One day, Jorge Galván Flores sat before a computer with his cousins who had not been home to Mexico for far too long. They were homesick, so they looked at Google street view to see how their neighborhood had changed. What they saw was unbelievable — familiar but not, and accessible with the click of a mouse (but not). When they saw an image of their aunt, fragmented and pixelated, captured and forever frozen by Google’s cameras at a bus stop beside her home, that is when Galván realized that he wanted to make an installation using Google street view.
The Trickster is a universal archetype. Most mythological pantheons have their version of a bumbling naïf or conniving fool — that god or demi-god who sets events in motion by pushing limits and crossing boundaries (both literal and metaphorical). In many Native American cosmologies, the trickster takes the form of the Coyote and in Mexican slang, consequently, “coyote” has come to mean “human smuggler,” the guide or driver who ferries or escorts undocumented immigrants across the border. A modern day, for-profit Harriet Tubman, if you will. In “Paisaje Roto / Passage Rot,” Galván the coyote hacks Google street view to bring viewers into spaces that are otherwise inaccessible (though he is by no means a naive fool, rather, he is a generous coyote, offering viewers many points of entry to project themselves into the works).
The largest piece, “Retrovisor Región 4,” provides the focus for the exhibit. This two-channel video projection depicts topiary gardens on the grounds of Versailles, on the one hand, and street topiary in the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Tampico, Xalapa, and Mexico City on the other. Topiary? Yes, topiary. Galván noticed much topiary decorating the Mexican streets he wandered on Google, decided to make that a focus of this piece, and then chose Versailles as the “highbrow” counterpoint to the lowbrow, campy, kitschy associations viewers might bring to it today. And since shaped and manicured hedges often serve as ornamental barriers, examining variations on that form in a show about “passages” could not make more sense.
On the Versailles side, the camera follows a manicured path, gazing at a vertical strip of blue sky where towering hedges come together at the vanishing point — an upright horizon. The camera moves like a robot in slow-motion warp speed — tree trunks stretch and bend as the view shoots forward ten feet, then stops. Human figures, blurred and frozen, join the viewer on this stroll. A cyclist, impossibly balanced, still, on two wheels.
The video feed “from” Mexican city streets is, of course, much more chaotic than Versailles. Galván’s avatar — the viewer, the camera — is car-mounted in this case. It shares the stilted, spastic movements of the Versailles video, but here it stops, zooms in on the blurred out license plate of a truck parked on the side of the road, then zooms out and heads off in a different direction. Here the topiary is just other type of object in a field of vision containing cars, strop lights, street signs, billboards, storefronts, and courtyard walls.
Galván’s play with Google street view continues in a series of watercolors, also of topiaries. Here, not only do the renderings of Google’s directional indicators (squares, ovals, arrows) serve as portals of entry for the viewer to project herself within, but the very fluid nature of the medium, the watercolors dissipating like vaporous clouds into the paper, the space between the flecks of pigment explode and expand the images beyond the limits of their frames.
The first images the viewer sees upon entering the gallery, however, are not so welcoming. In “Border Garden Rush,” we see one topiary tree standing in a barren landscape, outside a wall containing a lush, rich garden. “Pyramid Topiary in Fire” shows a burning home with a tree in the foreground. And “Guarda La Distancia / Guard the Distance” shows a fierce doberman pinscher, more fangs than anything else, a ruthless guard dog.
In the piece “DNQLLNP Bandera,” Galván depicts another guide of sorts, another boundary-crosser, Death, which guides souls to the afterlife. This hand-embroidered flag hangs above an altar bearing coveted “Pasaports,” which feature an image of Death above the text “DEJARTE – NO QUIERO // // LLEVARTE – NO PUEDO” which translates to “I don’t want to leave you behind, but I can’t take you with me,” and likens immigration to a type of death. (I had the pleasure of visiting Galván in his studio as he was preparing for this show, where I found a sparkly sticker bearing a similar image of Death on his shelf — providing another example of his playful blending of “high” and “low.”)
Galván’s interest in blurring distinctions between yet another arbitrary distinction, that between “high” and “low,” is made most explicit in his beautifully wrought, hand-made embroiderings of the words “Común” and “Corriente,” which come from the Spanish phrase “común y corriente,” which translates to something like “popular and faddish.” (“Común,” in this usage, means something like what snobby Brits mean when they call something “common,” and “corriente” translates literally to “current,” which could mean “modish” or a stream, like a river’s current or an electrical current.) (Going back to the videos for a moment, it is interesting that both walls bearing the projections feature an electrical outlet, a place to plug into the current, but the outlet on the wall with the Versailles video is more “manicured” than that from Mexico.)
Finally, Galván’s titles themselves, full of wordplay, offer the viewer multiple points of entry. “Paisajes,” in the title “Paisajes Rotos,” is actually a portmanteau of the words “país,” meaning “country” (nation state) and “pasajes,” which is literally “passages.” And “Pasaport” is actually more of a Spanglish bastardization than it might appear at first glance — the correct spelling of the Spanish word for “passport” is “pasaporte,” but Galván has playfully omitted the final “e” in the word. (To all this wordplay, Galván added that the “passages” in the show title could also refer to people “passing” for straight, or “passing” for documented immigrant status.)
But who knew topiary could be so fun and interesting? The first thing I think of when I think of topiary is Errol Morris’s 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. The second thing I think of is poor Edward Scissorhands. And in case you missed it, the Houston Center for Photography put on a show called “Unusual Garden” last spring which included a really cool, immersive installation by Judy Haberl composed of glow-in-the-dark photographs of the same topiary garden featured in Morris’s film. Here is the main image from that installation.
[Edit: It has been brought to my attention that the word “paisaje” is not the portmanteau I first took it to be — “paisaje” is in fact a Spanish word meaning “landscape,” and “roto” means “broken,” so, in crafting the title, Galván went for a different type of wordplay than I’d first thought. I was not a portmanteau that he made, but a “homophonic translation,” a playful mistranslation which suggests that language, too, is a barrier of sorts, in which something is lost/left behind while crossing.]