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As the cultural emissary of Germany, the Goethe-Institut knows from walls. Now, for the second time in two years, it has mounted a photography exhibition focusing on border barriers. And as before, it’s a worthwhile inquiry.
The current exhibition features two projects. The more conventional one, by New York-based photographer Stefan Falke, documents a diverse group of artists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in the service of offering “a counter-narrative” to the fear and loathing that dominates the international frontier today.
Not all of the artists Falke photographs are equally compelling, and many of their comments included in the captions (some in English, some in Spanish) are less engaging than the art they create.
Still, a couple of the artists stand out, such as the American who uses drones and Patriot missile launchers as a performance-art protest against militarization of the border; a lucha libre mask artist in Ciudad Juarez; and an artist who recycles junk food packaging into clothing, such as a jacket made from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers.
The creator of a fictitious, and now real, advertising effort to reestablish a defunct trolley line between El Paso and Juarez put it best when he said that the border defines his city “the same way jazz is New Orleans and New York has the Yankees.”
The second part of the exhibition is simple in design but complex in execution.
Los Angeles-based Daniel Schwarz has produced a 1,000-inch-long pair of accordion-fold books that use Google Maps satellite imagery to track every inch of the U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Think of it as Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” on steroids.
The books, displayed resting on a long table, show a swath of desert, often unpopulated, sometimes built up. What the stitched-together images show is mesmerizing: The Rio Grande snakes sinuously through fragmentary green patches of irrigated crops, border fencing crosses the landscape with the singular focus of a zip gesture in a Barnett Newman painting, and mountain ranges sprawl in fractal-like curlicues. The coloring varies from pink to light green to beige.
Notably, the project, for all its visual clarity, is somewhat disorienting when viewed in its entirety; it’s not at all clear which end is which, and which direction you are traveling as you circle it. Perhaps this disorientation serves as an apt metaphor for the border in real life.
Through Nov. 4 at Goethe-Institut, 1990 K St. NW, Suite 03 (entrance on 20th Street NW, lower level). Mon–Thu 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Fri 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.