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Features / May 22, 2014

Chicago Show Highlights Canadian Artist’s Cross-Border Trek

As costs mounted exponentially for an exhibit they were collaborating on, Chicago curator and professor Rhoda Rosen and University of Illinois at Chicago museum and exhibition studies master’s students Nancy Harmon and Jamie Luensman discussed ways to stretch their budget. They joked, Harmon recalls, that it would be cheaper to go to Montreal and pick up Andreas Rutkauskas’s photographs themselves than to hire shippers. “Jamie and I started looking at each other, and we were like, ‘We’d love to go and get it. Is that really an option?’” she says.

It was, it turned out, an option, and Rutkauskas was on board. “It is not the typical method of transportation. Usually my work is handled by an art shipper, or is put in a crate and sent to its destination as freight,” he says. But Rutkauskas enjoys the “poetry of the action,” which he may consider for future shows. “The back seat of a rental car is a far less hostile place than a cargo truck,” he says.

That Rutkauskas’s photographs address the “cutlines” carved in forests on the US-Canada border to make the boundary more visible further amplified the significance of the works’ physical journey. “I wish that I could say that students transporting my works across the border was a conceptual decision, perhaps making a comment on smuggling, but it was purely a financial consideration,” Rutkauskas says.

The connection wasn’t lost on Harmon, who says that she and Luensman hit some hiccups on the drive from Chicago to Montreal, which took them 15 hours. “It was so ironic, because we were doing an exhibit about borders and nation states, and it occurred to us about five miles before the Canadian border that … Oh my gosh, we are literally going internationally here, so we had to turn off our cell phones. And we didn’t have any maps,” Harmon says. “We missed a couple of highways in Toronto, which cost us about an hour and a half.”

But the rental car, two nights of Montreal hotels, and the nearly four weeks it took to secure the necessary paperwork—which both US and Canadian officials had to sign—saved the gallery about 75 per cent of what Harmon says professional shippers quoted: in the several thousands of US dollars.

The enormity of the responsibility, and the privilege, hit Harmon at the border, she says, when an official inspected the cargo. “He was just looking at this giant crate, and these two really tired-looking college girls, and he was like, ‘What on earth do you have in there?’” she says. “We were sweating and just so nervous, and we were like, why are we nervous? We have all of our ducks in a row.”

Harmon got involved in the exhibition “Encounters at the Edge of the Forest,” which is on view at UIC’s Gallery 400 until June 14, as part of an exhibition practices class of Rosen’s. Students were given the option of curating their own show or collaborating with Rosen on a show. Half a dozen of Rutkauskas’s photographs appear in the exhibition, which also features Jennifer Scott’s works on the lynching of African Americans, Ariane Littman’s pieces about contested olive trees in Israel and Palestine, and David Goldblatt’s photos relating to South African apartheid.

Rutkauskas conceived of his photographs, which present stunningly beautiful landscapes scarred by border gashes, in 2010 when a guest curator at Lennoxville’s Foreman Art Gallery invited him to photograph the border towns of Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont.

At first, Rutkauskas photographed the town centre’s distinct architecture. “There is a library and opera house in Stanstead, built directly on the border. A patron from Canada must enter through the doorway in Vermont, and then proceed back across the divide into Canada, where the collection is housed,” he says. “I felt, however, that it was difficult to get beyond the quirkiness of these sites, and also that the border was quite ambiguous within the town.”

Instead, he moved to Stanstead’s outskirts, where he knew from archival photographs that there were cutlines. “What I immediately enjoyed about walking along the cutline was that the demarcation was so visible. You knew exactly when you crossed the border, which sounds simple, but it is often not the case when driving, flying, or arriving by boat in the neighbouring country,” he says. And the blatant demarcation and striking similarity between the landscapes on both sides of the border struck him as a good metaphor for Canadian-US border politics.

“This border, especially since September 11th, 2001, is severe and restricted, yet is simultaneously absurd, and impossible to fully control,” he says.

The Canadian-US border, to Rutkauskas, is unlike the US-Mexican border, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and the Green Line in Israel insofar as the border between Canada and the US “takes on a certain innocent and bucolic character when juxtaposed with these heavily militarized borders.”

But at the same time, Rutkauskas notes, the Canada-US border has its own, very definite, gravitas, as “the clearing of massive amounts of forest along the 8,800 kilometres of the world’s longest undefended land boundary is a significant gesture.”

Along the US-Canada border, Rutkauskas knows that drones, helicopters, infrared cameras, and sensors are keeping close watch. “The RCMP and US border patrol know exactly where I am while I continue my project,” he says.

Writing in the exhibition catalog, Rosen notes that members of the same family who had lived on opposite sides of the border before 9/11 often didn’t feel deep border divisions. “But with increased US border protection [after 9/11], individuals and families are forced to negotiate around fences and a growing number of border security police,” she writes. “The cutline creates a visible border on what would otherwise be an invisible division.”

Rutkauskas’s photos at UIC are all the more compelling, because the division—although it has been made visible—is easy to read at first as a ski path (in the snow scenes) or a natural trail (in the spring and summer views). Paths, after all, are cut through the woods for many reasons. The process of delving into the deeper significance of the ones that Rutkauskas photographed—whether viewed from a rental car transporting the works across the border, or in the gallery space—only enhances the symbolism in the landscapes.

Menachem Wecker is co-author, with Brandon Withrow, of Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education, forthcoming from Cascade Books.