NORTH ADAMS — There’s a moment of black humor in “Us and Them,” the Mexican-American artist Erre’s new exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, that should give pause to every thinking, feeling human: Four crisply-pressed prison jumpsuits pinned to the wall on hangers in descending sizes — large (presumably the father), medium (the mother), small (a child), and then a ruffle-collared onesie, complete with crotch snaps for diaper changes. Not that there’s been much diaper-changing at the various detainment camps along the Mexico-US border, according to most accounts. The only thing fictive about the artist’s representation of familial incarceration would appear to be the degree of laundering.
In “Us and Them,” the piece does its work, leavening egregious horror with the absurd. Because it is absurd, and horrible, and hard to believe; and sometimes because of it, the mind tucks it away. The endless parade of media images and tweetstorms decrying border-detention conditions rise and fall with the news cycle. It becomes nearly abstract, unknowable, noise. A work like this anchors it in reality. It invites, at human scale. Humor, however bleak, can be a gateway, a stage on which the unspeakable can be broached — ask any comedian about that. It’s funny because it’s absurd because it’s true.
Light touches, though, are hardly the artist’s M.O. (Erre, a nom de guerre, is short for his full name, Marcos Ramirez Erre). Nor is he an opportunist, ripe for the moment. Working in San Diego and Tijuana for decades, the border has been the frame for a lifetime of work. His towering 1997 sculpture evoking the Trojan horse of Greek mythology straddled the border when it was made. It featured a head at both ends, maybe a nod to the two countries’ longstanding — and uneasy — symbiosis (30 million people pass through the border at Tijuana every year, not to mention billions of dollars worth of goods).
These, though, are different times. In the middle of the gallery floor at Mass MoCA, the two heads lie on a bed of coals, charred black: Unease, devolved into contempt.
The exhibition is walled in on one side by “Of Fence,” a 120-foot-long steel barrier washed with rust patina and sealed at ceiling and floor (President Trump’s long dreamed-of border wall couldn’t be more beautiful, or more impenetrable.) The glass door of its entrance is festooned with vertical bars inscribed with questions asked by US border agents: What is the purpose of your trip? Where were you born? Do you have a return ticket? May I see it? Once inside, the space is bisected again by rough chain-link fence. On the left, a bright blue sign reads “Us,” and on the right, in green, “Them.”
Is “Us and Them” heavy-handed? Yes indeed. Could it not be? I doubt it, though Erre’s long view tempers the current hysteria and reveals the antipathy to be perennially simmering despite the current regime cranking it to full boil (a 1999 piece, “Sing-Sing,” looks like an outsize birdcage in the shape of a rat’s head, fitted with a prison issue cot and bed linens).
Its occasional histrionics aside — another piece, a three-sided steel-reinforced isolation chamber with mirrors instead of windows, is both extreme and true — couching the frenzy of the moment in historical context is something “Us and Them” does supremely well.
It’s gripping: You can’t walk along the length of “Of Fence” without a chill, or circle “Sing-Sing,” with its slight, rusty bars, and not imagine the close confinement of hundreds of thousands of detainees over the years. But Erre works in much larger temporal frame. The raw materials of his work are the exclusions upon which the American experiment itself was built.
On the “Us” side of the chain link is where you’ll find the charred heads, the prison jumpsuits, the isolation tank — all everyday realities held in clenched terror in the minds of every Mexican crossing the border illegally. But on the “Them” side? Erre lines up an array of ophthalmological charts displaying famous quotes. “God made me an Indian,” says Sitting Bull on one of them, pointing to another infamous us-and-them moment in American history — and making clear there are many, over centuries. “If God is just, I tremble for my country,” reads another, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and decades on, there’s much left to tremble for.
On a wall outside, in huge text, is a quote from the great African-American poet Langston Hughes defining the country’s original sin. “O, let my land be a land where Liberty / Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath / But opportunity is real and life is free / Equality is in the air we breathe.” It’s from “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes wrote it in 1935, and it reads almost as earnest satire (invoking the founding principles of American freedom, Hughes repeats almost as an incantation that “America was never America to me”).
There’s that dark humor, making space and doing its work, bringing us inside. Hughes’s words speak to this moment as well as his own — a dubious distinction I’m sure he’d rather wasn’t the case. Erre reads almost as his direct descendant in a lineage of national shame. Nearly 100 years on, it’s no less absurd, and no less true.
ERRE: US AND THEM
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through summer 2021. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.