Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

A New Horizon: Rethinking Borders in Contemporary Art

A series of framed architectural drawings depicting various conceptual designs for a border structure between two areas, incorporating elements of nature and human figures.

Rael San Fratello reimagine what a border wall can be.

Surely no one can be unaware of the strife along the border between the United States and Mexico. It seems a wall is going to be built, no matter how we feel about it. Two architect-designers, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, who collaborate under the name Rael San Fratello, have attempted to reimagine what a wall can be. Their helpful suggestions include a greenhouse, a teeter-totter, and a xylophone, images of which make up part of a major exhibition now at the Kimball Art Center in Park City.

Things are changing in art. Unlike earlier evolutions, which altered how art looked, the transition marked by Contemporary Art has more to do with how its audience looks at it. For instance, Cubism replaced perspective’s deep view with a flat, superficial image that looked at all sides of an object at once. Now, however, all the previous, historical ways of seeing have become simultaneously available to artist and audience alike. So where are we going from here?

Based on the evidence in the gallery, what’s new is that we now go behind and beyond the purely visual image to include a sometimes intimidating quantity of data about the subject or the work. At the Kimball, I was immediately drawn to Jami Porter Lara’s eight ceramic bottles, six of which circle together like a flock of flightless birds, bowing to each other and clearly belonging together as a family or tribe. Yet other than appreciating their beauty, which is nearly overpowering, I didn’t really know what to make of them. Then I noticed the accompanying text, which turned out to tell two relevant stories. One is historical, explaining the pre-1400s culture that inspired these works, and how the artist encountered it 600 years later. The other explains their hybrid nature: how 15th- and 21st-century trash found along the Arizona–Mexico collided in Lara’s mind, contributed to her understanding of history and human nature, and led to the combination of classic technique and plastic soda bottle style.

A collection of glossy black ceramic vessels with a twisted design, resembling deformed bottles.

Jami Porter Lara

How is this text different from what traditionally accompanies art? For one thing, it isn’t an artist’s general statement of intent. Neither is it credited to someone else, like a curator or gallery director. Instead, it appears unsigned, and furthermore, in a third-person voice we writers refer to as “omniscient.” Presumably it’s the voice of someone who combines what the artist knew with what the anonymous writer knows. These texts, unlike their generic cousins, are meant to be seen as an indispensable part of the work. As such, they also liberate all those involved, which helps explain their popularity.

A black and white photograph of a woman dressed in 20th-century attire sitting on a suitcase beside a railroad, looking contemplative.

Image from Christina’s Fernandez’s “Maria’s Great Expedition”

Consider, for example, Christina’s Fernandez’s multimedia project, “Maria’s Great Expedition.” The contained story concerns the artist’s great-grandmother, who characterized one of the ways life was lived along the international border in the years before it became a focus of paranoia and ill-will. In those days, it was common for those seeking work, for example, to casually cross into the other country, then return home when they had met their needs. It’s strongly believed that much of the problem with immigration is due to today’s difficulty in returning, so that once across, people are essentially forced to stay, thereby creating a problem for them as well as their hosts. Fernandez introduces this alternate reality through the bilingual story of Maria’s travels, which she illustrates with half a dozen photos. Since Maria was rarely photographed, Fernandez chose to play her in photos that illustrate her story and, at the same time, include anachronisms and subtle nods to documentary works by well-known and celebrated photographers, thus adding visual puzzles and clues that intrigue the viewer and compensate for the fictional shortcomings of the images. All this is detailed in the extensive texts that accompany those images.

A Contemporary Art project like this will typically draw on artists working in distant places, which makes it important that the organizers bridge the void created by their absence from the related events. Furthermore, the variety of artists invited, or of what they choose to submit (or have available) means someone needs to provide a unifying overview. The outstanding example of this at the Kimball is the gallery’s map of the border zone, shown in several places and online, either showing or not showing the borderline. Its cumulative effect is to expand the viewer’s perspective beyond the wall, or its immediate vicinity, and to clarify that this contiguous region includes not just one river and one desert, but successive zones, mountains, watersheds, drainages, ranches, croplands, and cities that in total measure more than 400,000 square kilometers, or about 155,000 square miles. These regions have their own identities that long predated not only both national states, but the arrival of the Europeans who founded them. This map, one version of which is the size of a mural and runs diagonally across an entire gallery wall, is the most striking and persuasive exhibit in the gallery, and yet remains anonymous.

A large wall-mounted installation showing a textured map of a cross-border region, marked with various geographical features and annotations.

Anonymous wall image describes various elements of the U.S.-Mexican border

It remains only to comment on the range of works collected. Some of them, while contributing directly to the notion of two nations striving to coexist, possess the sort of brisk efficiency characteristic of those who have fought a battle for a long time and don’t expect the next skirmish to change much. Jorge Rojas and Diego Aguirre together designed a flag for the region, perhaps for both countries combined, that integrates elements from their existing flags, each of which has its component virtues. Both are colorful and easily read, but where one is abstract and refers to long-ago events, the other employs figures from nature that tell a timeless tale of struggle and victory. Redesigning a flag is rarely straightforward, as Utahns can attest, but the emotional responses the proposal raises may carry over, not least because the artists have provided large, full-color copies of their proposal that visitors can take with them.

In the Shadow of the Wall includes artists who collectively invoke topics including Margarita Cabrera’s thoughts on the practical and conceptual differences a border creates, say for instance between remote, machine-made products and accessible, life-like  handicrafts. “The Space Between Us,” Ana Teresa Fernández’s short film effectively updates Rene Magritte’s familiar image, “The Lovers,” using mylar blankets that are familiar from uncounted disaster scenes, both staged and real. Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s “Broken: 13 Undocumented Birds” takes account of the environmental impact of the physical wall in a symbolic way that evokes feelings a more literal approach might not.

A digital image showing two people on a beach, their heads completely wrapped in reflective aluminum foil, with a serene blue sky in the background.

Ana Teresa Fernández, “The Space Between Us”

One final work encompasses an entire day on the border while paying homage to those who became its remote victims. Elizabeth Z. Pineda’s video of her personal ritual—“performance” doesn’t feel adequate here—”Sin Nombre en Esta Tierra Sagrada,” or “Nameless in this Sacred Land,” opens in a desert landscape so stunningly beautiful it almost looks staged, in which the artist appears sitting incongruously behind a desk, armed with that symbol of bureaucracy, a typewriter. Her self-appointed task is the now-familiar one of reciting the names of the victims: in this case, those who died trying to cross the artificially bifurcated zones on either side of the line, which she points out is only half and inch wide but has made what surrounds it deadly. Sunset creates the soothing illusion of an ending that isn’t even a pause in the drama she measures.

In this way, the sun also comes down on the conventional illusion that artists working in isolated garrets are responsible for filling neutral galleries with objects of passive contemplation. In its place, we find here a network of engaged specialists, some of whom do make objects, but not for idle contemplation: objects instead meant in turn to engage and galvanize the audience. These artworks do so with the help of scholars, curators, craftspersons, agents, and others who collaborate to make the Contemporary Art scene an active agency, not just in recollecting the past, but in bringing about the future.


In the Shadow of the Wall, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through Aug. 18


All images courtesy the author

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