Two hours north of Mexico, Los Angeles can feel like a border town. Its sprawling topography and large immigrant population make it a northern twin to Tijuana. Both cities are in the midst of an identity crisis – straddling the dividing line between their aspirations as centres of global commerce and their endemic poverty, pollution and political strife. This is perhaps why ‘The Border Again’, an exhibition of Tijuana artists and others whose work addresses the Sonora-Baja California border, found a receptive audience at Human Resources.
In Ana Andrade’s intimate photographs of people living in the Tijuana River basin (‘Ñongos’, 2011–13), which hang unevenly in found and handmade frames, it’s hard to tell on which side of the border the subjects reside. The broad, sloping concrete walls framing a ragtag homeless encampment could be the Los Angeles River (itself a geographic boundary between LA’s own ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds). Jack Heard’s assemblage of graffiti-covered glass panels might have been dredged up from the river’s dry banks (some ideas for titles are: absolutely no essence whatsoever, no image after myself, otras obras, Williamstown Massachusetts, lifestyle whatever, Home Alone, Banco Bank, etc …, 2013–14). Louis Hock’s politically charged ‘Nightscope Series’ (2000–03), depicting bodies in the night-vision green of a riflescope, critiques the militarization of the US Border Patrol and the conflation of undocumented immigrants with enemy invaders. The rifle is also a microscope, scrutinizing the runaway blemish of ‘social contagion’ south of the border, which threatens to ‘infect’ America’s heartland.
Even more unabashedly political is Marco Ramírez ERRE’s wall sculpture, Petrochinga (Oilfucker, 2014). ERRE transformed two oil barrels painted the iconic yellow-red and white-blue colour schemes of the oil companies Chevron and Shell (here cheekily renamed ‘Cavron’ and ‘Hell’) into police riot shields. Petrochinga is especially timely in light of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s politically divisive attempts to privatize Pemex, the major state-owned oil conglomerate untouched by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). ERRE’s sculpture suggests that Mexico’s natural resources will be sold off by force, with an increasingly aggressive police state serving the interests of global capital rather than the country’s working class.
In NAFTA’s wake, a positivist, apolitical strain of border art emerged. Citing Heriberto Yépez’s book Made in Tijuana (2005), the exhibition primer derides the hypervalorized aesthetic pastiche of ‘NAFTArt’ as a ‘happy hybridity’ that commodifies the contradictions of the borderlands, enhancing their consumer appeal. The show’s counterpoint to Yépez is Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a seminal Chicano artist and self-proclaimed shaman of hybrid culture, who stars in Mariah Garnett’s darkly comic video Mexercise (2013). Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes teach a satirical workout routine ‘for the busy modern-day gringa’: curling Chihuahuas, stretching in police frisk poses and mock-swimming across the Rio Grande.
The exhibition was an extension of Otras Obras, a now-defunct Tijuana gallery founded by Los Angeles native Michael Ray Von and New York-based Todd Patrick. When Ray Von moved to Mexico City in 2013, he invited Kelman Duran, who had never been to Tijuana, to curate the space. Duran discovered a divided community: some local artists were energized by the arrival of new talent, while others regarded the Americans’ presence as little more than benign colonialism. To confront this disunity, Duran began a series of open forums, in which the terms of artistic engagement could be actively forged through public discourse. Often, this meant discussions of Tijuana politics over beer, mescal and cigarettes – what Duran refers to as ‘unmoderated political AA meetings’. Topics such as ‘Drugs, Apathy and Politics’ and ‘The Anarchist Everyday’ brought in a diverse sample of the community. At the Open Forum in Los Angeles, part of the Human Resources exhibition, talk was less politically urgent but no less engaged.
For many, the border defines social marginality. It is both as immaterial as a line in space and as concrete as a steel-clad fence, dividing the ancestral Aztec land once known as Aztlán and cutting a deep rift through the consciousness of a people. ‘The Border Again’ addressed these physical and psychical complexities with exceptional nuance. Rather than assuming a fixed position, the exhibition explored the interstices of the hybridity debate, mapping its divergent fissures. This was first and foremost a show about people on either side of a geopolitical divide and the borders they carry with them.
In its title, ‘The Border Again’ expressed fatigue over border politics even as it confronted the topic head on, in part because the border always asserts its presence upon those who live in its shadow. As Gomez-Peña wrote in his anthology The New World Border (1996): ‘Once I get “there”, wherever it is, I am forever condemned to return, and then to obsessively re-enact my journey. In a sense, I am a border Sisyphus.’ Less like a line and more like a Möbius strip, we encounter ‘The Border Again’ and again, and again, always locked in its cycle of conflict, always peering through the fence for a glimmer of change.
First published in Issue 171