An Idea of a Boundaryby Emily Watlington
SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 22, 2017 – JANUARY 20, 2017
“Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”
This is how Ursula K. Le Guin describes a low wall separating two planets in her 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, demonstrating the ways in which the wall works as a boundary; as simultaneously an object and an idea. “Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry,” she continues, “a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important.”
The complex and varied multitude of forms and functions a boundary can take are interrogated in the group exhibition An Idea of a Boundary, curated by Jackie Im and on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery from September 22, 2017—January 20, 2018. Taking its title from Le Guin, the show considers boundaries abstract and concrete, poetic and political. It brings together the work of ten artists—who are, refreshingly and inconspicuously, all women. This selection seems especially fitting as the visibility of the frequency with which women’s boundaries are violated continues to increase, thanks to brave voices.
Take Davina Semo’s She Said That The Outlines of Things and People Were Delicate, That They Broke (2017), which comprises a familiar boundary—a chain-link fence—laid over a mirrored surface that reflects the viewer’s image back to themselves, amplifying their firm position on their side of the boundary. Recalling security glass, the work suggests there could be a world beyond the boundary, but the viewer cannot move past the fence or wall, nor see past the reflective surface.
The negotiation of boundaries is such an everyday experience that they often go unquestioned. Sara Ahmed notes that, “Borders need to be threatened in order to be maintained or even to appear as borders.”1 The word “border” is often used to describe a boundary that demarcates a territory. Ahmed’s questioning of the line that only appears when violated or enforced is the subject of Park McArthur’s contribution, Leads (2016), which comprises a series of photographs of thresholds from Chisenhale Gallery that were sent to her in advance of her 2016 exhibition at the London space. The photographs document the employees’ navigation of the building, and allowed the artist to anticipate her own, while also prompting the employees and her viewers to slow down and reflect on something that ambulatory people often breeze through unthinkingly. In line with McArthur’s work, which has concerned itself with access and care, Leads turns a threshold into an object to be considered rather than breezed through—as they often are for people with mobility needs.
Both McArthur and Semo take up architectural boundaries; as do Diane Simpson, Patrica L. Boyd, Nicole Wermers, and Dionne Lee—fences, windows, thresholds, and walls, all physical boundaries that shape and demarcate space. Mildred Howard’s glass, oversized punctuation marks reference boundaries between words and phrases and turn visual symbols into material objects. Gina Osterloh attempts to trace her own shadow in the recorded performance Press and Outline (2014), but the effort proves futile—the shadow moves as she moves to chase it. This gesture reveals the limits of ascribing boundaries—they often aim to contain and limit something elusive or ephemeral.
The implications of the limits of boundaries are at once poetic and political, which is precisely where the exhibition’s strength lies. The pervasiveness and policing of boundaries—which have become increasingly politicized amongst travel bans, threats to turn the border between the United States and Mexico into a wall, and Britain’s newly drawn boundary between itself and the rest of Europe—is captured poetically in Hannah Ireland’s contribution, Carry On/Fall Out/Find Your Place Here (2017). The work comprises a series of visibly handmade mesh backpacks filled with weathered bricks—the bricks worn with age, once comprised their home but are now rubble. The hastily-made backpacks feel inadequate to support their weight or take them far. A boundary has been redrawn; the series of backpacks belongs to a migrating, uprooted community. Ireland sourced the bricks from the San Francisco’s demolished Candlestick Point, which is undergoing development into condos and shopping malls. They thus speak to a specific local case of displacement, but also to displacement at large—to what it means to be on the other side of the boundary.
- Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 87.
is the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.