“The events of our lives shape the lenses through which we view the past, present, and future.”
Sabine Senft’s stone towers stand guard as you enter Borderline Realities. Senft gathered these massive river rocks from the West Texas border and delicately shaped them to form a strong totem. They are portals of entry representative of the border checkpoints Senft encountered as a small child growing up in West Germany, yet they also remind us of the checkpoints closer to home at the U.S.-Mexico border. Senft juxtaposes two cultures, showing us their subtle similarities. She gives us a chance to engage the past and avoid what is most haunting: The fear of history repeating itself.
The rocks from the U.S.-Mexico border are keepers of Earth’s memories. Likewise, Senft’s childhood memories of family tragedies that occurred during the years of the Berlin Wall are an undercurrent present throughout the exhibit. The rose-patterned curtain of the piece “1989” hung in the middle of the gallery on barbed wire is like the curtains that hung in Senft’s childhood home in Germany and also references the Iron Curtain, a border that divided Europe.
Senft’s work reveals the constant dichotomy between beauty and suffering present across time. Her story blends the tale of a young German girl clutching at candy tossed from the hands of American soldiers and unfolds as a woman living in Texas collecting border remnants of lost dreams—tires, candy, and pieces of immigrants’ campsites. The projection shows the beautiful landscape morphing into a river of candy to symbolize the gifts given to West Germans by the soldiers and the sweeter life immigrants hope to find when leaving their homes. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy to “eat away at the border.” However, this candy does not come without the price of human life. If you look closely, you can see images of victims of border violence projected onto the candy. Yet natural beauty often persists even in places where there is great suffering—an irony that Senft brings to light in her representation of the grandiose natural border of Texas: the Rio Grande.
The gallery walls feature two prominent themes that subtly play with language: “Drags” and “Surges.”
“Drags” are the digital images of large tires used by border patrol. The tires are dragged to create smooth dirt to track footprints of immigrants crossing. When caught, those people are dragged back to the border.
On the east gallery wall, Senft’s “Surges” are beautiful sprays of gold leaf and discarded objects found at crossing points along the Mexican border on paper. They serve as cultural fingerprints of our time. The title refers to the surges of immigrants occurring across the globe. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes worldwide in 2015. In 1989, before the fall of Germany’s Berlin Wall, Hungary opened the Iron Curtain to Austria. In September of that year more than 13,000 people escaped East Germany in three days. Both surges, though at different time periods, are represented through Senft’s gestural strokes of paint covered in 23 karat gold leaf. The subtle yet distinct use of gold leaf on Senft’s pieces hearkens back stylistically to her years spent in Japan and Brazil and her upbringing in the baroque culture of Bavaria.
The large “Surge” installation titled “Your View Here” on raw canvas is split down the middle and held up by a large branch of the ubiquitous and beloved crepe myrtle that is native around the globe. The manmade fabric and the natural branch work in unison to provide a symbolic and historical perspective of the ideological Iron Curtain that Senft grew up with in Germany. The golden circle stands for the globe, unity and also the female: Senft’s family was completely cut off and separated from the maternal line of her family by the Iron Curtain and the Wall built after World War II. Visitors are encouraged to pull back the canvas curtain, revealing the text: “Ihr Ausblick/Your view here.” This invites the viewer to formulate his or her own perspective of Borderline Realities. Ausblick literally means “view” in German, but also the “prospect of” or the “chance of.” Perhaps this offers a chance to learn from history and avoid repeating such disastrous divisions of cultures.