One of the Amon Carter's masterpieces recently got some prime time exposure on a couple of high-profile cable television shows. Martin Johnson Heade's painting Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (1868) made brief appearances on both Showtime's Billions and HBO's Divorce. Viewers who don't know that the painting is part of the Amon Carter's collection may have thought they were looking at an original. Instead, a reproduction stands in for the real painting in both shows.
Ominous, dark, and foreboding, the painting's storm metaphorically fits in with the central story lines of both productions. Billions involves the bitter battle between U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Chuck Rhoades and hedge fund powerhouse Bobby "Axe" Axelrod. Divorce examines the messy unraveling of the marriage of Robert and Frances Dufresne. The reproduction of Thunder Storm appears in season 2, episode 2 ("Dead Cat Bounce") of Billions, and season 1, episode 6 ("Christmas") of Divorce.
^ Billions, Season 2, Episode 2: Thunder Storm appears in the antechamber as Chuck Rhoades enters the U.S. Attorney General's office.
^ Divorce, Season 1, Episode 6: Thunder Storm appears in the dining room of Robert Dufresne's parents' house.
I ran an analysis of the full support crew for both shows on IMDB (419 total for for Billions and 222 total for Divorce). I suspected I would find common personnel working in art direction or set dressing, which might explain why the reproduction appears in both shows. Though there are twenty-two crew members in common, those folk work in roles such as drone operators, gaffers, electricians, location scouting, makeup, and stunts.
^ Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay
Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) painted Thunder Storm in 1868. It sold at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition the same year, but it disappeared for seventy-five years until it was sold in 1943 at an antiques store in Larchmont, New York. The Amon Carter acquired it years later in 1977, and it has intrigued viewers ever since. The painting is currently on tour as part of the exhibition Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art. The exhibition arrives at the Amon Carter on October 7, 2017.
Samuel Duncan, Head of Library and Archives
January 18 marked the birthday of an inventor little known to most art historians. This from the Writer's Almanac:
“It’s the birthday of Joseph Farwell Glidden, born in Charleston, New Hampshire (1813). For centuries hedgerows and stone walls were the only way to keep livestock contained; in the American West, cowboys followed herds of cattle to make sure no harm came to them. Glidden saw an exhibition in which a wooden rail with nails protruding from it kept livestock at a distance. He rigged up an old coffee grinder to twist strands of wire around each other, then clipped off the protruding ends to make barbs. A number of men filed patents for similar barbed fences at the same time, and there was a tremendous fight, but Glidden won, and his barbed wire factory made him one of the country’s richest men. That was the end of the Wild West. Long cattle drives came to an end, and longhorn cattle began to disappear; it wasn’t necessary to breed cattle tough enough to survive out on the range anymore.”
Glidden’s invention actually relates very closely to one of my favorite paintings in our collection: Frederic Remington’s The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895.
The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 1961.230
In 1895, Remington's friend Owen Wister published an article in Harper's Monthly titled "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher." A number of illustrations, including a printed version of Remington’s painting, accompanied the article. Remington advised Wister to write about the gradual end of the customary cowboy way of life—open ranges without fences were becoming a thing of the past thanks to inventions like Glidden’s. The painting has a somber, wistful tone, conveyed by the muted colors of a winter scene, in keeping with the artist and author’s intent to mourn the passing of mythic cowboy traditions.
Remington’s picture elegizes the passing of a fundamental way of life. Though it relates on the surface level to a specific aspect of culture that was of its time and place—the transformation of the Wild West open range into a new type of ranching practice—to me the painting has always conveyed deeper significance as a timeless gesture toward endings and beginnings of all sorts—from shifts in weather manifested through stormy skies, to seasonal change as shown in the crisp white snow, to symbolic death and reinvention evoked by the hanging heads of the horse and the sturdy industry of the cowboys.
The signal of a great work of art is when it makes us pause, feel something, and contemplate ideas bigger than ourselves. The Fall of the Cowboy is a moment of quietude in the career of an artist ordinarily preoccupied with ceaseless drama and action.
The museum has owned the foundry records of the Roman Bronze Works for decades. It has been my job over the last fourteen years to organize, process, and make them available to researchers. We recently digitized our first batch of papers documenting the foundry's mid-twentieth-century work and posted them online, making it easier for researchers to access them.
