Monday, March 19, 2007

No Mans Land

Roaring past us go the wheels of the motorway traffic, a small dusty impromptu path is beaten into the ground by the hundreds of feet that have passed along this route before us. Ducking our heads under the occasional tree we hear the violent rumble of speeding tyres and we continue to trace our way along this path by the side of the road. On either side of path, motorway and ourselves are two fences, to our left the fence to Tijuana airport on our right the border fence separating Mexico from California and all the States beyond. This man made boundary protects the United States from the desperate attempts of the Mexican poor who seek a better life in the neighbouring territory, this is the protective measure employed by the U.S government to stop the steady flow of illegal Mexican immigration. The cruel irony is that the U.S economy is underpinned by the cheap illegal labour provided by those who cross successfully whilst hiding the desperate fate of those who perish attempting the crossing all along this barrier that runs from mountains to sea.

For those hidden numbers who do perish there is a point of protest, defiance and remembrance. Along the wall are hundreds of white wooden crosses which bear the names of those who have not survived the crossing, those who remain anonymous and unclaimed by family and friends are not forgotten either, the simple wording ‘No Identificado’ is placed where the name should be. This act of remembrance is also an act of defiance and protest, the local Mexican population have grown tired of the skewed economic and social conditions that exist separated by a fence and which involves on many occasions the loss of their sons and daughters as they struggle a inhospitable climate on their journey to and through the US. For some this journey ends in death in the desert, and Mexico says no in a very public way to this needless loss of life. Friends and family place the crosses commemorating the dead along the fence. It is estimated that one undocumented worker per day dies trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.

I had heard about this ritual act and when I knew that I would be travelling to California I decided that I would come and pay my respects and document this unique intervention. This fence with murals and simple white crosses of remembrance quietly but strongly shows that this phenomenon of immigration does not go unnoticed, that poverty and wealth can sit side by side and that the exploitation of one countries workforce for the benefit of the other cannot continue unnoticed. I am aware that this happens across the world but it is the proximity of these peoples and the gulf of wealth that shocks. That this exploitation results in the death of hundreds each year desperate to improve their circumstances is saddening, what saddens even deeper is the blindness to the existence of this phenomenon elsewhere in the world.

Modern Mexican culture is a vibrant and increasingly influential force, those Mexican immigrants who work and live either legally or illegally in the U.S are changing the face of modern America. The global cultural landscape of art, music and film have changed and developed through the hard work and talent of those Mexican immigrants in the US, the huge efforts of the immigrant agricultural workforce fight to keep a land of plenty continually productive whilst in some cases the land has been so depleted by the artificial methods of the past.

On the path the traffic continues to speed past us on both sides, walking for at least a mile we see the hundreds of white crosses, we finally find a space to cross and sprint across lanes of oncoming traffic. For some time we pace up and down observing the hundreds of names, at this point of the first few white crosses we look back along the fence into the distance from where we have just walked, the white crosses with the names of individuals painted in black along their length are lost in the distance, from where we stand they disappear out of sight along the length of the wall. It is a sad, beautiful, poignant and vital sight. Through rusty holes and cracks in this fence we can see a no mans land of scrubby grass and beyond that the secondary protective fence topped with razor wire, this is a violent image, a static, seemingly impenetrable barrier which snakes along the contours of the landscape and far out of sight. This hard barbed, metallic barrier represents something beyond a physical barrier, it is an emotional barrier, one countries fear made solid and the message is a solid “keep out”.

On the Mexican side of this barrier, the fence adorned with the murals, crosses and names of all those lost individuals and the simple ‘No Identificado’ for the unnamed it appears as a multi-faceted act, It is protest, memorial, urban intervention and art.

It is time for us to leave, but a memory of an earlier incident in the day comes to mind When I crossed through the border my passport was not checked, I entered Mexico welcomed and unhindered. I was just one of many gringos crossing for cheap food, booze and drugs, illegal or otherwise. As I walked through a young American man in his late twenties or early thirties bumped into me from behind, he grabbed me on both shoulders and as I stepped away he lurched to the ground with a thud, I tried to pick him up but he fell hard against the ground once more, he appeared to be in a kind of fit but he was in a conscious state and smiling, his friend backed away and did not aid his companion and as a few of us bystanders realised the severity of his condition we were interrupted by four Mexican border guards, with great concern they rushed to help him and got him seated. They were asking if the man needed a doctor, his friend stood slightly separated from his friend and the guards but reluctantly began to talk to them, as they continued their conversation I walked away, in my mind I speculated whether the young man was attempting to get to the numerous pharmacies selling cheap generic drugs at only a fraction of the cost back in his home country, was he rushing for vital medicine that he could not afford back home? I asked myself whether his journey would be completed in a favourable way? Was he to return home safe and well?.

