400 Women - Tamsyn Challenger interview
Edinburgh Art Festival 2011 show inspired by tragic events
This article is from 2011.
Tamsyn Challenger has defied the notion that political art is dead by collaborating with 200 artists in response to the murders of 400 Mexican women. She tells Kirstin Innes about the tragic events that inspired her installation
For the last couple of decades of least, the gallery-centred world of contemporary art has been a largely apolitical space, with the popularity of conceptual and often oblique work tending to overshadow that of artists engaging with or responding directly to actual issues.
The prominence given to Tamsyn Challenger's installation 400 Women in this year's Edinburgh Art Festival programme suggests this may be changing, although it's not necessarily a change the artist herself, whose work has always tackled gender politics head-on, and on a global scale, welcomes.
"In some ways I think it's important for political art to remain unfashionable," she says. "As soon as political action becomes commercial it has the potential to lose the strength behind its focus. I'm in two minds really: on the one hand it's vital that challenging work is being made and artists wed their intellect to their aesthetic but it's retrograde if it's a temporary trend."
400 Women is nothing if not a challenging work. It's a response to the seemingly systematic murder, rape and abduction of over 400 women and young girls, which has happened over a decade in the Mexican border region of Ciudad Juárez. Born out of Challenger's own experience talking to the mothers of the victims, the installation is deliberately intended to unsettle the viewer.
"One mother in particular affected me," says Challenger. "Her name is Consuelo Valenzuela. Her daughter, Julieta Marleng Gonzalez Valenzuela, went missing in March 2001 when she was 17. I'd first met Consuelo in a hotel but it was when we left the room and were in the foyer, a much more public place, that she decided to press the postcards of her daughter into my hands. I was nervous, then ashamed of feeling like I wanted to get away from this person who was suffering so much. The shame of my reaction made everything immediately vivid: her proximity, her smell, her grip, the translator nearly shouting, "She wants you to take them, to give them to anyone, anyone you know," but the most arresting memory for me is Julieta's face, zinging out from this three-colourway postcard. It had been reproduced from a snapshot and the face was blurred. She had no eyes, a bleached-out nose, everything was faded. And I think I just wanted to bring her face back."
Since returning from Mexico in 2006, Challenger has commissioned over 200 artists to create portraits of the missing women. She tried to find links between the artists and their subjects, even if this was simply making pairs with the same initials or ages.
"As just one individual artist, I understood I needed a critical mass of voices to realise the idea within a singular installation. It was vital for me and for the concept that these women didn't remain part of a number, but continued on, through the work, as individuals. If I had made all the works myself this individuality in memorium would be lost; it would have only expressed my character. So I knew I needed individuals, with all their unique qualities, to express the individuality of the woman or girl I gave them to represent."
It's also been important to Challenger that the way audiences access these portraits feels distinct from the white cube gallery experience. 400 Women originally ran in a Shoreditch basement composed of concrete tunnels, chiming with the environment many of the women were held captive in. In Edinburgh, the venue is a former schoolhouse (a number of the girls were "harvested" from the same computer school). It's immersive, and designed to leave a lasting impression.
"I hope that, unlike the ease with which these women's lives were disposed of, the 400 Women works won't be easily disregarded. The importance we bestow upon objects like this is a tragic irony embedded in the concept. Ciudad Juárez has become an open wound, but ideally I would like 400 to stand against gender violence globally and for the work to resonate on a personal level."
Tamsyn Challenger: 400 Women, Canongate Venture, New Street, 07870 935442, 4 Aug–Sep, free.