The Disasters of Border Crossing
Posted on Sep 20, 2007
The Museo de la Ciudad is a stately colonial building in the city’s historic center. Built in the 18th century as the convent of the Capuchinas nuns, the Museo is notorious as the site where the Emperor Maximiliano was held prisoner prior to his execution at the Cerro de las Campanas. Its colonial architecture incorporates a lovely array of broad archways, stone walls and tiled floors, wrap-around corridors connecting exhibition halls that open into a spacious interior courtyard with a huge decorous water fountain in the center. The ancient look and feel of the place contrast with the museum’s more modern holdings, spawning a postmodern fusion of colonial and contemporary aesthetics that in essence reflects the museum director’s intent. As director Gabriel Horner Garcia tells me, “Our priority is art that pushes aesthetic boundaries mainly because the city’s conservativism, and Mexico’s in general, make it difficult for experimental artists like Malaleche to find exhibition spaces.”
Three years ago Garcia decided to push a different kind of boundary, reordering the museum’s spatial design in ways that dismantle the divide between “administrative” and “artistic” spaces. “In every museum there is a space for exhibition and another for administration,” Garcia explains, “which is very schizophrenic.” Garcia came up with an imaginative scheme for integrating space, inviting select artists to publicly exhibit their work in his administrative office. Museum visitors go in and out of Garcia’s office while he carries out his regular administrative duties. “This literalizes the types of work I perform on a daily basis, making them coexist,” Garcia adds. “Bureaucratic work and artwork become completely enmeshed in the space of my office.” Garcia is selective about the artists he invites into his workspace. “Muerte X Agua” is only the second exhibition to share tenancy with the museum director.
It is nonetheless disconcerting to walk into Garcia’s office and view the exhibit while he works, smoking, talking on the phone and drinking coffee, with papers in orderly stacks on top of his desk. Occupying the entire office space, Malaleche’s four-part installation consists of three-dimensional figures: a “corpse” and “body parts,” furniture, and human and industrial debris, as well as objects that were left behind in the border-crossing trek. The title “Muerte X Agua” refers to the intermingling of death and water on the border, for just as excess of water can cause death so too can its scarcity.
The duality of water is persistent, as personified by the ghastly corpse heads placed on opposite sides of the office.
As one enters, to the right of the spacious room, the visitor encounters a large water-bottle dispenser with a human skull suspended in water, and, just in case someone is thirsty, the artists placed paper cups besides the dispenser. Symmetrically aligned across the room is the second corpse head, in this case mounted on a sandy base, its face ghoulishly contorted and blistered from heat exposure and dehydration.
Facing Garcia’s desk is a vertical structure consisting of 71 water bottles connected in five rows by plastic tubing material. The largest piece in the installation, this upright structure suggests the so-called U.S. “Iron Curtain” or “American Berlin Wall,” as agents of the Border Patrol refer to the border wall planned for the U.S.-Mexico boundary line. For the viewer, Malaleche’s inventive use of water bottles conjures up a slew of contradictory associations about their ubiquity in the modern world, expressing, again, their dual nature as givers and takers of life: The water bottle is a means for better health yet also a culprit in polluting the environment.
Plastic bottles simultaneously ruin the aesthetics of urban landscapes, parks and pristine forests, aggravate ecological meltdown with their toxic plastics and rescue humans from the very toxicity they help generate.
Littering abandoned migrant campsites along the border, water bottles are one of the few items immigrants are instructed to bring on the border-crossing trek.
From the border wall structure, one turns 180 degrees to Garcia’s workspace, where Malaleche placed a piece that tells another story, in the most shocking way, of those who never return. Inside a vitrine-style functional desk and visible through its glass top is a grotesque replica of a male corpse. Using a friend of the artists as a model, Malaleche created the scene of a migrant’s death on the border, contorting his body in a pose of deadly exhaustion, the scaly, burned skin peeling from the unrelenting Sonoran sun, dehydration written on his face, clothes torn by the prickly mesquite bushes dotting the desert. Around the desk, the artists placed office chairs with words relevant to the installation’s theme etched onto their cushioned seats: racism, migrant, tomb, hunger, wetback, Mexican.
The replica of a dead migrant inside the museum’s administrative walls provokes entangled responses from viewers. This grimly familiar figure of a migrant’s corpse assaults the senses and forces viewers to confront the encounter between migration and its traumatic, often invisible underside. It induces those headed for the golden promised land to ponder what could be their impending destiny, the possibility of their own death as staged in “Muerte X Agua,” by dehydration or drowning. Some viewers may experience bewilderment at the sight of a death out-of-place; others, outrage at artists who would oddly aestheticize death; perhaps repugnance at the morbidity of the death scene; or even anger over its exploitation.
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