Two artists — one Mexican, one American — piled into a white Sprinter van stuffed with camping gear, photo equipment and art supplies for a 3,721-mile journey to mark the expanse of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Marcos Ramirez, known as “ERRE,” a Tijuana artist who tackles border topics in sculptural and conceptual works, and David Taylor, an Arizona photographer who has documented the border, began the first leg of their journey in July 2014 with a two-hour crossing from Tijuana into the U.S. at the international border.
But instead of heading east toward Arizona, the artists traveled north along Interstate 15 through the Mojave and the Owens Valley and up the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, where they camped within view of Mt. Whitney. The pair then cut west toward the California coast, through the rolling hills of Mendocino County, and redwood forests, before landing at Crissey Field State Park, a small, coastal recreational area outside Brookings, Ore.
There, at 42 degrees latitude on a wild beach a few dozen feet from the California border, they planted — without permission — a 6-foot-6-inch steel obelisk to mark the divide between the U.S and Mexico.
Taylor and Ramirez, nearly 900 miles north of Tijuana, weren’t horribly lost. For they weren’t marking the heavily fortified U.S.-Mexico border of today, but the boundary established between the two nations in 1821. That’s when California, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and many other states, even slices of Oregon and Kansas, were part of the Mexican union.
The artists toasted their achievement at Crissey Field with a round of beers. Then they hotfooted it out of there, before park officials could get wind of what they were up to.
“It was so tentative,” Taylor says. “There are signs everywhere saying you can’t litter and you can’t leave stuff behind. The park is well attended. … But we were able to scoot off in time.”
For their project, “DeLIMITations,” the artists placed 47 steel obelisks along the route of the 1821 border, from the coast of Oregon to the Gulf of Mexico, stopping in Medicine Bow, Wyo.; Dodge City, Kan.; Waurika, Okla.; and many other towns. Before this undertaking, the 1821 border had never been formally surveyed in its entirety.
“There had been a short section of it between the headwaters of the Sabine River [on the Texas-Louisiana border] and the Red River, which divides Texas and Oklahoma, that had been marked,” Taylor says. “But the entire rest had not.”
The project was as much an opportunity to revisit history as it was to do what had never been done.
“Most of the historical markers you see on the road is for entertainment,” Ramirez says. “Like, ‘Billy the Kid was shot here.’ We wanted to engage real history.”
It’s a past that will be revisited this week when “DeLIMITations” goes on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which helped fund the project (along with a binational clutch of institutions that includes the Nevada Art Museum, the University of Arizona, SITE Santa Fe and the museum of the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexicali).
The exhibition — with photography, video and a pair of stainless-steel obelisk sculptures — explores a fraught topic in this contentious election, in which presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea the Republican Party officially endorsed at its national convention.
Cris Scorza, who serves as curator on the show, says the exhibition couldn’t be timelier — and in taking the long view of history it shows the ways in which even the hardest borders can shift over time. “It changes how we see it because it seems so permeable,” she says. “It’s not a wall. It makes us aware of topography and landscape.”
Borders, in fact, are a relatively recent invention, says Taylor.
“There were not surveyed borders before European settlement in the Americas,” he says. “There were transition zones. You left one place and it blended into another.”
It’s a transition zone of sorts that the artists set out to map — the territory where the histories and notions of nationhood of two wildly distinct countries physically overlap.
“I was to be able to make the trip and see all of those landscapes that are not anymore Mexican,” says Ramirez. “But they are. In marking them, they are.”
Most of the historical markers you see on the road is for entertainment ... We wanted to engage real history.
“DeLIMITations” began as a cultural overlap itself. Ramirez and Taylor met at an exhibition in El Paso more than 10 years ago, each intrigued by the work of the other.
In the late 1990s, Ramirez made headlines with a two-headed Trojan Horse sculpture that he placed on the international divide at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing. (Called “Toy An-Horse,” it was as much a nod to exchange as invasion.) Taylor, meanwhile, has been photographing the length of the 700-mile border since 2007, including one project in which he recorded all 276 monuments that mark the divide.
The artists make for a complementary and charismatic guerrilla art team. Ramirez is barrel-chested, with eyes that dance and a deep, throaty laugh. Taylor is slender and composed, with chiseled features and a mellow manner.
“I’m the Type A planner and Marcos is the consummate craftsman,” says Taylor, as the two oversee the installation of their show in MCASD’s downtown galleries. “And he makes it up as he goes along.”
“No, I’m the Type A,” Ramirez interjects with a laugh. “You’re the type AA!”
