Merely entering through the billowing black curtain fronting Rolando López’s Summer 2017 Artpace International Artist-In-Residence exhibition Dark After Art is daunting, even frightening, as the room inside appears pitch black. Only a single votive candle on the floor at the far back wall provides scant illumination, all external light sources having been blocked off. A tiny black dot on the wall just above the candle beckons intrepid visitors to make the uncertain, potentially treacherous walk through 40 feet of complete darkness. A mere crack in the floor could mean tripping and falling. The question of safety arises – Don’t we have standards for this sort of thing? Is viewing art supposed to be dangerous?
Like poetry, philosophy, or the Hubble telescope, contemporary art can at times seem far too disconnected from current events to seem relevant. However, artists tend to be thoughtful people, citizens of the world aware of the issues and ideas that preoccupy the rest of us. These connections are not always readily apparent, but sometimes events conspire to illuminate the deeper currents underlying our day-to-day lives.
The morning of Sunday, July 23, greeted San Antonio with horrific news, that migrants trapped inside a tractor-trailer had suffered and died in the Texas summer heat. As reported in the Rivard Report, many were from Aguascalientes in central Mexico, location of the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana – a foundry in the state capital – and López’s hometown.
In daring anyone to make the journey through his orchestrated abyss, López invites us to consider journeys made from unstable but familiar landscapes, through treacherous uncertainties, towards hostile territory, with only the small hope of a brighter future illuminating the way. The effect of López’s method is visceral, and given recent events, I could not help but relate this darkness to the darknesses – literal and metaphorical – inside that trailer found in the parking lot of a mega-retailer that imports most of its goods from outside our borders.
The 1920s-era foundry and surrounding metallurgical mines preoccupy López and animate his art, some of which is made from the toxic waste the industries left behind. In a statement accompanying the exhibition, López calls the foundry and its aftermath “A small story from a small town: The world suffers from the arrogance of man, which grows with the desire for development and progress that modernity demands.” Through uncanny shifts and with aching subtlety, López draws connections between colonialist industry and the current economic situation that renders fellow human beings as “illegals” to be neglected, mistreated, left to die in the back of an amoral smuggler’s truck.
Perhaps the strangest facet of López’s project are the beams of light he captures, reflected as sunlight off the surface of “rocks” of industrial waste from his home territory. Mining is notorious for its toxic byproducts, as evidenced in efforts to stop potential damage to tracts of wilderness and water supplies (most recently against the Gogebic Taconite mining company in my home state of Wisconsin, or the Poteet fracking sand mine just south of San Antonio, for example). But López creates his own eerily beautiful byproduct, which resemble x-rays, aurora borealis, or shimmering mist. Some of these imprints are collected on another exhibition takeaway, a large-format newsprint foldout.
There could hardly be a more ungenerous exhibition, I first thought as I left López’s installation. Nothing to see but a dark interior and a tiny fly. But later I realized that such a challenge to my immediate comfort was not ungenerous, but a suggestion that darkness itself can be made to illuminate, as in Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller’s cry of the heart for compassionate action on behalf of suffering migrants: “If there is something, anything I can do as your shepherd, please tell me. We need to break the silence.” Through his own powerfully ambivalent gestures, López exposes a silent darkness at the heart of the migrant issue, and allows us a visceral and necessary glimpse into the experiences of others.