Few man-made structures can be seen from the lower Earth orbit, but the Great Wall of China is one of them. The earliest parts of this artificial structure were built as early as the 7th century BC. It was maintained, repaired and added to by subsequent rulers, most importantly those of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Today it stands at a whopping 21,196 kilometres, while previously unknown sections are still being discovered.

The wall counts as a national cultural heritage site and attracts large crowds of tourists but it once was a formidable military structure. It was constructed to keep out nomadic raiders and underline the Chinese emperor’s power. But since it also functioned as a carriageway, it had great economic value and tied together far-flung parts of the country. And on an ideological level that still holds true today, the wall has shaped the image of China, within and outside the country, as a proud and protectionist state.

In 1988 Marina Abramović and Ulay walked the Chinese wall in its entirety, Abramović starting in the east and Ulay in the west. The performance piece called The Lovers was conceived many years before, but the paper wall of Chinese bureaucracy prevented its execution. In the initial plan the artists would meet in the middle after 90 days of walking and have a marriage celebration. Over the years their relationship had deteriorated, though, and it became a last goodbye. The wall that was supposed to tie them together and literally lead the way to their union became a sad symbol of their separation.

The Lovers reduces historic military and political strategy to the emotional level of personal relations. But the underlying idea is the same. Walls include or exclude and divide the world into them and us. It has been like that since mankind started building walls, some 20,000 years ago. Those were mostly fortifications of cities, with biblical Jericho being the best example, erected to protect a relatively small community of insiders. Border walls stretching across the land are of a much later date, when city-states were slowly being replaced by larger empires. The most formidable of those is, of course, the Roman Empire. In 122 AD Emperor Hadrian started building a 117,5 kilometre long stone wall to keep out the Picts. Twenty years later his successor Antoninus Pius added a turf fortification on stone foundations a few dozen kilometres north of Hadrian’s Wall. Both structures are part of what is called the Limes, a string of forts, walls and natural barriers running throughout Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Needling Whisper, Needle Country/ SMS Series in Camouflage / Are you lonely, too? C 01-01-04, 2014 / 2015 by Kyungah Ham North Korean hand embroidery, silk threads on cotton, middle man, anxiety, censorship, wooden frame, approx. 1000 hrs/ 1 person 146 x 146 cm Courtesy of the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin
The Limes were defensive structures and so much more. They delineated the area where wine was produced, rule of law was imposed, roads were constructed and a partial monetary economy was implemented. Or as Romans would say: the civilised world. This idea of identity as defined by borders has flourished in modern times and is especially palpable when those borders disintegrate through supranational measures, globalisation or war. Designer Annelys de Vet makes that abundantly clear in her series Subjective Atlases, in which she takes inventory of what really defines countries, regions and cities. Take for example the Serbia edition. One of De Vet’s co-authors says: ‘I don’t know what personal is, what I am, who I am, what Serbia is.’ The subsequent exploration shows the national identity through maps, tickets, drawings and whatnot.

Some walls are not intended to keep out barbaric hordes or unwanted immigrants but to keep people inside. The Iron Curtain is the best-known example, with the Berlin Wall as its most visible and emotionally charged symbol. In fact, the 28 years between its construction in 1961 and the moment protesters started hacking away at the wall in 1989 can be described as a national trauma for the German people. The barrier effectively divided post-Second World War Germany into a two-speed nation, the prosperous federal republic in the west and the lagging people’s republic in the communist east. The wall remains a touchy subject until today. When Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky wanted to rebuild the wall last year for his immersive theatre piece DAU Freiheit the authorities flatly refused him the necessary permits.

Subjective Atlas of Serbia, 2009, Annelys de Vet
Subjective Atlas of Serbia, 2009, Annelys de Vet
In a way both the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain still live on in people’s minds and mentalities. They have ceased to physically exist but have been internalised. And not only by humans, as Milena Bonilla shows in An Enchanted Forest (2013-2014). The video installation tells the story of a group of red reindeers living in the Bohemian Forest on the border of Germany and the Czech republic. The Iron Curtain split the nature reserve in two, creating separate herds. When the fence came down they remained that way and even years later they didn’t venture into each other’s territory.

Slightly younger than the Iron Curtain but still in place is the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on the Korean Peninsula. This 250-kilometres long and four-kilometres wide buffer zone was created in 1953 between North and South Korea. Officially the two countries are still at war. French-Tunisian artist eL Seed wants to bring them together with his work The Bridge (2017). In the midst of controversial nuclear missile tests and rigorous international sanctions eL Seed attached 43 panels of laser-cut aluminium to the chain-link border fence. They spell out the words of the poem Unable to Forget by Kim Sowol, evocating the desire to be reunited with loved ones. South Korean artist and designer Kyungah Ham goes beyond words. She sends her computer-made designs across the border to be hand embroidered by North Korean artisans resulting in psychedelic pieces with titles such as Are You Lonely Too?

This type of creative transgression also takes place at the India-Bangladesh border. For the past eight years the Indian government has been building a three-metre high fence around Bangladesh. Almost 80% of what is going to be the world’s largest border structure has been finished by now. But smugglers and illegal immigrants don’t seem bothered and keep going back and forth between the two countries that were one until 1947. During the 2015 Venice Art Biennale, Shilpa Gupta, together with Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, presented the results of years of research into the India-Bangladesh borderlands. Your East is My West aptly illustrated the madness of this division. The centrepiece was the performance in which endless lengths of cloth were drawn upon with lines symbolising the historical and cultural bonds linking both sides of the border.

