CAMBRIDGE — A border is an abstraction. A line in the sand? Less than that, even: a line on the sand. Yet when that sand is in the US Southwest, the abstraction has enormous consequences: diplomatic, cultural, economic, and, above all, human. The photographs David Taylor has taken for his “Working the Line” project seek to make that abstraction vivid and visible. “David Taylor: Working the Line” runs at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies through May 18.
The idea behind the project could hardly be simpler — which makes it all the better for getting at such a complex set of issues. There are 276 obelisks variously placed along the 600-mile length of the US-Mexico border that lies between El Paso and San Diego. Taylor has photographed all of them. His aim, he writes, is “to offer a view into locations and situations that we generally do not access and portray a highly complex physical, social, and political topography during a period of dramatic change.”
Most of the monuments date to the 1890s. They’re a visual throwback, designating the boundary between the two nations in a formal yet modest fashion. The world of drug cartels and undocumented immigrants and border security seems very far away. Except that it’s not, which is Taylor’s point.
The show consists of 20 color photographs. They’re big. Most are 31 inches by 37 inches. There’s also a video monitor showing a loop of all 276 obelisk photos. The photographs hanging at the Rockefeller Center come in two groups. In addition to the obelisks themselves, Taylor has photographed in their vicinity: a detention cell, confiscated bales of marijuana, a US Border Patrol office, a seismic sensor (for monitoring people, not temblors).
Taylor lets the scenes speak for themselves. He doesn’t preach; he shows. There’s no advocacy, one way or the other. It’s easy enough for viewers to draw their own conclusions. King Canute would have recognized the futility of the world’s wealthiest nation trying to impose impermeability with an impoverished neighbor next door. That old adage that Mexico should be pitied because it’s so far from God — and so near the United States? It needs updating. The joke is on the northern neighbor, with the punch line now “so near to Mexico.”
“Obelisk” sounds so grand, like the Bunker Hill or Washington monuments. Not these obelisks: They range in size from toy-like to pretty big. Some look well tended. On others, whitewash is peeling or there’s graffiti. The variations are striking, though not as much as how different their settings can be. Some are in the middle of nowhere, others in settled areas. Sometimes these monuments can look like forlorn battle towers, left over from demolished fortifications. More often, the battle seems ongoing: Barbed wire, fencing, or other barriers surround the obelisks.
That the exhibition is being shown at an academic center rather than an art gallery or museum might suggest they lack aesthetic interest. That’s not the case. Taylor has an excellent eye, and his photographs stand on their own, without larger real-world considerations taken into account. Inevitably, they will be, though — and should be. Taylor does what photography can do so well: take us to places few of us have ever been to and not only make us see them but see them in unexpected and illuminating ways.
A word of caution. The show is spread out and not altogether predictable in its placement — not unlike the monuments, actually — as the center doesn’t have an exhibition space, per se. The photographs are hung along corridors and in a conference room. At least one visitor (all right, it was me) completely missed the ones in the conference room on his first visit. On the second, a meeting was going on in the room. So be prepared to scout around a bit and run the risk of rudeness. Rudeness is a relative thing, of course. Think of all the meetings you’ve been in that would have benefited from interrupting.