June 19, 2013
The Disasters of Border Crossing
Posted on Sep 20, 2007
Even as its main purpose is to induce critical reflection about human suffering, this graphic image of a migrant’s corpse in the scene of his death raises a number of ethical questions. What warrant do artists have to represent the final moments of someone’s life? Is this replica of a migrant corpse disrespectful to family members of border-crossing victims? Does it violate the dignity of the dead? Is such a vivid reenactment pornographic, or even a further violation of migrants’ human rights? For the museum’s director, re-creating a migrant crossing death in such a realistic and graphic fashion transforms the image into a “metaphor for social indifference.” As Garcia explains, “Here I am, sitting down and working on exhibitions and I have a dead man underneath me. I am drinking my coffee, smoking my cigarette and I have this dead man underneath me. I really don’t have time to think about it.”
That is precisely the attitude that Colectivo Malaleche aims to disrupt, our complacency, the fact that most of us don’t have the time to think about the hundreds of migrants who die each year, and when we do think about them, we have no inkling of the horrors of their final experience. The images are too raw, too immediate, especially for family members of boundary crossers. For art museum and gallery visitors accustomed to art as contemplation and pleasure, Malaleche’s turbulent and disturbing work aims to move them into the space of critical engagement. At least that is what the great masters of the grotesque attempted to do. In depicting atrocious acts of violence, Goya’s series of etchings “The Disasters of War” denounced the grotesqueries of war. Like other installation and performance artists such as Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Diego Catelan and Cindy Sherman, Malaleche revisits the strategies of the grotesque to address urgent social concerns. The more recent installations of London-based Dinos and Jake Chapman also come to mind as artists who feature the grotesque and macabre to address the social urgency of children’s exploitation.
Shocking and grotesque art has a way of imprinting itself on the psyche. An artist denounces atrocities she perceives in the world in the hope that we, too, can see injustice from her perspective and empathize with the human suffering depicted. But does greater awareness lead to critical encounter and, even more, to social action? That question has haunted philosophers and cultural critics for decades.
In painting the horrors perpetrated by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Colombian artist Fernando Botero aimed to do for Abu Ghraib what Pablo Picasso did for Guernica. “No one would have remembered the horrors of Guernica if not for the painting,” Botero notes. There is a similar impulse at work in “Muerte X Agua”: The point is to remember them, the boundary crossers who died, denied the right to life and livelihood. Without memory, their death and our forgetting would be among the great disasters of border crossing.
Malaleche’s newest installation, “Crosses and Crossroads: A Chain of Death and Suffering,” will be featured at the Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, on Oct. 24, 6:30-8 p.m. http://www.fishergallery.org/index.php?page=programs&action=currentExhibit
Rosa-Linda Fregoso teaches courses on human rights, violence studies, visual
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