Writer and artist JD Pluecker writes about the Artpace exhibition of María José Crespo and their joint trip to the border to do artistic research around Del Rio, Texas.
Driving around the central part of Del Rio, Texas, we arrived at a place where Frontera Road curves away from the river, and we got out to walk around. A lonely chunk of border wall towered above us with its many repeated metal poles, surrounded by empty spaces, dirt tracks, and chain-link fencing. The Rio Grande was too far away to be seen, a river cut off from residents by a wall far inland, creating a liminal space impossible to access. A severing. An amputation.
Looking for a way to skirt the border walls and get closer to the river, we decided to drive farther out of town. We turned down a small street and marveled at little acequias bringing water in narrow irrigation canals through semi-rural neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, marshy areas and trailer parks. Driving around a curve, we ended up on a long solitary street flanking the river, a row of riverfront properties to one side and a chain-link fence with spiraling concertina wire on the other.
We got out of the car at a spot where someone or some agency (probably the U.S. Border Patrol) had sliced through the carrizo cane, an invasive plant crowding the shores of the river. We walked out to the riverbank and gazed in wonder at the arc of a small hillock rising on the Mexican side, the sun setting behind it to the west and the cicadas’ song ringing in our ears. Two young men sat on the other bank in Coahuila, eyeing us calmly. A light breeze announced the arrival of fall.
On a weekend in mid-October, María José Crespo and I decided to take a little road trip together. A road trip as artistic research. We’d been chosen for an Artpace residency in San Antonio in fall 2022. I was working on my show, and Crespo hers. She’d spent time at archives in Austin, and then began to plan a trip to see the river and the border. Though Crespo has spent the past two years living in Rotterdam, she was raised in Tijuana and seemed intrigued to experience the differences between this Texas section of the border and her own on the Pacific coast.
I was curious to see how she worked as an artist researcher. What would she do? And why? What does it mean to insert your own raced and gendered body into certain spaces? What information can the body provide that digital and archival research cannot? What challenges and what textures? Might a road trip allow us to step out of the non-stop social mediatization of life? Or to skirt the facile, hackneyed tropes of the border?
So, on a cloudy Saturday morning, we set out in my little blue Honda Fit, passing through cotton fields west of San Antonio, past myriad historical markers of battles, settlements, and massacres, through Uvalde—with its piles of flowers and mournful memorials—and then on to Del Rio. The violence comes from so many directions, both past and present, it’s dizzying.
In Tijuana, where Crespo is from, there’s also a river, but it’s not the border. In fact, the Tijuana River is born in the mountains east of the city on the north and the south side of the dividing line, which is a multi-tiered set of barriers: a fence that dates back to Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, coupled with newer, even higher walls. The river is born out of many streams on both sides, then flows down into a long concrete canal, cutting through the central part of Tijuana, finally crossing the border to deposit waste and contamination into the ocean at its mouth in San Diego.
On the other side of the river in Coahuila, the brassy beats of banda boomed at a party in a riverfront park, pick-up trucks parked willy-nilly in the dirt and a few dogs cooling off in the water. Two teenagers rode their horses down the dusty banks of the Río Bravo to splash around, pulling on the reins when it was time to climb back up.
On this side, in Texas, Crespo and I had poked our way through the tall grasses of monte that had retaken an abandoned lot between the small road and the river. An empty house with no windows or doors creeped us out, but didn’t keep us from trespassing. While in the archive, Crespo had researched the avisadores of the Big Bend region, fronterizos who used mirrors to communicate across huge distances, sending messages through light.
Crespo wanted to replicate the gesture with small round mirrors. So, following her directions, I stood with a mirror in my hand, maneuvering it to reflect the light from the setting sun into her camera lens. The light bounced off the river’s glassy surface, through yellowing leaves hanging over the water, onto the mirror, and then back into her lens as she recorded video that ended up as part of her show at Artpace.
In the video, sunlight glints through watery waves on a small circle in the darkness, the monte all around. At another point, the mirror provides a flicker of light through the metal poles of the border wall. Crespo’s video cuts to the image of boys on horses in the river water.
