This art exhibition has its own soundtrack.
“We’re bringing two mediums to bear on one idea,” says Richard Misrach, to explain “Border Cantos,” a union of photography and sound currently up at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Misrach, a widely celebrated photographer who is known for his exceptional work in color, joined forces with musician and sculptor Guillermo Galindo for the exhibition and book that looks at the U.S.-Mexico border geographically and as a humanitarian issue.
“We don’t have a political ax to grind,” says Misrach. “It’s a huge issue that we hope people will just slow down and think about the complexities of it.”
Misrach, 67, began his career in photography more than 40 years ago when, while a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he went to a campus art studio to make some ashtrays for his parents as Christmas presents and wound up being fascinated by a photography exhibit at the workshop. He has done several cantos projects since 1979, with an emphasis on the desert Southwest.
“The desert is a good stage to look at these things,” he says. “I feel comfortable being out there. But the border was like nothing my imagination and my knowledge had prepared me for. It is always different.”
Misrach calls his cantos “suites of photographs.” He chose the term “cantos” for its literary meaning, as in the cantos of an epic poem.
“Each chapter is about a different aspect of nature’s collision with civilization. Some are metaphorical, some are aesthetic, some are conceptual, and sometimes I use language,” he says. “It’s the bombing range, next to the space shuttle landing, next to a flood in the desert. You start to see different kind of relationships.”
For this particular set of cantos, Misrach found a fellow artist who could give his often stark and arresting photographs a voice, and an added visual element.
“We didn’t know one another’s work,” says Misrach, referring to his collaborator, Galindo. “I had been shooting along the border and wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with the pictures. Then I saw a performance of his at a Pop-Up Magazine show [an art and performing arts event in San Francisco] in 2004 and learned that he had gathered materials for his instruments on the Texas border. Then the light went on. I invited him back to my studio to see what I was doing, and we have been collaborating ever since.”
The partnership often saw Misrach shooting along the border while keeping his eyes open for discarded objects that could be sent back to Galindo to be turned into odd musical instruments. The results included unconventional music-makers, such as a child’s plastic chair wed in a Frankenstein fashion to parts of a bicycle that had been seized by the Border Patrol and mangled so that it could not be used again. But Galindo does not think of his instrument-sculptures as being made from “found objects.”
“I consider them personal objects,” says Galindo, who was born in Mexico City and now lives in Oakland, Calif. “What is very special about them is that they are personal objects that are found in a place with a particular context. It’s not a musical decision. It is more a decision of connecting with people.”
As sculptures, his pieces are fun to view. As musical instruments, they make strange, other-worldly sounds that have no counterpart in traditional music, but rather recall the avant-garde works of 20th-century composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.
But Galindo thinks of them as being more than they appear to be.
“I consider them instruments, sculptures, receptors, transmitters, totems, or intermediaries of connections. They are not just instruments or sculptures. They are many other things,” Galindo says.
In developing “Border Cantos,” the two artists inspired one another.
“To use a musical term, it was like call and response,” says Misrach.
“It was a very organic and dynamic collaboration,” says Galindo, who teaches music at the California College of the Arts.
And Misrach likes the way the literary term “cantos,” which also means “songs” in Spanish, works so well for this exhibition.
“It’s a mixed meaning that is very rich and very much a part of the project,” he says. “A lot of what Guillermo and I do is about not only bridging our cultures, but also our mediums. And I think the title ‘cantos’ also bridges what he does and what I do in a poetic way.”
The Carter presentation of the exhibition’s 44 photographs and 18 hand-crafted instruments combines Misrach’s images with Galindo’s sounds and objects to project an almost tactile sense of the barren lands along the border, both where barriers stand and where they do not.
But as strong as the impact of the show’s sights and sounds is, its greatest power may lie in the things we do not see or hear.
“It is a matter of accepting that you don’t know,” says Galindo, about the pictures that make you wonder who left those shoes behind, or who made that crude ladder to scale the wall, and what their stories might be.
So the real stars of Misrach’s large, imposing color photographs are missing. They are ghosts who have evaporated somewhere along the border, taking their reasons and motivations with them, leaving behind only the barest hints of whom they might have been.
One good example of the exhibit as a whole is Effigy No. 3, an enigmatic image of a somewhat tortured-looking, scarecrowlike figure constructed of sticks and a sweatshirt in the foreground, seeming to stand guard at the entrance of a dry culvert. Is it a warning? Is it a direction? Is that America at the other end of the culvert?
Those are the sort of unanswerable questions tantalizingly raised throughout the exhibition, which includes massive landscapes cut into by the border fence and more small-scale shots of things like piles of shotgun shell casings left after Border Patrol target practice.
“We are telling the story of a complicated humanitarian crisis from the point of view of artists,” says Galindo. “It is a very good way to the put the issue of immigration in humanitarian terms using the language of art. And we have found that it resonates with people.”
- Through Dec. 31
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art
- 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- 817-738-1933; www.cartermuseum.org
- Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo will give a lecture and performance at the museum 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Admission is free.