“Delimitation means the act or process of fixing limits or boundaries of territorial constituencies in a country or province having a legislative body”
A timely and compelling installation at Museo De La Artes, Guadalajara, Mexico, entitled DeLIMITations by Mexican artist Marcus Ramirez ERRE and American artist David Taylor, examines and documents through stills, a documentary film, large-scale graphics, a solid-steel obelisk and historical research presented as wall text, the original border between the United States and Mexico as determined by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1821. Their historical, political and cultural piece sets about to establish a border that was never physically marked by placing 47 steel obelisks along the 2400 mile border that never was. The treaty was rescinded 27 years later, after the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, when Mexico ceded 55% of its land to the United States in a land grab disguised as a war. Ulysses S. Grant was then a young lieutenant who fought in the war, and later admitted (and is quoted here in the exhibition) “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war…I thought so at the time…only I had not the moral courage to resign.”
This narrative installation, originally commissioned for the SITElines inaugural Biennial in Sante Fe, New Mexico, for their Unsettled Landscape exhibit, is exceptional in its logical, dispassionate tone and in the choice of materials used to both inform and educate the viewer. Amidst the current highly provocative border discussions, it is extremely powerful and emotional to see the huge swath of the United States that was taken from Mexico.
As part of the information on the wall texts, Marcos Ramirez (known as ERRE) and David Taylor lay out what equipment they would need: 1. Purchase a used sprinter van (or borrow one from Mercedes-Benz), 2. Fabricate parts for 47 obelisks (20 gage (sic) galvanized steel), 3. Design the project visual identity (t-shirts, van graphics, monument graphics). 4. Social Media 5. Plot the project route in Google Earth and determine monument locations. The laconic list goes on to include among other things, buy camping supplies, groceries, pack van and lastly #12 to fundraise. This to-do list makes the project seem very accessible, humble even and personal.
The project is very personal for ERRE who lives in Tijuana, Mexico. In an interview, ERRE talked about this original 1821 border as a “scar that never heals” and he shared his hope that this project will make that scar visible. It took one year to research and plan the project, and then one month to fundraise. It took another month to construct the parts for the 47 hollow obelisks (many of them had to be put together during the month-long marathon road trip) that would be placed in predetermined locations on the “border” that had existed only on paper.
Each sculpture is numbered and has a QR code on it, which connects to their project blog. ERRE likes to drive and so he was the driver while Taylor navigated through GPS. The artists state “Each of the obelisks we place bears the coordinates that indicate our intended survey points but circumstances and our own impulse compel us to adapt. So far, the markers have ended up very close to our predetermined locations and the variance is under one-hundredth of a minute (of latitude and longitude).”
A large framed graphic (probably 7 feet high by 5 feet wide) lists what would have been “border” towns had the terms of the original treaty been kept, and it contains some surprises. It includes such far-flung towns as Brookings, Oregon; Jackpot, Nevada; Medicine Bow, Wyoming; Puebla, Colorado; Dodge City, Kansas; Arthur City, Texas; Waurika, Oklahoma, and even Texarkana on the Texas and Arkansas border, among many others. All of this information is displayed with colorful, large-scale images — some of maps, some quotes, some just the section of ceded territory cut out and mounted on the wall. The cumulative effect of all this evidence is astonishing and overwhelming.
However, the most poignant part of this installation is the wall with color prints of each single obelisk situated usually in a somewhat uninhabited place. These are all relentlessly horizontal emphasizing the grand scale of this enormous country. The small space in the back of the gallery is where the wonderful thirty-seven minute documentary by Jose Inerzia is screened continuously. Each frame of the video is nearly like a still as the camera is often stationary allowing the viewer to focus on the endless prairie or limitless sky.
The video opens with a close-up on the obelisks being constructed as the #1 obelisk is situated in Brookings, Oregon along a cold, wet empty beach. This unsettling and lonely image sets the tone for the rest of the video. As the artists install the obelisks, they occasionally encounter either a curious onlooker or the owner of the property that they are going to install a marker on. The interviews with these folks are heard as voice-overs and also seen as text, like a subtitle on the bottom of the picture. One of my favorite shots in the film catches a herd of cows in the distance seemingly very tiny, near the bottom of the frame, casually walking towards the viewer. Behind them is a series of endless windmills and all is dwarfed by the big, clear endless sky. It’s so quiet and reflective. One can almost hear the wind.
In Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the voice over is the artists explaining the 1821 treaty to a bystander who then wistfully and plaintively complains that these small, rural towns (such as the one that is seen on the screen) are dwindling and becoming ghost towns. Another man, who is married to a “one-quarter” Pueblo Native American woman. talks about how land is cheap out there and it is cheap to live. Two voices and two different views expressed. The film is quite even-handed this way and never preachy.
The next frame shows the artists sleeping outside their van, in sleeping bags, on cots. Absolutely no one is nearby. The sense of desolation is palpable. At Dodge City, Kansas, the voiceover in Spanish is the story of a woman who came to America to play futbol (soccer) and met her husband. She wants to go back and visit her family but is afraid she won’t be allowed to return. While we are hearing this, we are seeing a lovely image of a pretty blonde woman (presumably the speaker) in a white wedding dress down by the river. The juxtaposition of imagery is both striking and memorable.
Near Texarkana, Texas the camera pans the graffiti (including the initials “KKK”) covering the underpass of a road while the female being interviewed talks about America as a nation of immigrants. She says that as a veteran she is now sorry that she voted for the people now in office who are anti-immigrant. Next up is a Dreamer, who wishes for immigration reform for the millions of migrants and hopes that they would then be treated better. The next person we hear feels that the United States culture is dissolving. He is troubled by the many languages spoken in the United States and uses the analogy of a football team. How would they play together if everyone spoke a different language? He speaks of other empires that declined like the Romans and the Greeks. All this as monument #42 is being installed onscreen. The work goes on. We see Martinez make a wooden base into which the obelisk goes. Then he takes out his level and makes sure that it is correctly installed.
These interviews, freely given, only amplify the current political dislocation. The border turns out to be metaphoric as well as literal — a divide that as a nation we can’t seem to cross. DeLIMITations is the sort of exquisite exhibition that more than achieves its goals to educate, to give voice to people on all sides of the debate, to illuminate events in the past that suddenly are more than contemporary, to correct a historical wrong and most of all to make the viewer ponder the very nature of borders and delimitations. Bravo.
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.