By definition secretions are always connected to the body. They either have a function for the organism, or they are excretions, which are released substances with no functional purpose anymore. They are deeply connected to the materiality of the body, because they are part of this perdurable entity, of the side of us that is finite and mortal. However, especially in violent contexts like war or domestic violence, the body itself could become nothing more than collateral damage, in other words, a secretion or, perhaps, an excretion of our society. It is interesting to look at how the word “secretion” can be used in that context.
Human history has always been intertwined with actions searching to preserve our bodies, to fight against death, and that anxiety has also made us place our knowledge in material things. From mummies to photographs, there is a constant search for immortality in preservation. Then if we think about our bodies, they are also producers of these traces. From blood to hair, secretions leave evidence of our passage through earth, of our personal DNA. That is why they are an essential part in forensic research and the act of memory.
But as secretions are linked with reminiscence, they are also connected with forgetting. Traces that we leave before dying are always partial and can be erased too. In the case of unidentifiable bodies, or bodies of missing people, the existence of remains, marks, footprints, matter, or anything, becomes even more crucial. They help with the grief of their loved ones, with the processes demanding justice, and also building community narratives of remembrance. Then secretions act as testimonies of actions and events we have forgotten, or simply don’t want to remember.
There are several artists and designers that have worked around this theme and that have interrogated the connection between the body secretions and our acts of remembering/forgetting. Using secretions like blood, semen and piss in art can give a clear idea about disappearing bodies ("desaparecidos"). but on the other side it can be provocative to see the connection between the body's matter and the memories of violence and death. Here are two examples of how this inquiry has been materialised.
Artist Teresa Margolles and photographer Angela Strassheim have both worked inside the morgues of their cities. In their works they connect forensic techniques to the way we perceive the body. Each work infuses art with traces of violence and loss, as they both seek to highlight the marks of blood, scent, or DNA, produced by unidentified bodies.
Margolles creates fantasy bubbles (“En el Aire” 2003), which come from the water used to clean bodies in a morgue in Mexico City. Strassheim portrays the un-cleanable traces of DNA in the walls of suburban homes where familial homicides took place (“Evidence”, 2014).
“A morgue, for me, is the thermometer of society”, states Margolles.
We will be exploring more thoroughly how these and other artists create experiences that make us more conscious of disappearing bodies’, and of the traces of violence that we can find in the history of human secretions.
Can we use secretions to better understand the realities of other bodies? And how are artists using this materiality to interrupt our sensorial experiences of the world and confront us to forgotten voices?
More info on Teresa Margolles?
Check Traces of Death - The work of Teresa Margolles