As I stood in the queue to return to the supposed comfort of California I remembered the concern and distress on the Mexican border guards faces at the plight of the young man and contrasted with the aloof, authoritarian and vaguely suspicious manner of their U.S counterparts sat at desks in front of me checking visas, I.D cards and passports. I watched this spectacle and thought of the fence and the young man and I questioned where I would rather be, on this side of the fence or the other?.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Entering the Seventeen gallery for their current exhibition of Susan Collis’ work you might assume that the work never arrived. In a gallery space seemingly devoid of art Collis’ gives us an insight into our ideas of value, both artistic and otherwise. At various points around the walls and across the floors sit evidence of installation, it appears the art is either ready to be placed or has just been removed, we expect the gallery to be filled with objects ready to receive our judgements but in this particular case we can only see the insignificant marks and signals of what is to be or has just been. Take a close look at these insignificant splatters of paint, rawl plugs and screws imbedded in the walls and you will find that for once these insignificant markers and carriers of the art object are in fact the significant objects themselves.

Crafted from gemstones or precious metals are tiny facsimiles of the mundane by-products of gallery activity, they make you reflect on the nature of value, these precious materials are made precious by the value of the material from which they are crafted not by the object they are crafted into and as such carry an honesty and integrity. Is Collis’ playing with us?, all that space left essentially unfilled except for these disingenuous tiny fakes, are white silver screws, mother of pearl paint residues, rawl plugs from a variety of gemstones essentially the same as their poorer cousins in the DIY shop only more espensively dressed?, or perhaps as I felt whilst staring at these precious metal screws that they are tiny crafted objects of beauty and their poorer cousin objects just as beautiful too.

As a child I used to play with the bits and pieces littered around my Fathers tool cupboard. Collis’ reminds me of that small child sat on a dusty floor staring intently at every tiny reflection, shiny flaw and imperfection and minute detail of the collection of screws and nails that sat in boxes in this cupboard. I can only imagine the wonderment etched on my face as I turned that threaded piece of metal around my five year old fingers, perhaps this evening I had a similar look on my face as I peered at the tiny objects stuck in the walls of the Seventeen gallery.

There would have been a completely different expression on my face on leaving the Foundry some time later after seeing Russell Thoburn’s ‘A Fakes Progress’, I can barely describe the bafflement I feel. It is difficult to put into words an adequate description of Thoburn’s artwork, in fact is difficult to determine where Thoburn the person ends and the artwork starts, especially as I get the feeling that he doesn’t actually know himself. On face value Thoburn seems to have received a small amount of noteriety by turning a by-product of an event attended by Charles Saatchi into a sculpture, in this case a kart engine driven by Saatchi that was removed by Thoburn and displayed as a sculpture, covered by the tabloid press this event ten years ago meant that the then art student Thoburn brushed shoulders with a part of the artworld that he has desperately pursued ever since. At The Foundry Thoburn is showing a series of private view cards, scraps of paper and envelopes which detail correspondence between himself and a number of art world figures. Considering himself an outsider he attempts to elevate himself into the upper echelons of the art world. He appears to have faked letters and emails from more established artists in order to encourage dealers and gallerists to visit his studio, he has blagged entry to various art related events and gallery openings. Now you might ask why this is the case as it is generally fairly easy to blag entry to these things anyway but that may not be enough for Russell, passing himself off as Alex James (Blur) and others in written correspondence with the likes of Victoria Miro and Jay Jopling to gain entry to gallery openings, after parties and the like. Even for this evenings opening in his press release he likens himself to Ryan Gander and uses a quote from Matthew Higgs about Gander’s work to explain his own. In Thoburn’s world he name drops, Saatchi, Gary Hume, Damien Hirst, Jay Jopling, Abigail Lane, Matthew Higgs and Victoria Miro.

Whether this is an elaborate hoax deliberately created by Thoburn to fool us or a real campaign to navigate his way to the upper tier of the art world is unclear but two things are clear. Fake, rake or genuine outsider Thoburn has become a stalker not of people but of a misguided concept and he has turned his life into a documentary, unfortunately he appears to have forgotten to invite the camera crew.