Study in sight and sound
Crystal Bridges ‘Border Cantos’ exhibit makes art of what’s left behind.
BENTONVILLE — Once in Arizona I heard an old cowboy say, “A border is a scar on the landscape,” and from the way he said it, I assumed it was an old American Indian saying, a bit of folk wisdom handed down through generations, taken for granted and hardly thought about.
But when thinking about it and trying to discover the source, I realized that it wasn’t some cliched proverb but maybe an original notion, something that, if I had the wherewithal, I should attribute to the speaker.
That was 25 years ago, in American Nogales, a few blocks from Mexican tumult, and I don’t remember why it came up.
It stuck all this time because it sounded poetic and might be true. But while wandering through the new “Border Cantos: Sight & Sound Explorations From the Mexican-American Border” exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I realized it wasn’t true at all. A scar is the result of trauma, a seam that marks where the body was split, but it signals re-integration and healing, where the flesh has knitted together. The assertions of punk philosopher Henry Rollins aside, a scar isn’t really stronger than regular tissue (it’s only about 80 percent as strong) but it’s better than the alternative. Though we might think them ugly because they are a residual of pain, reminders of bad happenings we have survived, we ought to find them beautiful.
A scar is a repair, a new beginning.
And a border is meant to be an end. A border separates rather than joins. A border is a manmade thing, imposed and maintained by governments, breached by wind and weather and creatures ignorant of its purpose and undeterred by statute. A border is something only our kind can see
and only with some help. We need a fence, a wall, a checkpoint, a smoothed channel of sand — something like an outfield’s warning track — to see a border.
Richard Misrach, the photographer whose monumental (60-by-80-inch) pictures hang on these walls, means to help us see the border. Not so much as a political symbol, not as a physical barrier separating us from them, not as a dam holding back a wash of the unwanted — but as a lonely ribbon cutting through an empty, silent sea of dust. As thin black stitching breaking for a horizon, lighting out for the territory beyond the scrub hills and ocher plains. As a fugitive, futile idea as vain and doomed as the statue in Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” Misrach’s aim is not journalistic. He’s after something more forensic and universal.
He says he wanted to make beautiful pictures and Misrach has, though many of his images — with bleached skies and stark reminders of human absence (the things we leave behind) — bespeak a certain terribleness. The borderlands are cruel and men are crueler: Witness the martial detritus (ammo boxes, shotgun shells and speckled human silhouette targets) of the U.S. Border Patrol.
To this end, few people appear in these photos. Those who do inevitably have their faces obscured by the barriers we’ve put up to keep them away. On their side of the border, which appears in a few shots as festive and color-shot as it is indistinct, a dreamy, out-of-focus Mexico hums with messy signs of life as opposed to the alkaline blankness of “our side,” where the desert seems like a killing jar for those desperate enough to try to cross it.
Misrach started shooting in the desert in 2004 long before the border became a pop political flashpoint, before Donald Trump became president
in part by promising to “build a wall” and get Mexico to pay for it. In fact, nearly 700 miles of wall already exists, mostly in and near the towns along the nearly 2,000-mile border. It was built in fits and starts, as betrayed by the lack of a uniform style. In places it’s a corrugated iron fence made from repurposed military helicopter landing mats, sometimes it’s chain link topped with razor wire, sometimes it’s X- shaped barricades like those found on the Normandy beaches during D-Day. But most often in Misrach’s photos it’s a disarmingly benign-looking metal picket fence. Mainly it works to keep vehicles from surreptitiously crossing the border. People can go over and around it.
But once they do, they might have to cross 50 miles of desert to reach the first road. Some die in 120-degree heat. And some who make it leave behind evidence of their journey, like the backpack Misrach found with a pair of yellow boxer shorts bearing the cartoon character Taz (Tasmanian devil) riding a skateboard, an empty bag of Ruffles, a blue plastic razor, soap, toothbrush, socks and a few condoms.