I spent a lot of time working with the records, sorting and describing all of the art the foundry produced, giving me an interesting inside view of how the work was done. I have seen videos of the casting process, including a film shot at the Roman Bronze Works foundry in 1921. However, I never thought I would get to see the process in person, until we recently made contact with the craftsmen of Midland Manufacturing Company, Fort Worth.
We invited them to the museum to look through the records of the Roman Bronze Works, which offered both parties insights into how the foundry business has changed over the last one hundred years (both companies were founded around the same time). They explained some of the minutiae that only a trained craftsman would know, but I was not prepared for the best part—an invitation to visit their foundry and watch a casting in process.
A Midland craftsman fitting a filter for the sand mold to remove metal impurities
A crucible filled with molten metal ready for pouring
Pouring the metal into the sand mold
A finished cast
Imagine it's September 1919, and you stop to browse the magazines at your local newsstand. There among the array of covers, many featuring celebrities of the day, is one that captures your attention. The cover is different. It's a painting that is bright and colorful. It pulls you in. The magazine's title, Shadowland, intrigues you, as does its subtitle, Expressing the Arts. You note that it is beatifully printed and includes lots of pictures. A few pages in, you discover it's the premier issue and has well-wishing letters from the likes of Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. De Mille, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Yes, you see plenty of pictures of the latest starlets of film and stage, which tell you this is a fan magazine, but it's more than that. You continue to find a feast of articles: a piece on marionettes, a story on prohibition and the cabaret, an original play, an article about sketching in nature, and another piece by theater producer Lee Shubert, and later on articles on Parisian fashion, artistic photography, and finally a piece on propaganda by Hudson Maxim. This is, you say to yourself, something new.
I can't help but think that the 1919 reader would have responded just as delightfully as we did when we recently discovered a set of Shadowland issues in the library's collection. Only a handful of libraries have holdings, and we're among the very few with almost every issue.
Shadowland lives on today largely based on the extraordinary covers painted by Adolf M. Hopfmüller (1875–1971). He created forty-eight covers during the magazine’s short existence from 1919 to 1923. Eugene V. Brewster, a seasoned publisher of movie magazines, hired Hopfmüller as an art director in 1917, and together they launched the new publication. Born in Germany, Hopfmüller ran away from boarding school to work as a sailor before immigrating to New York City in 1898. He studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1912 to 1913. Following his work on Shadowland, Hopfmüller continued his career as an art director for Harper’s Bazaar.
We quickly learned that information was scant on Hopfmüller, and in the process of researching the artist, we made contact with his grandson, Don Hamann, and his wife, Ruth. Recently the Hamanns visited the museum and helped illumintate Hopfmüller's life through their remembrances, along with sharing the details of the archive of Hopfmüller's art and documents that they possess.
Our work with Shadowland has sparked a couple of initiatives that we hope will help highlight the magazine and artist. Dustin Dirickson, our UNT library school practicum student this semester, is busy digitizing our issues to join those already available in Archive.org. Kathleen Rice, museum docent, who has done extensive research on Hopfmüller, will be writing the first article on the artist in Wikipedia as well as enhancing the existing article on Shadowland.
A selection of Hopfmüller's Shadowland covers remains on view in the library reading room through the end of the year.
The following supplemental blog is by Ruth Hamann, wife of A.M. Hopfmüller's grandson, Don Hamann. Submitted November 5, 2016.
It seems that we’ve always been aware of Shadowland magazine by way of its covers. Don grew up in the same house as his maternal grandfather, A.M. Hopfmüller, and was surrounded by his artwork. The original Shadowland paintings and prints were hung prominently in their house as well as in those of two aunts, daughters of the artist, who lived a few blocks away. Don and his two first cousins decorated their college rooms with their grandfather’s prints, as well as some of his lovely plein-air oils. Over the years, Don and I acquired most of the artist’s work, and finally the magazines and cover proofs as well.
