A toddler is handed through barbed wire in Kosovo in 1999; photo by Carol Guzy / Washington Post.

An exhibit about walls, both literal and figurative, investigates what people project onto them

By Bliss Bowen

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” — Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

The entire text of Frost’s classic poem greets visitors to the Annenberg Space for Photography’s new exhibit “W|ALLS: Defend, Divide, and the Divine,” on display through Dec. 29. Accompanied by a photo of a wall on Frost’s New England property, the poem emblemizes the increasing prevalence of visual language and asks: Why do we need these structures dividing us?

“So often that poem is quoted just as the final line, ‘good fences make good neighbors,’ so everyone uses that to support the idea that, in order to normalize relationships and maintain good boundaries between people, we must have a physical barrier that defines our property, our space, so that respect is imposed and maintained,” explains Dr. Jen Sudul Edwards, who curated the exhibit. “In fact, when you read that entire poem you realize there are two voices: the author’s and the author’s neighbor. And it’s the neighbor who asserts that good fences make good neighbors. The author is questioning [that].

“The whole point is that these are unnatural divisions that we’re imposing on the landscape, and to what end, really? That ambiguity is hopefully the mind frame that we’re going to send our visitors into the space with, so that they really are considering how exactly walls are relied upon and whether they’re really solving the problems at hand.”

Divided into six sections — Delineation, Defense, Deterrent, the Divine, Decoration, and the Invisible — “W|ALLS” considers the community effects of literal and figurative walls through the work of more than 70 photographers and artists, including Marina Abramovic, Tanya Aguiñiga, Banksy, JR, and John Moore. It also includes the I Ching-inspired, solar-powered installation “Light the Barricades,” co-created by Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, thirds of which were shown last month at Santa Monica’s Annenberg Beach House, in Downtown L.A.’s Grand Park, and at the Natural History Museum. That now stands as one cohesive, interactive artwork on the Photo Space plaza.

Annenberg Space for Photography Director Katie Hollander first spoke to Edwards more than a year and a half ago about the concept for “W|ALLS” — before the government shutdown over the U.S.-Mexico border, before Brexit, but even then it was clearly a relevant topic. An enthusiastic Edwards says they cast a “very broad net,” turning to casual tourists as well as commercial photographers and photojournalists in search of sufficiently interesting images.

One of art’s aspects that most intrigues her is the “visual language that we encounter all the time”; even primitive cave paintings sent messages of where to find bison and avoid lions, she notes with a laugh. As curator, it’s her job “to help the public recognize that images are constructed for us to see and perceive in a certain way. Messages are coded in that visual language. Increasingly, that is how we’re coming to understand our world and our history.”

Some of the exhibit’s images are ethereal, like Raymond Thompson Jr.’s pensive depiction of three youths gazing up toward clouds swelling above their enclosed basketball court; composition and colors suggest both reckoning and redemption. Ami Vitale’s portrait of gun-carrying camel riders guarding an undulating dirt border road feels similarly surreal, with lights smearing blue sky like glowing sentinel orbs.

Not all conflicts are geographic or political; firewalls fascinate because they’re invisible yet define “how we get our info and how we communicate,” Edwards points out. Jerusalem’s Western Wall was originally built as a retaining wall, not a sacred site. Photos show a Muslim family praying to a wall in an airport, and a traditional Tibetan Buddhism Mani wall constructed of prayer-inscribed stones. Inevitably, however, geopolitical conflicts intrude. “W|ALLS” raises the question of how walls normalize conflict via pieces like Carol Guzy’s eye-grabbing shot of a toddler being handed through barbed wire in Kosovo, and two specially commissioned series.

Noted photojournalist Moises Saman was commissioned to document Belfast’s Peace Walls (or Peace Lines), constructed by the British government in 1969. Talking to locals made clear that, even though a generation has grown up unscarred by the violence that essentially ended with 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, the Troubles have not fully dissipated. Plans to remove walls by 2023 have intensified community anxiety that “violence will be immediately renewed,” Edwards explains, and Brexit’s demands will likely cause those walls “to stay up and infact multiply.”

Baltimore-raised photographer Shan Wallace headed into her commission to document redlining at Detroit’s Eight Mile Wall eager to talk with residents and to spread the word elsewhere that the six-foot wall, built in 1941, “had to be torn down as a statement that African Americans were not going to be contained by the white government,” Edwards says. But getting to know people there reversed Wallace’s position. Instead of perceiving the mural-painted wall as a segregating divider, she came to see it as a unifier “bringing the African American community together and creating this sense of family, belonging and comfort that would not necessarily have been there [otherwise].” Wallace discusses that moving experience in an exhibit documentary.

Edwards, who in July was named chief curator at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, calls “W|ALLS” a “bold show” that she’s happy is housed in a space committed to “the humanitarian mission of photography.

“It’s a really challenging subject, and we want people to think about it carefully and seriously,” she says. “But we also want people to feel inspired and encouraged to keep thinking about it. It’s so much easier to put a fence up around your house than to deal with the fact that there’s a reason why people are breaking into houses. … A world without walls isn’t possible. But maybe for a moment we can look at some of these historic examples and at least talk honestly about why this is the human reaction to fear and anxiety and struggle.”

“W|ALLS: Defend, Divide, and the Divine” is on display through Dec. 29 at the Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Admission is free. Call (213) 403-3000 or visit annenbergphotospace.org for venue information.