Tanya Aguiñiga: Extraño
On ViewVolume Gallery
November 6 – December 23, 2020
For her 2020 performance Metabolizing the Border, Tanya Aguiñiga walked along the San Diego side of the US-Mexico border, wearing hand blown-glass sculptures embedded with rusted pieces of the contentious wall. Lashed to her head with leather straps, an elaborate helmet-like apparatus held fragments in front of her eyes and ears and in her mouth. An elegant swoop of glass held a large chunk of weathered steel in front of her torso. For several minutes Aguiñiga walked along a stretch of the wall, her gait reduced to a labored shuffle over the hard ground, until the glass huarache-style sandals on her feet shattered and brought the performance to an end.
Aguiñiga is a staunch advocate for the power of interdisciplinary artmaking to facilitate the exchange of ideas about the borderlands and challenge zeitgeist narratives. Since her mentorship under Michael Schnorr of the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo—a collective formed in the 1980s to address US-Mexico relations through collaborative art and direct action—Aguiñiga’s practice has been driven by an activist impulse, intermixed with her own reverence for the rich histories of textile and craft in Mesoamerica. She’s perhaps best known for AMBOS (2015– ), “Art Made Between Opposite Sides,” an ongoing series of interventions made in collaboration with border crossing commuters, as in the work Border Quipu (2016–18), for which she invited participants at checkpoints to share personal reflections and tie symbolic knots, which she amassed into a large installation. (A quipu is an ancient Andean device that uses knotted strings to record time and track sophisticated systems like banking, contracts, and census data.)
Aguiñiga’s latest exhibition, Extraño, reveals her artworks made for the traditional gallery setting to be every bit as open to the field of social relations as her involvement in more community-oriented work. At Chicago’s Volume Gallery, ten new textile sculptures are alive with biomorphic forms, natural and synthetic fibers, and wild colors—the latter a marked departure for the artist, whose knotted and woven pieces more frequently retain their materials’ organic appearance. The spines of these works are cotton ropes, whose elegant, undulating curves are accentuated by wild tufts of flax and synthetic hair. Hanging from the walls and ceilings at human scale and eye level, they meet the viewer like a cast of otherworldly creatures, emerged from the very stuff of the earth.
In a recently premiered segment of the PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, Aguiñiga says that works such as these—made, essentially, for the market—are a way to raise funds for her more community-oriented not-for-profit projects. Extraño complicates this binary. The sculptures enter a social dimension of their own by exploring and even manifesting the ways in which craft traditions keep histories and lineages alive in place of the written record. People who live in or pass through the borderlands, including her own migrant parents, are often without ties to a single place or a knowable genealogy; in this context, craft traditions, like the knotting and weaving techniques she uses, become a way of preserving, passing down, and exchanging personal and cultural knowledge.
Aguiñiga has treated several of the pieces with the decidedly less traditional process of ice dyeing, which involves covering fibers in ice and dyes and allowing the ice to melt and distribute the pigments in mottled patterns. In the exhibition’s most striking works, like Extraño 2, Extraño 6, and Extraño 7, (all 2020) lengths of rope in vibrant purple, orange, green, and turquoise clash with tassels of yellow, royal blue, and magenta synthetic hair; these pieces have an absurdist, almost Muppet-like quality, and suggest a further social function: the simple capacity to spark joy. Other works, like Extraño 1 and Extraño 8 (both 2020), highlight the natural state of cotton and flax and call to mind—but are no less compelling than—a more recognizable fiber art idiom, in particular the works of Chicago legend Claire Zeisler.
In a moment of cataclysmic death and reinvigorated xenophobia with no real end in sight, the quiet exuberance of Aguiñiga’s art is a welcome, humorous respite. But its more important offering is the suggestion of a new language for communicating the lived experiences and material conditions of the borderlands, free from tired slogans or representational tropes.