The border between Mexico and the United States runs nearly 2,000 miles over terrain of mountains, rivers, desert, farm fields, backyards and urban concrete. No other international boundary sees as many legal crossings as the 350 million per year between the forty-eight secured crossings. The official border region extends thirty-seven miles from either side of the legal boundary to include several states in Mexico and California, Arizona. New Mexico and Texas in the United States. Conflicts have increased scrutiny of a porous border since the 1850’s including the Mexican Revolution of the 1910’s, attempts by federal agencies to keep Mexican livestock and disease under control, drugs in the 1960’s, the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990’s and terrorist attacks on September 11. Since 2005, the United has spent over $23 billion attempting to secure the border with renewed calls during the recent presidential election for more security.
Just like the many landscapes, locations in the border region are affected differently by the increased emphasis on border security. In some areas, one can hardly notice any changes beyond a few more border patrol vehicles while other areas have taken on the appearance of a highly militarized zone prepping impending war. In some locations, hardships are found with the landscape or fear of drug cartels. In others, families live on either side, visiting as frequently as those who commute daily to work or school in the other country but increasing harassment still creates tension in the region. For all the media sensationalism and political hyperbole, an actual visit to the border region is interesting for comparison, but can be extremely dull if one is expecting any action-packed moments designed by Hollywood.
Perhaps this is why Richard Misrach’s decades long approach to photography is so relevant to the exploration of the border regions. His deadpan style focuses on the technical expertise with an emphasis on color, light and an objective perspective that pushes against clear definition of journalism and fine art. Beginning in 1970, Misrach has explored the interaction of humans with the landscape, particularly with political undertones that explore poverty, war, industrialism and tourism. Since 2004, with significant emphasis in 2009, Misrach has pushed further into region with his large-format camera and iPhone by his side. The large-scale photographs in Border Cantos reflect a method of visual prose poetry with each photograph literally engulfing the viewer into an elegant moment that can stand alone or be intricately woven throughout a larger narrative.
In Border Cantos, Misrach’s images beckon the viewer and set the foundation for a reciprocal relationship with the sculptures and music of his collaborator, Mexican born musician and composer Guillermo Galindo, at multiple junctures. The most immediate example of this is that the found objects Galindo uses to create his instruments are captured first by Misrach in his photos before collected and given to Galindo. Many of the images are the catalyst for Galindo’s graphic work of abstract musical scores that invoke some Cageian crossover between avant-garde compositions and topographical maps. The music recorded and performances by Galindo complete the new language developed by the team of artists. Altogether, the imagery, physical recontextualization of the border artifacts and sounds that are transposed into a recorded orchestra create songs of the border region, giving it a renewed humanist quality that is lost in the political dialogue and policy actions.
One of Galindo’s performances, Limpia (Cleansing), is titled from a popular spiritual cleansing ceremony of Mexico and throughout Latin America. Still popular today, the rituals are used to cure the afflicted from economic hardships and involve complex gestural movements with instruments. With a jug shaker, a piñata covered in shotgun shells, and a large sculpture, Zappatello, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s hammer machine, Galindo performs his own limpia for the border region. Another performances include Efigie (Effigy), a stringed instrument with clothing on a human form that Misrach saw repeatedly without explanation. For Cosas de niños (Children’s Things), Galindos drew inspiration from knowledge of the increase in unaccompanied children travelling across the border by using artifacts belonging to children for a carefully played “symphony for the missing”.
The orchestrated performance as part of exhibition involves eight hours carefully composed sounds that capture those characteristics of the border and interpretations of the stories behind the artifacts from Misrach’s photographs. Galindo’s sculptures are all instrumental, the imagery often related to symbols of his native Mexico whether a weaving loom, traditional wind instruments or the landscape itself. Heard throughout the museum’s winding gallery, the music plays perfectly into the background of the exhibition, culminating in the back complete with musical scores and the sculpturess creating the music.
The individual instruments can be heard in person or online on the Border Cantos website as well as the performances. A nearly 300-page book accompanies the exhibition in which Misrach has divided his photographs into eight typologies that speak to different aspects of the border. All writing and information involving Border Cantos is in English and Spanish to further emphasize the symbiotic relationship between the two artists. The work together transforms the physical place and line of the border into a space that speaks a new conversation that moves around the abstracted notion of a boundary that seeks to limit, not include the many humanistic qualities that make up its existence in the first place.
Border Cantos originated at the San Jose Museum of Art and is currently at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art from October 15 to December 31, 2016. The exhibition will travel to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art from February 18 to April 24, 2017.
By Jake Weigel