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Should Donald Trump's border wall prototypes be considered art?

The border wall prototypes.
The border wall prototypes. Photograph: MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson

It was a sunny day in San Diego, last October, when President Trump unveiled eight prototypes for the proposed 1,900-mile border wall between the US and Mexico. Large slabs of concrete and metal stood tall like public art sculptures, some looked like the Berlin Wall; others were striped with jail cell-like bars.

As President Trump gears up to visit the prototypes on 30 January, shortly after his announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) immigration policy, these very same prototypes are part of an art project by Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. The artist has created an online petition to preserve these eight prototypes as “national monuments”. He is also offering a (sold-out) tour of the structures on 13 January.

Büchel writes in a statement that the prototypes, which he calls “sculptures”, need to be preserved as they “have significant cultural value and are historical land art”.

The artist’s petition is under a new, non-profit arts group called “MAGA”, following the campaign acronym for Make America Great Again. It frames the prototypes as “land art”, a 1960s movement which used outdoor materials to make environmental artworks.

These prototypes were not intended to be seen in this way. They are government commissions and each prototype stands 30ft tall. Created by six construction companies, they cost a total of $3.3m. The project has made an obvious splash in the media — the New York Times asked “Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?” while Wallpaper wondered “An elaborate parody? We can only hope.”

But perhaps the artist’s petition somehow furthers Trump’s own political agenda. “One of the most disconcerting aspects of President Trump’s border wall is the expectation that it be ‘big’ and ‘beautiful’,” said Can Bilsel, an architecture professor at the University of San Diego. “The US-Mexico border is a blunt political tool dividing families and communities, as there are impromptu memorials to those who have perished trying to cross it dotting the landscape on the Mexican side.”

The border wall prototypes

The art project’s own self-proclaimed masked sarcasm falls short of seeing the story on both sides of the border. “How will MAGA’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Petition to Make Border Wall Prototypes a National Monument’ help counter the violence of the wall to both border communities?” Bisel asks. “The risk of preserving the prototypes is to further beautify the border wall and accept it as a ‘monument’, but it also forgets the plight of the real people who are excluded by it.”

The artwork is a sign of the times to Roxana Velásquez, director of the San Diego Museum of Art. “These eight examples of an overall architectural form are a profound reflection of the cultural barometer, as they leave an indelible mark on the moment we are living,” said Velásquez. “But whether that mark is inflicted or created, depends on the viewer.”

To Dino Dinco, an artist who lives and works in Tijuana and San Diego, this can be a challenging artwork to pull off when you’re not a local artist. “My hunch is that Büchel’s effort is instigated in sarcasm, it’s a joke,” he said. “Even if it’s snarky, it speaks of an artist who’s not from this geography, and especially not at the mercy of the complex matrix of social and political issues imposed by this border and the fraught relationship between Mexico and America.”

Büchel is not alone in making, or at least categorizing, artwork that responds to the border wall – the San Diego art group Collective Magpie teamed up with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for a “Border Wall Prototype Beauty Pageant”. On 21 December, they featured students from local universities walking a red carpet with prototype outfits made from cardboard, tinfoil and recycled materials. With a lighthearted approach, each wall explained why they should be picked for the border, based on aesthetics, security and price point.

As for Büchel’s artwork, it may raise questions around art and politics, but it remains problematic, at least to Reece Jones, the author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move.

“I understand the idea behind the project, but I worry that it implies that Trump’s wall is somehow unique,” said Jones. “The reality is that there are already almost 70 border walls around the world that force migrants to take ever more dangerous routes to cross borders.”

“By focusing on these prototypes,” he said, “it trivializes the existing walls and the damage that they already do to people and the environment.”

This article titled "Should Donald Trump's border wall prototypes be considered art?" was written by Nadja Sayej, for on Friday 12 January 2018 11.00am

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