In Lieu of Unity
Pedro Reyes, Palas por pistolas, 2008–present; 1,527 weapons destroyed and made into 1,527 shovels to plant 1,527 trees; special thanks to Jardin Botanico Culiacán and The Coppel Collection
Mario Garcia Torres, Carta Abierta a Dr. Atl (An Open Letter to Dr. Atl), 2005; Super 8 Ecktachrome film transferred to video; 6 minutes; courtesy the artist and Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City
What does it mean to “be with” someone or something? Does a shared existence mean that we are—or must be—unified in our experiences and opinions? The current exhibition at Ballroom Marfa titled In Lieu of Unity demonstrates that human existence is dependant on relationships—harmonious, contested or otherwise.
To sustain and enrich our existence, we make efforts to communicate with those people or things with which we aim to relate—efforts infused with the expectation of reciprocation. To do this, we utilize an array of social and cultural tools, including language, physical interactions and creative or expressive acts. Additionally, we can engage in the exchange of currencies, the values of which are determined by economic, social and political conditions. Together these actions inform our existence, producing notions of connection—even possession. The participating artists of In Lieu of Unity share two main traits: ethnicity and concern for these types of social transactions, specifically at the U.S./Mexico border. The exhibition is set against the backdrop of violence at the Juárez/El Paso line, and nearby Arizona, which is in the midst of enforcing its own fearful and controversial methods of border regulation.
The exhibition’s most powerful works offer more than commentary or observation; instead, they demonstrate and document direct actions that infiltrate the dehumanizing systems affecting history, labor and wealth, and news media. For example, centrally placed in Ballroom Marfa’s North Gallery, Margarita Cabrera’s Space In Between exemplifies her commitment to create aesthetic platforms for political and social-cultural consciousness as a means of survival. For this collaborative project, Cabrera invited members of Mexican migrant communities living in Houston to work with traditional sewing and embroidery techniques that reflect the popular culture, traditional rituals and myths of indigenous Otomi communities. Together they developed a sewing and embroidery workshop at BOX 13 ArtSpace in Houston, where they used these culturally specific craft techniques to produce sculptural replicas of desert plants indigenous to the southwestern United States, the most frequently traveled route of immigration into the U.S. The cloth replicas, sewn from green border-patrol uniforms and embroidered with illustrations of the workers’ personal border-crossing experiences, are planted in traditional Mexican terra cotta pots. Cabrera shares proceeds from the sale of these sculptures with the craftsmen/women (see www.margaritacabrera.com).
In the same gallery is the video piece Carta Abierta a Dr. Atl (An Open Letter to Dr. Atl), for which Mario Garcia Torres writes an inquisitive letter to Mexican academic painter Gerardo Murillo, “Dr. Atl.” Transcribed in English subtitles on Super 8 footage of Barranca de Oblatos, near the city of Guadalajara, Torres’ words asks Dr. Atl (who had long since passed) for his opinion on museum politics and their culturally destructive results—specifically in regard to a proposed Guggenheim Museum branch in Barranca de Oblatos, the landscape that Dr. Atl so often painted.
Margarita Cabrera, Space In Between, 2010; in collaboration with Maria Lopez, Candelaria Cabrera, Delfina Medina, Doris Lindo, Miguel DeLuna, Carlos Calles, Esmeralda Perez, Nora Oviedo, Teresa Sanchez Garay; U.S. Border Patrol uniforms, copper wire, foam, embroidery thread, terracotta pots; partial commission by Ballroom Marfa
Máximo González, Inflation, 2004/2010; installation of 1,000 mylar balloons, each 18 inches in diameter, blown up with helium gas; courtesy of the artist
Máximo González’ Inflation is simple yet poignant, illustrating the variable and quickly declining value of Mexican and American currencies. Hundreds of helium-filled, silver Mylar balloons, printed with a “10c” figure on one side and the national insignia of Mexico on the other, form a slowly shrinking heap near Ballroom Marfa’s main entrance. Some balloons were given away as souvenirs at the exhibition opening, acting as surrogate value and augmenting personal memory.
Elements of Pedro Reyes’ ongoing project Palas por pistolas, a pristine shovel and a tree sapling, stand like centurions at the entrance of Ballroom Marfa’s South Gallery. The shovel bears a branded inscription on its wooden handle, declaring that 1,527 weapons were destroyed to make 1,527 shovels to plant 1,527 trees. Not simply another gardening project, Reyes’ attempts to generate a “social metamorphosis” through Palas Por Pistolas. The project was originally commissioned for the botanical garden in Culiacán, a city in western Mexico with the highest number of gun deaths in the country. In Culiacán Reyes spoke with many people who knew family members or others who had been shot. This prompted him to organize a campaign in cooperation with the city, collecting weapons in exchange for food stamps and melting the weapons into shovel heads to be used to plant trees in Culiacán and beyond, in this case, Marfa. By removing the weapons from circulation and repurposing their materials, these “agents of death [are] turned into agents of life,” commented Reyes in Sculpture magazine.
Also in the South Gallery is Teresa Margolles’ Irrigación, which includes a presentation of Mexican newspapers and a video. Margolles, a founding member of the group SEMEFO (Servicio Médico Forense/Forensic Medical Service), used cloth to collect debris and sediment from various mass burial sites in Juárez, where the murders of young factory workers—killings graphically depicted in the Mexican and American news media—continue unabated. The cloth was soaked in large drums of water, releasing, redistributing and dissolving sediment, blood and remains. The video shows a truck spraying this water along a border highway, simultaneously contaminating and cleansing to make clear a somber and disturbing message: the reality of wasted life and resources.
Off-site, running parallel to the railroad tracks that bisect Marfa, Tercerunquinto erected the architectural “intervention” WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT IT IS. Tercerunquinto, the collective project of three Mexican artists, understands (and translates) space in semantic terms, using architecture as a useful system (language) to be segmented and manipulated for various purposes and meanings. Here the text is cut from a freestanding wall of metal and formed by the resulting negative space. The piece is framed by—yet competes with—the built environment and passing locomotives, driving home the transient nature of existence and communication. In place of objective solutions for such subjective tensions, the artists of In Lieu of Unity remind us that because relationships of any kind are complicated and nuanced, unity is not always a desired or even possible condition. If we are to survive, we must negotiate alternative engagements.
Nancy Zastudil is a nomadic curator and freelance writer whose research focuses on collective art practices that operate in the service of revolution and social progress.