough for her. She decided to translate the Mexican national anthem into Morse code and use the labels as the dots and dashes in a conceptually addlepated move. What also undermines the work is the fact that Bjorn felt the need to include a video of herself explaining the project with a couple of still photographs of people embroidering things. The project isn't that hard to understand, and the artist's statement on the wall is plenty of explanation. The video is extraneous and smacks of self-importance. Bjorn has created the kind of "interview with the artist" that an institution might produce for someone's retrospective.

The horror of the murders in Jurez makes you want to do something to stop them, to help the victims. It's inspired the artists in the show to make art about it with varying degrees of success. Now, if only the powers that be in Jurez could be inspired to action.


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