When entering the first exhibition room at the James Cohan Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district, an imposing site-specific, brick wall created by the Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake immediately confronts visitors. Titled Amerika, the structure boasts hulking dimensions: 33-feet long and 6-feet tall. Its domineering presence physically separates patrons from other artworks in the show—Borders—and acts as a striking, visual spectacle infrequently seen in such a space.
Given the political discourse surrounding walls, immigration, and border security in contemporary American culture, it’s nearly impossible for viewers not to draw parallels between Blake’s installation and Trump’s desire to build his so-called “big, beautiful wall” meant to partition the United States from Mexico. And, indeed, the gallery’s promotional copy notes that the group exhibition:
considers how contemporary artists engage with political, ideological and formal borders. Borders are synonymous with state power, sovereignty and national identity. They define both belonging and otherness. In the face of rising nationalism and the growing global refugee crisis, borders across the world are tightening and also unraveling. This exhibition will seek to create a framework and a dialogue about borders as both places of productive exchange and barriers of exclusion.
This exploration of barriers as both a cause and emblem of otherness and exclusion appears to address our aspiring autocrat’s longing to shape an American ideology predicated upon nationalism, isolationism, and xenophobia.
To this extent, then, Amerika functions not only as a material barrier that blocks patrons’ view and impedes their movement, but it also acts as a metaphor for the border politics and debates that currently occupy our national and global conversations.
On closer inspection of Blake’s installation, one notices a slight undulation along the top of the wall. This disruption calls attention to itself in an otherwise uniformly level structure. The source of the disturbance is a hardbound copy of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika tucked underneath the wall’s base.
The novel, according to the gallery’s press release, “tells the archetypal Kafka story of a young man who navigates the travails of life in New York as an immigrant from Europe.” More specifically, Kafka’s Amerika conveys the narrative of Karl Rossman, a German-born immigrant who flees his homeland at the age of sixteen in order to establish a new life for himself in the United States.
The story opens with imagery that tacitly promises hope: as a ship enters “the harbor of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that [Rossman] saw it in new light…and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.” Indeed, the sun’s “new light” illumining a monument that pledges respite for the tired, poor, and huddled mass, all the while ensconced in the “free winds of heaven,” surely provides readers—and the protagonist—with a sense of possibility and opportunity for a “homeless and tempest-tossed” immigrant.
Unfortunately for Rossman, such idyllic imagery does not portend future prosperity. Rather, the young man succumbs to a series of personal and professional calamities that result in de facto slavery. Before the unfinished novel unravels into fragments, three unsavory characters—named Delamarche, Robinson, and Brunelda, respectively—imprison the protagonist and force him into servitude, using the threat of arrest by authorities as leverage in his capture.
How, then, are viewers to understand the inclusion of this object within the broader context of the installation? While, no doubt, any number of interpretations can inform Blake’s Amerika, the artist’s thoughts on the use of textual artifacts within his practice offer helpful insight. In an interview with Metal magazine, Blake states:
Art establishes a different lecture of a text than the one given by professional critics or common readers. One thing is ‘to read’ directly from a book, and another is ‘to see’ a work of art related to a book. Art should provide something different, something that you can’t explain using the academia.
In this sense, Blake argues against a traditional literary critique or reading. Instead, he insists upon engagement with a text as a visual object or material artifact. Further supporting this position, he notes: “the physicality of a book is very important. It gives a ‘preview,’ a first visual approach.” But, he also goes on to say that: “in the case of a well-known book, it will make an immediate reference to its content or to its author,” which cultivates an “interaction between collective memory and personal thoughts.” To this extent, the “physicality of a book” does not act simply as a material object, but also as a catalyst for abstract “collective” or “personal” thought: in other words, a concept.
As previously noted, Kafka’s Amerika operates as a physical and visual disruption that undercuts the formal symmetry of the installation. It alters the wall’s structural regularity and interrupts its red-hued color scheme. A literal foreign body inserted into more or less homogenous barrier. On a material level, then, the book artifact demonstrates the precarious nature of constructions that posit continuity and stability.
By extension, the book’s placement also challenges conservative claims that a wall can facilitate the establishment of a singular American populace or identity. Kafka’s Amerika, to this extent, ruptures the veneer of purity and orderliness which Blake’s Amerika would otherwise foster.
Moreover, while Blake’s wall impedes audience members from seeing the contributions of international and national artists such as Yinka Shonibare CBE, Candice Lin, Dread Scott, and Elias Sime, the artworks are still viewable by circumventing the installation. Certainly, for every wall, there are determined people willing to breach it for a greater good. Such transgressive intentions, ultimately, undermine the exclusionary impetus of such barriers.
As Blake mentions, though, a literary artifact is more than just a material object. It also stimulates personal thought and assists in the development or recognition of collective memory. For instance, an immigrant’s story physically inserted into a wall reminds us that the United States—as we know it today—was created, populated, and built by foreign-born people. To wit, our country—as Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” claims—is the “Mother of Exiles” who offers a “world-wide welcome” to all those “yearning to breathe free.” No amount of isolationist rhetoric can alter this national history and the collective memory of our shared past.
Of course, Kafka’s Amerika focuses on the hardships a newcomer to the United States encounters. Likewise, the material object bears the weight of the bricks composing Blake’s Amerika. These dual facts suggest that viewers can also conceptualize the installation as a cautionary tale. For even if Trump’s wall never becomes a physical reality, the lives of immigrant populations in—or entering—the United States are fraught. Material barriers aside, there exists within our country ideological, ethnic, racial, and national barriers that degrade or weigh down both the lives and the spirits of those viewed as “foreign,” “illegal,” “alien,” “undocumented,” or “other.” And these barriers, perhaps, are more damaging because they are abstract and cannot be located as easily. Thus, they are more difficult to dismantle.
Jorge Méndez Blake’s Amerika—and, surely, all of the artworks displayed in James Cohan Gallery’s group exhibit Borders—challenges us to question the construction, purpose, and value of physical walls. But it also asks us to locate and raze the abstract walls of nationalism and xenophobia we have constructed within our collective, American consciousness.
Borders runs from January 10 through February 23 at the James Cohan Gallery, located at 533 West 26th Street and 291 Grand Street in New York, NY. In addition to Jorge Menedez Blake’s Amerika, the group exhibition features work by Etel Adnan, Edgardo Aragón, Yael Bartana, Jorge Méndez Blake, Mounir Fatmi, Susan Hefuna, Federico Herrero, Yun-Fei Ji, Byron Kim, Mernet Larsen, Sol LeWitt, Candice Lin, Teresa Margolles, Misheck Masamvu, Jordan Nassar, Katie Paterson, The Propeller Group, Matthew Ritchie, Hiraki Sawa, Dread Scott, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Elias Sime, Mikhael Subotzky, Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Tomaselli, Hank Willis Thomas and XU ZHEN®.