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The Disruptive Architecture of Border Walls

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The Disruptive Architecture of Border Walls


I Am Warning You (GOST, 2021) presents the Polish artist Rafał Milach’s recent photographs of three international border walls: the American-Mexican, Hungarian-Serbian-Croatian, and Berlin walls. Milach’s sharply observed, perceptive images raise questions about how the physical presence and functions of border walls impact our sense of identity and memory. After photographing his native former Eastern Bloc region for nearly a decade, “I wanted to change the location to stress that state propaganda is not a geography-related issue,” the artist writes in a recent email to Hyperallergic. “We are all involved in some sort of propaganda, whether we are aware of it or not.”

Rafał Milach, “Mexico, Mexicali 11.2019 Construction of the new border wall between US and Mexico. On February 23rd 2018, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office published The Final Report on Border Wall Mockup and Prototype Test. It presents, amongst other, various breaching and scaling tests of the eight future border wall prototypes proposed by Homeland Security in response to Donald Trump’s Executive Order #13767. The prototypes were nothing else, but a demonstration of power. They were not integrated into the new structure of the border wall that had been gradually replacing the old recycled Vietnam War helicopter landing panels. The project reflects upon the design of geographical and political division. It is dedicated to architecture of control and its impact on local landscape and urban structures.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)

Milach says he’s drawn to border architecture because it’s a physical embodiment of the state’s control apparatus. Still, what’s most striking about his “#13767” US-Mexico series are the unsanctioned ways that regular people negotiate the border fence in their daily lives. In one photo, a group of men sit along the base of the fence, where a low-lying pipe, patched umbrella, and shady mesquite tree turn the site into an impromptu gathering place. In another photo, Milach captures a humble, handmade dwelling located mere feet from the massive fence. Though the photo doesn’t show any human inhabitants, a small collared dog peeking sheepishly from the far side of the home is an undeniable sign of domestic life. These quiet moments contrast pointedly with closer snaps shot with a harsh, flattening flash, where Milach shows pieces of adult and children’s clothing pierced and impaled by the jagged curls of barbed wire on top of the wall. 

Rafał Milach, “HUNGARY. Matty 10.2019 Croatian-Hungarian border at the nature reserve.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)

While Milach’s US-Mexico pictures capture the tenacious coexistence and violent confrontations between people and fence, his photos of the Hungarian-Serbian-Croatian border are more about a void. Also titled “I Am Warning You,” this series alternates between sweeping views of idyllic forests and farmlands surrounding the border fence and detailed shots of drones, cameras, and other surveillance equipment. The only humans on view are cropped in uncomfortable close ups of soldiers’ clasped hands and shaved heads. Though the 500-kilometer fence was built in 2015 to block the entry of immigrants, Milach notably refuses to depict them. Instead, his focus stays fixed on the disruptive architecture and clunky mechanisms in place to stop their movement. 

Rafał Milach, “Germany. Berlin 10.2019 Piece of the Berlin Wall acquired at the Mauerpark flea market at former death strip. Price: 3 euro.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)

More than three decades after the fall of the Berlin wall, concrete chunks of the barrier are still available for purchase in flea markets, antique shops, and online. Milach’s series “Death Strip” plasters photos of these rock-like remnants over pictures taken around modern-day Berlin. Though different, the two types of images sometimes share an interplay of visual qualities, colors, and textures. But mostly, Milach’s pairings seem to be about replicating the phenomenon of memory itself, where something from the past literally interrupts and obscures the present moment, sometimes so much that its influence feels stronger and even more physical than our current reality. Together, Milach’s pictures of the Berlin Wall in pieces mark a moment of change. “It’s good to remember that all the walls eventually fall and we as citizens, artists, storytellers can contribute to this process,” Milach affirms. 

Rafał Milach, “USA, Clalexico, 11.2019 Shopping mall parking lot by the Mexican-U.S. border wall.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)
Rafał Milach, “HUNGARY. Gara 10.2019 Border fence at between Hungary and Serbia.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)
Rafał Milach, “Germany. Berlin 10.2019 part of border infrastructure , checkpoint Bravo.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)
Rafał Milach, “Germany. Berlin 10.2019 remains of the wall at Bernauer Strasse , Berlin wall memorial.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)
Rafał Milach, “HUNGARY. Veszprem. 10.2019 International Border Guard training organized by Hungarian police and military forces. Presentation day included such elements of trainig such as pacification of riots in refugee camp, patroling the border fence or capturing migrants. The training was accompaigned by the ehibition of surveillance and military equipement used at the border areas.” (© Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos)

Rafal Milach: I Am Warning You is available online through GOST Books.


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