The phrase “cutting for sign” means searching a landscape for clues. This might refer to the search for a lost herd of cattle or sheep, or the staking out of a wolf-assassin. Besides physical tracks, one might look for grass that’s reflecting light a little differently, or subtle variations in the dirt. When border patrol agents – or the coyotajes who move people across – cut for signs, they are looking for a human presence.
Upon entering Pace Gallery for Border Cantos, a collaborative show of work by Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo, this was my first instinct: I was cutting Richard Misrach’s large-scale photographs of the US-Mexico borderlands for signs of life. In one crisp photo, there’s a long and lonely stretch of desert, the sky awash in pastels, the land dotted with shrubs and bisected by an undulating wall. In another, there’s a ghostly image of a different wall, this one with wire mesh, pointed toward a grey sky, part of it shrouded in fog. Then there are photos of tall fences with people clearly visible behind them, some peering at the camera – no cutting required.
Counterpointing the photographs throughout the exhibition are sculptures, created by Guillermo Galindo, composed of objects found along the border during the two artists’ snaking travels. Rickety ladders fashioned from scavenged wood and clothes tied together as means of conveyance; assemblages of donkey jaws, tires, and boots; a display case showing a backpack and its contents, including a dirtied shirt, a bag of Queso Ruffles, a blue Corona hat, a pack of Trojans.
The images are beatific, ominous: Misrach, a canonized and heavily-collected photographer born in Los Angeles, is known for his large-format captures of the environment and human-wrought changes, and has been working on a series called Desert Cantos since 1979, of which the Border Cantos is a sort of subset. The sculptures are anthropological, readymade: Galindo, born in Mexico City, is an experimental composer, performer, and builder of sonic environments. His work, which melds Pre-Colombian notions of sound and electro-acoustic installation, has been shown globally in festivals and concert halls. The Border Cantos project was begun between the two artists in 2012, and seeks to present the everyday realities of migration, smuggling, and militarization at the border. However, something about the show feels flat, touristic, outdated against contemporary discussions about the border, and politics more broadly.
In one seductive photo by Misrach, titled Wall, Los Indios, Texas, (2015), a solitary, unfinished stretch of fencing stands uselessly atop of a patch of green grass. Though aesthetically striking, the image isn’t conceptually startling: the incomplete nature of the border has long been a part of the political imaginary, recently rekindled by the discursive maelstrom surrounding Trump’s campaign pledge to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the entire 1,954-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border (a pledge which he has drastically scaled back).
A room of musical instruments created with border objects by Galindo comes with its attendant soundtrack: the percussive rattle of spent shotgun shells, the resonant hum of air passing through a bottle. The instrument-objects, such as Teclata (2015), which was created with Border Patrol ammunition boxes, and Agitanques (2013) – jugs filled with gravel – sit quietly on display while the sound piece plays separately. Something is invoked here that calls forth the lives of people, apparitions fleeing across the land and leaving their things behind, but the instruments’ separation from their performance turns them into mere artifacts.
Despite the overt political language that wraps it, Border Cantos feels depoliticized. It calls into question the aestheticization of the border’s contested landscape. The exhibition makes clear that some proceeds from the show will go to humanitarian groups (when asked, the gallery responded that 20-50% of sales would be donated, but would not provide a more detailed breakdown of what was for sale). However, the works themselves – high definition, ironically serene images, and objects collected at the border and turned into instruments – feel like two and three-dimensional representations of a space whose dynamics are more complex.
The exhibition appears to want it both ways: to present an “objective” look at the everyday reality of the border, but also a politicized appeal to artworld progressives. By focusing on the landscape and left-behind objects, the exhibition leaves out the conceptual meat of border politics that plays out at enforced boundaries across the world. Rather than mutely gazing at the border as an anthropological scene, we should be examining the history and ideology of such spaces more deeply, and considering the ways we might dismantle our boundaries and the nationalisms that lay on either side.
In a way, the show’s silences highlight the fact that there is already a cognitive and moral wall in place between the United States and Mexico. Civilian deaths in Mexico have outpaced those of both Iraq and Afghanistan combined since 2007, journalists are regularly assassinated, and yet informed public discourse about our southern neighbor remains minimal across the political spectrum. Border Cantos bears the hallmarks of this superficiality. Despite a polished execution by its respected artists – notably a collaboration between an American and Mexican – it fails to address so many of the underlying issues at play in US-Mexico relations: the closed nature of identities; the increasingly abstract, sprawling complex of surveillance; the various deceptions between governments, cartels, and the publics that are subject to them.
Throughout Border Cantos, mostly well-known tropes of border politics abound, but there are some revelations. Misrach’s images of creepy effigies along the California-Mexico border – they look like scarecrows from a horror movie – invoke the ambiguity of the zone: crossed signals that could be threats or calls for help. Likewise, Galindo’s sound pieces cite a sonic-spiritual landscape that’s rarely heard, and incite listeners to imagine both the chaos and serenity of the space.
Still, the exhibition does little to destabilize familiar conceptions of the border: neither the conservative desire for a militarily policed zone, nor a more liberal image of a humanitarian, abstractly-fortified region of surveillance. Despite the backlash against Trump’s now-revoked calls for increased physical barriers, it’s surprising that the very concept of the border often goes unchallenged.
The impetus of poetry and art is to present something of life’s beauty and pain, to unearth and reorient signifiers and referents. Border Cantos succeeds in displaying the natural majesty of the borderlands and the ingenuity and humanity of those who cross illegally. It provides a glimpse, albeit fleeting and detached, into the complex violence that feeds partition. But its landscape is mostly empty, static, intransigent. In the search for a borderless world of freer movement and lessened suffering, we must continue to cut for signs.