Misrach photographs these poignant articles, as well as signs of efforts to mitigate the cruelty, such as the frayed blue flags snapping above plastic barrels
filled with jugs of water for migrants.
After meeting sculptor and experimental composer Guillermo Galindo in 2011, Misrach started hauling back some of the things he found for Galindo to convert into musical instruments.
Outside the exhibit entrance, Galindo’s musical sculpture Fuente de Lagrimas (Fountain of Tears), constructed of a water barrel peppered by shotgun pellets and bullets, stands. Water drips from its puncture wounds, falling onto a metal plate, making a soothing, sloshing sound. Inside the gallery there’s a theremin he built from discarded bicycle rims and an instrument he calls the “ropofono,” a loom with contact microphones that brush against clothing discarded by migrants. It makes a ghostly sound, like the rustling of furtive night walkers.
Galindo, a Mexico Cityborn U. S. citizen, has also mounted a damaged section of the wall — one of the old helicopter pads, twisted probably by a ramming vehicle — into a gonglike sculpture he calls The Angel Exterminador (Exterminating Angel). He’s re-created the mysterious effigies that Misrach has photographed — X-framed agave stalks wearing tattered clothing — into a stringed instrument. Elsewhere he has converted a discarded can into the resonating chamber of an instrument modeled
on a two-stringed Chinese erhu. He strings empty shotgun shells together to create his version of a West African shaker.
Throughout the gallery you can hear Galindo’s ambient, organic music, a 260- minute score called “Sonic Borders” played on the instruments he designed. It haws and sighs, trickles and coos, and gradually pulls the listener into the wide and teeming emptiness of the desert.
While the artists might deny the political nature of their work, it’s impossible to ignore the geopolitical implications of the physical border barriers — the sterility of the rich north is again and again contrasted
with the teeming desperation of the south. Misrach has several images of Border Patrol drag tires — low-tech methods of smoothing the sand near the border so that migrants’ footprints would be apparent.
Galindo says that he first got a sense of how he could collaborate with Misrach on this project when he noticed how the dragged tires made
a kind of staff in the sand on which notes might be plotted by migrants’ feet. Seen another way, the drag tires make a warning track like those found in baseball stadiums. They signal a danger zone: Look up, you’re about to hit the wall.
Which, on the U.S. side, can be problematic. While Mexican artists are free to decorate their side of the wall, the U.S. Border Patrol allows no such displays. In many places, they don’t even allow access to it.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote in his often misinterpreted poem “Mending Wall,” the one that many think has as its moral “good fences make good neighbors.” What “Border Cantos” makes clear is that, above all else, a border is a made thing, just like a work of art. They go up, but invariably they come down.
And the only real difference between us and the people on the other side is the fact of our separation.
A detail from photographer Richard Misrach’s Playas de Tijuana No. 1, San Diego, California, this 2013 pigment print hangs at “Border Cantos: Sight & Sound Explorations From the Mexican-American Border.” The exhibition continues through April 24 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Guillermo Galindo’s Lone Jar is a pigment print that is part of the “Border Cantos” exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
This sculpture by Guillermo Galindo is created from immigrants’ clothing, wood and string. Effigy is part of a collaborative exhibition with photographer Richard Misrach at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Agua No. 1, near Calexico, California is the title of this pigment print by photographer Richard Misrach.
Richard Misrach’s Protest Sign, Brownsville, Texas is one of his prints hanging at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It is part of the collaborative exhibition “Border Cantos,” with sculptor and composer Guillermo Galindo.
Border Target No. 51, near Gulf of Mexico, Texas is a Richard Misrach photograph that is part of the exhibition “Border Cantos” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Shell Pinata is made from sheet metal and Border Patrol shotgun shells casings. It is part of the “Border Cantos” exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Photographer Richard Misrach (left) and sculptor/composer Guillermo Galindo are the artists of “Border Cantos: Sight & Sound Explorations From the Mexican-American Border” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.