In the middle of a hollow just coming to life with the vermillion lace of spring, we entered the museum. A stunning building that sits on water – a squared off circle of a footprint hovering above a damned up stream, Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, is that perfect museum that can be encountered fully in half a day. Not so much as to exhaust, but enough to satiate and nurture.
There were fastidious oil paintings painted in Brazil in the early 1800s of birds and their nests. There was a stunning wave that invited me into the frame, to subsume my sorrows and baptize my aching heart. A Whistler woman all in black, vertical against a black background, her velvet dress and pale skin glowing. Many rooms over, another woman, this one in a cream colored dress on a white background, lying down with her black pumps pointing upward, as though she’d collapsed onto the horizontal frame. Sisters more than a century apart, one upright and the other sideways.
After the tour of the permanent collection, the invitation to continue to the singular special exhibit, Border Cantos with photographs by Richard Misrach and instruments created from objects found on the U.S./Mexican border by composer Guillermo Galindo. In the three rooms of this exhibit: sorrow, shame, horror. Immense photographs of gaping beauty – the desert rising from the Pacific to the mountains, an unforgiving expanse of hope and despair, dotted with an improbable and absurdly fractured wall. At times the wall is tall and insurmountable. At times it is a series of x’es that resemble the barriers created by the Germans on the Normandy beaches. Other times it is a riddle from a fairy tale – a single panel of metal standing in the middle of the arid spectacle, a ridiculous gesture to nothing.
Heartbreaking and mysterious effigies created out of agave stalks and old clothes. A blue plastic barrel marked “agua” that humanitarian groups placed and filled, only to have border police shoot holes in it. And in the last room, a backpack that the photographer found in the desert filled with a pair of yellow boxer briefs with cartoon characters, a bottle of cologne, a tube of hair gel, a bag of chips. It’s what my 13-year old son might take if we had to leave home in the middle of the night. Just around the corner from this, human-shaped targets riddled with bullet holes.
I was at once deeply shaken and thankful. That this exhibit was being shown at all, much less in a state that went 61% for Trump, seemed amazing. How could these photos and objects not change people’s minds about the absurdity and human damage of extending a wall? I wondered about the so-called founder of the museum, Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and Helen, second wealthiest woman in America.
I’ve carefully avoided Walmart. The first time I was ever in one was about 7 years ago during a family vacation to Wisconsin when the weather turned cool and the kids needed sweatshirts, and I think I’ve been in perhaps one other since then. The art, the beauty of the building and its thoughtful setting, the free admission, and especially the final exhibit all made me willing to reconsider Walmart and to wonder about Alice. So, standing outside of the exhibit, I looked her up on Wikipedia.
Complicated doesn’t begin to describe Alice Walton: Twice divorced – the second to her swimming pool contractor, she shows horses and famously bids on art at high-level auctions by phone from horseback, contributor to Republican candidates and conservative lobbying groups, she’s had several DUI charges and hit a pedestrian and killed her. And though she founded the museum, some detractors argue that most of the money for it actually came from the Walton family foundation, to which she doesn’t directly contribute.
My stomach roiled when I read about the pedestrian. And yet I can’t deny that the art nourished me. Certainly these artists didn’t ask to have their work purchased by this person and to be brought to this particular wooded gulley in northwestern Arkansas. The boy who once owned and wore that backpack could never dream – if he’s even still alive – that it’s currently displayed in a museum whose founder gives sizable sums to the exact people hell bent on keeping him out of this country. And yet that backpack and its haunting presence is a breathtakingly human gesture, a reminder of how obscene it is to believe in borders. Its voice, mixed with that of Alice Walton’s, sings a hymn to what a truly bizarre age this is, one beyond reason, where human stories of life and death mingle in very unexpected ways.