Signs of Passage: The Iconography of the U.S.-Mexico Border
Frontera: Views of the U.S.-Mexico Border brings together a roster of national and international artists, whose works question the very notion of borders, attempt to define their edges, and explore their representation. The exhibition, organized by Luce Lebart in collaboration with the FotoMexico festival, is on view in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada.
The exhibition takes its title from Frontera, a series of photographs by Mexican photographer Pablo López Luz. Shot from a helicopter in 2014 and 2015, these aerial images reveal the meandering course of the dividing line between the two neighbouring countries. The border, easily identifiable in many of the images, is invisible in others. Along the base of mountain ranges the frontier seems a trail of lacerations in the landscape, while in desolate terrains it merges and finally disappears into a network of lines. In places the border takes the form of different kinds of fencing, while elsewhere it is embodied in architectural structures that are both imposing and dissuasive. Along its entire length, the border is one of harsh landscape that deters crossings.
"Is this Mexico, or is it the United States?" comments Lebart. "It is often impossible to distinguish one side from the other. But Pablo López Luz’s images systematically reveal a key identifying feature: the presence of a road running along the border, used by the US Border Patrol for surveillance."
All the photographs in the exhibition, dating from 1997 to the most recent work of 2017, were taken in close proximity to the border. Running Fence (1997), by Canadian Geoffrey James, focuses on variations in the barrier – its gaps, holes and changing forms.
In his series Without Walls (2017), the Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena presents the shadowy presence of a child pressing up against the rusty fence. The image was taken in Friendship Park, situated along the Tijuana-San Diego border, where families are allowed to convene for a few brief hours on either side of the metal grating that keeps them apart.
In some of the images the border is not actually visible, merely implied. Mark Ruwedel’s series Crossing (2001–2010) draws attention to the traces left behind by fleeing migrants: a Guatemalan passport, abandoned clothes, crushed water bottles. The picturing of these everyday objects conjures the gruelling nature of the journey, which has been precipitated, in the photographer’s view, by social and political pressure.
A number of contemporary works coincidentally share the use of surveillance mechanisms, employed to observe, circumvent and sometimes breach the border between the United States and Mexico. Daniel Schwarz used the Google Maps satellite to reduce the topographical vastness of the frontier – which sprawls for 3000-plus kilometres from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico – into two accordion books. States Border: The Mexico – United States Border (2015) compresses the waterways, deserts and urban landscapes that constitute the border’s geographical diversity, allowing the gaze to sweep over the entirety of the border with uninterrupted ease.
To create his video As the Coyote Flies (2014), Adrien Missika made subversive use of a drone. Accompanied by an electronic score by French musician and composer Victor Tricard, the vertiginous video documents the furtive crossings back and forth across the two sides of the border that from high up in the sky seems entirely meaningless. For Missika, the drone becomes a “coyote”, the term given to migrant smugglers south of the border. While highlighting the border’s vulnerability, the drone presents a curious paradox as it managed to enter another country without the formalities of a visa and yet without actually committing an act of illegal intrusion.
Photojournalist Kirsten Luce photographed her series As Above, So Below (2014–2015) from a surveillance helicopter. Her work depicts, among others, a solitary smuggler swimming across the Rio Grande, one of the most monitored areas in the world. The exhibition closes with a quote from Luce that gives pause for thought: “Some people look at these photos and feel fear of those entering my country without certain documents; other feel outrage that migrants are hunted down and arrested when most are feeling violence and poverty. I leave it up to the viewers to interpret the images themselves, but I feel the need to witness and document this chapter in my country’s history – a nation of immigrants.”
Frontera: Views of the U.S.-Mexico Border is on view in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries at the National Gallery of Art until April 2, 2018. If you wish to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of the page. Two other exhibitions – Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush and PhotoLab 3: Between Friends – are also currently on view in the CPI Galleries until April 2, 2018.