'Them and Us / Ellos Y Nosotros': Border wall comes to Mass MoCA

Artist recreates wall to give viewers feeling of crossing the border

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NORTH ADAMS — For the majority of Americans, the building of a permanent wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is still an abstract concept. But in many places, such as San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, the wall is a long-standing reality.

There, the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the largest land border crossing between the two communities, is part of everyday life for residents and commuters on both sides of the wall. It is this wall that Marcos Ramirez, the artist known as ERRE (a nod to the rolled `r' of Spanish) is bringing to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as part of his exhibition, "Them and Us / Ellos Y Nosotros," opening Saturday.

And it is through "Of Fence," his sculptural recreation of the weathered, metal barricade of San Ysidro that museum-goers will have to pass through to see the rest of his show.

The exhibition, in Building B6, is meant to simulate crossing the border. Viewers who cross through the wall will find themselves confronted with the same questions people entering the U.S. are asked. The difference will be that the questions won't be asked directly to those entering the show. Instead, they will be displayed in vinyl letters on the windows and door leading into the gallery.

"When I mention this piece to people, everybody agrees, even if they are U.S. citizens with five generations in the United States, they feel uncomfortable when they are asked all of these very personal questions," Ramirez said during an interview at the museum. "Maybe we'll lose some viewers as they approach, or maybe they will become more curious and they will come in."

The decision to enter the gallery will be "very intentional," Susan Cross, curator of visual arts, said.

Ramirez, who splits his time between his home in San Diego and a family home in Tijuana, where he has a studio, created "Of Fence," for the show "unDocumenta" at the Oceanside Museum of Art in Oceanside, Calif. Like the majority of his work, the piece explores cultural, economic and political issues between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the impact the wall and the border crossing has on individuals and families.

"This show is about the U.S.- Mexico border in this small way; about divisions nationally, internationally," Cross said. "But right now, 'Them and Us' really speaks to this very divisive moment in our culture in the U.S. We're very much experiencing us and them."

The show, she said, is a cross-section of new and older works, which look at the real impact of borders on human lives — separating families and creating divides both literally and figuratively, whether they be physical, political or economic.

"It is said that San Ysidro has always been a laboratory of things that are going to happen [along the U.S. border], eventually," Ramirez said of the border crossing. "As the world advances or ages, the problems, instead of being contained, are expanding, extending and replicating in many other places. Like now, we have this ominous wall in the territories of the Gaza Strip, between the Palestinians and the Israelis."

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Upon entering the gallery that houses the exhibit, viewers will come upon a entryway separated by a chain-link fence. Here, they will make a choice to take one of two paths — one labeled "US," the other labeled, "THEM." The set up, Ramirez said, is similar to that of crossing through U.S. Customs and Border Protections entry points, which divide people into U.S. citizens/permanent residents and "visitors" or "Us" and "Them." (The "US" sign, he said, can also be read as the abbreviation for the United States.)

"Once inside, you have two territories: one that deals with the policies and politics of the United States and one that deals with the reality of Mexico, as I see it," he said.

Among the pieces is a set of prison uniforms designed for a family of four, including orange jumpsuits for a 12-year-old child and a 6-month-old baby.

"It's very simple. It's about the criminalization of families," he said.

Another piece, "The Presidential Bed," a mahogany bed set on an oval "carpet" made up of 500 pounds of yellow corn with a "mattress" of nails in the shape of map of Mexico, explores the political history of the country.

"The yellow corn is pre-colonial Mexico. The bed represents colonial Mexico, the marriage between the wheat and the corn [representing the blending of Spanish and Mexican traditions]. And the mattress is present day Mexico, with all these spikes to represent all the dangers in my country," he said.

Other pieces deal with the current political atmosphere in Mexico, the political relationship between the U.S. and Mexican governments, immigration and stereotypes.

Ramirez, Cross said, uses his work to make abstract ideas palpable by marrying language and powerful imagery that is both cerebral and emotional at the same time.

Getting a viewer to think about his work is a very important part of each piece.

"My posture and most of the reason behind my work is to make people think by themselves and analyze, to provide positions that they may not be too familiar with — what Mexicans and their neighbors in the world see — present that and let them come up with their own ideas," Ramirez said. "I think instead of imposing, you have to educate people. A better way to educate people is helping them think for themselves; teaching them to come up with their own conclusions derived from their own analysis ... Most of the times, it is healthy. We have to have a very civilized way of discussing things. The moment we become fanatics, in any direction, we have already lost."


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