If you went to elementary school in America in the 1950s, chances are you read Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” in class. The most quoted line of the poem is, of course, “Good fences makes good neighbors,” which the neighbor says twice to the poem’s narrator. The narrator, presumably the poet, doesn’t agree with this worldview and signals it with the poem’s opening line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
I don’t know how often I have heard the line about “good fences” cited, as if it contained a kernel of eternal truth, and how very few times I have heard someone quote the poem’s opening line. This discrepancy was just one of many things I thought about when I was looking at and listening to the multi-media, collaborative exhibition, Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo: Border Cantos, at Pace (June 28 – August 18, 2017).
Before leaving the exhibition, and after circling through it a number of times, I sat on an upholstered bench in one of the gallery’s three adjoining spaces and listened to the soundtrack of Galindo’s spare, haunting music, often composed of clusters of notes. Along with Misrach’s photographs, which were on the wall, the room contained a number of Galindo’s homemade instruments on pedestals. It was an unsettling experience to end in this room, though the layout of the exhibition suggested that this is where Misrach and Galindo wanted to bring the viewer, to a low-lit room where one could reflect upon one’s experience, surrounded by their work. Misrach’s photographs of blue barrels filled with water marked how far you had traveled on your journey past the wall.
By the time I sat down in this room, I knew that the music came from instruments that Galindo had made out of things discarded in the desert, presumably by immigrants (or what the current President calls “rapists and animals”), some of whom were mothers and children. The items included shoes, gloves, shooting targets, shotgun shell casings, bicycle wheel, clothing, metal cap of an instrument used for surveillance; juice cans; animal vertebrae; plastic bottles; a plastic Border Patrol flashlight. Earlier in the exhibition, I put on headphones and looked at a tape of Galindo making sounds from things found in the desert, which had been placed in a vitrine. His ability to generate mesmerizing clusters of sounds out of grim discards — the aura of despair, dashed hopes, and death emanating from the forlorn objects — made me want to know about him and his work.
There are two things I want to say about the collaboration between Misrach and Galindo, which started in 2012 — and which, in this exhibition, is represented by large-scale, color photographs taken by Misrach along the border separating Mexico and America, and in the surrounding desert; ingenious musical instruments made by Galindo from detritus found in the desert, along with his scores and soundtracks; and a group of disturbing artifacts left in the no-man’s-land running alongside the winding, partially fenced border separating America and Mexico.
The first is that collaborations between artists often produce a third thing, which is distinct from each individual’s work — collaborative drawings known as “Exquisite Corpses,” done by the Surrealists, are a good example. That is not the case here; this joining does not happen with Misrach and Galindo, which does not detract from the work. I see the works as speaking to each other, rather than becoming a third thing. That dialogue is one of the subjects of this powerful and disturbing exhibition.
Galindo is a composer in the vein of Harry Partch, which is to say he makes his own instruments out of unlikely materials. According to Galindo:
Mesoamerican cultures believed that our personal objects and the sounds they produce are, in many ways, attached to our journey through this planet.
Misrach is famous for his meticulous, large-scale color photographs of the American Southwest, which were the source material of his celebrated book, Desert Cantos (1987), and the museum exhibitions based on this collection.
After looking at the photographs, the musical instruments, the homemade ladders used to scale the fence, and the children’s items found in the desert between 2012 and 2014, which Galindo used to compose a piece that can be listened to with earphones, I ended up sitting on an upholstered bench in one of the gallery’s discrete spaces. I returned to this space specifically to listen the soundtrack of his music. In the film of him playing the children’s items, you learn that one of the sounds you are listening to is made by rubbing a toothbrush against a worn and tattered sneaker.
I felt it was not the media of photography and music that separated these two artists, or the generation gap (Misrach was born in 1949, while Galindo was born in 1960), it was their temperament. Galindo’s music is spare and abstract, which I would characterize as clusters of distinct sounds and notes ranging from the lyrical to the sonic. The music is such that I found it possible to forget, however briefly, what the instruments were made from. The bond between Galindo’s sources and the outcome is not obvious, nor does he emphasize it. If anything, the music came across as hopeful, mysterious, beautiful, expressive, touching, and sad — the soft, vulnerable sounds one can make in the face of an indifferent universe and increasingly callous society.
Something different happened when I looked at Misrach’s photographs on the wall. I have the book, Border Cantos, published by Aperture in 2016, with an Introduction and Epilogue by Josh Kun. It is encyclopedic, which is central to whatever subject Misrach takes on. When photographs are collected in a book, they are surrounded by silence, as well as inflected by the intimate encounter of looking and reflecting, before turning the page. One can go back and forth. It is a private encounter.
In an exhibition, looking at large-scale photographs, something different happens, especially when there are different objects placed throughout the gallery spaces. The scale of Misrach’s photographs can make you feel almost as if you are there, looking at what he is focusing on: a section of rusted steel wall – which reminded me of Christo’s curtains — following the topography of an inhospitable landscape as it cuts across miles and miles of desert, a dirt road running alongside it. I think this sense of being there is very much Misrach’s intention: he wants you to get some sense of what a person crossing the border illegally must face — a treacherous landscape, a lack of water, and being hunted.
The photographs are grouped thematically, beginning, appropriately enough, with “The Wall.” Misrach’s photographs of the wall are what you first see when you walk into the gallery. There are no people in this group and almost no signs of life. The vast landscape stretching toward the horizon on this side of the wall is grim and unwelcoming. You almost wonder why anyone would want to come here, if that is their first experience of America’s landscape.
Other groups include “Target Practice,” “Effigies,” and “Agua.” Each group is disturbing. Misrach’s encyclopedic impulse drives him to try and document every detail of illegal border crossing, the different ways humanitarian groups have placed barrels of water in the landscape for those trying to cross the desert, for example, as well point out in the wall text the ways both the Border Patrol and vigilante groups have destroyed the barrels.
A photograph of a target range, the ground littered with thousands of spent shells, is a different kind of abstraction — one where people have become targets, something to shoot at, and bring down. Nearby is a row of photographs of the targets and scorecards kept by members of the Border Patrol. The immigrants might be abstractions (targets) but the reality of the situation is not.
At times, the exhibition pushed me in two directions simultaneously, and made me uncomfortable with the incongruities. For one thing, it could be divided into three groups: photographs, musical instruments, and artifacts. When I first walked into the exhibition, I saw Galindo’s “Exterminating Angel” (2016), which is made of a twisted section of the steel border wall, part of a Border Patrol drag chain, which is used to smooth out the dirt so that footprints will show up, and wood blocking used in constructing the border wall. The chain hangs down from the open wood structure, holding the twisted section of steel. It looked like Mark di Suvero had influenced the person who had made “Exterminating Angel,” but for Galindo it was a sonic instrument.
When I was looking at the ladders, I was not sure if Galindo had turned them into musical instruments or not. At first, I was bothered by not knowing what was what. But then this feeling faded away. The exhibition is grim and lyrical. The parts do not all fit together. The ground filled with littered shells speaks to who we are and what we have become: We are intent on poisoning the earth one way or another. Misrach is determined to document that poisoning without looking away, while Galindo wants to transform the results of that venom (the physical effects of unknown lives and deaths) into a salve. That these two artists— with their different intentions — have come together offers the possibility that all is not yet lost.
Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo: Border Cantos continues at Pace (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 18.