Art

As Walls Go Up at Unprecedented Rates, Artists Use Them as Subversive Canvases

The Annenberg Space for Photography maps the complex landscape of walls and rends, openings and sutures, that, to an ever-larger degree, defines our age.

Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, “Light the Barricades” (2019), installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — Governments worldwide, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Israel, are constructing barriers over land and sea at unprecedented rates. With these new lines drawn daily in steel, concrete, and razor wire, ours has become an era of walls.

Yet walls are not always as binary as their builders intended, instead at times presenting opportunities for subversion and creative destruction, while simultaneously providing a canvas on which to envision a world without them. The Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition, W|alls: Defend, Divide, and the Divine maps this complex landscape of walls and rends, openings and sutures, that, to an ever-larger degree, defines our age.

Park Jongwoo, “Southern Limit Line of the Korean DMZ” (May 27, 2010), Inje Korea

Park Jongwoo’s photograph, “Southern Limit Line of the Korean DMZ,” portrays the enormous gulf created by such barriers with almost otherworldly eeriness. Taken from an elevated vantage point, his photograph captures a horizon-to-horizon view of the flood lights that illuminate all 155 miles of one of the world’s most contentious borders that divides South and North Korea. While seemingly ethereal, their purpose is actually to facilitate 24-hour military patrol, adding an element of armament to an already formidable divide.

Shimon Attie similarly seeks to re-contextualize national barriers through his Facts on the Ground series, composed of light boxes bearing concise phrases installed in historically important, if often overlooked sites in and around Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Negev desert, and in the occupied West Bank. “All of One’s Fears,” for instance, is situated between a synagogue and a former mosque attacked by rioting Israelis during the second Palestinian Intifada, while “Something Abnormal” is nestled into the hillside ruins of a Palestinian village bombed and evacuated during 1948 War. On view at W|alls, “A Problem in Logic” is backdroppped by the snaking Israel-Palestine Separation Wall at dusk.

Shimon Attie, “A Problem in Logic” (2014), from the series Facts on the Ground, Israel-Palestine Separation wall, Abu Dis, Palestian City, West Bank

But more than external manifestations of a land divided, border walls often become internalized by those who come into daily contact with them. Born in Tijuana and educated in San Diego, Tanya Aguiñiga has long explored this existential rift through her ongoing, multifaceted AMBOS project, several works of which are represented in W|alls. Her performance piece “Grapple” (2018) viscerally illustrates this fissure. Wearing a white linen shirt, Aguiñiga wrapped her body around the rusting iron pillars of the US–Mexico border wall at the ocean’s edge for the course of a tide cycle. The resultant video along with her shirt, bisected by an iron-oxide stain, speak to this personal cleft that is both a painful incision as well as a potential space for growth and renewal.

Tanya Aguiñiga, “AMBOS”

This idea that walls might also be sites of exploration and evolution is further elucidated in the street artist JR’s film, Women are Heroes. Rather than borders, JR uses the walls of Morro da Providência, Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous favela — itself a kind of economic prison from which few escape. His film documents the struggles and successes of the neighborhood’s women who are both the primary victims of violence as well as those capable of rebuilding a semblance of community in the wake of tragedy. In JR’s signature style, he aggrandizes these figures in larger-than-life, wheat-pasted posters occupying large swaths of the favela’s facade, itself precariously built into a hillside. One only wishes the Annenberg Space had devoted a larger screen to display this monumental work.

JR, “Women are Heroes,” 28mm (film still)

Other artists are experts at repurposing walls into windows. For instance, eL Seed’s sweeping calligraphy transforms deteriorating ruins in Tunisia into elegant arabesques full of possibility. Painted on his local handball court in New York City, Lee Quinones’s seminal mural, “Howard the Duck,” was central in fomenting the graffiti movement as a lasting cultural phenomenon.

In addition to walls as barriers and canvasses, the exhibition also explores the use of these structures as sites of spirituality and reflection, as in the case of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and collections of Buddhist mani prayer stones that are stacked along pilgrimage routes. “Light the Barricades,” a large-scale public art installation by Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, brings this ancient practice into a contemporary context. Placed outside the Annenberg Space, one side of the walls is inscribed with the words, “Judgement,” “Doubt,” and “Resentment.” On the other, viewers are confronted with existential questions such as “What are you afraid of?” A five-minute hourglass invites a contemplative pause.

Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, “Light the Barricades” (2019) (detail)

But for all its insights, W|alls shares a common weakness with many ambitious survey exhibitions. It simply has too many ideas, threads, tangents, and notes to coalesce in any coherent way. Walking through the Annenberg Space’s sprawling galleries and halls, I felt overwhelmed — and yes, even walled in, by the proliferation of images, many of which would have benefited from more space and an enlarged treatment. I got the sense that the curators were so enthused by their conceptualization that they forgot to edit. And this is understandable. It’s an important exhibition about an idea that deserves attention. Still, a single exhibition cannot hope to encapsulate the totality of the historical, religious, and sociopolitical meanings of walls and I found myself longing for a more focused, in-depth treatment of this crucial topic.

Exterior of the Annenberg Space for Photography featuring Candy Chang and James A. Reeves installation

More, it is somewhat ironic that W|alls should be presented at the Annenberg Space for Photography, located as it is in Century City, bordering Beverly Hills. The geography of the exhibition makes it difficult for those often affected by barriers, be they physical or economic, to attend. Though entrance is free, parking is not. Nor is getting there easy even if one has a car. Without a car, it would be nearly impossible since this uber-wealthy enclave has so far devoted millions of dollars to thwarting public transportation projects before they begin. As per usual, one is left to conclude that hopping fences is far easier for those with a ladder.

However, I certainly hope the reverberations of this exhibition will escape its gilded enclosure. Though slightly muddled in its own lofty aspirations, W|alls does strike more than a few important chords that just might resonate now more than ever.

W|alls: Defend, Divide, and the Divine continues at the Annenberg Space for Photography (2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, Los Angeles) through December 29. 

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