Study in sight and sound

Crys­tal Bridges ‘Bor­der Can­tos’ ex­hibit makes art of what’s left be­hind.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - PHILIP MARTIN

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.

Cour­tesy of Richard Mis­rach

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.

Cour­tesy of Guillermo Galindo

Guillermo Galindo’s Lone Jar is a pig­ment print that is part of the “Bor­der Can­tos” ex­hi­bi­tion at Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art.

Cour­tesy of Guillermo Galindo

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.

Cour­tesy of Richard Mis­rach

Agua No. 1, near Calex­ico, Cal­i­for­nia is the ti­tle of this pig­ment print by pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Mis­rach.

Cour­tesy of 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.

Cour­tesy of Richard Mis­rach

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.

Cour­tesy of Guillermo Galindo

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF

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.

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