(...) One day in the spring of 2000 the corpse of a young punk arrived at the morgue in Mexico City: another casualty in the endless war of drug trafficking and gangsterism that pervades the slums of the biggest megalopolis in the Western hemisphere. Peacefully resting on the stainless steel examination table of the mortuary, the slender body of the man told a story of deprivation and defiance. This heroin addict (the drug that quite recently has displaced other substances from the tastes of the Mexican underworld) had tattoos covering most of his body and carried a wide array of piercings. Both forms of "ornamental disfigurement," despite their fashionable dissemination in the mainstream society, can be seen as an "honourable degradation" that conveys the person's resentment with the social or metaphysical order.
We all know that, despite popular wisdom, death is not egalitarian. Social taxonomies are re-inscribed not only in the causes of death but also in the fate of our remains, the quality of our funerary rites and monuments, and the amount of public attention devoted to our disappearance. Despite the fact that the punk's body had been officially identified and claimed by his family, it was in risk of suffering the ultimate exclusion: being disposed of in a common grave or, worse, ending up as a specimen in a medical faculty amphitheatre to be stripped (even) of its carnal properties. The dead man had not only been denied education, social security, a satisfactory job, or any semblance of a future, but his remains were condemned to bureaucratic oblivion because his mother could not afford to buy him even a modest coffin for burial or cremation. This, of course, made the man's passage through a post-mortem examination even more absurd. In a country where over ninety percent of crimes are never solved due to the inefficiency and corruption of the judiciary system, most (surely his death) go unpunished. Therefore, what was the purpose of subjecting a corpse to an autopsy if such a survey would not lead to prosecuting the killers or was not needed for legal identification?The man's inert beauty and his terrible case caught the attention of Teresa Margolles, leader of the SEMEFO group (the acronym for Servicio Médico Forense, the "Forensic Medical Service") that for more than a decade has devoted its art to explore the æsthetics of death or, more precisely, what its members called "the 'life' of the corpse": the transformations the body undergoes after death. With no hesitation, Margolles came up with a daunting proposal. She offered the mother a casket to pay homage to her son in exchange for a section of his corpse to show as a readymade. Margolles even suggested that she would like to acquire the man's tongue or penis, because both had piercings and therefore, metaphorically, "spoke" about his defiance of the social norms. These body parts would convey his claims of marginal and global contemporaneity - in short, his subcultural identity.
Certainly, it would be easy to suggest that both tongue and penis are exchangeable sexual organs, and that in bargaining for them Margolles implicitly pointed to the symbolic castration implied in the killing and silencing of the young man. But her offer did not seem to offend the man's relatives and friends who, forced by circumstance and their belief that they were in some way commemorating the deceased, agreed to exchange his tongue for a metal coffin. This, to be honest, was a rather good deal for Margolles: she already owned not one but two caskets, which she had previously purchased in order to discreetly retrieve a series of body casts for a previous sculpture (Catafalco, 1997) from the mortuary. So, ironically, the casket she exchanged made two trips in and out of the forensic service: first, to smuggle "works of art" that involved an infringement of the rules of the institution, and later as part of an ethically uncomfortable bartering that provided a human organ to be shown as contemporary art. The tongue (after being forensically preserved) was displayed in three different exhibition sites in the first half of 2001. It was first exhibited at the X-Teresa contemporary arts centre before travelling to ace Gallery in Los Angeles, crossing the border in a standard courier service. Finally, it was included, as one of the main pieces, in the poorly curated and "official" historical overview of contemporary Mexican sculpture at the Fine Arts Palace in downtown Mexico City. […}