Notions of national borders and citizenship are major themes within the exhibition The Nature of Arp. Born in Alsace-Lorraine, an area ceded by France to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and later returned to France after World War I, Arp would be concerned about militant nationalism throughout his career, working to break down the barriers meant to divide people so brutally during the 20th century. His dedication to the absurd and uncanny was one way of challenging the strident norms of the era, as was his eagerness to collaborate with imaginative people from many places and of all walks of life.
Nearly two decades into the 21st century, the subjects of borders and national identity continue to create tensions globally, including here in the United States, prompting many artists to make work in the tradition of Arp and his peers. To that end, The Nasher asked K. Yoland—an artist whose work centers on themes of otherness, dislocation, and the enforcement of physical and mental boundaries—to offer a creative response to these subjects within Arp’s work. Yoland has generously offered a portion of a current work in progress called Project Tumbleweed, commissioned by the Pensacola Museum and slated for exhibition at that museum this September in a show called Stone’s Throw: On Borders, Boundaries, and The Beyond.
Project Tumbleweed consists of fictional letters, documents, video, photography, and a performance without an audience—as Yoland notes: “I’m canoeing down the Rio Grande, so maybe a few cows and the border patrol will see it.” The letters, published here, are between Yoland (partly in character) and a tumbleweed—that scraggly, skeleton of a plant so often associated with the vast untamed parts of America—and the images were dispatched from the Rio Grande while the artist made the way along the U.S./Mexican border, enacting a complicated effort with misguided, though well-meaning, salvific purpose.
By K. Noland
Where does one begin? Things have gone wrong. I shouldn’t even be writing this down. In a time with so much surveillance, the last thing I need is a paper trail.
Let’s just say it started well. It was a good proposition, a solid plan, and it was made in good faith. How can that be doubted?
Anyone who knows me would say I have a strong moral compass. For example, there was the time I jumped into a fight against six men in Morocco. A boy was being beaten on the floor and I saw it from the roof of a hotel. I was 19 and didn’t question myself as I hurtled down the stairs three-at-a-time. I wished to protect. His problem was my problem. It was our problem. But this time, I’m not sure why it’s not working. I’m accused of kidnapping. This was not the plan. I refuse it to be true. But one thing is true: Things have gone south.
I first saw them in 2012 from a truck window. Waiting for my soul to join me from a 23-hour transatlantic journey, I was taking notes about scorpions and spiders in the passenger seat of a vehicle, which offered refuge as well as a view of an alien land. The terrain was empty and yet occupied. Deserted and yet private, for as far as my eyes could see. It was here that the idea of possession really grasped me. But was it tangible or completely abstract?
The sun beats down and can kill you out here. I’ve heard of people tying cardboard to their bare feet when they had to continue walking.
All of this is someone’s territory. “You can shoot a man for trespassing” was a warning given to me several times. “You don’t need a reason other than that?” I once asked and then gave up. Fear of the other. Enough said. The threat was sufficient. Out here it is presumed that you wouldn’t trespass unless you meant harm. There can be no other reason. There is no right to ramble, territory is territory, and you shouldn’t cross the line even if your life depends on it. Go on, I dare you to cross it. Everyone expects you to take a gun to your head and take your own life rather than cross into their private patch. For your problems are your problems and not mine: “Your bad luck is your bad luck. If someone murders your son that’s not my problem. I’m sorry for you, yes, but what do you expect me to do? It’s not actually my problem.”
My problems started early this year when I felt the urge to warn a Tumbleweed of the imminent storms ahead. I’d heard word from the frontline that national and international powers were manifesting a unique breed of tornadoes and some of us would get flattened. Their ingredients were simple: Light on Tolerance, Empathy, and Collaboration and heavy on Nationalism. Mixed vigorously, the product would spin Isolationism, Violence, and Militarization.
Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, maybe you’re on the fence. Maybe this is not my fight, maybe this is not the solution, maybe helping one is not enough? Maybe I’m about to do more damage? Well, that letter was written months ago and things have moved on. You’re too late to give me your opinion. I made my move and now the Tumbleweed and I are lying in the hole I dug beside the Rio Grande. Countless times, dragging out the old typewriter, sitting down at my desk, I wrote the Tumbleweed. I explained the danger it was in—physically and symbolically—and in turn the inevitable human retribution it might suffer. You see, Tumbleweeds are simply not indigenous. They are not American. They are not North American. They are Russian. Yes, Tumbleweeds were originally called Russian Thistle. They may be iconic of the Wild West, but they are illegal immigrants, hidden away as seeds in cargo boxes from a bygone era. Of course, you can say all of the existing Tumbleweeds have been born on U.S. soil, but does that make them true citizens? Their parents were not citizens. The tornado will sing in high frequency: “Their ancestors committed a crime. There is no visa or legal document allowing them refuge here. They had no connections when they first arrived in these boxes. They were not invited. They have not been immunized..…”
Their invasion will be perceived as covert and the war will be retroactive.
I didn’t expect this as the first response. Granted it arrived quickly and was well written but why the antagonism? Why dig yourself into the desert sand for principles? Is it worth going down in the fight for that?
Years ago I was told of a friend’s unexpected visitor in the middle of the night. In the desert, far from roads or towns, there was a knock on the door. The traveller could not speak from lack of water. He had been beaten severely and had no idea where he was.
Initially, I sat paralyzed by the first correspondence. My street-salvaged desk had a big hole in it. Literally. It looked like it had been ravaged by a wild dog. But now it just made me think of the Tumbleweed. The outline of the hole. I sat staring at it.
Why were the Tumbleweeds here in the first place? Were they being persecuted in Russia? Were they sent to Siberia? Were they a religious minority? Were they brought here against their will? Were they sleeper cells? Were they politically extreme? Were they trained in military combat? Did they need our help? Did they have a right to help? Should they be locked up and sent back?
Since Tumbleweed’s first reply there have been many more letters. I have always tried to reply with decorum and constantly converse with ballistic experts, attempting to increase the protection I can offer this one Tumbleweed. Sending TW its own polycarbonate samples, maps, and newspaper clippings, documenting the growing tension, I hoped I could convince TW of my commitment and the urgency of this mission. I even sent a radio so it could listen to the news. But the response is always disappointing. It seems TW wants others to change.
Standing at the water’s edge, I wonder if I might drown myself in my hypocrisy or whether the metaphorical kingdom of light has a place for even me. Have I placed my hat on so firmly that I do not realize it’s on backwards? I hesitate at the figurative border of nations and ideologies. To cross or not to cross? You cross and you’ve committed a crime. You don’t cross and you strengthen the system. And there lies the precipice.
TW says I am keeping it against its will. That it is hostage to my perception of ethics. TW says that it has its own young Tumbleweeds on the land where we met. TW says that it may be impossible to find them again.
When I hear a cry in the night I know there are others suffering whom I cannot hear. Once, in France, five years after Morocco, a woman was being attacked in the alley next to my apartment. Waiting for the police to arrive, I ceaselessly shouted at the man to stop. But it became too late. The police took too long, I waited at the window too long and she could not run.
This letter is being sent from a canoe on the Rio Grande. I’m told this will be typed up before you read it. We don’t have electricity, but we do have homing pigeons. When my father was a child, his family moved towns and his pigeons could no longer find their way back to him. I don’t like that story. I hope we will find our way back.
Operation Tumbleweed was commissioned by the Pensacola Museum of Art.
Photography by K. Yoland.