- Blurring the Lines: Art on The Border
The first thing to note about La Frontera/The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border Experience is that the exhibit’s title is a bit misleading. The various pieces of work in the exhibit make it perfectly clear that there is no such thing as “the . . . Border Experience.” Instead, while it is possible to draw out some common themes, the exhibit represents an extremely diverse multiplicity of “border experiences.” But even this phrasing would make for a somewhat misleading title, because one of the central concerns of the project is to problematize the notion of “border” in a variety of ways. Borders between Mexico and the United States are only one set of oppositions which are interrogated, and to some extent (I’ll conclude this review by questioning to what degree), broken down. The various art works in this exhibit also challenge the borders that divide: art and criticism; production and reception; public and private; religion and entertainment; communication and imperialism.
One of the outstanding works in the show, Yolanda Lopez’s “Things I Never Told My Son About Being A Mexican,” is a collage made up of various items from popular culture. Newspaper articles are interspersed with a bag of “Batman tortilla chips” and a Wonder Woman comic book the cover of which shows Wonder Woman eating cafeteria-style rice and beans. According to the accompanying blurb, the work “highlights the otherwise subtle and persistent means by which the mass media defines Mexican American Identity. . . . [It] exposes racist subtexts in seemingly neutral expressions of contemporary popular culture.” This description is worth examining, since the collage itself presents the various items to us without any accompanying commentary, and it is not clear how we would know that the work “exposes” racism if the blurb did not tell us so. The blurb in fact is part of the larger apparatus by means of which the exhibit attempts to construct its audience.
The first thing to note in this connection is that while the collage as a whole is clearly about Mexican-American identity, many of the individual artifacts are not. Many people looking at the Wonder Woman comic would not, for example, pay any attention to the food’s cultural history. Identity is “highlighted,” therefore, only by juxtaposition of the various elements. Seen together, the different items yield a common theme. But this theme is racism only to the extent that a prior agreement or orientation toward Lopez’s collage has been established among the audience—only to the extent that racism has already somehow been designated the object of attention.
One of the ways this prior orientation is established is through reviews of the exhibit, nearly all of which have focused on racism, imperialism, or border-zone policing practices. Then, for those few who manage to come in to the exhibit without having seen any of the reviews, there are plaques on display at the museum’s entrances which mention the same constellation of concerns. And finally, in addition to placing a descriptive/prescriptive blurb beside Lopez’s piece, the exhibitors have surrounded it with other pieces which depend on similar aesthetic strategies and are described in similar terms. My point here is that the piece only “works” as a statement on the racism of popular culture if (and because) the viewer has absorbed certain lessons in how to view it. This is as it should be: an exhibition of emergent artistic practices must fulfill the pedagogical function of training a suitable audience. But in this case the organizers’ desire to establish “racism” as the audience’s primary term of reference may have the effect of prematurely foreclosing some alternate readings.
These questions aside, there is much to applaud in the Frontera exhibition. Lopez’s collage in particular succeeds...