When writing this essay, I kept coming back to the idea of mathematical division, an attempt at grasping a metaphor for what we have done to the earth by constructing barriers, and what we have done to ourselves. You know, four divided by two equals now we each have less. The US/Mexico border is a prolific reality to this metaphor, it is a jagged scar across the continent that we can’t let heal. On October 20th at Oregon State University, as part of the School of Arts & Communication’s Visiting Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, the esteemed photographer, Richard Misrach, spoke on his most recent work that focuses on where nature and man interact on the US/Mexico border, a project titled, Border Cantos.
The wall spans 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States, barriers range in size and material, depending on where they are located. Misrach’s lecture featured an array of photographs that he had taken while near the border. The first that he showed were grouped under the title, “The Wall,” and featured images of the border juxtaposed against various and vibrant landscapes: rolling hills and peaceful beaches cut by the rust-black enormity of the wall. An image that stood out from the commanding group, was one of a small segment of wall, attached to nothing, in the middle of a flat barren landscape. It is stopping no one, physically, but it serves as an emotional reminder of division. At the bottom of the wall bright green grass is growing, it is the only green in the image, the only perceived life in the frame, and it is that of the natural world, bordering a pointless border wall, reclaiming and asserting itself against what is stark and lifeless in its hate.
Various items are used throughout the wall to separate the land. Bleak iron X’s are used to stop vehicles from crossing the border. They resemble large skeletal tumbleweeds, motionless and massive against the desert landscape.
Misrach has been working in partnership with the musician Guillermo Galindo, who makes musical instruments out of objects that Misrach has brought back from the wall. Such instruments include a large piece of the wall itself, hung between beams and played as a percussion piece. Galindo has also made instruments out of clothing and other found object left behind by immigrants, resulting in hauntingly moving compositions that speak to the migrant crisis and the resilience of art and life. Misrach played a sample from a composition that Galindo made from children’s belongings that had been left behind after thousands of lone children migrated from Central America. Children’s shoes, toys, and bibles were found in the middle of the desert. The composition was chilling and heartbreaking, Misrach partnered it with photographs from his “Artifacts Cantos” that were made at the places the items were lost by the children and found by the photographer.
The haunting artifacts of the desert documented in Misrach’s photos also included effigies made out of agave stalks and previously found migrant clothing. The effigies were made and left behind by an unknown artist. In Misrach’s photographs they stand like people with their arms and legs splayed out. Reaching and asserting themselves in the desert and against the wall.
The wall doesn’t just separate two nations, it also divides parts of the United States from itself. Misrach described this area as the “third nation,” a place considered to be a limbo between the US and Mexico, to the north of the Rio Grande and to the south of the border wall. Misrach’s photos of this area show the desolation of this forgotten country, abandoned and for sale buildings are reclaimed by the desert and lost to civilization. In another group of photos, titled “Premonitions Cantos,” Misrach explores the effects this division has had on people, which he describes as a “dystopian anger manifesting in different ways,” all displayed through graffiti, but all different raging voices. The hatered portrayed in these photos range from racial to religious, all bare against the abandoned houses its sprawled across. Misrach titled this canto “Premonitions” because the photos were made before the last presidential election, and he uses them to foreshadow and document the hate and frustration that led to its results. Since the election, Misrach has documented the continued dialogue in these desolate areas, how the hateful graffiti has continued in places, but has also changed in others with the political climate. Misrach referred to this change as a pushback against the larger cultural movement that is at the forefront of the Trump era. New messages have emerged in the graffiti:
“Set fire to your local bank,”
“Eat the rich,”
“Trump eats farts”
have been added to the narrative. If Misrach’s “Premonitions” photographs were able to take the temperature of the oncoming political storm, maybe these current message show that we are changing again, hopefully moving away from the wall, and the fear and misery that surrounds it.
In an image in Misrach’s “Other Side Canto,” he reveals the social and cultural division the wall creates between the San Diego/Tijuana border. The image is taken from the deserted San Diego beach, an area that is so militarized that no one uses it for recreation. The empty landscape against the height of the wall, which feels like the wall of a prison we have enclosed ourselves in, is ominous and inescapable. The feeling of our constructed cage is all the more persistent when gazing through the bars to the Mexico side: a lively recreation area crowded with beach goers playing in the surf and sand, enjoying a day on the coast.
Misrach’s photographs reveal the cut of the border over the natural world, the damage it has done to ecosystems through division of habitat, ecotones, and waterways. The photographs also reveal our clear-cut presence on this natural landscape, humanity portrayed as huge metal barriers altering the land and claiming it for our own. With all of these aspects in mind the photographs also show the damage we have done to ourselves: we have divided cultures and people, and lives in these ecotones, for we are part of the natural world we have changed. With these borders, we have done nothing but construct a cage for ourselves and the natural world around us, restricting growth and prosperity for all behind the wall.