The video is just one element of the exhibition she constructed at Artpace, Flaws in negotiation with non-cohesive sand. What Crespo created is another kind of border space: a mural on the wall to the right upon entering the gallery with the words The Panorama of the Seat of War at the top, an impossible set of staircases and assorted architectural structures mounted on the far wall, and a large apparatus made of metal pipe, plaster, and glass panels that resembles an impractical, wheelless vehicle.
Land and river appear in the mural and in the video, anchoring the space on the dirt of the borderlands, and yet that soil, that sand, remains unformed and in motion. What emerges feels like an attempt to reckon with riverine border space, and yet there are so many layers of mistakes and misunderstandings, that the architecture and the structures seem haunted by tension, inhabited by a suggestion of unreachability, a perpetual motion machine on pause.
During the road trip, we also took a tour of the petroglyphs in the canyons near the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, visiting the rock paintings while listening to the limited colonialist perspectives of the elderly Anglo tour guides. We visited the Border Patrol’s Tethered Aerostat Radar System near Eagle Pass, which Crespo found shocking, her shock inducing me to realize how much of the border security infrastructure I’ve been numbed into not feeling and barely seeing after living here so long.
But the thing that stays with me the most is that otherworldly street of riverfront properties. Driving past a big welcome sign and a beautiful landscaped riverfront property, a shirtless older white guy waved at us, and we stopped to chat. Turns out he was from Wisconsin, a winter Texan become permanent transplant, and the barbed wire fence had been built a year before, during the Biden administration.
Having lived in Tijuana for two years a decade ago, I met and spent time with a number of the artists and writers of the generations preceding Crespo, individuals who were her mentors and collaborators: Marcos Ramírez ERRE, Omar Pimienta, Mónica Arreola, Ingrid Hernández, Heriberto Yépez, Sayak Valencia. The work of this preceding generation is sedimented within Crespo’s work, a substratum. And yet Crespo is also making other gestures and other constructions. The multicolored cut-glass panels evince a sense of whim and whimsy, the allure of accidental beauty in unexpected shapes (something that feels fronterizo to me in a way that is hard to put into words). The work speaks to me of what is lost when a border dweller is asked to represent their self and their region to the wider world. Crespo’s exhibition seems to insist on the relevance of nondefinition, noncohesiveness: the happy accident.
Crespo’s Flaws in negotiation evinces some intriguing parallels with another show in the same gallery of Artpace fourteen years previous by Tijuana artist Marcos Ramírez ERRE, The Body of Crime (2008). In that exhibition, a black Suburban with broken windows and bullet holes pockmarking the metal frame occupied practically the same location as Crespo’s deconstructed anti-vehicle.
ERRE’s work was a careful recreation of a fiction, but also a reflection of the escalating violence in Northern Mexico in 2008: two years into Felipe Calderón’s presidential administration, just at the onset of a bloody wave of violence sparked by his misguided attempt to launch an all-out war against illegalized substances. The casualties would be legion, as the horrors of Gore Capitalism (as Sayak Valencia calls it) intensified. ERRE literally brought the crime scene to Artpace.
Fourteen years later, Crespo’s work suggests that the crime scene is banal, the violence neverending, the resistance co-opted or marginalized. Crespo immerses into the archive, as she searches the riverbank for clues as to how we got here and might get out. The road trip was a bodily effort to grasp the multilayered violences and barriers established throughout this foreign/non-foreign landscape. Crespo’s art becomes a series of gestures that signal an impossible approach, a futile and inexecutable effort to negotiate with blood-soaked, shifting sands. An effort to understand, stymied by all the layers of history and contemporary living. What Crespo ends up building is an absurdist vehicle made of wild shapes and forms, a set of stairs floating in the air, unreachable and unclimbable.
The breeze on the banks of the Rio Grande whispered that something else is out there, layered on top of the mediatization of the border and its violences, and that that something is beautiful, complicated, and deep.