Sunday, September 28, 2008

Art Against the Wall

By Scott Nicol

International borders are abstract concepts, little more than lines on maps that we imagine upon the earth. Existing outside of the real world of rivers, mountains, or deserts, political boundaries have no bearing on ecosystems. Ephemeral, the lines shift from decade to decade, century to century, making old maps obsolete. Still, the map and the concept that it represents are privileged over the actual landscape. The wall under construction along the U.S.-Mexico border is an attempt to impose a political fantasy upon living ecosystems, to transform a line on a map into a permanent line of concrete and steel on the land.

The border wall is meant to enforce division, to block the migration of humans based on the national boundary that encircled them at birth. Near San Diego it consists of parallel 18 foot tall steel walls with stadium lights, cameras, and a road in between. In Arizona rusted steel landing mats left over from the Vietnam War have been welded together and driven into the earth. Three hundred and thirteen miles of pedestrian walls and vehicle barriers had been built by March 31, 2008; another six hundred and seventy miles are to be built by January. Walls will slice through parks and National Wildlife Refuges, communities and businesses, farms and homes. They will stop the movement of endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn and ocelot, but according to the Border Patrol human migrants will only be slowed by a few minutes.

In the face of something so destructive and absurd, what role can art play?

Migrating from the campuses of South Texas College and the University of Texas at Brownsville to the McA2 Creative Incubator in McAllen, and scheduled to travel on to Monterrey, Mexico, the Art Against the Wall exhibition allows artists living along the border to address this question. Much of the work is didactic, like Monica Ramirez’ painting “International Friendship”, depicting a golden Statue of Liberty obscured by a crude stone wall with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” written on its impasto surface. Oscar Martinez flirts with abstraction, using bands of paint and scraps of plywood to overwhelm a photograph of a concertina wire-topped prison fence in “Crossing the Dividing Line”. In “Anatomy of a Border Wall” Victor Alvarez and Rachael Brown digitally impose fencing onto landscapes that will soon be scarred by actual walls. These and other works in the show express a mix of fear and outrage at what the artists see as a tremendous injustice, an assault on border communities and American ideals. Political in its inception, this show and these artists want to stop the border wall.

The border wall is actually a series of walls with wide gaps in between, the first of which were built near San Diego, California in 1995. As more walls have been constructed near cities, immigrants have traveled deeper into the desert to get around them. This has lead to hundreds of deaths due to dehydration and exposure, a tragic situation that artists in Tijuana, Mexico wanted to bring to light. In 2003 they bolted coffins to the Mexican side of the border wall. Each was decorated and inscribed with a year and the number of crossers who had died that year. For 1995 the number of confirmed dead was 61; in 2000 there were 499. The artists sought to transform the border wall into a graveyard, a memorial to the dead that its construction had caused.

Like the graffiti that covered the West German face of the Berlin wall, the placement of the coffins both undermines the border wall’s authority and protests the authoritarianism that brought it into being. Removed from the art world of galleries and museums, they occupy the real world where people risk their lives to enter the United States, and where military means are marshaled to stop them. They are both a warning to crossers and a reproach to the United States. Affixed to the border wall the coffins become part of the reality of the wall, mediating the perception of the wall of those who encounter it. But they have not stopped further construction. Three years after their installation, and two weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, calling for more than 700 miles of border wall modeled on the barrier from which the coffins hang.

The transformation of the map’s depiction to the reality of miles of walls is currently underway. Can more art reverse this conjuring trick? During the Spanish Civil War, with Franciso Franco attempting to overthrow Spain’s Republic and install himself as dictator, artists were commissioned to make work that would rally world opinion behind the Republican government to stop Franco’s advance. Pablo Picasso’s epic “Guernica”, with its chaotic disfigurement of humans and animals, was a reaction to the bombing of the Basque village of the same name in which 1,600 civilians died. The chaos of Picasso’s composition was meant to capture the raw terror felt by Franco’s victims as they desperately sought shelter. It has shaped our perception of the event and of Franco’s brutality, but it did not prevent him from taking Spain from democracy to fascist dictatorship.

A reproduction of “Guernica” hangs in the United Nations beside the door to the Security Council chamber. In 2003, when Colin Powell made his now infamous presentation to the UN Security Council laying out evidence for the invasion of Iraq, “Guernica” was covered with a blue banner. The United States did not want the backdrop for the call to war to be a depiction of the horrors of aerial bombardment. Picasso’s painting was viewed as a threat to the control of the message. In the intervening years support for the invasion of Iraq has plummeted, from 90% of Americans in favor of the war to 70% opposed. This dramatic shift was not the result of a single news report, act of protest, or work of art. It is the accumulation of all of these that has inexorably pushed the national debate.

The artists of the borderlands who seek to stop the walls hope for a similar result. Whether images on gallery walls or coffins on the border wall itself, the goal is to shape the conversation, moving it from the xenophobia and “broken borders” rhetoric of CNN’s Lou Dobbs to the lives and landscape that the border walls destroy. It is the art of engagement, addressing the world and addressed to the communities that these artists live in. Their hope is that the rest of the nation will engage in this dialogue and perceive the border walls as they do before more is lost.

This article originally appeared in Voices of Art magazine.


Anonymous said...

Why don't you move to Mexico then?

Ennui Prayer said...

Geez, Anon, how original and brave of you to say something like that behind a mask.

Joey said...

The voices of ignorance (yes that's YOU "anonymous" usually fail to realize the full scope of this policy of bigoted xenophobia.
The fascists that build the walls have something in mind other than just keeping the "aliens" out. They also want to keep YOU in!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your view.It was of great help to me as I am a half Mexican artist living in Canada working on the wall issue for my next exhibit.Strange how there was so much drama around the Berlin wall but today the Mexico/U.S border seems like a normal thing.

yesh said...

Thanks for sharing your view.It was of great help to me as I am a half Mexican artist living in Canada working on the wall issue for my next exhibit.Strange how there was so much drama around the Berlin wall but today the Mexico/U.S border seems like a normal thing.