Along the 1,969-mile-long border between the United States and Mexico lie sneakers, teddy bears, toothbrushes, water jugs, tuna cans, and other miscellany — the objects left behind by migrants seeking better lives in a neighboring land. Since 2009, California-based photographer Richard Misrach has traveled along this frontier, documenting these belongings as well as the diverse landscape. Two years after he began, he started mailing some of the objects to musician Guillermo Galindo, who would sculpt them into instruments that sound out his original compositions, giving voice to the human artifacts whose owners’ fates remain mysteries.
These creations born from the traces of migrant activity are currently on view in Border Cantos, an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art (it will also travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Curated by Rory Padeken, the show fills three galleries with 36 of Misrach’s large-scale photographs and 17 of Galindo’s hand-crafted instruments, as well as videos and audio recordings of Galindo and other musicians playing select ones. (Galindo will perform at the museum tonight during a closing event.) An accompanying catalogue, published by Aperture and featuring side-by-side texts in English and Spanish, includes images of all of these works and many more from the project — a physical testament to the longevity, complexity, and emotional weight of the pair’s collaboration.
The exhibition’s title nods to both Misrach’s photographic series, called Desert Cantos, and Galindo’s musical assemblage project, named Sonic Border. Each artist envisioned his images or instruments as cantos — parts within a long poem — adopting the literary device as a way to frame and tell the complicated history and ongoing narrative of border crossings and conflicts. Misrach’s series is divided into eight cantos, all of them focused on specific visual elements of the border that suggest its many associated communities: the wall itself; the surrounding found artifacts; civilian infrastructure beside the wall; Border Patrol shooting ranges; the objects agents use to track migrants; scarecrow-like sculptures with mysterious origins; the many water barrels placed by humanitarian groups since 2000; and views of life as seen through the other side of the fence.
His documentation of the wall is startlingly beautiful considering the subject; Misrach offers Ansel Adams–like views of the American landscape that are sweeping and incredibly crisp. He often frames the imposing barrier so that it seems like a natural part of the landscape, cutting through craggy roads or bounding across hilly surfaces beneath a perfect Arizona sunset. In one especially painterly image of a cabbage crop in Brownsville, Texas, black fencing looms in the background of a seemingly infinite sea of viridian leaves before fading into a distant, sublime fog. Despite the fact that it forces migrants to find alternative, life-threatening routes to reach the United States, the wall Misrach presents has a curious aesthetic allure and grandiosity, capturing the essence of what writer Josh Kun describes in his catalogue essay as a “new American monument” and “a statue of un-liberty”; Kun even points out that, at some points, it resembles Richard Serra’s rigid steel structures or even Christo’s rippling “Running Fence.”
Other manmade impositions on the landscape that Misrach has photographed speak more directly to the surveillance and policing that occur along the border. Devoid of people, his series showing Border Patrol target practice setups is eerie and foreboding, revealing the cracked Texan earth littered with sun-bleached shell casings and closeups of gray silhouette shooting boards, each violently ripped with tiny holes. Other images reveal how US agents have adopted old Native American tracking techniques to look for footprints, focusing on the manufactured objects they drag across the desert to smoothen dirt in an attempt to reveal human disturbances: car tires, heavy pieces of wire mesh, bristly blue carwash brushes that appear comical against the barren terrain.
While we understand well the stories behind these objects, the tales of the items left behind by migrants will forever remain untold. The garments, cigarette packs, bibles, bottles, and toiletries Misrach has shot in-situ are covered in dirt, photographed in isolation like evidence at a crime scene. They receive new life thanks to Galindo, who bestows upon them a remarkable visibility, not just through sculpture but also through sound. His practice draws inspiration from indigenous and non-Western musical traditions — including those of pre-Colombian, Afro-Carribbean, and Chicano cultures — which repurpose and rename objects as “important strategies for cultural survival for the conquered and oppressed,” he writes in a catalogue essay. “Imagining the world and recreating it in one’s own terms is the first step for self-acceptance and liberation.”
While in Spanish, “canto” also means “singing,” Galindo’s creations tend to make percussive, rather than melodic, sounds that relay traces of the environment along the border. Many suggest the movements of people walking briskly or running, the pitter-patters, rhythmic clangs, and other beats bringing to mind anxious but determined footsteps. The monumental, 12-foot-tall “Angel exterminador,” for instance, features a steel slice of the border wall twisted like a fender and suspended from an angular frame. It’s played as one would a gong, but sounds like a snare drum at times and like a sputtering engine at others. It’s ominous in appearance, resembling a hanged man.
From an aluminum ladder likely intended to help people scale the wall, Galindo created “Sirvientes y escaleras,” attaching plastic jugs, cans, and strings to the rungs. Plucking its strings as you would an upright bass produces plopping sounds that recall the motion of leaping, but also grating, chainsaw-like noises that are much more ominous. Rough, scraping sounds also emerge from “Agitanques,” a water jug Galindo filled with gravel. When shaken, the soft shuffling suggests someone dragging heavy belongings through sand; you sense exhaustion from simply listening to it. Perhaps the most chilling piece to hear is “Micro Orchestra”: created from the belongings of children — from a plastic toy scorpion to a broken comb to a toothbrush — it sounds out a spine-tingling cacophony of high-pitched screeches and scrapes that stand in for the cries of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. The museum exhibition also features a number of Galindo’s graphic musical scores — colorful staves and notes he’s shifted into freeform arrangements to reflect visual cues taken from Misrach’s photographs.
This trove of secondary and tertiary creations emerging from objects found at the border not only speaks to the artists’ steadfast examination of the ongoing issue of migration, but also invites us to confront the entire spectrum of political and social topics surrounding this single line. As Kun poignantly sums up in the catalogue:
To speak of the contemporary border is to speak of nineteenth-century US expansionism and twentieth-century economic imperialism, decades of labor recruitment and labor deterrence, post-WWII industrialization and post-9/11 terror wars, pro-trade policies and anti-drug policies, Mexican drug supply and U.S. drug consumption, the pursuit of human rights and the violation of human rights, U.S. golf courses with their ninth holes in Mexico and two-bedroom American homes with the Border Wall in their backyard, and the open frontier of the Old West and the carceral frontier of the New West, where campfires become klieg lights and young mothers carry their infants across live gunnery ranges because, somehow, they’re safer than the open desert.
Border Cantos reminds viewers of the politics, cultures, and communities that collide along the border, but ultimately Misrach and Galindo highlight what unites us as human beings, building on the imagery of familiar objects and the experience of listening to stir emotion.
Border Cantos continues at the San Jose Museum of Art (110 S Market Street, San Jose, CA) through July 31.