Margarita Cabrera

Box 13 Artspace, Houston

Through February 13, 2010
by Michael Bise

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      Margarita Cabrera
      Space In Between, 2010
      Project at Box 13, Houston
      Courtesy the artist

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      Margarita Cabrera, Peludita 1, 2007
      For complete caption, see image gallery.

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      I was initially skeptical of Margarita Cabrera’s current installation Space in Between at Houston’s Box 13 Artspace. Cabrera has turned the gallery space into a sewing workshop and hired Mexican immigrants living in Texas (and recommended through The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center) as her employees. The workshop will manufacture the soft sculptures of indigenous Southwestern plants sewn from border patrol uniforms for which Cabrera has become known. The sculptures will be included in the group exhibition In Lieu of Unity at Ballroom Marfa in March.

      I have always thought Cabrera’s sculptures, which put a Pop sensibility to work around contemporary social issues, visually striking. But, Cabrera’s workshop, by foregrounding the notion of paid labor demands that much of the criticism of the project rest not on aesthetic or conceptual ground, but on labor practices and the commodity value associated with the production of art objects. Cabrera is not alone in her exploration of labor and commodity value within the system of art production. Unfortunately, art often replicates, within its own discourse, the same systems of class domination it seeks to critique. I am opposed to the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, whose projects have included paying drug-addicted Brazilian prostitutes in drugs to have lines tattooed across their backs, spraying Iraqi immigrants with polyurethane foam then letting it harden and paying Mexican laborers $65 to cut out a wall from floor to ceiling and hold it at a sixty degree angle for four hours a day five days in a row. In spite of his claim that the work is a criticism of the exploitation of marginalized labor, Sierra engages in the same exploitation, calls it art and reaps the many benefits of so designating it.

      Cabrera’s workshop at Box 13 operates from a more personal perspective. Instead of simply highlighting global issues, Cabrera asks what she can do within her own practice as an artist to help individuals who have suffered at the hands of the economic inequities between the United States and Mexico. While her work addresses the flaws of capitalism as an ideology, the mechanics of her practice don’t operate on the idea of a global revolution, but on the notion of steady, principled reform from within the system.
      Cabrera’s assistants are not Sierra’s anonymous Mexican, Brazilian or Iraqi laborers, but are people with names: Esmeralda Perez, Teresa Sanchez, Doris Lindo, Nora Ovieda, Carlos Calles, Abanil Miguel DeLuna and Maria Lopez. Each assistant contributes to the project by sewing an image of a narrative from his or her own life experience into the fabric of the uniforms that Cabrera then assembles into sculptures. Because of their considerable contribution to the project, Cabrera refers to these workers not as assistants but as co-authors. Their payment in based not on what they would receive sewing in a factory sweatshop but on what Cabrera says she would pay any studio assistant. In addition to their hourly wage, they also participate in profit sharing from sales of the works. According to Cabrera, an effort was also made to assign each of the workers a tax identification number, which, should immigration amnesty be passed into law, would put them one step closer to citizenship. Cabrera’s work succeeds where most social art projects fail by going beyond a critique of the system and offering her workers solutions to unemployment, cultural anonymity and alienation in the form of payment, artistic agency and the possibility of national citizenship.

      Cabrera’s project at Box 13 is, however, not entirely unproblematic. Artists benefit financially and socially not only from the products they make, but also from the conceptual framework surrounding those products. Long after a project has ended, the sculptures have been sold and the assistants have been paid, Cabrera continues to benefit from the authenticity accrued to her work by the people she has hired. The value of this authenticity manifests in the form of inclusion in museum and gallery exhibitions, admission to residencies and employment in teaching positions. From this perspective, Cabrera’s designation of her employees as co-authors is problematic. Ultimately, Cabrera’s sculptures enter into the cultural economy of the art world as Margarita Cabrera works. But in the end, Cabrera’s practice takes active part in the political fight to end labor oppression without sacrificing aesthetic power and stands as an admirable example to artists who still believe in art and liberal democracy.

      Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.

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