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What’s the difference between trash and an artifact? It’s a question that struck conceptual artist Jami Porter Lara a few years ago when she visited the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern Arizona. While walking around a region where shards of ancient pottery can be found, she noticed another kind of human remnant—two-liter plastic water bottles left behind by migrants.
“I started thinking about the essential sameness of those two objects,” she says. Both were used to sustain life in the desert. Today, plastic water bottles are considered trash. But one day, they’ll be artifacts too.
This line of thinking inspired her to turn the water bottle, which she calls “the most iconic vessel of our time,” into a “contemporary artifact.” The result is an exhibit that compels viewers to imagine how people of the future might see our own moment in time.
Border Crossing, Porter Lara’s first show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, features all-black pottery made using what she calls a 2,000-year-old process that she learned in Mata Ortiz, Mexico. The Albuquerque-based artist’s pieces blend the characteristics of modern plastic water bottles (think screw-cap openings and those weird lumps on the bottom) with classical, ancient, or natural forms. Some look like gourds or large seeds, while others look like people reaching toward the sky. One resembles an ancient Venus figurine; another will remind some viewers of a more specific part of the female anatomy.
The bottles are beautifully made and give viewers the surreal feeling that they are looking at something new, yet also familiar. It’s a powerful show, and one that might surprise visitors who, based on its title, expect it to deal more explicitly with immigration. The artist didn’t intend her work to be a response to the proposed border wall because, when she first conceived of the idea, Donald Trump wasn’t even running for president.
Porter Lara doesn’t want to shy away from the ways in which her work may intersect with contemporary politics (for the record, she thinks the border wall is “an absurd proposition”), yet she does want to emphasize the original intention of the work. The title Border Crossing doesn’t just refer to the people who have lived along and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s about questioning the whole concept of borders—nation vs. nation, trash vs. artifact, nature vs. technology.
Perhaps the most striking border that the show crosses is the one between past and present. Porter Lara’s pottery blends old and contemporary forms so effectively, and creatively, that they seem like they could have come from any time period, even the future.
Border Crossing is paired with another exhibit, New Ground, which showcases work by potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), two friends whose work highlights the American Southwest. Martinez and her husband, who decorated the pots she crafted on the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico, are known for reviving an ancient method of making black-on-black pottery. Gilpin, too, garnered attention by reviving an older photographic practice, known as platinum printing (though only one platinum print is on display in the museum).
Walking between the two exhibits, viewers might get the sense that they’re time-traveling through the American Southwest, wandering between new and mid-century pottery made with old techniques and photographs of what the region and its people looked like several decades ago. This sense of temporal displacement is particularly heightened by the pairing of two of Gilpin’s photos.
In the first, a Navajo woman poses with her young son in 1932. The second shows that same woman 18 years later with other members of her family. The son from the first photo has since died during World War II, and his absence is noted by the American flag that had covered his coffin, which is draped behind the family on the wall.
Staring at those two powerful images side by side, the border between the past and present feels more permeable than ever.
At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to May 14.1250 New York Ave NW. $8-$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.