The 2012 University of Washington MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery includes two works by Rodrigo Valenzuela, a Chilean-born/raised artist and teacher who entered the US illegally around the middle of the '00s. Valenzuela is now a US resident. He is now familiar with a language, English, that was mostly strange to him only seven years ago. He now thinks a lot about the complexities of human memory and the realities of being what I like to call an inhabitant—the subject of an economic world system that has reduced the state to two functions: one, protecting property rights, the movement of goods, and financial investments; and two, regulating and policing the populations at the bottom of the human pyramid.
What defines the inhabitant? They are often sans-papiers (without papers), almost always economic refugees, and ultimately hustlers rather than workers. The worker's ideal is a lifetime of employment in one company or institution. He/she expects to form a union with other workers, expects to buy a house and save money, and expects to leave a long career with a pension. The inhabitant has no such expectations. He/she simply hustles, making a living by juggling several things—cleaning floors, digging holes, selling pirated DVDs, climbing trees, loading trucks, dancing on the streets—at once. The inhabitant is the true entrepreneur. He/she must learn a lot of things (new languages, cultural information, job skills) with no support from institutions or the state.
One part of Valenzuela's MFA thesis deals with a particular class of US inhabitants—male Mexicans who entered the country illegally and now spend their days waiting for any kind of work to come their way. This thesis is called Diamond Box. It's a black-and-white video of Mexican men who were hired not to work on a yard or lift boxes onto a truck but to tell their stories and be filmed hanging out in hotel rooms and other anonymous spaces. Their stories, which invariably describe the dangers/horrors of crossing the border and the relentless difficulties of living in a society with no rights and little idea of what the future holds (making enough money, falling sick with no health insurance, getting arrested and deported) are, of course, bleak. The men sit and look at the camera or sit and look at each other with the stunned curiosity of a person who has been unexpectedly displaced from the constant storms and stresses of the real world. This sudden peace seems so strange to them. It appears as if—and I think this is the source of the work's greatness—in the real world, there's too much rush and panic to take a break and really notice or recognize the other people (their bodies, skin, eyes, noses, hair, feet) you work and struggle with.
Let's turn to the second part of his thesis, The Builder. These are black-and-white photographs of decaying, deserted structures in desiccated, desolate landscapes. Once, while driving from Yakima to Ellensburg, I passed a landscape that's much like the ones in these images (four in all). It was hilly, harsh, and sparsely vegetated. Occasionally, a military installation would appear in the distance. Occasionally, military trucks would approach and pass. Occasionally, there was no other car for miles around. And as the road rose and fell, I felt the need to have sex, the need to negate this lifeless landscape with the flows and discharges of sexual desire. Landscapes always do this to us. They make us want to do something to them: to connect with them, to lose ourselves in them, to change them.
The landscapes in The Builder series appear to be real. They are instead fusions of different landscapes: These are the hills, bushes, structures, skies of Eastern Washington, Chile, Peru, and other places Valenzuela has visited. But the fact of the matter is this: A photograph of, say, a part of the landscape between Yakima and Ellensburg would be much further from the truth than the ones Valenzuela fabricated for his thesis. We never see just one thing (that is the illusion), we see many things at once (the actual).
I borrow this from Richard Dawkins: A computer is a serial processor that creates, by means of speed, the illusion of doing a number of tasks simultaneously. The human mind is the very opposite: It creates the illusion of seriality (moment by moment) by collapsing simultaneous chronological and spatial processes. We experience everything, the living layers (landscape after landscape) of the past, as one neat moment in the present.