Trying to label the border wall prototypes as Land Art (and Trump and the American people as engaged in a collaborative artwork) artist Christop

Earlier this week the Washington Post delightfully skewered the New York Times for a particularly ill-advised headline whose problems the Times‘s own subsequent reporting on the same topic brought to light. The Post‘s Eric Wempel distilled a problem that pervades a lot of contemporary reporting: “those words may be technically accurate — while at the same time being terribly incomplete.”

Ground views of different Border Wall Prototypes as they take shape during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry
Ground views of different Border Wall Prototypes as they take shape during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry © Mani Albrecht via US Customs and Border Protection/Flickr

Yesterday the Times extended its peculiar headline choices into the art world, with another piece whose incomplete framing hid some serious problems. The paper published Michael Walker’s “Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?,” a clickbait headline for a piece about Swiss-Icelandic conceptual artist Christoph Büchel’s “nonprofit” MAGA which has created an online petition to have the prototypes for Trump’s border wall declared National Monuments. This aligns with a broader effort by Büchel/MAGA to frame the models as Land Art: since December 2018 they’ve been offering onsite tours of the prototypes, which a press release claimed “have significant cultural value.”  Value, of course, is not the same as meaning. The broad-strokes inferences of a facile transference of historical meaning into cultural value are obviously both political and artistic; in both contexts their implications are pretty toxic.

Politically, with its arch tone and conceptual trappings, Büchel’s project normalizes and sanitizes the man stoking tensions about nuclear war via Twitter (it’s reminiscent of Jimmy Fallon petting his hair) and actively threatening the livelihoods and futures of DACA recipients while undermining the US’s longstanding diplomatic relationship with Mexico (also: undermining all Mexicans as human beings). 


Still, there are some instructive dialogues being had about the actual meaning of landmark status and what it would mean to have these types of objects officially considered as works of art. Artist Damien Davis, an alum of the Art & Law Program, points to some real risks and specific concerns about calling for special preservation status for the prototypes as artworks somehow authored by the President. He told me that:

As an aesthetic experience, I think [the prototypes] are really impactful, and there is no denying that they will always have historical significance. Also, a retroactive declaration that the works are “artworks” by someone other than the creative force behind it may have some serious implications on other forms of work that have a creative component to it, like making a cake [this in reference to Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of the baker who denied a gay couple a wedding cake on religious grounds]. Declaring it an artistic statement by Trump is the real sticking point for me, one that I think could have dangerous implications.

In a way not dissimilar to Trump, Büchel has a long history of prodding sacred cows for attention and effect. This may constitute no more grave an offense than being a generally boring and unsavory way of going about things; in this instance perhaps it’s touched a little too closely on a space where lives are at stake.