On Thursday, July 31, Neil Bernstein’s construction, “Golden Gates Bridge Over Troubled Borders,” was horrifically vandalized. The 40-foot-tall skeletal structure of ABS pipe, liberally coated in gold paint, was cut from its mooring straps and toppled onto the roof of El Museo Cultural.
The apparently precarious assembly is an invited project on El Museo’s outdoor esplanade adjacent to the Rail Runner tracks and facing the new Santa Fe Farmers Market building.
Tom Romero, director of El Museo, shook his head in shame that such a thing would happen in Santa Fe. Bernstein has previously created five similar structures in the Arizona desert and surrounding areas as landmarks for immigrants who make the treacherous, illegal journey to the US and has encountered similar problems in the past. He suggested that anti-immigration activists, possibly members of the so-called Minuteman border militia, had followed him to Santa Fe and ensured the destruction of this iteration as well.
It was a fast, professional job by people who knew what they were doing and had the tools to do it, Bernstein told me. Not kids or run-of-the-mill vandals, in other words, is his contention. An artist who achieved a certain amount of notoriety for controversial and illegal memorial works at Ground Zero in the wake of the 9.11 attacks, Bernstein’s oeuvre is suffering and, to a large extent, his own heroism in confronting it is as well.
A quote on his Web site proclaims: “I risk life and limb to obtain controversial materials from which contemporary pieces are constructed.” This material includes ash and debris from Ground Zero, Hurricane Katrina, immigrant trails along la frontera and the blood of, he will tell you, “Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and brokers.”
“Golden Gates” was originally assembled on a trail frequented by immigrants crossing into the US and was intended to be a welcoming station with the practical amenity of its plumbing tube construction holding water. It was in this context that Bernstein first met people who described themselves as Minutemen and destroyed his original structures. Bernstein allows that assembling the piece out of its context and removing it from any utilitarian practicality is an odd thing, but he is convinced that as the structure is assembled closer and closer to Washington, DC, (where he intends to construct it later this year), a transcendent message is being delivered that furthers the work’s cause.
But whether it was ordinary vandals, organized Minutemen or offended aesthetes who were moved to violence against “Golden Gates,” it is worth examining what exactly the artist’s cause is.
Creating landmarks in the desert is understandable. Many people die after they lose their way in the harsh border landscape and have insufficient water and shelter. It is a worthwhile act to place markers and to leave water. It makes sense also that these structures would be vandalized, with Minutemen and their wannabes running around in the desert playing at “homeland security.” There is a war along our border. It has real victims and real consequences and real bearing on the soul of this nation. It is worth fighting for justice in this situation.
By moving his construction to Santa Fe, and toward the nation’s capital, Bernstein alleges to be zeroing in on the real, political perpetrators of injustice along the border. His powerful artwork, in his mind, will drive understanding and change. But, it has to be said, if one piles ingredients together and puts them in the oven, the product is not necessarily bread and the ingredient compiler does not become a baker. In this case whether the “Golden Gates” is art—and powerful, compelling, nation-changing art to boot—is not a wise bet to take.
Bernstein claims to make populist art, outside of the mainstream system, but is happy to enumerate museums and to name-drop institutions and curators. He funds his work as a commodities broker who specializes in oil trading. It’s a good trick, if your “cause” is, at the end of the day, Neil Bernstein.
You can bet that El Museo would not have invited Bernstein’s work if it had to raise the $30,000 each assembly of “Golden Gates” has cost, according to the artist. And, at funding to the tune of $180,000 out of the artist’s pocket at this point (through six iterations), the question is how much Bernstein could have done for immigrants’ rights and safety by simply using the cash to help people or lobby instead of making “art.”
It was wrong, no matter what—ugliness included—to vandalize the work at El Museo. Bernstein may be forced to open an amended, wounded version of the work from 5-10 pm, Saturday, Aug. 9. Ironically, the work, or at least the experience of it and the sympathy toward it, is likely to be improved by such a tactic. That’s OK. It will be what it will be. Some people will love it. Some will hate it. Some will believe that such art can change the world. Others will know different.
I’m all in favor of the piece heading for DC. But please, for the love of beauty, of grace, of small children and defenseless animals, ship it out there before the Railyard’s grand opening on Sept. 13 and 14.
Golden Gates Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Through Sept. 30
El Museo Cultural
1615-B Paseo de Peralta