Artist Jaime Carrejo returned from grad school to visit his family in El Paso, Texas, shortly after the wide-open Chihuahuan Desert had been divided by a looming fence at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2008. The vast landscape had been interrupted, and architecture now inscribed a sense of difference between the people of each country.
The fence raised questions: How will this demarcation change international relationships? How will it impact the natural environment? Will it change how people from the United States and Mexico view each other?
Fast-forward to 2017. The new Republican administration, which built political capital treating Mexicans as dangerous, is now proposing the construction of a massive wall that extends the entire length of the border, a plan that has amplified strife between the U.S. and Mexico.
Carrejo's new video installation at the Denver Art Museum, "One-Way Mirror," tackles the questions that the proposed wall inevitably raises about identity, transparency and divided landscapes. The installation is a ten-foot-tall scrim, representing the border fence, in the middle of a gallery space, with video projections of a Mexican sunrise on one wall and a U.S. sunset on the other. Both projections are reflected in the middle of the room on the scrim, which is made of a fifty-fifty reflective surface that at times looks opaque and at other times translucent, creating uncertainty about where images from each side of the border, superimposed on the fence, begin and end.
"One-Way Mirror" is one of thirteen installations at the Denver Art Museum that are part of Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place, an exhibit of site-specific installations by artists of Mexican heritage living in the western United States. Westword visited Carrejo at the museum to learn more about his project.
Westword: Talk about what's going on here.
Jaime Carrejo: This is the installation I've been working on for a while. It's called "One-Way Mirror." The project is really centering around the idea of place and space — visibility, if you will — but looking at the idea of the border wall, the border fence that exists now. What does that architectural structure say about us as a culture?
I grew up in El Paso, Texas. It was one of the first places the wall went up. I remember coming back from grad school to visit my mom in 2009, and this monstrous thing had just raised from out of the ground from who knows where. It was just this really interesting sort of thing, this really big scar on the landscape. The Chiuahuan Desert landscape is really gorgeous. I'm interested in that structure and how it changed the way we view Mexico vs. the United States. I think it really created an us-them sort of thing. Because I'm thinking about the fence as a reflection of us, I wanted to keep the style of the fence, so this is very similar. It's as close as I could get to being the actual fence; it's half-scale. The border fence actually goes twenty feet high; this is ten feet.
I was told walls in here are about 23 feet, so it's about three feet lower than that, just to think about how large and massive that is. I replaced the middle scrim with this surveillance glass. It's not really surveillance glass, but it's Plexiglas with surveillance film on it. It has this really weird property where it's fifty-fifty transparency. If you ever watch CSI or a crime show, in the interrogation room, it's that mirrored wall. The other people can't see through it. It's all dependent on light, which is where the video pieces come in.
If we're standing at the fence, the east wall of the gallery is also the Mexico side. So when we filmed, we actually went to the border fence. We spent four days looking out where we filmed sunrises in Mexico and a bunch of sunsets in the United States. The way the videos are timed, there are moments in here where you have a collapse of the two spaces where the two videos join [in the center]. So you have a layering of material here [on the scrim] that becomes really reflective or transparent, depending on the light quality of the two spaces.
You'll notice that there are stripes and Xs that will come up [in the video images]. Those are based off of the border fence itself. There is a style of the border fence that are just posts lined up, one after another, with negative space in between. I was interested in that shape being similar to the American flag — in terms of the bar ratio, but flipped horizontally. And then the Xs come in, which are all based on the X-barricade border fences that prevent cars and animals from going through. That's the nutshell.
All of the audio is a field recording from being out there with birds and crickets. I then put a drone track on top of that, just unifying the soundtrack.
When you say a drone track, you mean white noise?
Yeah, white noise.
You don't mean a drone? Like a border drone?
No. That's Arizona.
Can you help me understand what I'm seeing on the fence when the two images on either side collide?
You are seeing a layering of the reflections of the two video channels on top of each other on the wall itself. There will be moments as one side gets brighter that the images will be more on top of each other. I really like that idea of these two places, these two different countries being collapsed on top of one another as being the same. But you also have this moment where I'm standing over here. You could be standing on the other side, and our reflections also collapse on top of one another.
Talk about how this project fits within your other work.
It is thematically very similar to my other work. I usually paint. I also have sculpture as a background. Really, the theme, the idea of pattern and abstraction, is really important for me to talk about the complexity of what it is to be human and the complexities of what identities and cultures are colliding and mashing up into something else. I've been really interested in how patterns and abstraction does that. Especially with the political climate now and the work that I was making and am making, I found that there was an issue, at least with me, in working abstractly. So I went from abstract painting into something that was more visual, larger, rooted in reality as a way of bridging something that was really coded. Sometimes people look at abstractions and have a really hard time finding things out. I think that's a beautiful part of it. But what happens when you take those two worlds and collapse them on top of each other? Thematically, it's always been rooted in the work — trying to figure out the idea of the complexity of understanding one another.
In these political moments, there is often a desire to move toward realism or toward representation, at least. There is also often a desire to move toward text or concrete messaging. I'm curious if that impulse is something you're wrangling with as an artist.
Not quite, because I think the work I make has always had some sort of political slant to it. I don't also want to be so didactic and so "This is what it is." I want there to be some ambiguity, but I want that ambiguity to be easier for people to see. So if they are confronted with something they understand and recognize, and then when there is a little bit of confusion thrown in and then that thing becomes foreign, I I think that creates a moment where we get to reflect on what it is that we're seeing and how that is different from our understanding of what is real, in some sort of way.
When we think about the wall, it's this divider — a concrete, irreconcilable barrier between two others. This convergence in the middle that's happening that's not quite transparent and not quite opaque, either — can you walk me through that again?
In terms of what's happening materially?
There's almost a metaphysical thing going on.
So talking conceptually or formally?
Formally, you have a mirrored film that's a fifty-fifty film. It's not quite opaque, like you said; it's not quite transparent. Fifty percent of light will go in; fifty percent of light will be blocked. It's like that on both sides of the film. I chose that specifically because of the idea of how easy it is for us to say "This is good" or "This is bad" and create dualities. That material doesn't allow that. It allows things to be layered on top of each other, where you have not one of this or that but you have a combination of both. Then the image becomes complex, and the landscape as we know it then becomes complex.
When I think about it in terms of why I made it, I have friends who voted for Trump, who are very anti-immigrant, that I grew up with in El Paso, and I have friends who aren't like that, also. I think it's really important that people begin a discussion about not being one way or the other, but that it's about this really rich dialogue in the middle. It doesn't have to be a split between I'm right and you're wrong. It's about what our responsibility is to each other as humans to make things better. That's what I've been thinking about when making this.
"One-Way Mirror" is now on display as part of Mi Tierra at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit of site-specific installations opens formally on Sunday, February 19, and will be on display through October 22.