Tragic Landscapes

A giant border wall is the highlight of three exhibitions of border art at MOCA Tucson

Migrants crossing the tragic landscape of the borderlands leave many things behind: backpacks, jeans, food cans, empty water bottles—and sometimes their lives.

The Sonoran Desert has yielded more than 3,000 deaths since the turn of the century, with border crossers losing their lives to dehydration and exposure. In the fiscal year that just ended on Sept. 30, the bodies of 151 migrants were found in the deserts and mountains between Tucson and the border.

More than one artist has made art out of the cast-offs of migrants, both living and dead, honoring those who travel al norte to escape danger, to work, to reunite with family. And in October, an anthropologist, Jason De León of the University of Michigan, won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" for his work treating the belongings of migrants as archaeological artifacts every bit as valuable as an ancient pot, say, or a fragment of a basket.

Practicing what he calls the archaeology of the contemporary, De León and his students for years have mapped out border-crossing trails right here in Arizona's desert, collecting and cataloguing discarded items, the better to understand why migrants come here and why they die. De León also turns the material into stark art: He recently filled a New York gallery with stacks and stacks of migrant backpacks. In the stillness of the arts space, the battered packs became solemn mementoes of the dead and the missing.

De León's work has laudably brought Arizona's tragedy to a national audience. But the Museum of Contemporary Art-Tucson right now has three excellent borderlands exhibitions that address migrant fatalities, immigrant identity, border surveillance and family separation. Some 30 artists, working alone or collaboratively, exhibit photos, videos, sculpture and installations. A number of pieces deploy the same kind of discards that power De León's work.

New museum director Ginger Shulick Porcella gets the credit for these timely shows, which fill every inch of the building. In her first major splash in town, she boldly chose to focus on immigration, one of the region's—and the nation's—most contentious issues.

The most dramatic of the exhibitions, Estamos Buscando A (We Are Looking For) by Paul Torounet, an artist celebrated for his haunting photos of migrants, is a giant installation occupying the massive Great Hall. It's nothing less than a re-creation of our militarized border.

A salvaged slice of actual border wall zooms 64 feet from one end of the gallery to the other, dividing the space into the U.S. on the north, and Mexico on the south. The wall is about 12 feet high, a mere fraction of the height of the president's proposed new wall, and it's planted on 3,000 square feet of dirt covering the gallery floor.

The northern side of the structure is forbidding and authoritarian. Based on Trump's design protocols, it "foretells the future of isolation and detached nationalism," Turounet says. The wall is an impassible stretch of pale metal. Nine "Keep Off" signs are painted on a curb; another sign warns of a "high intensity enforcement area." What seems to be a door in the wall is really a wire cage. There are no humans to be seen.

In contrast, the Mexican side teems with signs of life. Desert cacti have been planted in mounds of dirt. Evidence of the travelers is everywhere. Like De León, Turounet has collected migrant discards and scattered them in the dust: a woman's gray sandal, camouflage pants, a rotting blanket, a hoodie emblazoned with the words "Union Made."

The faces of people who might have left these things behind are fixed to a corrugated metal wall (ironically, another real-life discard, tossed out by the Border Patrol when a new wall went up a decade ago). Turounet has printed the travelers' weary faces in sepia on shiny aluminum, making them gleam like retablos, the Mexican folk paintings on tin that record miracles. But these gorgeously made pieces don't show any rescuing saints: instead they grieve for the wretched of the earth.

In one heartbreaking photo, a confused small girl rides in a truck crowded with migrants; she looks at the photographer, trying to puzzle out what's going on. Many of the photos portray exhausted men at makeshift camps they've constructed by the wall, complete with bedrolls and grills for cooking. One man lies prone on a pillow, barely able to open his eyes; it's an image that seems to foretell his death.

And a flower-laden shrine, so common on the migrant trail, is mourning a life already lost: propped against the wall are family photos of a smiling man, first as a groom with his bride in happier times, and then as a father with his young son.

Shulick Porcella herself curated the show "Nothing to Declare: Transnational Narratives," rounding up 14 artists from the U.S. and from Mexico. Among the many standout pieces, "Invasive Species" by famed binational brothers Einar & Jamex de la Torre, is a Google Earth view of the border at Tijuana and San Ysidro. But the thousand colorful houses in the aerial view can be seen only through the border's coils of chain link.

A third show, "ByNowWeAreThere," records a University of Arizona art-class trip to the California/Mexico border, led by Prof. David Taylor, another celebrated border photographer. Taylor and his 10 students documented dozens of sights, from San Xavier in Tucson to the border fence that marches into the Pacific. Most poignant are their images of the vast and deadly desert along the way.

An accordion photo book merges beautiful shots of cacti and mountains with the Border Patrol's infrared cameras and walls. And photos of migrant belongings in the dirt—a battered suitcase, shoes, empty water bottles—feel like portents of death, like traces of someone now disappeared.