LAS CRUCES, N. Mex. — Before the creation of geopolitical borders and their bloody effects on marginalized communities, the Chihuahuan Desert was already a tremendously inhospitable place. The Sierra Madre, blocking wind and humidity from the east and west, helps make the region a violent environment with extreme weather, scarce resources, and an unwelcoming flora and fauna ready to sting, poison, bite, and otherwise hurt in a fight for self-preservation. Humans continuously invade the area with absurdly large, resource-hungry communities functioning under neoliberal models, creating an environment where, as Desierto. Arte. Archivo’s co-curator León De la Rosa-Carrillo describes in a poem that greets gallery visitors: “Let’s be honest, in the desert we are all dying all the time.” On view at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the artists in the group exhibition roamed around Ciudad Juárez, El Paso, and its vicinity, using a diverse set of practices to document the conditions and their lived experiences.
The show, divided into two rooms, ranges from large installations to tiny jewelry made with found materials. “El Muro (The Wall)” (2019), built by biologist Paola Mendoza and artists Laura Meneses and Juan Carlos Reyes, welcomes viewers with detailed scaled replicas of animals dwelling around a fence, all made with cardboard. Contrasting its massive physicality, the piece offers a simple and straightforward conceptual argument to which the viewers can anchor their own ideas: How do human concepts of space, reflected in this case through a divisive structure, affect other species that live in the area? What inherent physical qualities must nature have in order to get around or through these limitations? What happens to those that don’t carry said qualities?
Cassandra Adame carries the conversation of fabricated objects in relation to our experience in the region. Adame’s practice includes walks around Juárez neighborhoods collecting fragments of old buildings-turned-ruins and using these pieces as inspiration and material for her jewelry. The artist converts waste into souvenirs that are simultaneously delicate and rough, highlighting the consequences of human intervention, creation, and eventual abandonment. The act of turning these bits into pieces to be worn physically close to the heart, such as the brooch in “Tierra de nadie (No Man’s Land)” (2019), alludes to the intimate memories we assign to materials that once served as shelter against the environment.
It is important to note that this is the second iteration of the project, which was originally exhibited in Ciudad Juárez in 2019, a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the pieces on view make use of organic elements such as dried leaves, sticks, and dirt. Crossing the border with these components proved difficult because of restrictions that exist on the importation of biological material, a phenomenon that was incorporated into the updated exhibition as the artists and curators struggled with incomplete artwork. Laws blocking the introduction of objects found in an ecosystem shared by the two countries revealed arbitrary customs regulations: Is the dirt in Juárez dirtier than in El Paso? Is lumber found on the Mexican side of the desert more prone to pests than that in the US?
One of the pieces that dealt with this predicament is “Migración, es parte del aroma que respiras aquí (Migration Is In Part What You’re Smelling)” (2019). The artist, Dr. Gracia Emelia Chávez-Ortiz — who co-curated the show with fellow Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez professors Dr. León De la Rosa-Carrillo and Dr. Ma. Eugenia Hernández-Sánchez — originally created an installation combining potato sacks emanating a peculiar smell, and found lumber, which was unsurprisingly blocked from crossing the border.
There were many possibilities to solve the issue while contributing to the theoretical argument of the exhibition: remove it completely from the show, display an incomplete piece with the scent-carrying component, or find similar lumber on US grounds. Ultimately Brannigan’s staff decided instead to display a photo of the original installation alongside a slideshow and text explaining the circumstances. Doing so inadvertently became a statement: If we can’t show the whole, you won’t get a fragment or a whiff, but we will explain what you are missing through sanitized media.
Continuing the discussion in a powerful performance during the opening of the exhibition, Alexandra Rodríguez and Octavio Castrejón conversed between themselves as they reimagined their original piece. “Y fue aquí, en este lugar desolado, donde aprendió a vivir de nuevo (And It Was Here, in This Desolate Place, Where They Learned to Live Again)” (2019) consists of two textile sculptures in the shape of capes built with found material and inspired by the defense mechanisms of desert nature, such as thornes and camouflage. Similar to Gracia Emelia Chávez-Ortiz’s work, certain elements of the garments included organic material that was prohibited from crossing the international border. Instead of contrabanding or replacing these parts, and prompted by phrases on cardboard that became part of their work, the artists took the opportunity to ponder the reification that traditionally occurs in art, questioning the sanitation processes that cultural institutions inherently apply to ideas and narratives, many times altering and reducing them in an effort to distill them. The pair also questions the inferred qualities of objects, bringing to light the absurdity of distinctions that make matter in different stages safe or acceptable, such as cardboard or a wooden furniture — both permissible across the border — while the raw wood they come from is not. Rodríguez and Castrejón ultimately created a space for reflection about current international policies in which images and objects are admissible across borders while nature, humans included, is not.
Perhaps inadvertently and without malice, the cultural center in which the exhibition resides carried practices that clashed with the arguments of the exhibition. The institution’s curatorial team had a Plan B for organic components as stated on the list of artworks: freeze to render inert, which some artists refused. This inertia is also on display through their installation decisions, such as not providing the QR codes linking to the oral histories that accompanied René López and Alejandra Vargas’s “Sangre(s) de arena (Sand blœœd)” (2019), omitting instructions to Naiky Arreola’s interactive found object and sound installation “Archivo muerto (Dead Archive)” (2019), and inconveniently boxing with plexiglass a few pieces that did not call for such protection. These details, however, serve as a counternarrative that weirdly strengthens the logic of the exhibitors.
The artists in Desierto. Arte. Archivo embarked on a reflective artistic journey inspired by their surroundings. As they tried to understand their connection to nature in the Chihuahuan Desert, they unearthed parallel dynamics reflected in the relationships among ourselves, our politics, and institutions. Maybe the place where we are dying all the time is the perfect location to imagine a new way to live.
Desierto. Arte. Archivo continues at the Branigan Cultural Center (501 N. Main St., Las Curces, New Mexico) through December 31, 2022. The exhibition was curated by León De la Rosa-Carrillo, Ma. Eugenia Hernández-Sánchez, and Gracia Chavez-Ortiz.