Trump’s Border-Wall Prototypes: A Kind of National Monument to American Nativism

Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Yesica Uvina

Artist Christoph Büchel has created an online petition to declare Donald Trump’s eight border-wall prototypes — now standing in California — a permanent national monument. This is brilliant. When I read the proposal I was struck with the thunder of what Emerson called “alienated majesty” — that feeling of seeing one’s own rejected thoughts in another person’s idea. These beige, pale, terra-cotta and desert-colored slabs have a very specific presence; they exist as a nullity that designates, enforces, and arcs out at all of us.

The pictures of the prototypes have been widespread and are the subject of numerous articles. Each prototype is monolithic, corporate, severe. Made of combinations of reinforced steel, concrete, metal bars and rods, or barbed wire, all look to be a couple of feet thick, and are around 30 feet high, 30 feet wide, and are separated from one another by about that distance. They are arranged in a row on a barren patch of borderland, only feet from Tijuana, with the already-existing fence in sight. The structures were built by six different companies, none of them major firms; one is affiliated with an Israeli defense contractor. The Department of Homeland Security has allocated around $20 million to build and study them.

The rules are telling for the construction of the prototypes for what Trump calls “a great, great wall on our southern border” that Mexico will pay for. All exposed hardware must be on the American side of the wall to protect it from Mexican tampering; the wall must extend at least six feet beneath the ground to prohibit tunneling; the wall shall be built to prevent scaling even with climbing aids and must be able to withstand a half-hour of attack by “sledgehammer, car jack, pick ax, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch or other similar hand-held tools.” (Not 45 minutes? Not dynamite? Not a tunnel seven feet below the wall? Not a lightweight, portable, 31-foot aluminum extension ladder?) It is stated that the U.S. side should be “aesthetically pleasing in color … to be consistent with the general surrounding environment.” The walls look like generic prison, industrial, and institutional architecture. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne aptly describes them as reflecting “medieval construction, marketing and promotion … and the new nativism rolled uncomfortably if somehow inevitably into one.”

Büchel’s proposal is straightforward. It begins, “President Trump proposed the continuous border wall between Mexico and the United States as a centerpiece of his 2016 election campaign.” Büchel claims that as they now exist in this place in this configuration, the prototypes “have significant cultural value” worthy of being designated a monument. This act of redefinition echoes the aesthetic-conceptual strategies employed by Marcel Duchamp, who in the early 20th century designated already-existing objects as art (urinal, bicycle wheel, snow shovel, etc.). Büchel’s petition does something similar. He pulls back the curtains on several pressing ideas at once — ideas that deserve to be taken seriously, not dismissed as simple provocation or the disrespectful sanitation of a serious situation. On the contrary: Büchel’s proposal allows us to see through layers of flimflam, illusion, posturing, and political theater, while also revealing a dark side of one of art’s most respected recent art movements.

Even before reading Büchel’s proposal, I could see that these eight looming prototypes looked exactly like minimalistic works of sculpture and environmental interventions made by artists like Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Maya Lin, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, Donald Judd, James Turrell, Michael Heizer, Tony Smith, and many others. This art, as with these prototypes, was often critically site specific and had everything to do with exactly where they were placed and exactly what materials were employed — namely steel, concrete, mesh, and barbed wire — industrial, utilitarian, corporate materials arranged in repeating patterns, laid out in ordered, geometric, logical configurations that demarcated territory, claimed space. The art was often on federal or state land, and executing it could involve vast bureaucracies, including government officials, land permits, bankers, ranchers, technicians, suppliers, law enforcement, and enormous amounts of money. These earthworks — like these prototypes — were done on a massive scale in panoramic landscapes, often in the deserts of the West.

Trump’s eight prototypes fit the visual trope to a haunting tee and call to mind that under Mussolini and Hitler, fascist architects appropriated the look, materials, and visual languages of classical architecture in order to create new gigantic, intimidating structures —stadiums, government buildings, monuments, and marching grounds that could contain half a million soldiers. These eight prototypes show the American right wing colonizing what were once radical, left-wing, and avant-garde ideas in order to re-radicalize them — while the left has been tasked with trying to maintain order and enforce existent rules.

On top of all that, Trump’s prototypes — especially when viewed in light of Büchel’s proposal — make you see something that’s always been there in minimalism but that we’ve always turned away from, flinched at, denied, or still deny. This ism is still one of the most revered in institutions, galleries, academia, and by the market. And I love it a lot, too; it changed my life. But while none of the artists making this work may have meant it this way, there’s still no way not to see much of their aesthetic tenets and foundational ideas as verging on the absolute, macho, authoritarian, faceless, banal, isolated, or aloof, technological, totalizing, theatrical, and colonizing — works that involved forceful industrial rearrangements of the landscape via grandiosity and hubris. The even darker Freudian sides of control, emasculation, the fetishizing of phallic power, and the proximity to something almost fascistic is here, as well. Indeed, De Maria made a swastika made of shiny metal troughs; Frank Stella named a work Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes You Free,” the slogan over the gates of Auschwitz); Morris created cages and famously posed shirtless wearing a Nazi helmet; Judd said he was interested in “plain power”; Dan Flavin even referred to an erection when using the phrase “diagonal of personal ecstasy” to describe one of his fluorescent-light sculptures.

Apologists often claimed these works were aesthetically charged and radical but were nevertheless still “neutral.” But in her incredibly prescient 1990 essay “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” critic Anna Chave took issue with these tendencies as “domineering, sometimes brutal … display(s) of power.” In these assertive blank works she saw “talisman[s] against castration and impotence, a symbolic surrogate for the female body’s absent penis.”

Which fittingly brings us back to Trump. As with much minimalism, these prototypes are hard-edged geometry and impervious materials brought into the American landscape of the West and arranged to impose order, inspire awe, and try to manage and align mystic political forces — and to make something that while instantly obsolete, like some useless Stalin Gulag project, meant to last forever. Trump has made something that evokes a real monument — one that may correctly be said to stand for everything he believes in. And I think mustn’t be forgotten. The structures represent a menacing presence that imparts brutal cruelty, fear, contempt, and coldhearted malice — something nihilistic and destructive that doesn’t believe in the substance of the American creed but only in the appearance of being cocksure, in theatricality, and manipulative statecraft.

Büchel’s proposal made me see glimmers of hope in the hopelessness. In imagining these prototypes as a true monument — one that would endure for generations, and looking in the desert almost like they already had — I glimpsed a time after Trump, a time when his nativist policies have been overturned, rounding up family members for deportation ceased, and all other signs of his visitation on America removed and gone. I saw a day when this administration is gone, America is recovering, having not broken into several countries — a time when these eight walls will be the only thing left of his memory. From that vantage, these prototypes will be a perfect memorial to how close the United States came to giving in to the ghosts of racism, xenophobia, nativism, white nationalism, mediocrity, and a cosmic fear of the other. And this Trumpian monument will stand for this last gasp of the mythical infatuation with race. They will stand as a reminder of how D.H. Lawrence saw America reflected in Moby-Dick: “A mad ship, under a mad captain, in a mad, fanatic’s hunt” afraid of its “white abstract end.”

The Border Wall Is a National Monument to Trump’s Nativism