Aug 28, 2017

Border Walls as Canvases

by: Laura Kochman

Why make art on a border wall? At Mural Arts, though we’ve branched out to sidewalk murals and temporary projections in recent years, much of our work is rooted in the practice of making art on a wall. The walls that inspire us are the walls of schools, walls along railroad corridors, walls facing out to the city and walls along the river. We haven’t shied away from difficult walls, either—we’ve made work on the walls of corrections facilities, on abandoned buildings at the heart of the opioid epidemic, and on the walls of entire neighborhoods about to be demolished. We’ve turned walls into conversations about immigrant visibility and housing insecurity, but we’ve never made art on a border wall. As our national conversation has turned ever-increasingly to the subject of borders, we thought it was a worthwhile question to explore.

The walls we’re more familiar with are structural supports, part of larger buildings or architectural systems, the exterior parts of interior spaces. They’re the public faces of our city, for better or for worse. Border walls, on the other hand, are intangible sociopolitical divisions made physical, visual reminders of power and law. They’re certainly public, but they face in two directions, creating two different publics, two different audiences. Border walls create the illusion of an interior and an exterior, an Us and an Other. They separate people, animals, and natural resources, and they become, themselves, taboo spaces, dangerous to approach and difficult to cross. But around the world, people persist in turning these walls into canvases.

The most widely-known example is the Berlin Wall—though it began to fall in 1989, pieces of it are kept in museums as still-powerful relics of this Cold War symbol. Dividing East Berlin from West Berlin, the wall was completely blank on the east-facing side and covered in graffiti on the west-facing side, as if to say This wall is not untouchable. In the context of an atmosphere of silence, to speak through art on the instrument of that silence was a way of taking away some of its power. The art on this wall was created by many people, some who thought of themselves as artists and some who didn’t. One of the intents behind the Berlin Wall was to keep the unruly West out of the strict, ideologically controlled East, and covering the wall itself in colorful paint was a deliberate challenge to that sense of separation.

Through art, the walls become unruly spaces, fighting back against the artificial sense of order that they impose.

- Laura Kochman

Today, some of the most politically charged border walls divide the state of Israel from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Both sides of these walls have been used as canvases, displaying a wide variety of perspectives. Well-known street artists like Banksy have used these walls to make statements about the enduring violence and unrest here, but so have ordinary, everyday people. Again, the surfaces of these walls are taboo spaces, so to touch them with art is to take away some of their psychological power. Through art, the walls become unruly spaces, fighting back against the artificial sense of order that they impose. Through perspective and trompe l’oeil, artists turn the wall into a window to the other side, or an escalator allowing people to cross.

Although the American conversation has recently focused on the possibility or impossibility of building a border wall between Mexico and the United States, the truth is that portions of that border have been walled off for a long time. The wall is not consistent in material or form, and it is full of holes and long stretches of no-wall-at-all, but the psychological impact is longstanding and significant. The purpose of this border wall is to intimidate, to dehumanize, to create the illusion of a safe space—for whom?—on one side. The purported intent is to make a physical object out of a boundary that already exists, but the truth is that it does not—the wall divides families, indigenous communities, animal migration patterns. Artist Ana Teresa Fernández has been erasing the US–Mexico border since 2011, painting the dark metal on the Mexico side a light blue that creates the illusion of a break in the wall, flipping its use of visual psychology. On the Mexican side of the border, Enrique Chiu has also already been at work painting more traditional murals on the wall, trying to create beauty where you’d least expect it, saying again, This wall is not untouchable. In 2015, interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity bypassed the fence entirely, installing Repellent Fence in the air above it—a series of balloons stretched along two miles of border, using indigenous colors and iconography, creating false eyes that speak both to the use of surveillance at the border, and to the illusion of perspective inherent in the wall itself.

As with the art that Mural Arts creates on all other walls, in the end it is not the image itself that is the work, that does the work. It is in the world around the image that the installation takes place. The work lives in the people that see it every day—this is the philosophy behind social practice art. The act of turning a border wall into a canvas is about speaking to the people on either side of that wall, whether challenging their assumptions about their own power or reminding them that they are seen and heard. To take on sites of power, people must first see themselves as sites of power, as capable of touching the taboo.

Last updated: Oct 19, 2018

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Peggy Hartzell says

JR is doing an installation on the border wall in Mexico right now.