Texans are accustomed to thinking of the U.S.-Mexico border as a fact of nature, defined by the course of the Rio Grande. It may make little sense to local communities, accustomed over untold generations to crossing and recrossing the river, to draw a stark international boundary there, but at least the line has some rooting in the landscape. The rest of the border, however — the part beginning in El Paso/Juarez and extending westward to San Diego/Tijuana — has almost nothing to do with its physical environment. It is a crude stripe drawn on a map, determined by long-ago wars and whiskered 19th-century diplomats, indifferent to the ecosystems and topographies it bisects.
This other border, the abstract, utterly man-made demarcation beyond the northward turn of the Rio Grande, is the subject of David Taylor’s subtle, moving photo essay “Monuments: 276 Views of the United States–Mexico Border,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through January 28. Visitors entering the MFAH’s Caroline Wiess Law Building from Bissonnet Street are met immediately by Taylor’s photos playing in a continuous 14-minute projection loop against a large wall facing the main doors. The spaciousness, silence and scale of the presentation underscore the content of the photos, several of which were taken in remote desert no-man’s-land under supervision of the Border Patrol. As Taylor’s sequence moves west from El Paso, it’s mostly devoid of human and even animal life. Stripped of the familiar figures of the immigrant, the federal agent or the minuteman, the intangible line begins to come out of hiding, to show itself to us as a subject and even as a complex character — one-dimensional only in the most literal sense of the term.
Taylor’s conceptual approach is systematic and completist, like that of a bird-watcher or butterfly collector. In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, a new border was negotiated between the two nations, later revised by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Mostly in two phases, the United States erected 276 boundary-marker obelisks to impose upon local populations the reality of this new line. Today, these obelisks exist more as relics of the past than as effective tools of demarcation. Beginning in 2007, Taylor set out to photograph every single one. He completed the project in 2015.
Most of the Southwestern border is now fenced, often with tall, prison-like barriers. Since the topographies of the exact border don’t always cooperate with fencing, some of the old-school monuments are now hidden behind more recent construction or marooned on lonely, hard-to-reach mountain ridges. (Deliciously obscure place-names flash by in the MFAH projection: Picacho Alto, Radar Hill, Colonia el Camello, Mesa La Nopalera…) Other monuments have survived smack in the middle of a desert city, next to an heladería, or as a makeshift fence post.
Taylor’s project is a modern-day exploration of a region that has become, for geopolitical reasons, a newfound terra incognito. Over his years of monument-hunting, Taylor crossed paths with many border agents and residents of the borderlands, plus a few migrants, smugglers and vigilantes. Writing in Orion, Pulitzer Prize finalist Luís Alberto Urrea noted, “[I]f anyone deserves a medal for duty, it is David. What he has accomplished is unprecedented. He has enjoyed total access, and he has brought us visions of a world we have never been allowed to see. Troubling? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. Ugly? Absolutely. Haunting? Oh, yes. Honest.”
Most viewers will take in Taylor’s photographs a dozen at a time while crisscrossing Cullinan Hall between the various wings of the Law Building. But they’d be well-served to sit and watch the entire 14-minute show, or to explore Taylor’s print book of the project. There are several interesting cumulative effects of viewing the entire 276-photo sequence. The first is the sense of a manifest-destiny tour of the deep Southwest. Taylor’s travelogue is the deafeningly empty Interstate 10 road trip cranked up to 11, a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy and the old prank of the traveling garden gnome, made famous by Amélie and discount-airfare website commercials. “Monuments” would be a good candidate to serve as a contemporary answer to Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, the epic canvas that hangs in the U.S. Capitol: a visual metonym for the ongoing American project of conquering, dividing, settling and building up an exquisitely inhospitable stretch of continent.
“Monuments” also offers a broader perspective on our current moment in border history. Here it’s worth mentioning another recent project undertaken by Taylor, who lives in Tucson and has made the Southwestern border his main artistic subject for over a decade. In 2014, he partnered with Tijuana-based visual artist Marcos Ramírez ERRE on a project called “DeLIMITations,” in which the pair set out to survey the U.S.-Mexico border as it stood before the Mexican-American War — back when Texas, California and much of the territory in between still belonged to Mexico. The 1821 border had never been officially surveyed, owing to the extreme frontier conditions of that era. Taylor and Ramírez drove along the length of that historic border — now entirely within the contiguous United States — in a van painted with their invented logo for a “Binational Commission of Historical and Geographical Borders,” at intervals erecting prefabricated border monuments of galvanized steel. It’s impossible to know how many of Taylor and Ramírez’s unofficial monuments are still standing, but presumably many are, in locations ranging from private farmland along the Red River in Texas to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada and Idaho.
“DeLIMITations” spoke to the impermanence of borders; in that context, it’s clear that “Monuments” is also interested in the passage of time, from the wear on the aging obelisks to the anachronistic graffiti and city lights to the dwarfing of these once-grand monuments by 21st-century feats of border-security engineering. How strange, Taylor’s camera seems to say, that this haphazard line has survived nearly 170 years as an international border, when so much else around it has changed. What are the chances it’ll last another century? And how will it appear to future inhabitants of these lands, once the Trump-era United States has become a subject for archaeology?
The obvious reply, hovering over all of this like a surveillance drone, is that, for those of us who maintain hope for our country as a homeland for human rights, democracy and forward-looking egalitarianism, the modern Southwestern border is a great national shame, by which our generation will be judged harshly. If nothing else, we are long overdue for a general reckoning with what this line, drawn so long ago, really is today — what it touches, what it looks like, what dreams it conjures out of dust.