After retiring from my position as a community college reference librarian, I decided it was time to take stock of the whole collection. I created a spreadsheet showing the family holdings of magazines, original paintings, artist proofs, and prints of the covers. We also finally got to spend some time perusing the magazines as a whole and discovered a wealth of articles and images from major writers and artists of the period. Discoveries included articles written by Hopfmüller himself. However, since Shadowland was not indexed, it was difficult to know all it contained. I found that a small subset of the magazine had been digitized and was searchable in Internet Archives, and I began to explore ways to get the rest digitized as well—not an easy task for a retired librarian!
Suddenly, from out of nowhere it seemed, Don received an email from Samuel Duncan, Library Director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. He had come across Shadowland in the museum's collection of bound periodicals, was enthralled with the cover images, and decided to feature them in an exhibition. Finding a dearth of biographical material on the artist, he and Kathleen Rice, one the museum's docents, performed a creative search that led them to us. We were thrilled to learn that a major museum had “discovered” Grandpa’s cover art. (It has had an underground following in the form of reproductions of isolated covers distributed on the web.)
We were able to fill in some of the blanks in Hopfmüller’s biography, and Sam followed tangents from there. He has also begun the task of digitizing his collection of Shadowland—a real contribution to scholarship (we were able to supply a few that the museum was missing).
We decided to travel to Texas to see the Shadowland exhibit he had mounted in the library and meet our “collaborators.” We were not disappointed! We were welcomed with open arms and spent a good part of a day—and then some—with the library staff, sharing some of our remembrances and information that we had about the life and times of Hopfmüller and his magazine. One vibrant memory we shared was of watching the first moon landing in 1971 together with Don’s 96-year-old grandfather, reminiscing about the highlights of his life. He talked of his adventures at sea—he had spent ten years on square-rigged ships, climbing slippery rigging as they sailed around Cape Horn in an ice storm. Ships and the sea form a recurring element in his art.
Hopfmüller was fond of sharing stories about his relationship with Eugene V. Brewster, whose flamboyance influenced the artist's Shadowland covers. We suspect Brewster played a role in the addition of foreground bathing ladies in the following images of the original painting and actual cover of the May 1920 issue.
The following two images however, from artist’s proofs of the September 1921 and March 1922 covers, are representative of the distinctive style he later developed.
How pleased we are that his creative genius is finally gaining recognition!
From the left: Rachel Panella, Don Hamann, Sam Duncan
I have a friend who calls me an alien. She means it as a compliment. It’s a signal that I often don’t approach the subject at hand in a conventional manner. I’m ok with that assessment. After all, who wants to be known for thinking inside the box?
In the curatorial or art historical disciplines, experience often brings a narrowing of interest and increasing specialization. As I grow in the field, my approach to art history echoes the ethos of the Amon Carter—that is, I firmly believe in drawing connections from past to present and present to past, expanding the story art tells. A narrative of American art extends to today; living artists have a lot to learn from their predecessors and our visitors gain a more complete understanding of the art of the past by these juxtapositions.
So, you can imagine my nerdish glee when we had the opportunity to place two works of art in dialogue with each other—communicating across centuries.
Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34 (2016) graces our Atrium space. Dawe strung thousands of individual strands of sewing thread across the expanse of the large room, forming an intricate network of connective fibers, drawing our notice to the architecture that surrounds us and exciting our visual cortices with a splendid kaleidoscopic display that coalesces and dissolves as we navigate space. His evanescent phenomenon is light made palpably material, the thinnest of substances tying together architecture, rays of sun, and atmospheric transformations.
Plexus no.34 at the Amon Carter
On the landing next to Plexus no. 34, you’ll now find Henry Kirke Brown’s Filatrice (1850). At first blush, this classicized bronze figure has a solemnity and solidity that seems in contrast to the weightlessness of the Dawe. But in fact they are connected in rather poetic fashion, I think. Or at least, to an alien the juxtaposition elicits delight.
Brown, Filatrice, 1850, bronze
Filatrice is an Italian word for a spinner of thread. In ancient mythology, three sister goddesses called the Fates were considered the weavers of the thread of life, determining the destiny, longevity, and manner of people’s lives. Brown’s sculpture harkens back to these classical deities. The columnar form of his spinner, clothed in her ancient Greek peplos gown, conveys all the gravity of history. And yet, far from ponderous, connecting her distaff to her spindle, you’ll find the thinnest and lightest of metal threads, enticing in its delicacy.
