“I will complete the wall.” — Presidential candidate Ted Cruz
“I’m not going to pay for that f***ing wall.” — former Mexican President Vicente Fox
“The wall just got ten feet higher.” — Presidential candidate Donald Trump
by Patricia Albers
Walk through Border Cantos: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo at the San Jose Museum of Art and watch the concept of the U.S.-Mexico border as “the wall” quickly crumble. In Richard Misrach’s panoramic pigment prints — the bedrock of this compelling collaboration – the border is, above all, the land, desolate, scarred and often sublime. Various barriers start and stop, graphically cresting hills, bisecting towns, or backstopping homesteads before petering out in the Pacific.
Here the beautiful and the incongruous mix with the tragic and the inscrutable. For Misrach and the experimental composer Guillermo Galindo, the border is also a repository of objects: breadcrumbs from tales we’ll never hear. Misrach’s images reveal a warp-wheeled bicycle, a battered steel drum marked AGUA, a girly-pink comb missing most of its teeth, a torn-up Spanish-language edition of Dr. Zhivago, and so on. It’s hard to imagine happy endings.
Many of these same objects show up in the gallery, combined and transformed by Galindo into kinetic sculpture/world music instruments. It turns out that shotgun shell casings and a plastic water jug make haunting music together. So do Border Patrol human-shaped targets and an immigrant’s boot. In compositions performed in videos and on a sound track, Galindo extracts spectral sounds from such detritus and conjures the border as an eerie place of the soul. There are few pictures of people in Border Cantos – but many ghosts.
The two artists’ collaboration traces to 2011, when Misrach attended one of Galindo’s performances. Since 2004, and especially since 2009, Misrach too had been working the U.S.-Mexico divide, walking, driving, and photographing the 1,969 miles (translate: 4 million steps) between Tijuana and Brownsville. After their meeting, the photographer began scavenging and shipping found objects to the East Bay composer, a less risky undertaking for an Anglo than for a Mexican-born U.S. citizen. “Border Cantos” shaped up as a call-and-response project in which the two bodies of work grew as symbiotic as the two nations in question.
Derived from the Italian word for “song,” a canto is a division in an epic poem. The poet Ezra Pound, famed for his own Cantos, described the genre as “a tale of the tribe” and “a poem to include history” in which “meaning is tied up with song.” All apply here. And, as with any epic, it’s impossible in a few hundred words to do justice to “Border Cantos” with its richly layered images, objects, sounds, and words.
An attempt might start with Misrach’s Border Patrol Drag Tire Tracks, Calexico, Ca. This sweeping image shows the Border Patrol version of “cutting for sign,” an old Native American technique for reading human tracks. Using trucks or SUVs and drag chains, agents pull jumbo tires across strips of land, more or less paralleling the wall. The resulting “drag road” reads like a set of smooth waves of dirt. Footprints are easily visible. (Immigrants respond by wearing booties made from squares of carpet or foam, thus avoiding trackable
prints.) Such Misrach photographs have often been compared to those made on 19th century survey expeditions to the West. This one recalls Timothy O’Sullivan’s iconic 1867 Sand Dunes Near Sand Springs, Nevada. Like Misrach’s photograph, O’Sullivan’s depicts a vast dry frontier that resists definition. O’Sullivan’s dunes are marked with the tracks of the photographer’s horse-drawn wagon, thus suggesting the need for European-Americans to measure, order, and control the land. Misrach’s drag road takes that idea to its ultimate end.
Meanwhile Galindo uses the same type of Border Patrol drag chain in his vaguely Mark di Suvero-like Ángel Exterminador/Exterminating Angel, standing nearby. From the chain hangs a bent corrugated steel strip of the wall scavenged by Misrach. It brings to mind a broken body, a fallen angel, a bird. In borrowing the title of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, Galindo implies a connection with Buñuel’s theme: the hypocrisy and hidden savagery of the privileged class. The composer honors its victims by playing the strip of border wall like a gong.
The only misstep in Border Cantos is the inclusion of an auxiliary gallery that gives primacy to Galindo’s object/instruments. It’s not that there aren’t some wonderful pieces here. There are. But others feel minor. Moreover, the explanations of the composer’s rather complex practices shift the focus.
And, with fewer Misrach works to play off Galindo’s, the exhibition’s otherwise perfect synergy dwindles.
All the same, kudos to the San Jose Museum of Art for organizing and presenting Border Cantos. With this show, the museum sets up a permissive field for reconsidering immigration, security and the militarized border. While Misrach and Galindo sacrifice none of art’s privileges to timeliness – not beauty, not nuance, not even occasional whimsy – they also clear space for pondering and discussing these issues in moral and human terms. They insist on the complex and the empathetic in the midst of a season of electoral sloganeering that’s anything but.
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"Border Cantos: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo" @ San Jose Museum of Art through July 31, 2016.
About the Author:
Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and teacher. Her books include "Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life" and "Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti." She is currently working on a biography of photographer André Kertész. She is currently working on the biography Everything is Photograph: A Life of André Kertész, to be published in 2017.
Images: Richard Misrach, San Jose Museum of Art, Fraenkel Gallery, Pace/MacGill Gallery, Marc Selwyn Fine Art