Briana Olson meditates on Procession Panel, migration, and the biological and aesthetic complexity of the desert Southwest.
The figures emerge from a crack in the rock wall and move in a line around the corner and almost across the western face. Some are clearly human—they have distinctive heads, limbs, a few wear headdresses, carry staffs—but in one long section they become almost less than stick figures, their humanness indicated only by their presence in this line, their position in this procession.
Migration is one of the oldest forms of ceremony there is, Hyperion Çaca Yvaire posited in a conversation we had in late winter. Yvaire is a Sea Kréyòl and Atakapa Ishak territorial practice design-researcher and artist-kinmaker, and we were talking, among other things, about his vision for creating an all-species corridor—a space of sanctuary stretching across the continent that would honor relations with land older than English and Roman law, that would respect the biological need, even among those plants and trees whose rootedness is often mistaken for stillness, to move.
Are some of these figures so indistinct because the rock has eroded in the thirteen or more centuries since Procession Panel was created on ancestral Puebloan land outside what is now Bluff, Utah? Or is it because the artist(s) understood that only the slightest suggestions—legs and arms, bipedalism, proximity to other humans—were required, that we are minute, that we all blur in motion together and become as one?
This is the space I think of when I hear someone characterize the desert as a blank slate, a sort of emptiness through which one disappears into oneself and comes out more of oneself (or less)—a place devoid of crowds, of definition, of life. I think of the canyons threading through the desert Southwest, the deep arterial flow of the rivers and creeks. I think of the herd of deer I saw take flight into the willows and cottonwoods, the sweetvoiced warbler hidden in a crush of thick foliage, the swallows dancing and calling along the lip of the mesa far, far above, up near the edge of the surface world.
I instinctively longed for these sounds when Mexican author Valeria Luiselli played an excerpt of her sonic essay, Echoes from the Borderlands, created with Leo Heiblum and Ricardo Giraldo, at the Santa Fe Literary Festival. Even though I heard her mention copper, and mining, I hoped for birdsong, water, sounds that announce that there is life (t)here, that the desert is not a deadscape, not a metaphor for vacancy, malnourishment, starvation—that it is not only a matter of turning the eye at a fresh angle on the creosote and the opuntia, finding beauty in starkness, in sharpness, in grit, but also a matter of descending into the earth.
Close your eyes, Luiselli instructed before remembering that they were going to play images for us along with the sounds. I closed my eyes anyway.
I had been, recently, in a canyon within a mile of the U.S.-Mexico border—a vibrant canyon with a perennial stream that seemed impossible even after we’d been there, seen it, as we drove back out on the high road we’d taken in.
What I heard, in Echoes, was not the work of water but of mining metals in the borderlands. It is awful noise, grating. And then there were men talking: the voice of an interview subject describing his love for the act of drilling in terms that resemble the terms an artist uses for the act of making art. He can’t explain why he loves it; he just does.
One archaeological interpretation of Procession Panel holds that it depicts a specific event, that it is documentary in nature. While my eye focused on a single line, there are three lines of figures moving from three different directions, converging at the edge of a circle that, according to this interpretation, represents a kiva. The animals might represent the feast to be had at this monumental ceremony.
Why this rockface? There is the obvious choice of red rock varnished with black; the walls of Comb Ridge make a spectacular canvas, one where chiseling through the superficial black allows for the rendering of bold red figures and shapes without the use of dyes or paints. There is the wall’s height. Then there is the backdrop, not of the work itself but the viewer: with a few hundred more steps, one ascends to the edge of the ridge, with expansive views to the west.
The young family I met while climbing to this ridge belongs to the “new” class of migrants: they live on the road.
When finished, Luiselli’s sonic essay will be twenty-four hours, the length of time it takes to drive the border. But part of what it will have to reveal, cannot not reveal, is that, much as sound cannot be skimmed, the border cannot be driven.
“How do we unmoor our aesthetic sense of the world from a politic that wishes to undo the world?” This is Yvaire’s question. His field is multidimensional, an art that encompasses art objects, performance, conservation, and a community of practice focused on placemaking and planetary liberation.
At least one interpretation of Procession Panel holds that the ceremony may be conceptual, that it represents an ideal, a practice, a vision.
As with any work of art, I muse on its form, wonder what it means—but in front of that is a feeling, an overpowering response as if to Chopin or Kendrick Lamar. It is not, or not merely, a window into the past. It is alive.
In one of the “loose notes” in Box V of Luiselli’s novel, Lost Children Archive, are these words: “A map is a silhouette, a contour that groups disparate elements together, whatever they are. To map is to include as much as to exclude. To map is also a way to make visible what is usually unseen.”
In that other canyon near the border, gallon jugs of water had been placed at regular intervals all along the way. One was half empty. Almost all the rest were full.