As fate would have it, here Filatrice stands, a spinner of thread, right beside Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34, an installation by a living artist whose work is based on the vibrant effects of more than eighty miles of assembled sewing thread. Spinning string is the joint avocation of Filatrice and Dawe; forging connections is the mandate of Dawe and at the center of my curatorial enterprise. I’m glad that I had some part in pulling these strands together.
This is part II of a blog series. Read part I.
As you know from a previous blog post, Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, recently travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC).
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Florence flood, which destroyed masses of art and cultural material, this year’s conference theme was Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation. Many of the talks addressed the effects of past, present, and future disasters on collections and cultural property. Much focus was placed on the need for effective risk assessment and emergency response strategies. This emphasis reiterated the importance of keeping our emergency plans at the Carter up to date.
Between the two of us, Jodie and I attended a large variety of presentations. These included talks about collections emergency procedures in various institutions and treatment protocols for a myriad of situations. Other more scientific-based talks were also interesting, covering many technologies used to identify or document works of art—including Reflectance Transformation Imaging and X-ray fluorescence. One presentation even discussed the precise dating of ancient Egyptian manuscripts using Micro-Raman spectroscopy!
A presentation about separating photographs stuck to glass or to each other.
There were many receptions organized throughout the length of the conference at key cultural institutions in Montreal. This included the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, and the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec. Naturally, such events were accompanied with behind-the-scenes tours, which are always a treat.
The reading room at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec.
The staff at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec showing us some of the prizes in their collection.
During the closing ceremony, Jodie was awarded the AIC Publication Award for her technical study on Charles M. Russell’s watercolors. This award recognizes excellence in writing about conservation topics. What an achievement for both her and the Carter! If you wish to read her essay, the book Charles M. Russell: Watercolors 1887–1926 is available at the museum store.
Jodie with her publication award.
Chris Pichler, owner of Nazraeli Press, has been publishing fine photography books since 1989 and during that long career has produced well over 400 titles. Nazraeli continues to be a standard-setting influence in photobook publishing—even in today’s burgeoning arena of photobook publishers.
In late 2008, Pichler hatched the idea for a new series of books, building on an earlier project he started in 2000, One Picture Book, a series of small books that provided an affordable means to acquire original photo prints by important photographers. The new series, Six By Six, would focus on production quality, feature larger books—each with an exhibition-quality signed original photo print—and culminate in six slipcased sets of six books each. The project would be be complete with thirty-six books, and only one-hundred copies of each book would be produced. In an interview with me in 2012, Pichler shared his goals:
“I wanted to see how far we could ‘push’ the quality of offset-printed photobooks … The goals were to put together the most beautifully produced set of books that I could, by artists who I consider to be among the most interesting and influential photographers working today, without resorting to exotic papers and binding materials that would get in the way of the work being presented; and at the same time, to offer collectors of photography books a format and a value not available anywhere else.”
Last week, the Amon Carter’s research library received the final set of books in the Six By Six series. As one of only two public institutions in Texas that have committed to acquiring a complete set, we salute Nazraeli Press (and ourselves) for finishing this amazing seven-year journey. We received the first set in 2010 and the final one in 2016. The library will have the entire set (minus the original prints, which need to stay in storage for protection) in the reading room for a limited time. We invite you to stop in and take a look. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm the books are still on view.
Here is a full list of all titles (most recent at the top).
A selection of Six By Six books
A singular experience awaits visitors to the Amon Carter. Dallas-based artist Gabriel Dawe has finished installing his piece Plexus no. 34—a work composed of eighty miles of multicolored sewing thread strung back and forth, west wall to east wall, across the museum’s Atrium space. Fastened to hooks high in the upper reaches of the room’s two western corners, the thread then descends across the Atrium’s expanse, cascading in broadening beams of variegated color to converge on the opposite wall.
The twin rays of thread shimmer as you move beneath them, they glow in the sun streaming through the windows fifty-five feet above the floor, they brighten and dim as light changes throughout the day. Plexus no. 34 is a wonder.
Plexus no. 34 in the museum’s Atrium
I’m excited to announce that the Publications Department has been working with Dawe and the museum’s curator, Maggie Adler, to create a limited-edition, loose-leaf artist book featuring Plexus no. 34 from its inception to its final installation. The publications staff expanded their endeavors to create this unique publication, setting up a book-art workspace in their shared area to create what will be the only publication of its kind on Dawe’s sculptures in thread.
Gabriel Dawe (center) visits the Publications Department with his assistant, Shelby Cunningham (left), and curator Maggie Adler
Lorraine Bond, the portfolio’s designer, in the book-art workspace
Only 200 copies of the publication will be produced, each one numbered and signed by the artist. The book will have two archival reproductions tipped-in to its pages—one of the artist’s digital rendering of Plexus no. 34, the other of the final installed work. A special page with the artist’s actual thread stitched into it is also included, and the portfolio is enveloped in a folded case bound with a removable band adorned with a tassel of thread.
The mockup of the museum’s forthcoming limited-edition portfolio Embodied Light, featuring Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34; only 200 copies are being produced
Those interested in purchasing a copy of Embodied Light should email email@example.com. The 28-page portfolio is available in September and retails for $125 (plus tax and shipping/handling); members enjoy a twenty percent discount.
--Stacey Kelly, Paper Conservation Fellow
Last month, the paper conservators at the Amon Carter travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Conservation Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC). The meeting featured numerous talks covering multiple disciplines in conservation, including books and paper, photographic materials, paintings, textiles, objects, and so on. There were also hands-on workshops focusing on new conservation techniques, networking receptions, discussion groups, exhibitions, and various other activities related to the historical and cultural areas of Montreal.
Conservation techniques are constantly evolving with the development of new technologies and materials. Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, had the chance to attend a workshop on the application of rigid Gellan gels used for conservation treatment. Gellan gel is a nontoxic biopolymer produced naturally by a microorganism. In conservation, the gel is formed in sheets of varying thickness and sizes for controlled wet treatments. The gel, when placed over paper, pulls soluble degradation products out via osmosis. Compared to other treatment methods, it is a gentle process that minimizes changes in the surface of the paper.
During the workshop, we made several batches of Gellan gel in different concentrations. We also tested gels with different additives like alkali and reductive bleach on aged and discolored paper samples provided by the organizers. Take a look at the pictures below to see the Gellan gels in action.
Luckily, I won a bag of Gellan gum in a drawing at the end of the workshop! Needless to say, we are excited to practice some of the techniques we learned at the workshop in our own lab.
Above: An excited Jodie watching the preparation of Gellan gel.
Above: Mixing the different ingredients needed for a batch of Gellan gel.
Above: Placing a sheet of Gellan gel on a discolored sample.
Above: Removing the Gellan gel after "washing" a discolored sample.
Above: A sheet of Gellan gel showing the discoloration removed from the paper sample after 15 minutes.
Above: Discolored used sheets of Gellan gel.
Above: Gellan gum for the Amon Carter's lab!
Q&A with Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo
Richard Misrach is among the most highly regarded American photographers of his generation. Guillermo Galindo is a renowned experimental composer whose work pushes beyond the conventional boundaries of music. Together, they forged a unique partnership for the exhibition Border Cantos—artist as documentarian, photographing and collecting lost items of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border; and composer as sonic interpreter, crafting sound-generating devices from the gathered items and giving them musical voices. The two artists kindly fielded a few questions about the exhibition they co-organized.
Richard Misrach, Wall (post and wire mesh), Douglas, Arizona, 2014, inkjet print, © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA
Richard, I imagine you watching some of Guillermo’s music videos and thinking, “I need to get in touch with this guy.” How did this collaborative concept take shape? In 2011, I participated in a pop-up magazine event consisting of a dozen artists, writers, and musicians who were invited to make short presentations of new work on stage before a crowd of 3,000 people. Guillermo and the writer Daniel Alarcon contributed a musical composition by Guillermo made from objects he had recovered from the Texas/Mexico border. I was making an unrelated presentation, but a few years earlier on the California/Mexico border had discovered human effigies dressed in discarded migrant clothing and had photographed them. I was stunned by the similarities of our projects and subsequently invited Guillermo and Daniel to my studio, where I had gathered large-scale prints of my effigy images. We knew next to nothing of each other’s work, but I invited them to collaborate. Eventually, Daniel had to drop out due to other commitments, but Guillermo and I jumped in and never looked back.