John Lanchester, author of the 2019 novel The Wall, stated in an interview that ‘more than one third of all nation states have built walls at their borders. And half of the walls constructed after the Second World War date from the 21st century.’ We are living, so it seems, in the age of walls.

Borders have always been a contentious issue in the Middle East, especially where Israel is concerned. In 1948 Moshe Dayan pencilled in the so-called Green Line, the armistice border between the newly formed Jewish state and Jordan. It remained the border until the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied territories east of the line. That new frontier was fortified in 2004, prompting Mexican-Belgian artist Francis Alÿs to walk the original Green Line while dripping green paint. Since then the authorities have erected a barrier along the West Bank, measuring 708 kilometres, twice the length of the original Green Line. Israelis call it a security measure but Palestinians dub it the Apartheid Wall, isolating them in poverty. This wall – like the Berlin Wall – has attracted droves of international graffiti artists commenting on the situation. Best known is Banksy, who painted a dove wearing a bulletproof jacket and a young girl patting down a soldier. The elusive street artist also opened the Walled Off Hotel, a highly cynical undertaking with rooms that all provide scenic wall-views.

In Europe some countries are building walls to keep out immigrants and human traffickers, like Spain along the border of the Moroccan enclave of Ceuta or Hungary along its southern perimeter. But most borders of Fortress Europe consist of bureaucratic red tape rather than fences and barbed wire. Santiago Sierra is amongst the most vocal critics of the restrictive measures. For the 2003 Venice Art Biennale the Spanish artist, who in the past also paid workers to block the entrance to the inauguration of Pusan’s International Contemporary Art Festival and enlisted Iraqi refugees to serve as a human shield around London’s Lisson Gallery, bricked up the national pavilion. Only Spanish nationals could enter through the back door. All others were refused.

Sierra’s early protest got a more playful follow-up 14 years later at the same event. The fictional country NSK gave out free passports to anyone interested, but obtaining the document involved Kafkaesque procedures including climbing a slippery slope and making your way to the counter by way of a trampoline. Getting ‘freesas’ at the Tunisian pavilion was considerably easier but the message rang the same: borders hinder the free flow of humans and ideas. This idea also inspired the Aerocene collective to design lighter-than-air sculptures that travel unhindered by the need for fossil fuel or borders. The only thing missing is a small speaker bleating out the Hymn to Universal Humanity set to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the anthem of the European Union.

With Brexit in the offing border angst has made its way into the European Union itself. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is about to be reinstated, possibly rekindling religious animosity and violence. In reaction artist Suzanne Lacy asked several hundred volunteers to don yellow jackets, fly yellow kites and paddle yellow kayaks. Filmed from above they visualise the dotted line dividing the two countries but on the ground geopolitics becomes personal.

The divide most talked about recently is the US-Mexican border, which Donald Trump wants to close off with ‘a big, beautiful wall’. Trump is not the first American president to erect barriers to ward off smugglers and illegal immigrants. Parts of the border have been fortified for years already, drawing reactions from creatives from both sides. The American-Mexican collective BAW/TAF has been active since the early 1980s. In 1997, years before his trip to Israel, Francis Alÿs had an exhibition at the Tijuana-San Diego border and used his budget to travel from Tijuana to Australia, up the Pacific Rim and through Alaska, Canada, and then the United States to end in San Diego – without ever having to cross the US-Mexico border. And Javier Téllez had himself shot like a human cannonball across the border for the performance piece One Flew Over the Void (2005).

Trump’s far reaching plans for an actual concrete barrier running the full length of the border has mostly inspired parodies. Like the border wall proposal consisting of a broad elevated promenade painted pink – big and beautiful indeed – by Mexican architecture firm Estudio 3.14. Or the do-it-yourself version thought up by IKEA, the Börder Wåll, which comes complete with a five-year guarantee and hex key. Not at all ironic but deeply disturbing is the Border Cantos project by American photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican composer Guillermo Galindo. Between 2004 and 2009, Misrach documented life along the border while Galindo collected materials to construct indigenous instruments. Amongst others he made a piñata out of colourful border patrol gun shells and a Llantambores consisting of tubes used to cross the Rio Grande, pieces of barbed wire and rags tied around shoes in order to obscure footsteps. The playing of the instruments is like a cleansing ritual to ward off evil. One of the compositions is bitterly titled Cockroaches, after the derogative used by racist anti-immigration groups.

Trump’s wall is an expression of xenophobia, exclusion and nationalism. But it is countered by numerous cross-border creative co-operations. These connectors define the border not as a separation but rather as a Hegelian construction linking two opposites together in an unbreakable manner. Few make a more convincing case than artist and activist Tanya Aguiñiga. In AMBOS – Art Made By Opposite Sides – she unites communities from both Mexico and the US. The project reflects her own biography. Aguiñiga was born in Tijuana but went to school in the US, passing from one country to the next every weekday. Tellingly, ‘ambos’ in Spanish means ‘both’.

This article appeared in DAM72. Order your personal copy.
Michal Iwanowski, from the series ‘Go Home, Polish’ 2018