Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson 

An Artist Has Deemed Trump's Wall Land Art. Robert Smithson Would Not Have Agreed

Christoph Büchel is framing the border prototypes as sculpturally significant, but they don't measure up against the ideals of the Land Art movement's godfather.

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Feb 15 2018, 4:55pm

Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson 

The best vantage point from which to see the eight 30-foot wall prototypes currently being pick-axed and blowtorched by US Border Patrol officers per the vainglorious decree of Donald Trump is in Mexico. So from late December to late last month, Swiss-born artist Christoph Büchel organized sorties in a Mercedes-Benz van from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (reportedly without their permission or knowledge) to the proving ground near the Otay Mesa port of entry, where a step ladder beside the Vietnam-era corrugated steel barrier allows a view of the eight freestanding segments on American soil.

Büchel presents his project in the context of a “nonprofit” called MAGA (“Make Art Great Again,” presumably). “The eight border wall prototypes,” reads their press release, “have significant cultural value and are historical land art.” That unqualified “are” is a bit strong, but it’s true that the prototypes bear passing resemblance to Nancy Holt’s 1976 Sun Tunnels, in northwestern Utah (perforated concrete pipes aligned to the solstices and the stars); and to Michael Heizer’s as-yet-unfinished life’s work, City, in central Nevada (an alien complex of cast berms and excavations) Land art is big, land art is solid, land art is found outdoors…

Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson
Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson

MAGA claims to “question and adapt to the changing definitions of art.” Yet Büchel’s “provocative” claim for Trump’s wall is less radical than he imagines; not least, his field trips to the slums of the borderland echo Robert Smithson’s 1967 bus trip to Passaic, NJ. In the essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Smithson doesn’t expand the definition of art so much as dissolve the limits around those human projects deemed worthy of analysis. A naturalist museology takes in contemporary sculpture, and the sculptor’s eye grazes on the aesthetic of the New Jersey suburbs. Smithson observes the construction and the industry, and names the vague, depopulated sites “monuments”: a rotating bridge, a parking lot, a sandbox. Whether or not you call it art is beside the point, and irrelevant to its monumentality.

Such was the golden era of ambiguous, self-aware conceptualism; Büchel’s gesture, however, lands in 2018 as self-serving and cynical. The MAGA website takes a banal and problematic position of neutral awe. Like a “wall,” Büchel’s proposition is all too binary; there is really only one reaction to provoke—which is the one articulated in the petition against his petition. Suffice it to underline the callousness it takes for an established artist with a European passport to muse abstractly on whether or not a wall is “art” or “not,” while that wall ruins lives. MAGA willfully overlooks the human cost of Trump’s project, the US/Mexico border fortifications, and of international borders; to make his point, the artist adopts a position of indifference—an inhuman position.

Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson

“Aesthetic considerations are largely secondary to brute strength,” writes the New York Times of the eight prototypes, “but, when viewed up close, the walls collectively have the undeniable majesty of minimalist sculpture.” Unfortunately, it’s not “undeniable majesty” that defines minimalism. The most salient feature of the new sculpture produced in the 1960s by the likes of Donald Judd and Robert Morris—what Smithson called the New Monuments—is its “unmade,” infinite quality. And it’s true: in present debates over “monuments”—of the Confederate variety, say—the idea remains that even if controversial figurative works need to go, these unblinking slabs, human-made and profoundly inhuman, could support whatever history you like.

At the end of “Monuments of Passaic,” Smithson gives us a memorable parable for the irreversibility of time. Imagine a sand box, half white sand and half black. Imagine running clockwise—the sand turns gray. Now imagine running counter-clockwise—the sand doesn’t sort itself back out, it turns grayer. That’s entropy. “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments,” reads the MAGA site’s Mission page, “the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.”

Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson
Photo: Courtesy of MAGA / Bjarni Grimsson

That’s a direct and unattributed quote from Smithson’s 1966 essay “Entropy and the New Monuments.” (The preceding lines are pulled from Judd, as well as the MOCA and MoMA websites—all without citation.) All this “borrowing” is as unsurprising as the MAGA project itself. Whatever their designation or anti-designation as art, the border wall prototypes have been (and will remain) the sort of unintended monuments Smithson identified in the Jersey sprawl. Smithson called the unfinished constructions of Passaic “ruins in reverse”; their incompleteness also embodies a certain decline. “Passaic center was no center,” he writes. “It was instead a typical abyss or an ordinary void. What a great place for a gallery! Or maybe an ‘outdoor sculpture show’ would pep that place up.”

Other artists have preempted Büchel’s provocation by decades; we should listen to them instead.