Items discarded, lost, and forgotten by people trying to cross into a more promising land. What compelled you to photograph such things? One sees clothing, backpacks, religious items, water bottles, and so forth all along the border. These objects are often referred to as trash, but they are not trash. As Guillermo points out, these items embody, and are the testimony of, the long dangerous travails of those who dared to make the passage.
As Guillermo was unable to travel to the border because of work and family obligations, and I was there a lot, I took on not only photographing but gathering items. That act of working together--of inspiring each other and of helping each other--became a potent symbol of the whole project. We were not only making photographs and music in response to the divide, but our collaborative process represents an alternative model—bridging, not walling up the border.
It’s easy to think, These images are from far away and have nothing to do with me. Are there universal implications for the human condition in these photographs? Who in America is not a descendant of immigrants? Who in America does not interact daily with those who are from other cultures and nations? The border presents complex, difficult issues that will challenge America's national sovereignty for decades to come. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whether here legally or illegally, are a vital part of our workforce, daily lives, and culture.
The wall appears in most of your images in this series. In some, it seems that it would take little more than a child’s ability to scramble over sections. Did you move back and forth between countries while you worked? The wall is an empty political symbol. The cliché is, build a 12-foot wall, and they will build a 13-foot ladder. There is a video online of two teenage girls climbing the wall in under eighteen seconds on their first attempt without the aid of a ladder! People go over, around, and even under it. The current walls cost $4-12 million a mile to construct. [Donald] Trump's proposal to add 1,000 miles of new wall, mostly through Texas, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. That taxpayer money would be better spent fighting terrorism and improving education and healthcare. And yes, there are areas where the border wall just ends and I was able to walk around and photograph from the other side.
The U.S.-Mexico border is highly militarized and increasingly monitored by drones. Did working with the knowledge you were being watched influence your creative approach or the images you made? I was always pretty self-conscious photographing. Often I would get to a remote area via Border Patrol access roads. I would inevitably set off ground sensors, but it would often be hours before the BP showed up. Usually, they were pretty civil, sometimes showing me pictures on their iPhones or suggesting where I might get a better shot. Once a woman agent with a large rifle came out of nowhere to stand sentry while I worked, worried that I might be vulnerable to nearby cartel activity. Other times, they could be hostile, check my car and camera bag for heroin, threaten that the cartel would steal my camera, etc.
In the end, however—perhaps because I have been photographing in the American west for over 40 years—I just worked in the painstaking way I always have, mostly with a camera on a tripod. At times, I felt the need to work fast, and I found that my iPhone made a huge difference. Probably a third of the images in the book and many in the exhibit were made with an iPhone, among them images in the 32-foot-long artifact grid and the target-practice shots.
It must have been at times intensely emotional photographing these subjects. Is there a particular moment that stands out in your memory? In Hidalgo County in 2014 I photographed fields of mostly children's items. These were undoubtedly left behind by some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children from Central America, which got a lot of media attention. But really, I have to shut off my emotions while I’m working. For me, the emotional impact usually hits after I am home, going through the pictures.
How do you describe Guillermo’s music? I will paraphrase Guillermo, who has said that conventional instruments allow the musician to impose their will on them. But the instruments he makes from migrant shoes and water bottles or Border Patrol shotgun shells dictate the sound and play the musician, so to speak. The sounds hardly resemble conventional music. On the one hand, they perhaps evoke the primal notion of how and where music first evolved, and on the other, they suggest the struggle and suffering of the people trying to cross the border.
Do you have a favorite work by him in this exhibition? Why? I think the 4 hour and 20 minute Sonic Border is the most powerful work in the whole exhibit. It is played on eight instruments fabricated from migrant artifacts and border patrol objects. Each instrument has a speaker next to it, through which its recorded sounds are played. The long piece is comprised of a series of vignettes of sounds, sometimes a single instrument, sometimes a symphony of all eight at once. The sound can be grating and harsh or lyrical and harmonious. Obviously the normal visitor can't be expected to stay for the full piece—part of the challenge to the listener is to consider the impossible duration—but I encourage people to stay for a while. The longer they stay the more rewarding the experience. The remarkable sounds coaxed from these instruments uncannily and poignantly evoke the border passage.