Taylor has long been intrigued by the U.S.-Mexico border’s rich history.
“You can’t understand the contemporary border unless you understand that there was a border that preceded it,” he says. “I knew that the border had extended north in the 19th century. I knew about New Mexico and California — that they were in Mexico. But what I didn’t understand was that it extended into places like Wyoming.”
Ramirez was also interested in exploring one of his country’s most painful chapters: The Mexican-American War (1846-48) cost the country almost half of its land mass — more than half a millionsquare miles (not including Texas, which had already declared independence).
“From a Mexican point of view, there is a wound,” Ramirez says. “You are taught in school that there is this territory that was lost. But we don’t have a scar from that wound. So that’s the thing for both of us — let’s mark the wound, let’s make the scar.”
The pair decided to finish what had been left undone in the early 19th century, which was to survey and mark the 1821 border as had been defined by the Treaty of Adams-Onís. (The treaty, which dates to 1819, was between the U.S. and Spain, but Mexico ratified it in 1821, a decade after securing independence.)
The pair spent roughly 18 months raising funds and working on the logistics. This required figuring out the exact limits of the border and devising monuments that could be easily transported and installed.
Ramirez and Taylor came up with a lightweight obelisk — similar in form to current border markers — crafted from galvanized steel, the inexpensive sheet metal used in constructing building exhaust systems. These could be pre-cut and assembled on-site.
To look official, they painted a logo on the side of their van that read “Binational Commission of Historical and Geographical Borders.” It worked like a charm on public lands where they were placing the markers surreptitiously.
“There were a couple of patrol cars that circled us once,” Ramirez says. “But they saw the van with the logo and all of us with the tripods and then they left.” (Along for the ride was Spanish filmmaker José Inerzia, who produced a video that will also be on view in the exhibition.)
You can’t understand the contemporary border unless you understand that there was a border that preceded it
But installing the monuments on private land required negotiation — and that, say the artists, is where the project got interesting.
On the Nevada-Idaho border, they stumbled onto a powwow at a Shoshone-Paiute reservation, where they settled in for fireworks, fry bread and sacred dances — and where they ultimately received permission to place a marker. (“It was very important to ask permission,” says Ramirez. “Before this was Mexico or the U.S., this whole land was Native American.”)
In Medicine Bow, Wyo., a local homeowner agreed to let them install a monument in her yard — after which, she and her neighbors got around to discussing whose property now lay in Mexico.
And in Kansas, in the iconic Western town of Dodge City, once the home of famed lawman Wyatt Earp and where the television series “Gunsmoke” was set, Taylor and Ramirez found an all-American town transformed by immigration. Dodge City, according to the 2010 Census, is almost 60% Latino.
They also found nuanced, complex and almost contradictory attitudes toward Mexico and immigration. A local Dodge City landowner not only allowed them to place a monument on his land, he helped install it, then let them stay in his house. He employed lots of Mexican workers, yet he believed that there should be strict limits to immigration.
“There’s a talk radio rhetoric that’s not based in fact and somehow that passes for a legitimate portrayal of what our country looks like,” says Taylor. “But then you have a conversation with someone you don’t think you have anything in common with, and you find that you have a lot of overlapping ground.”
Naturally, there were folks who didn’t want to cooperate with the project. A landowner in Utah, for example, wouldn’t have anything to do with the artists and they were forced to go elsewhere. But generally, the pair worked unimpeded.
“We were traveling through Texas when the whole thing about the Central American kids was happening,” recalls Ramirez of the period in 2014 when thousands of unaccompanied children began arriving at the U.S. border fleeing the drug war.
“There was this big concern on the radio and officers were flocking to the border to contain these kids,” he says. “And here we are, these three guys running around planting these markers, claiming the land and nobody bothered us. They’re so worried about the edge, they don’t focus on the center.”
With their project, the artists are hopeful they can inspire a more thoughtful consideration of a hot-button topic.
There’s a talk radio rhetoric that’s not based in fact and somehow that passes for a legitimate portrayal of what our country looks like.
At SITE Santa Fe in 2014, Ramirez and Taylor gave a performance in which they read from Article 3 of the Treaty of Adams-Onís, which defines the physical boundaries. The last line, read by Taylor, states: “renounces all claim to the said Territories forever.”
To which Ramirez asked, “And how long did ‘forever’ last?”
“Twenty-seven years,” replied Taylor.
Men can build borders. One day those borders are destined to change.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Jacobs Building, 1100 Kettner Blvd., San Diego
When: Opens Friday, July 22 and runs through Nov. 27
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah