After seeing Border Cantos, I wandered through San José’s Tabaimo show. Seeing videos in an art museum is always a weird thing where I have to remind myself to give the loop some time to grow on me. It’s a good thing that there’s a space for short films that can play with not conforming to the expectations of plotting, etc. that we have about films shown in a theater. I just have to remember myself that I can’t judge these like I would judge a movie. Yes there’s often a start but I don’t always begin there. Nor can I expect it to hook me immediately when I start watching.
As an animation junkie, I liked a lot of this show. Tabaimo’s pieces are more like video sculptures than films. They’re projected onto three-dimensional surfaces and often involve additional depth and dimension in addition to those surfaces. I especially liked DanDAN and the way it slipped through the different units and floors of an apartment building. I also found myself appreciating just the craft of putting together and staging everything. Juggling the animation, how the projection will hit the surface, and how the different projections will interact is an impressive amount of stagecraft.
I also always like looking at hand-drawn animation which mimics other media in its brush and line styles. This is especially true now when so much of the goal of computer animation is achieving a realistic look. Instead, I love when the animation still looks like drawings or paintings that have come alive. All of Tabaimo’s work has that sketchy/brushy quality and it’s just fun to look at.
At the same time, all of the work on display draws on cultural references which I don’t understand. This isn’t a critique of the art as much as it’s a critique of how it’s displayed. I don’t think really any of the museum goers will understand the textual or cultural references and while the works are named on the wall text, there’s not much about what those works are about. Which is a shame since I think I’d enjoy these all a lot more if they were presented in a way which took them beyond the “don’t these look cool” appeal.
In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.
*My post on Russell’s Great West Illustrated covers more of this but Carleton Watkins has some train photos too. It’s also worth looking at Marc Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire here, in particular photos like this one.
I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.
That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.
This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.
The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.
*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.
**The wall itself also reminds me of Christo and Jeane Claude’s Running Fence except that where the Running Fence used the landscape, the border wall is imposed upon it.
The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.
It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.
*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.
What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.
This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.
The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.
There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.
The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.
It caught me by surprise at how much Emmett Mann’s death affected me. I don’t know him. Or even claim to know him. I only have a book with many many photos of him. But his image and his youth have had a deep and lasting impact on me as a photographer.
As a student, Immediate Family was one of those works which taught us how to look better and really think about how photography works. How family photographs work. How the simplest, purest motive for taking photos has room for some of the most amazing art—without having to do anything “arty” in order to get there.
Yes Mann’s photos aren’t “snaps” but neither are most family photos.
The photos of Emmett were especially poignant. He’s captured during his pre-teen transition from being innocent and unaware of how people saw him to thinking and considering his self-presentation. Because he’s my age, many of the clothing details* are the same small details I remember from my youth. While Mann’s work has never felt like a either new or dated—I can’t imagine photography without it—that I also see explicit examples from my youth in the photos does make them even more meaningful.
Now as a parent of two boys, re-looking at Immediate Family brings a whole new level of recognition and understanding. As wonderful as it is as an project to introduce to young photographers, its best attribute is how it rewards my own maturation both as a photographer and as a man. I’m no longer just seeing myself in the photos and relating to the images on that level, I’m seeing them as a photographer and a parent.
It’s not just the seeing and realizing that family photos can be art. Or that they should be art. It’s the encouragement to see and notice and record those quiet moments of natural grace and beauty which my sons’ just have whether they’re engrossed in some minutia in the dirt or running around the house without their clothes on. I don’t always have the willingness or skill to tell them to stop and hold a pose but my brain is recording them. Hopefully I’ll remember a few of the moments I don’t photograph.
But Mann’s vision is there in the back of my mind the entire time. Nudging me. Encouraging me. Reminding me. Which means that Emmett is always there in the back of my mind. Just as he no doubt lives in the backs of so many other photographers’ minds.