On a mangled piece of metal, composer and sound architect Guillermo Galindo plays one of his "border cantos" or songs of the border. The instrument he plays is an actual piece of an early iteration of the border barrier between the United States and Mexico. It hangs like a gong at the center of a giant wooden frame, resembling a twisted angel or perhaps a hanging man.
"The sound of each object is unique and each of them is unique in the world,” Galindo said. "Nobody is going to tell you how to play it or how it’s going to be executed. They have their own voices or they tell their own stories and they express themselves in their own way."
Galindo calls this piece "Angel Exterminador" or "Angel Exterminator." Galindo only chooses objects found at the border to create his art, items like shoes, gloves, or animal bones.
Played in an atonal staccato, the sonic device can both halt and lull. At times, the instrument sounds haunting, as if announcing an arrival to a new life.
A second instrument in the room called Zapatello was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's design for a mechanical hammer. Galindo turns a lever, which makes a boot and glove smack against a tire. At the ICA, the instruments are surrounded by photographs by Richard Misrach. There are scenic landscapes and personal effects left behind or lost by migrants such as bibles and clothing. The photographer brings Galindo items he finds in the desert to build this ornate orchestra.
"I think one of the things that's been interesting is the fact that we have these two mediums that we've bridged,” Misrach said. “And I think it's a very powerful symbol about the border. Sort of building walls, we bridge the border."
The two artists are part of a larger exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art called "When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art."
The United Nations estimates that one of every seven people in the world is a migrant. They may move by choice or by force.
The artifacts they leave behind is the focus of one of Misrach’s large scale images set up like a grid with examples of the life that at one point passed through.
“You can go to the border at anytime and you can find people's Bibles, people's religious icons, people's books, people's clothing, their backpacks or bottles, their tennis shoes,” he said. “So I really wanted to get that sense of how overwhelming that was.”
At the ICA, personal narratives, sculptures, and other mediums shed light on what ICA's Barbara Lee Chief Curator Eva Respini calls a humanitarian crisis. The art confronts displacement and the search for a new home.
"I think it was really important for us to think about the fact that there's no one immigrant or migrant experience. It's not one thing, perhaps in the media. We see a lot of narratives of victimhood. There are traumatic narratives. Those are important stories to tell,” Respini said. “But I think we were very cognizant of also making sure ... that there were also stories of everyday life."
The exhibition features works of 20 artists from more than a dozen countries such as Cuba, Nigeria, Palestine, and South Korea. The galleries are laid out with pieces meant to channel home and the migrant journey. ICA Mannion Family Curator Ruth Erickson noted that one room is dedicated entirely to the sea as a place of transit.
"What it is, is a floor sculpture in which blue articles of clothing and shoes and socks are strewn on the floor,” Erickson said of the piece by Kader Attia called "La Mer Morte" or "The Dead Sea" in french. “And they're kind of thicker near the edges of the wall. And then they sort of fade out just like water would come up to a shoreline."
Other anchor pieces in the installation include elaborate one-to-one scale fabric sculptures by Do Ho Suh — replicas of the artist's prior dwellings created as a reflection on the fleeting nature of home. (Read Visual Arts contributor Pam Reynolds' full reflection of the exhibition here.)
Capping a walk through of the exhibition, stands an expansive, vibrant installation. "The American Library" by Yinka Shonibare boasts 6,000 volumes of books wrapped in rich and textured multi-colored, Dutch wax-print fabric. Along the spine of each book are the names of first or second generation immigrants and at the center of the room are tablets where viewers can research the names in the library and add their own stories of migration.
That space leads into Galindo and Misrach's gallery about the border, leading viewers from the sea to the desert.
Galindo’s instruments are neither a burial hymn nor a victory ballad.
"The objects that surround you are part of your ecosystem on your journey through life,” Galindo said. “So they are completely connected to you and to everything and literally part of the wall is also connected to that, even as evil as it is. And it has its voice and he has something to say too."
The sculptures, paintings and weighty, anchor installations serve to jolt us into a reflection of these terrains, these places where so many crossed, where so many risked and traveled for another home — sometimes when home was unrecognizable.
In that context, Galindo's angel seems to serenade both those who made it and those who did not.
This segment aired on October 28, 2019.