Biennials & festivals

Teresa Margolles builds monument to 100 people who died in the streets of Los Angeles

Imposing concrete shelter in Echo Park incorporates debris and residue gathered at homicide scenes

How can we stop the relentless flow of gun violence in American cities, where a person’s death grabs headlines for a nanosecond only to be washed away, at least digitally, by more recent victims?

The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, who has made work steeped in the violence in her home country and beyond, has taken the time to research, visit, photograph and videotape the murder sites of 100 homicide victims in Los Angeles who died on public streets since 1 January 2015, ultimately transforming the nearly invisible residue from these sites into a monument too big to be ignored. 

Due to be completed on Friday (22 July), the structure is a six-metre-wide concrete shelter planted in a corner of Echo Park, near downtown Los Angeles. Called La Sombra (shade or shadow), the structure is both imposing and inviting—providing some much-needed shade in the park. 

The water used for making the concrete—which appears particularly gritty in texture-—came from buckets of water taken by local artists to various homicide sites, where they rinsed a section of that street and sponged up debris or residue according to Margolles’ guidelines. And the monument’s size? “The size of the shelter comes from the scale of the tragedy,” the artist said during an installation visit.

Her project is part of the city-wide exhibition Current: LA Water, a new biennial organised by Los Angeles's Department of Cultural Affairs with the help of a $1m grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. All projects this year, spread across 15 city parks (until August 14), took on the theme of water, with Edgar Arceneaux making a provocative fountain-like sculpture in a city park where the actual water fountains rarely work; Kerry Tribe's film Exquisite Corpse follows the Los Angeles River from north to south, using the river itself as the glue in a surrealist-leaning collage-narrative that brings together an industrial water sanitation plant, homeless people and unlikely animals.

Margolles, who rejects religious or ritual-based readings of her work, also nods to water as a unifying agent. “The water used to clean bodies at the morgue is the same water we use to shower,” she says.The artist has illustrated as much in previous projects, like the room from 2003 in which visitors were greeted by bubbles (En el Aire)—a light-hearted spectacle until you realise that the bubbles are made out water that had been used to wash corpses. 

This time the water didn’t come into contact with dead bodies and traces of blood were also rare, but the artist and her collaborators sponged water over other evidence: yellow police tape, candles or the wax droppings from them, along with graffiti (“we would always find some marking,” she says).

A video showing these “actions” will be screened in seven different locations near La Sombra shelter ranging from a café to a tattoo parlour. They also contain basic facts about each homicide, the majority of which were gun-related, including the victims' names and ages. The video runs over five hours. “I want these murders to be seen as more than numbers, more than statistics,” she offered.