For some time now, I have wondered what it is about the images of The Wall on the U.S. southern border that seems to disturb not only my political cognizance but also my aesthetic sensibility. Most of the images I have seen show it as what I would have to call a high steel fence stretching over long distances, imposing itself upon the desert. But what does it mean?
Political Theater of the Absurd vs. Humanity
By all indications, “The Wall” does not function well to defend against drug or human traffickers. Most drugs smuggled into the U.S. comes in through regular border crossings and ports of entry such as busy Tijuana, Nogales, or Juarez. “The Wall” seems to have a more symbolic function. The “build the wall” meme began as a political slogan during the 2016 presidential campaign that just kept on growing as a means to incite the racism, xenophobia, and hatred brewing within the Trumpist base.
Then, last night I saw a documentary film depicting the international construction of a perpendicular installation of a piece of cross-border performance art called “The Repellent Fence.” After much negotiation with landowners on both sides of the border, an art collective called “Postcommodity,” orchestrated the installation of a two-mile-long outdoor artwork that straddled the U.S.-Mexico border.
The group consisted of three Native American artists who “put land art in a tribal context.” Aided by community volunteers from both sides of the border, in 2015 these artists installed a line of 28 huge inflatable balloons, about 200 feet in the air, each depicting an image known as the “open eye” that has existed in Indigenous cultures from South America to Canada for thousands of years.
Unity and Opposition
The contrast between these two installations is striking. The Wall represents difference and separation – fear of the other and hateful exclusion. The Repellent Fence represents unity and inclusion. It also represents the history of indigenous people on the land that many now call the “borderlands.”
We should remember, though most do not, that the area where The Repellent Fence crosses The Wall, now divides what was once a unified ecosystem and habitat where indigenous peoples moved freely in their lands, even after the border between two nations, the United States and Mexico, had been defined by conquest. Residents could move freely between the two artificially constructed jurisdictions in the normal conduct of their lives. Then came The Wall.
That steel fence politically enshrined as The Wall, it seems to me, is in fact, an installation of a piece of performance art without the art. Authoritarian politics always oppose art because in diverse ways art expresses the essence of human life itself, in direct opposition to its oppression. The Wall represents and embodies oppression, while the Repellent Fence is an icon of performance art expressing the human desire for unity, harmony, and freedom.