Guillermo Galindo, Efigie, 2014, immigrant clothing, wood axis, strings, courtesy the artist
When—and how—did you begin creating musical instruments from found objects, Guillermo? My first instrument was an electro-mechanical device called MAIZ (corn) that I made in 2006, and it was built with personal objects from my daily life. It was then that I started calling my instruments “cyber-totemic sonic devices.” In 2011, I came up with the idea of using immigrants’ personal items instead of my own.
You use the term “visual music.” How do you define it? There are two intersecting answers to this question: By visual music I mean music that either evokes particular images, or that has a particular connection with a universe or closely related ideas.
My conception of “visual music” comes from what we call “program music,” which is the idea that music can transmit extra musical narratives by inviting the audience to associate the sounds or the mood of a certain composition with a set of moods, circumstances, or even a specific set of images or a story through memory and collective cultural associations. Romantic composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and, later, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Claude Debussy experimented with the idea of program music. They wrote program music to evoke the feel and sublime message of particular stories, paintings, or poems. Later, program music morphed into what we know today as “film music.”
My other idea of visual music comes from music notation or the translations of otherwise “abstract symbols” in a page into actual music. Traditional Western music notation has evolved to the point that, in some cases, the performer reading and translating a musical score must navigate the limits between traditional music code and the interpretation of concepts through visual elements purposely placed in different parts of the page. Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century scores by authors such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Brian Eno use visual language similar to the one that painting, photography, and other visual arts use to convey their message.
You are a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, so you have the unique perspective of being from both sides of the border. How did this influence your creative approach for this project? There is a special “there is not here, here” moment when that “foreign” country where you have lived for many years finally becomes your home. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the intersection, trapped between two countries. We are finally able to see both their similarities and their contradictions. Richard and I found that neutral zone, a place with no walls where the exchange of ideas and dialogue can flow back and forth.
You built the sonic devices in this show. How did the structure of conventional instruments inform your creations? Human beings have been creating instruments for hundreds of thousands of years. There is extremely valuable information about musical instruments that we have gathered regarding acoustics, purpose, design, modes of playing, and quality of sound. My instrument building came from the knowledge and valuable concepts of many cultures.
You can almost hear the vast emptiness in some of Richard’s images. What part does silence play in your compositions? Silence is the essence of emptiness, the negative space that defines the figure in the visual arts. In Richard’s photographs, this is the landscape where living things exist or existed. In the case of music, silence is the empty space where sounds will soon be. Silence underlines the unsaid and the unknown. Both in music and in speech, silence is the space between sounds, the necessary pause to stop and reflect. Richard’s photographs provide the space to be filled with sound and to amplify their silence.
You recreated an effigy for the exhibition, one of several scarecrows in emigrant’s clothing that Richard found in an isolated canyon along the border with California. What do you suppose these figures are meant to symbolize or do? Neither Richard nor I know exactly what these figures symbolize. Perhaps it is better to leave it that way. But the position of the arms in these figures reminds me of the position one adopts when being searched. They also remind me of that technique one uses when confronting a dangerous animal in which one raises the arms in order to seem bigger.
How did the unknown experiences of those who lost these items, the “invisible victims of migration” you have called them, figure into your compositions and constructions? Each object tells an imaginary story. My instrument fabrication is something between forensic archeology and animistic spirituality. Each object is evidence of presence. Each instrument tells the story of the person it belonged to.
How do you characterize Richard’s photographs? For me, Richard’s photographs are huge symphonic landscapes of form, texture, and light. They entail a unique beauty that provides a comfortable space for environmental awareness and socio-political dialogue.
Do you have a favorite image by him in this exhibition? Why? There are several: I like the photograph Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona, where the undulating wall appears and disappears behind the hills as incomplete melodic contours. I was inspired by the desolation of his photograph Agua #16, Carrizo Creek, California for my composition “Skeletal Remains” and the score I call “lone tank.” I also chose his image (post and wire mesh fence) Douglas, Arizona to be in the Sonic Border room of the exhibit because it has this feeling of an uncertain, endless horizon in which anything can happen. The movement of the photograph drives us into that foggy place where everything tends to disappear.