David Taylor: Monuments
Radius Books/Nevada Museum of Art, 2015
The series of obelisks punctuating the US-Mexico border west of the Rio Grande is ostensibly the subject of David Taylor’s 276 photographs in Monuments. These boundary markers resulted from multiple treaties and geographic surveys during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all early efforts by the two countries’ governments to demarcate and control the border. The obelisks themselves—the older ones squatter and made of sheathed stone, the more recent ones narrow and cast in iron—were created with classical elegance in mind: they designate the border using a form as old as ancient Egypt, each carefully spaced so that each flanking marker would be visible to a viewer from an adjacent site.
The photographs that comprise Monuments serve as evidence of a decade-long sojourn. Taylor, an artist based in Tucson, drove hundreds of miles and hiked hundreds more to access the obelisks, some of which sit precariously atop mountain ranges or in remote and seemingly uninhabited stretches of desert. This is a project that is inherently easier for a white American male to complete; the photos of obelisks taken from vantage points on either side of the border allude to Taylor’s relative ease of access. Claire C. Carter, in her essay in the book, makes clear the danger and complications inherent in Taylor’s project—the constant negotiations with border agents, the repeated explanations to ranchers.
Such dialogues place Taylor’s practice firmly in the ongoing tradition of socially inflected land art, notably Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Running Fence (1976) and Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence (2015). Indeed, all three essays in Monuments situate Taylor’s project within well-established histories: of art, of geographical photographic surveys, of the politics of the border. The inclusion of historical maps of the border and archival diagrams of the obelisks’ construction all contribute to affirming the markers’ status as monuments—as commemorations of a past event, the establishment of the border.
Taylor captures the heavy-handed visual irony that only an oblivious government bureaucracy can achieve: a view of an obelisk behind bars, framed by a specially made cut in the steel fencing.
But the history of the border is ongoing. Read another way, Taylor’s photographs become a record of our current political moment. The book’s images of racist graffiti, surveillance cameras mounted on observation towers, and signs in Spanish warning migrants of harsh desert conditions remind us that these are also facts of the everyday reality of the border. The one constant in all of Taylor’s photographs—the obelisks—lends the surrounding landscapes a sense of scale, and moving westward from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez toward the peak militarization of the border along Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, wire fences begin to make way for a typology of fence structures: the Normandy, the bollard, the chain link, the wire mesh, the steel palisade, the aesthetic, the levee—any combination of the above. In some shots, Taylor captures the heavy-handed visual irony that only an oblivious government bureaucracy can achieve: a view of an obelisk behind bars, framed by a specially made cut in the steel fencing. Effectively jailing its former signification as a subtle demarcation of space, the fence design showcases the marker as a monument to the criminalization of crossing the border.