Chim↑Pom, LIBERTAD, 2017, digital C-print, 49 1/4 × 74 5/8".

Chim↑Pom, LIBERTAD, 2017, digital C-print, 49 1/4 × 74 5/8".


Chim↑Pom, LIBERTAD, 2017, digital C-print, 49 1/4 × 74 5/8".

The six artists who make up Chim↑Pom, founded in 2005, have proven to be adept navigators of the contemporary media landscape. To make the timely works in their most recent exhibition, “The other side,” they traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, on the border of the United States. On their first visit, in mid-2016, Chim↑Pom met a local family whose home directly abuts the rusting steel fence separating the two countries and proceeded to build a tree house in the pepper tree overlooking the home. They christened the structure the U.S.A Visitor Center. Then, from December 2016 to January 2017, they returned to film two actions. The first was the digging of a hole along the fence beneath the tree house, allowing the group member Ellie, who is barred from entering the US, to surreptitiously set foot on its soil underground. The second was a funeral for Libertad—the word is both the Spanish term for “liberty” and the name of the Tijuana neighborhood where the home is located—accomplished by hopping the fence and placing a cartoonish, fiberglass-reinforced plastic sculpture of a cruciform grave marker with hole and shovel in the no-man’s-land between the fence and a secondary barrier farther inside US territory.    

In Tokyo, these actions were represented primarily through videos and photographs. A raised cubic structure in the center of the gallery, U.S.A Visitor Center (Model Unit), 2017, was both a proxy for the tree house and a panoptic node for the exhibition. A lambda print of a satellite image of Colonia Libertad lined one side of its interior. Projected onto the tree house “window” was a video, shot from the corresponding viewpoint in Tijuana, of Ellie descending into the hole; another wall-size projection, viewed from the tree house’s “veranda,” showed the artists and locals festively heading off into the distance to perform the funeral intervention. This immersive installation notionally transported viewers to Tijuana, yet in both videos the main action happens off-screen or is barely distinguishable. The cubic structure itself, which rose from floor to ceiling, was also a physical impediment obscuring the rest of the gallery. Additional videos documenting the actions up close provided only fleeting glimpses of what was transpiring: Off to one side of the structure was another installation with video shot by Ellie as she went into the hole, while on the opposite side, an iPhone playing handheld footage of the funeral intervention was attached to a wall.

Through this tension between exposure and concealment, the artists hinted at a politics of the gaze that extends from border enforcement to issues such as biopolitics, public awareness of the “containment zones” around places such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, and the contradiction of a US security apparatus that demands total transparency but is oblivious to its own shortsightedness. The tree house structure assumed an invitingly domestic air in the Japanese context, but its proportions could also have been those of a detention cell. The parallel the artists established between the tunnel and the funeral encapsulates the eternal tension between liberty and constraint: Perhaps the only route to freedom runs through the few square feet of the grave. 

The exhibition was less successful, though, in elucidating the broader context of the border zone. In the back of the gallery, a documentary video, The other side, 2017, depicting Chim↑Pom’s interactions with locals, at times recalled the subtle chauvinism of Japanese TV programs in which celebrities travel to exotic countries, banking the foibles of cultural obtuseness into self-affirming laughs for the audience back home. Here Ellie is the “personality” through whom viewers engage with “the other side,” but equating her situation with that of people more desperate to enter the US trivializes the dire conditions driving them to risk their lives in illicit border crossings. Still, at a time when the world’s horizons appear to be narrowing, Chim↑Pom’s brand of gonzo journalism, independently funded and produced, challenges viewers to comprehend other people’s realities and surmount their own blind spots. 

Andrew Maerkle