Witnessing My Own Shadow

By Erika Hirugami, MAAB | Founder & CEO at CuratorLove

This past summer Los Angeles saw the birth and death of its own shadow. As a part of Current:LA Public Art Biennial brought forth by the Department of Cultural Affairs; Teresa Margolles erected La Sombra, a monumental yet minimalist structure made of concrete that stood colossal at Echo Park. 

La Sombra was born out of death; a monumental signifier of the state of our city. Margolles confronting the death tolls of Los Angeles, was invigorated into accomplish this installation after a year long research project. Having accessed the Los Angeles Times archives, Margolles discovered that 975 murders took place in Los Angeles this past year. Which she marked in a city map over which she inlayed a spiral that began in Echo Park. After learning this, she and a group of volunteers took to the streets to ritualistically mark one hundred of the murder sites (those that rest on the spiral) with water. Having a degree in Forensic Science informs many of Margolles’ actions, thus the symbolic cleansing of the city gesturally mimicked an autopsy. Having collected the fluid remains from each of a hundred murders, allowed Margolles and her team to gather water which was mixed in with the concrete used to create La Sombra.

Alongside the installation, Margolles having quickly ventured herself within this community asked local shops to display the video documentary, filmed while collecting the water of the murder sites. The video was on view at El Clásico Tattoo, Sunday’s Best, Reggie’s Deli-Café, Elya Hair Salon, Echo Park Film Center, and Los Lavaderos Laundromat, during the duration of Current:LA. Each and every site selected is within walking distance to Echo Park. As Margolles explained she wanted La Sombra to permeate the community via word-of-mouth, she wanted people to be dragged on site having never even encountered the structure.

La Sombra dominated the landscape of Echo park for about a month, somewhere between mid July and mid August, thousands of people were fortunate to witness this installation. Considering that a city as vast as Los Angeles as a population of nearly four million people made me wonder at times what the structure itself witnessed. I found myself personally gravitating toward Echo Park during the days Margolles sculpture was on-site. Due in part to my previous interest in Teresa’s work; over the last couple of years I have gravitated toward her aesthetic practice in more ways than one, during my days at UCLA I used her work to inform a few of my papers, in my time at Sotheby’s I discuss various legal issues in art making processes referencing her practice. Needless to say I have been fascinated by Teresa Margolle’s work for an extended period of time, and having met her this past summer filled me with joy, but it also made me question the bureaucracy of city commissions, art manufacturing standards, public engagement and multiple other concerns. 

El Arte publico es lo menos publico que existe
— Teresa Margolles

During one of my initial encounters with Margolles, she stated that Public art is the least public type of art in existence. Hearing this unraveled a number of conflicts deep within me, after all how can public art not be public? Yet there seemed to be a poignant truth to said statement. La Sombra was commissioned by the city and paid for in conjunction with a private corporation whose sole focus seems to be a philanthropic cultural agenda. Furthermore, La Sombra was curated by Irene Tsatsos, Director of the Armory Center of the Arts, alongside a project curator and experience curator who also helped to see this project come alive. La Sombra is public or so I thought to myself, I somehow wanted people to visit the sculpture and passively observe (because in my mind Echo park was clearly an accessible museum) the structure while pontificating about its implications in this very public space. I was not considering public engagement at all (not back then anyway). What I witnessed during the next couple of weeks shattered my little public-art-engagement bubble.

For starters during the day of the official unveiling of La Sombra, a twenty-year-old Latino male was stabbed a couple of feet away from the structure itself. It seemed almost sinister to me that these two events converged. La Sombra was viewed as a contemporary memorial, after all it marks the deaths of almost a thousand people in Los Angeles. I however, could not think of this structure as a memorial, for me a memorial commemorates death, noble deaths far-removed, like those of war veterans. La Sombra to me, was not showing respect to something that happened decades ago, this was directly criticizing the injustice and death apparatus currently operating in the city of Angeles. I took a peak at Margolles’ research (as was made available by DCA) and found that a great portion of the murders that informed the creation of La Sombra where in fact young Latino and Black men. The entire concept was far from removed, after all its my people, my community, my city.

