For the tens of thousands of art tourists annually descending on Marfa, a full-on immersion in all things Donald Judd and a journey through the climactic highs of minimalism are the top priorities. Consequently (and likely unintended by Judd), the big box of minimalism has often overshadowed Marfa’s cultural and physical proximities to Mexico. Exhibitions have rarely broached Marfa’s relationship to Mexico or featured works by Mexican or Mexican-American artists—a rather shameful omittance for a town just 60 miles north of the border. At last, Alicia Ritson’s In Lieu of Unity at Ballroom Marfa delicately bridges this gap with socially minded works by ten artists and one artist collective. All of the featured artists either live in or have emigrated from Mexico. Current conversations regarding the Mexico/US border unpack a myriad of divisive, hot-button issues, such as immigration policies, recently built border fences, racial profiling in Arizona and vicious drug wars in Juárez and beyond. In Lieu of Unity smartly forgoes a narrow, propagandistic approach to these topics, offering more comprehensive and considered dialogues. Manifested are poignant examples of interpersonal collaborations and interventions that shed light on and attempt to rectify the multitude of crises and disparities affecting the border. With a forward-looking, albeit un-utopian, spin, In Lieu of Unityprompts solidarity from the viewer, ultimately underscoring how communities can be forged regardless of man-made borders.
The exhibition’s spacious installation allows the well-chosen works, which include videos, installations and sculptures, to interact without tuning each other out. Located outside in Ballroom’s courtyard is Eduardo Abaroa’s installation Eighty Prepositions in English and Their Spanish Equivalents. Abaroa uses language—English and Spanish prepositions—to prove how such organized societal systems are arbitrary and only ostensibly divide or unite communities. Attached to a chain-linked fence, Abaroa has matched all eighty Spanish prepositions with their English translations. On the ground below are makeshift illustrations of the prepositions, like under/bajo, crafted from found objects (such as wood pieces, clothing and dolls) that were collected from Marfa and Mexican border towns. The vignettes are at times literally illustrative, but sometimes vague, revealing the ambiguity of language and how easily communication becomes lost in translation.
In the main gallery, Minerva Cuevas’ two works, Crossing of the Rio Bravo and SU-US-US (both 2010), document Cuevas’ interventions in the Big Bend region where Mexico and the US are bisected by the Rio Bravo, or the “Rio Grande” as it’s known to northerners. In Crossing of the Rio Bravo, Cuevas has installed her documentary photographs and the relating objects (such as a bucket and paintbrush she used and flowers and rocks from the region) alongside an antique US map. Pinned to the wall, the map depicts Texas in precise detail; a bright, white void stands in place of Mexico. The regional relics interject traces of the border—a potentially transformative site—into the gallery; the artifacts also remind viewers of the territory’s similarity to Marfa, despite what the map sets forth to instruct. The photograph SU-US-US illustrates where Cuevas painted “SU” onto the region’s terrain; “su” means “yours” in Spanish, but could also be read backwards as “us” or “U.S.”—a clever play on desire, territory and ownership. Cuevas’ limestone markings will eventually fade, laying bare the ambiguity of physical borders and also their ability to shift over time.
Also transplanting traces from border regions into the seemingly innocuous context of Marfa are Margarita Cabrera’s Space In Between and Teresa Margolles’ Irigación (both 2010). Cabrera’s collection of cacti are each formed from US Border Patrol uniforms. The cacti species are those indigenous to the US-Mexico border, where agents wearing such uniforms are also found. Cabrera, together with nine women who have recently immigrated to the US, collaborated to produce the plants, which are emblazoned with traditional Mexican embroidery illustrating the women’s autobiographical immigration scenes ranging from family portraits to border fences. For Margolles’ work, she visited Juárez and laid dampened cloths on drug-related murder sites. Detritus and human remains adhered to the cloths, which were then diluted in 5,000 gallons of water. In the piece’s video component, an irrigation truck is seen distributing the water along Highway 90 in Marfa. In this way, Margolles literally transplants these horrors to sleepy Marfa, suggesting that such crimes affect, or should affect, those living beyond Juárez. Margolles’ act also touches on the fact that the dead are victims of cartels essentially battling to supply the US’s insatiable need for illegal drugs. Like Martha Rosler in her well-known Vietnam and 9/11-era works, Margolles is essentially bringing the war home.
An exhibition highlight that offers measurable solutions is Pedro Reyes’ Palas por Pistolas (2008 – present). The project centers in Culiacán, Mexico, where cartel activity and gun-related murders are high in the nation. For the project, Reyes’ offers food stamps in exchange for guns and weapons, which are then melted down to form the metal tips of shovels. In turn, each shovel assists in planting one tree—substituting death for life. In the exhibition, the project manifests itself in the form of a live, potted tree installed next to a shovel (here it’s number 1,527). The tree will be planted in Marfa at the exhibition’s conclusion.
Other works, such as Paulina Lasa’s Untitled (2010) and Reyes’ Capula 18 (Dodecahedron) (2010), set up situations encouraging visitors to physically navigate and relate to one another. Untitled is an array of gold rings attached to interconnected strings of yarn; while wearing the rings, groups must weave among each other in order to navigate the gallery space. Reyes’ piece is a multi-colored steel and vinyl dodecahedron form suspended from the ceiling; visitors are encouraged to sit together within the swing-like form.
While these works emphasize literal physical interactions, the strongest works are those with more overt political agendas and those emphasizing connections on both sides of the Mexico/US border specifically. Indeed, In Lieu of Unity does a great job in igniting conversations regarding the Mexico/US border in the context of Marfa, but the relative obscurity of didactic texts in the gallery may cause some of the messages to fall on deaf ears and quash potential dialogues amongst many gallery visitors. The works and issues on hand are complex and need to be teased out a bit more—particularly for those viewers unfamiliar with the artists and those unacquainted with the issues at stake. The works bearing information, such as Margolles’ and Reyes’ pieces, are immediately affecting; others are, too, once illuminated.
Alison Hearst is the Curatorial Research Assistant at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and a co-founder of Subtext Projects.