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Repatriation: Why did this artist carry a body bag across Berlin?

Following news of shocking violence in Mexico, Berlin-based artist Alejandro Rodriguez carried a body bag 5 kilometres across the city.

Photo: Elba Quintero

Anyone walking through central Berlin would have been struck by the unusual sight in front of them: a man bearing what appeared to be the dead body of an adult on his shoulders from the Chapel of Reconciliation in Mitte five kilometres across town to the Mexican embassy in Berlin-Tiergarten.  

As he walked, strangers stopped in their tracks. Some began to follow him, others asked questions of fellow passers-by. What exactly was this?

When he reached his destination, the man laid the body bag down on the embassy steps, lit a candle, and walked away.  

In Mexico, a fellow dancer disappeared: Maximiliano Corrales. He was found murdered and his body left out in the open.

It was the police who eventually opened the human-shaped package. It did not contain a corpse. Instead, the sack was filled with a large quantity of soil scattered with plant seeds, packed into a man’s shirt and trousers and wrapped in a blanket. This was an artwork by Berlin-based artist Alejandro Rodriquez. 

Within a few days of the story being reported in the press, we spoke with the artist to hear more about his work, titled Repatriation.  

Photo: Elba Quintero

The pictures of your walk across town are startling. What was the motivation? 

This performance which I called Repatriation was a protest for forty immigrants who were murdered in Mexico. I’m also an immigrant, so the news affected me. That’s when I began to plan this action as a performer. Then, in Mexico, a fellow dancer disappeared: Maximiliano Corrales. He was found murdered and his body left out in the open. That became part of my motivation, too – to try and create an international protest for him.  

Can you explain a little more about the forty migrants who were killed?

I began to think more about my colleague who was murdered. I started crying. 

It happened in the north of Mexico on the border to the US. On March 27, forty migrants from South America were burned alive in a shelter. They had been housed in temporary accommodation before they were going to be deported and, in protest, they lit their mattresses on fire. But the authorities closed the door, shut them inside, and they were burned alive.  

Photo: Elba Quintero

After that, people started to investigate and a lot of corruption came to light. One fact which stayed with me was that their bodies were kept for almost two months: they could not be identified, which made their repatriation impossible. That was why I wanted to perform this action of carrying a body to the Mexican embassy as if to ask for its repatriation.  

You carried this body – this object in the shape of a body – five kilometers across Berlin from the Chapel of Reconciliation to the Mexican Embassy. It weighed 40 kilograms. How did people respond as they saw you in the streets?  

It was very impressive because I could feel the change: I got different reactions in different places. At some points, no one paid attention, but at other points people stopped and wanted to ask questions about what I was doing, what I was carrying. They wouldn’t ask me directly, but they asked others around me. Some even started to walk with me for a while, then they moved off again.  

Photo: Elba Quintero

After something like three or four kilometres, I started to feel pain in my back and I began to break down emotionally. I could feel the power of this image I was creating and I began to think more about my colleague who was murdered. I started crying. I started to breathe very loudly. I was walking with difficulties. And then people started to look at me again in a different way.  

Did they become more afraid, or more compassionate? 

More compassionate, I think. Actually, just when I was about to arrive at the Mexican embassy, I saw a couple of cops who looked at me carrying this body, saw that I was crying, and they didn’t ask anything. They just moved out of the way.  

Photo: Elba Quintero

On March 27, forty migrants from South America were burned alive in a shelter.

Could you tell us a little more about this dancer, Maximiliano Corrales. Was he someone you knew personally?  

Yes, I knew him personally. It’s not like we were close friends but we were part of a community. And then suddenly he disappeared. No one could find him. Three days later, his body appeared left in the streets, left in the open air. He belonged to a company in Culiacan – the city where he lived in Sinaloa – and the company started to try and put pressure on the government to resolve the case. Even now, they have not opened an investigation.  

Photo: Elba Quintero

There’s a lot of violence in Mexico with these cartels and the organised crime and a lot of innocent people are dying because of that – but what the government is doing is criminalising the victims. They just stop looking for them and say “Oh, they were involved in organised crime.” They don’t give proof, they just say it.  

In the pictures of your performance, we only see the wrapping of the body bag. Can you describe what was inside?  

I made it with soil. I packed flower seeds into the soil, then I put clothes over it – trousers and a shirt – to give it the shape of a human body. At first, I wasn’t going to leave it there but take it somewhere else and see if something would grow from it. But in the end I thought it was more powerful to leave it there with a candle too. I hope that the wind didn’t blow it out. It looked like an altar.  

  • The hashtag being used online by the family and supporters of the dancer Maximiliano Corrales is #justiciaparamaximiliano – Justice for Maximiliano