A conversation about gentrification arose courtesy of this installation. It seems Echo Park for some Angelinos still carries severe negative connotations, let us not forget that before the park’s restoration concluded in 2013 this was a place filled with gang members in a zone of the city that was less than optimal to be around (specially when its dark). However, after the city infused this location with a forty-five-million, two-year renovation, decked with lotus flowers, a playground, and a running path that goes around the entire lake; Echo became a prime yoga classroom, raspado, elote and paleta vendor nirvana, and a perfect space for hundreds of runners who now come for their daily exercise routine (alongside insane rental upsurges in housing all around the park, and too-too many hipster eateries that sprung up in the near vicinity to accommodate the needs of the new park goers). La Sombra being a city commission generated a very intriguing conversation about gentrification, as local Angelinos could not conceive of the city spending money in the arts at Echo Park before its renovation.  

But aside from the clearly negative and grim connotations, La Sombra witnessed many unique interactions on the happy spectrum of the city’s reality. I recall seeing dozens on infants use the structure as a hiding space while playing hide and seek with their parents. I also witnessed countless families turn each side of the structure into a field, to teach their children to play soccer and score goals. Some young adults turned the interior of the structure into a silly-string war-zone. Many couples gathered underneath the structures’ shade to enjoy their love for one another. People held picnics, some used it as a place to have a quick meal on the go, others would stop and get munchies from the local vendors and enjoy the shade. The homeless population also relished the shade as a place of refugee from the scorching summer heat, often turning La Sombra into a homeless camp. It even became a place for religious proselytizing on occasion. Furthermore, the global artist community embraced La Sombra as a place of aesthetic praxis, painters dragged their canvases underneath the shade to create, artists drew La Sombra as they felt inspired by its beauty, musicians came to jam under the structure, photographers held a number of fashion photo-shoots, and even Hollywood stopped by to use the structure in various commercials or filmed raw footage.

I had a conversation with a sibling of a murder victim under La Sombra. Her brother was murder near Echo park. She brought along with her a little girl, daughter of the deceased. While the little girl danced underneath the sculpture, her aunt burst into tears as she recounted the death of her brother. She explained in detail how she created an idealized reality of his murder in her mind, and how it shattered the moment the police department allowed her to view the murder itself (as it was caught on video). La Sombra witnessed the aftermath of murder and the potential for the future of our city, a complex reality that seeks redeeming praxis. The city spoke, La Sombra listened.

Teresa Margolles’s aesthetic practice often revolves around pain, loss and death; using bodies, human remains, corpses or even water distilled from the morgue she infuses a level of urgency into her work. She mentioned that having lived in places like Sinaloa and Mexico City, witnessing herself the trajectory, and apparatuses that lead to a deadly apex she is concerned that this city is taken the first steps toward a reality we need not see in our future. In contrast to modern Mexico and the death tolls courtesy of the war on drugs, the dehumanization of Mexican society, and the cruelty that is ever-present in day-to-day life, I can understand what she means, and fear for what this city is beginning to convey with statistics such as the ones responsible for the birth of La Sombra.

There is a long history of death in Echo park, Teresa explained to me. Death is all around us. In Los Angeles it’s a reality we don’t keep ever-present, but it’s a reality that can signal to our demise in a near future. La Sombra came to witness the reality of a city in which displacement has emerged at large and alarming numbers, gentrification is all around us. La Sombra denounced murder and witnessed murder, in our recently renewed areas of recreation. In a sui generis language: intellectual, fragile, confrontational, colossal, momentous, critical, it had a conversation in a city that embraced its existence while questioning its presence.

After witnessing countless blissful and somber moments alike by La Sombra, my ideals of public engagement vanished. My essence of the reality of the city crashed, and my notions of being a part of a society in which death permeates every crevice of reality nearly broke my heart.

I witnessed La Sombra, it witnessed my reality.

More on Teresa Margolles

From left to right | Erika Hirugami, Teresa Margolles & Irene Tsatsos 

From left to right | Erika Hirugami, Teresa Margolles & Irene Tsatsos