images | text

"Untitled" (Passport)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres's "Untitled" (Passport #II) (1993) is an unlimited stack of booklets, each emblazoned with the image of a bird soaring through a stormy sky. The work references both a physical passport and more abstract ideas of travel and foreignness. The bird's flight, its achievement of movement and freedom, seem effortless despite the dark clouds that threaten to disrupt its passage. This passport does not designate the holder's gender, age, address, or citizenship. Instead of defining a constructed-and thus necessarily restricted-identity, it champions a more general sense of being. Rather than a governmentissued, individualized marker, this passport is a symbol of humanity and universality. Without constraints of documentation, the artist suggests, there are no limits.

Gonzalez-Torres was personally well acquainted with the difficulty of traversing borders and the beauty of expanding horizons. He was born in Cuba and lived in Puerto Rico before settling in New York in 1979. Traveling and voyages through time and space are themes that run throughout his oeuvre. "Untitled" (Passport #II) suggests a poetic space where the act of leaving one place and entering another is forever in process, where national and social identities are never fixed, but constantly coming into being.

Popular mid-20th-century conceptions of passenger airline travel as easy, sophisticated, and liberating have been gradually disrupted over the decades, and entirely shattered since the events of September 11, 2001. The passport has lost its associations with freedom and opportunity, and now carries connotations of constraint and discrimination. Instead of a portal to a welcoming new place, the airport has become a locus of restrictions and fear. Heightened security, red alerts, and terrorist threats have changed the nature of travel forever. Many national borders have become increasingly impermeable fronts, where people are kept out (or in). "Untitled" (Passport #II) expresses a desire for a world where political and ideological borders are erased and seamless travel is possible.

National borders are finite lines determined and drawn by human will. They have always been at the root of wars and caused resentful feelings of exclusion. Many of the artists in "Untitled" (Passport) seek to shift the viewer's perspective of the accepted construction of the world map by reordering existing classifications. The works presented here revolve around subjects such as national identity, trespassing, mapping, statehood, economic migration, and political and cultural alienation.

Antonio Dias's Do It Yourself: Freedom Territory (1968) alludes to a system of order that is open to interpretation. An area is marked by a white, open grid accompanied by the artwork title, with no other instructions. Instead of being constrained by restricted borders, viewers can easily traverse the delineated space and are left to draw their own conclusions.

Adriana Varejão's photograph Contingente (Contingent, 2000) shows the world on a similarly human scale. A hand appears against a watery backdrop with a red line running through it and the word equador ("equator"). On this map, the individual body becomes a continent, not just an alienated statistic, proposing that we are responsible for the reality that we create. Hank Willis Thomas's installation A Place to Call Home (Africa-America) (2009) is also a customized map speaking to the topic of individual identity. It imagines a new continental configuration in which Africa and America are joined as AfricaAmerica, thereby proposing a possible different history of the African diaspora.

Jorge Macchi's Seascape (2006) is a traditional seascape with complicated associations. To make it the artist took scissors and paint to a paper world map. He removed the entire northern hemisphere, and painted over everything below the equator with a watery blue. America and Europe have long been perceived as lands of opportunity for those immigrating from the south. By showing the south as the open sea, and the north as the infinite and empty sky, Macchi evokes the often-perilous and unrewarding journey from the lower hemisphere to the upper. Joaquín Torres García's map América Invertida (Inverted America, 1943) also challenges the dominant geographical paradigm, by rotating South America 180 degrees. In this utopian vision, South America becomes the land of opportunity that people are desperately trying to reach, as symbolized by the sailing ship. Kirsten Pieroth 's Weltkarte (Map of the World, 2003) is par t of a series in which the artist cut up maps to isolate the nations and then reordered the countries according to her own system of classification, in this case by size. Mona Hatoum also creates through weaving maps that accurately mir ror the world map, although her focus is less on na tional political borders and more on physical landmasses. In the sumptu ous carpets Baluchi (multicolored) (2008) and Afghan (black and red) (2009), Hatoum presents world maps via a process of apparent material removal; the continents are negative spaces in the richly complex pat tern. Hatoum's rugs are not based on the commonly accepted Mercator map but rather on the Peter 's Projection map, created in 1973, which shows actual scaled representations of the landmasses. Through weav ing, a feat of human handiwork, Hatoum reflects that even geogra phy is subject to revision by human will. Simon Evans's drawing Post World (2008) looks at the Ear th from above, envisioning a time when humans have left the planet and are gazing back at it from their new home. In contrast, Kutluğ Ataman's video installation Su (Water, 2009) imposes the human hand on the untamable. The beautiful rippling waters of the Bosphor us Strait are obscured by glaring sunlight hitting the water.

In Claudia Andujar's photographic series Marcados (Marked, 1981-83), the artist suggests the possibility of stripping human subjects of their identities. Andujar spent time photographing the Yanomami Indians of Roraima in Brazil between 1981 and 1983. Since this indigenous group of people does not speak Portuguese, Andujar chose a 19th-century identification method to mark her 85 subjects and hung necklaces with numbers around their necks. These haunting portraits envision a world where people are denied names and nationalities, becoming nothing more than anonymous ID numbers. In contrast, Sue Williamson's For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (1990) explores how identity can be read through nationality. Under apartheid laws, every black South African was required to carry at all times a passbook containing an identification photograph and pertinent personal information, including his or her employment status. This item became literally the closest thing to one man's heart throughout his life, as it rested in his interior jacket pocket. Williamson creates a portrait of him through photographs of the pages of the passbook. The records stand in for his "real" identity. Baha Boukhari's work My Father's Palestinian Nationality (2007) presents a collection of the artist's father's identification documents. Despite his important standing as an internationally renowned architect, these documents were required for him to move freely through his own country and the world. One is a British Mandate for Palestine passport. These passports were issued by the High Commissioner for Palestine between 1924 and 1948, then became obsolete once the British Mandate ended. To the Palestinians who held them, they were treasured markers of national identity. Also presented is a Government of Palestine identification card that was meant to reside in one's pocket at all times. Dor Guez's installation Scanograms #2 (2009-11) investigates and questions his own Palestinian family's ethnic identity by presenting scans of their passports with narrative descriptions in Arabic. Rula Halawani's series Intimacy (2004) also explores nationality and control. Over the course of nine black-and-white photographs the artist looks at the Qalandia checkpoint, through which Palestinians must pass to travel between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Halawani trains her camera on the intimate and tense moments when Palestinians must show their documents to Israelis to gain safe passage.

Colter Jacobsen's new commission reconstitutes from memory, in detailed graphite drawings, a spread from Gonzalez-Torres's "Untitled" (Passport #II) showing soaring gulls and stormy skies. Adjacent is another drawing of the same images, which the artist drew based on the actual pamphlet. Jacobsen adds handwritten lines to the artwork, including James Schuyler's poem "To Jorge in Sickness," which evokes the loss and freedom that comes with flight: "On the shadows of gulls / sliding silently on the sand as love / goes from us like a bird-shadow, or a desire for flight." Lara Favaretto's work deals with the opposite idea: the forgotten. Anonymous suitcases from her Lost & Found series (ongoing since 2005) evoke the hysteria caused by abandoned personal belongings in our new age of heightened security. Favaretto started this project when she began to attend "lost and found" auctions in which the Italian railway system sold abandoned goods. She purchases the suitcases and re-presents them in entirely new contexts, even creating new scenarios for them by filling them with personal belongings and archiving their contents. In this work, she takes the anonymous and makes it personal; instead of bombs, these vessels are full of stories.

Claire Fontaine's neon lights declare in Albanian, Armenian, German, Kurdish, and Turkish that there are Foreigners Everywhere (2010). The phrase, a direct response to the hysteria of our post-9/11 world, is also a statement of the obvious: We are all foreigners. Rivane Neuenschwander, in At a Certain Distance (Public Barriers) (2010), abstracts the forms of public barriers into an aesthetically beautiful installation that explores free movement and obstruction as metaphors. Jorge Pedro Nuñez's Electric Tatlin (2011) uses three books related to Venezuelan subjects: Banco Central de Venezuela (whose title we read on the spine of the book, which is visible in the piece), Pueblos, and Venezuela: Los llanos. The books function as supports for cables that are typically used in electric security systems. The work is an allegory of Venezuelan reality, specifically how its materialistic orientation contrasts with the violence of daily life. The security cable system is seen all over Caracas, dividing public and private buildings, altering public spaces, and imposing a prison aesthetic into everyday life. The work also makes reference to Vladimir Tatlin's Corner Counter-Relief (1914). Meriç Algün Ringborg's The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009-11) puts the whole world in the viewer's hands. The bound book is anything but concise, as it is filled with visa applications for every country in existence. Flipping through the book, it is impossible not to consider the ideal of the citizen of the world, and whether in fact such a thing is conceivable any longer in a world so entirely obsessed with borders and regulations.

- j h/a p