Exhibition Review: Richard Misrach & Guillermo Galindo at Pace Gallery
by Madeleine Leddy
It would be a mistake to go to Pace’s current exhibit, Border Cantos, at their 25th Street location, a collaboration between American photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican-born sound artist Guillermo Galindo, with the intention of spending only a short time at the gallery. Misrach and Galindo have compiled what is more of an experience—a voyage, if you will—into a nightmarish twilight zone, and the scariest part of the experience is that this zone actually exists. It is not the liminal space between conscious and subconscious that is represented here, but the physical space between the U.S. and its southern neighbor: a space that, granted, has been transformed into a nightmare-scape—and a stark visual reminder of the American Dream’s fatal flaws.
Everything about Border Cantos is stark, including the soundtrack that accompanies each visit. Galindo and Misrach met in 2011 at a Pop-Up Magazine event in San Francisco, and discovered that their work was destined to intersect. Misrach even claimed, in an interview with California Sunday Magazine, that each artist’s work, at this point, “cannot exist without the other;” their processes have become fundamentally intertwined, and Border Cantos is the first public test-site of their collaborative effects. One of the elements that linked their work aesthetically was each artist’s respectively stark approach to difficult subject matter, and the resulting partnership has allowed each artist to play off the other’s findings in a harsh political and physical landscape.
Galindo’s sound-objects are on display like actors to Misrach’s large-format photo backgrounds—many of which, granted, portray actors of their own, and often depict found objects that Galindo eventually incorporated into his instruments as they were when Misrach picked them up at the border. In a way, the placement of Misrach’s work around the gallery as a visual foundation to Galindo’s bizarre, three-dimensional contraptions represents their collaborative process. Misrach spends weeks poring over long, deserted stretches of border wall and barbed wire from Texas to Tijuana, first photographing, then carefully extracting, packing away, and amassing the left-behind clothing and toys and toiletries (and so much else) that he finds along the way. When he is satisfied with his documentation and collection, he brings his findings to Galindo, who gets to work on building harmonies out of an inherently disordered medium.
Both artists turn the desolate chaos of the borderlands into a concrete, palpable message for audiences but Misrach’s photographs of the raw landscape must evidently occur before Galindo’s reconstruction of their contents. Misrach’s process is a precursor to Galindo’s, in their newly-conceived dual process, and the result is an expansion of their message—a mourning cry, in some senses, for the loss and waste that the borderlands witness, as well as a cry in protest of a system and structure that tears families apart—across the visual, tactile, and aural worlds.
Perhaps the most striking examples of the way Misrach’s process feeds into Galindo’s, and vice versa, are their pieces on las efigies, the disturbing “effigies” lining the border fence that fascinated Misrach. He devoted an extensive portion of his border photography series to these agave-stick constructions, that haunt alcoves and desert stretches along the fence, shod in discarded clothing and reminiscent, from afar, of detainees in a “hands up” position. Misrach created photos of the efigies in several different locations along the wall. All in different lighting scenarios and with only slight variations in the contents of the background landscape—always desolate, dotted with parched shrubs and the occasional forbidding concrete structure (abandoned patrol stations, crumbling infrastructure, the works). In every picture, these strange scarecrows appear as a small militia or, rather, a unit of protesters in formation, holding their agave-stick arms up at identical angles and reinforcing the Orwellian helplessness of the situation they represent.
The resulting musical composition of Galindo’s take on the efigies echoes throughout Pace’s installation, and the particular efigie that he appropriated as an instrument is on display as one such “actor” to Misrach’s photographic backgrounds. Galindo’s chosen figure, dressed in dusty red sweatpants and an eerily torn sweatshirt bearing a skull pattern, is now stretched across with steel cables suspended between pegs, like guitar or harp strings of varying thicknesses and tautnesses, allowing Galindo to to experiment with timbres and pitches when he plucks or bows the strings to produce his sounds. There are remnants of Southwestern and northern Mexican traditional guitar riffsthat stand out in the otherwise eerie metallic tones that emerge from his playing, subtly—and perhaps not even intentionally—reminding us of the human lives and cultures that exist, and are extinguished, within this uncertain landscape.
Indeed, the landscape itself is just as important to Misrach’s study of the borderlands as the found objects are to both his and Galindo’s work. He somehow has managed to capture moments in the desert along the border line, a fence at certain points, a more intimidating wall at others. At moments where the shooting location is reduced to fog, haze, or incoming clouds at the horizon. His juxtaposition of pastoral compositions with a color palette of decay—dusky grey skies that bleed into the dust and sand below the horizon line—shocks the viewer into uncertainty, and this uncertainty is only augmented by the photos’ ominous blurs into their cloudy surroundings.
At the base of Misrach’s and Galindo’s exhibit is both poetry and politics. Like the artists’ respective work, the two have become inseparable in the “Border Cantos” ethos: no image nor sound nor object can be apolitical, and all are laid out to leave us hanging—wracked by uncertainty about the future of this landscape, the people who are part of it, and the two countries that meet inside it—as so many families and travelers on either side of the border, migrant or related to migrants, are left every day. Where do the trials of the border end? Does the border, in itself, mark an end or rather a portal to another dimension of suffering, the physical manifestation of a bitter cycle whose end is nowhere in sight? These are the questions that Misrach and Galindo appear to be wrestling with, and they do so elegantly, even if their work leaves us with more questions about the dystopian state of U.S.-Mexico affairs than answers.