For Tijuana-based artist Marcos Ramirez, also known as ERRE, the 1821 border between the United States and Mexico was simply an element in the history lessons he received as a child. In American schools, it is virtually unknown, except to assorted scholars and to students in history seminars. The only border between the United States and Mexico that gets a mention in U.S. history texts is the one established in 1848, as a result of the Mexican American War and The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo -- the border as it now exists.
The earlier border between these two nations is the subject of a project and an exhibition by Ramirez and photographer David Taylor, entitled “DeLIMITations: A Survey of the 1821 United States-Mexico Border.” The show is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and a version of the show appeared earlier this year at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. It will move on to the museum at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Tijuana and additional locales may be added.
“I like to think we have restored the old border,” Ramirez says, with a smile that suggests you should take him at least halfway seriously. And why shouldn’t we? In a symbolic way, this pair of artists have done just that. They took to the road in 2014, in a van emblazoned with the words “Binational Commission of Historical and Geographical Borders” on its body and “DeLIMITations” on its door. You could have surmised, as some did, that they were an official agency of some kind. And, that they had an artistically conceived mission to strategically install steel obelisks, 47 of them, at sites that would demarcate that binational boundary.
From the Mexican vantage point, explains Ramirez, it is “a scar, a wound that won’t heal.”
It was billed in that year as an offsite project of the Site Santa Fe biennial, “Unsettled Landscapes.” The artists’ marking of the ghost border began on the Oregon coast -- outside Brookings. The duo planted the first of the 6-foot-6-inch obelisks there, in Crissey Field State Park, without any official sanctioning, and then headed east. In fact, none of them were officially sanctioned, though if it was private property, they were sure to ask the owner for permission.
When they visited Medicine Bow, Wyoming, Taylor recalls, about 20 people showed up for the placing of the obelisk, which is about 10 percent of the town’s population.
“They joked about whose place was in Mexico and whose wasn’t,” Taylor says.
At MCASD show, viewers can take a copy with them of the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty -- it went into effect in 1821 -- to which the artists have affixed this line in both Spanish and English: “When ‘Forever’ Lasted 27 Years.” Given how forgotten that 1821 border is, most of us will likely be startled to discover where it was situated. Lands that were then part of Mexico stretched from the Oregon coast through parts of Colorado and Wyoming and then down into Texas. A dramatic way of envisioning the map of the U.S. and Mexico as it existed in 1821 and then in 1848 is to see large panels the artists have installed as part of the exhibition. The color coded map highlights just how vast were the spoils of that war: 525,000 square miles.
Photographs of all of the obelisks are on the walls and at the artists’ "DeLIMITations" blog, where there are even more pictures of their expedition. The images offer up the spectrum of landscapes they visited. The show also includes a film about their expedition -- by Jose Inerzia, who traveled with the artists. There is a prototype of the obelisk as well, along with text panels about the treaty and about a rather important soldier to American history who doubted the wisdom of this land grab: Ulysses S. Grant. (Another enduring opponent, who escapes mention by the artists, was Henry David Thoreau. His opposition to the Mexican American War was an inspiration for his profound essay on civil disobedience.)
If you think you might have seen obelisks of the same Beaux-Arts style and scale, you have probably been at certain locales along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The markers of Ramirez’s and Taylor’s making formally echo those placed along the border beginning in the 1850s, courtesy of the International Boundary Commission. In today’s environment of fractious debate about immigration and high security at the international border, the placing of these markers along a border without any fencing can appear quaint. And while their design seems to fit their era, the larger issue is the temporal nature of borders, taking the long view of history.
“When you start looking into history you don’t find the idea of precise borders until the 19th century. Before that there were transition zones between areas of rule and nations,” says Taylor.
The two artists met 10 plus years ago, at an exhibition in El Paso, Texas and given their earlier work, we might feel justified in thinking they would each see a kindred spirit in the other. Their deep interest in the intersection of art and cultural commentary on the border has been a strong bond.
Ramirez has gained much acclaim for artwork which combines trenchant social commentary and sculptural presence. The monumental “Toy an Horse” (1997), a two-headed riff on the mythological wooden Trojan horse, once sited at the Tijuana border crossing and slyly commented on the suspicion of both nations about each other. Taylor completed am ambitious photographic series, “Monuments: 276 Views of the United States-Mexico Border” (2015), in which he photographed all 276 of the obelisks that line the Mexican-American border along with their surrounding landscape. It has recently been published as a book, as was his earlier series, “Working the Line” (2010).
Ramirez, who has spent extensive time in the U.S., sees the border issue from both sides. Taylor, who grew up in Massachusetts, became drawn to it as a subject when he moved to Las Cruces to become part of the faculty at New Mexico State University. He is now a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Whether joining forces was a twist of fate or not, they do see their partnership on “DeLIMITations” as highly fortunate.
“Some collaborations are done simply for the purpose of trying to collaborate,” Taylor says, “and others are born out of the necessity of an idea. Ours is the second kind. And this turned out to be the trip of a lifetime and it has created a friendship like few I’ve had.”